Today, Sprint Car racing fans easily recognize Dale Blaney as one of the top drivers on the circuit
, but 27 years ago, he was better known for being one of the top guards in college basketball while playing at West Virginia University.
Next week, Blaney, 49, will be getting back into his car for opening night down in Georgia before performing in races in Ocala and Daytona, Fla., the following two weekends. His racing schedule won't lighten up until next November.
“When the season starts, I’m gone just about every weekend, but 90 percent of the time I’m home all week,” Blaney said from his home in Hartford, Ohio. “There is a guy who owns my race car and all I do is drive for him. I don’t own any part of the car or any of that, I just drive the car and get a percentage of whatever the car makes.”
Blaney comes from a well-known racing family. A few years ago, his late father Lou Blaney was inducted into the Sprint Car Hall of Fame and his older brother Dave Blaney currently drives for the Tommy Baldwin Racing Team on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Circuit. In fact, the elder Blaney led last year’s Daytona 500 160 laps into the race before finishing 15th.
As for Dale, he won two big races last year, including the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series Championship in Charlotte, and he owns eight career Sprint Car victories heading into this season.
To those who follow West Virginia University basketball, that may seem somewhat surprising, but those close to the Blaney family know racing has always been in Dale’s blood.
“People don’t understand this, but that’s all we did,” Blaney explained. “My brother and dad raced and for the four years I played basketball at West Virginia, I was dying to race a car every day.”
Blaney did a pretty good job of disguising his intentions at WVU.
Mostly overlooked by college recruiters in high school, Blaney blew up after a postseason all-star game following his senior season at Kinsman-Badger High in 1982, earning a late scholarship offer from the Mountaineers. At the time, West Virginia was coming off its first NCAA tournament appearance in 15 years and veteran coach Gale Catlett had another strong team returning in 1983.
About midway through his freshman season in ‘83, Blaney cracked the starting lineup at guard opposite Greg Jones and he went on to earn a spot on the Atlantic 10 all-rookie team.
“I think it was game 13 when I made my first start,” Blaney recalled. “When I got there, there was Greg Jones, Tony Washam and Quentin Freeman and they were all seniors. Jones wasn’t going anywhere, he was an All-American and one of the best players I ever played with, and Tony was a second team all-conference guy the year before, and Quentin was a really good guy coming off the bench, but for some reason I got in there and started playing.”
From the moment Blaney was inserted into the starting lineup until the end of the season, things just seemed to operate more smoothly for the Mountaineers when he was out on the floor.
“Sometimes you start playing with better players and you start playing better,” Blaney said. “The system really fit me and I didn’t do a whole lot with Jones being there; I just kind of had to be in a place that he wasn’t on defense, and just stay out of his way on offense.”
Gary McPherson, West Virginia’s assistant coach back then who recruited Blaney, said Blaney’s unselfishness was the reason he played so early in his Mountaineer career.
“He really ingrained himself with the team,” McPherson marveled. “He came in and all of the players respected him because he didn’t try and take over, he accepted his role, and when he finally got a chance he didn’t go in there and shoot the ball and try and take over games. He got the ball to the right people and we became a better team because of it.”
When Jones, Washam, Freeman and forward Russel Todd graduated, Blaney became the Mountaineers’ go-to guy along with high-flying forward Lester Rowe.
West Virginia made three NCAA tournament appearances during Blaney’s four-year career in Morgantown from 1983-86, and he helped the Mountaineers capture Atlantic 10 tournament titles in 1983 and 1984. It was Blaney’s last-second shot in the A-10 semifinals against favored Temple during his sophomore year that propelled the Mountaineers to their second league championship in 1984.
“I don’t know if I was the guy who was supposed to take the shot, but it ended up in my hands and I had to shoot it or time was going to run out,” Blaney recalled. “I think it might have been the only game-winning shot I hit, but there were several that I made with 10 or 20 seconds to go that kind of helped out. I was a guy who wanted the ball in my hands at the end of games.”
Blaney also took part in the unforgettable victory up at St. Joseph’s in 1985 when Rowe dunked the winning basket after the buzzer had sounded. West Virginia left the court thinking they had won the game only to be informed later that Rowe’s shot came after the light on the basket went off. That ruling was later overturned by Atlantic 10 commissioner Charlie Theokas a couple of days later.
“All I remember is we got the hell out of there as quickly as we could,” Blaney laughed.
Blaney said he enjoyed playing in some of those old Atlantic 10 gyms, particularly The Palestra up in Philadelphia.
“That was a cool place with a lot of history and it was just a neat place to go,” he said. “It was a historic place in the middle of the city, the locker rooms were so small and everybody was on top of each other. Whenever we played Temple or St. Joe’s in there and they scored their first bucket, the students always threw toilet paper on the floor.”
Blaney also loved playing in the WVU Coliseum where the crowds were always loud and raucous, especially in the early 1980s when Catlett had revived the program.
“It was a fun place to play and we had some great games in there,” Blaney said. “It was a neat place to play for four years of your life, that’s for sure.”
Blaney ended his career with 1,520 points, which still ranks 18th on the school’s all-time scoring list, and he earned first team all-Atlantic 10 honors during his senior season in 1986 after averaging 17 points per game and shooting an impressive 52 percent from the floor.
That senior season performance afforded Blaney an opportunity to get a tryout with the World Champion Los Angeles Lakers in the fall of 1987, and it looked like Blaney had performed well enough to earn a spot on LA’s roster as a backup guard.
But Blaney said his heart was never set on playing professional basketball.
“I tell a lot of guys it was probably easier at that time to make the Lakers than it would have been, say, to make the Cavaliers, the Bullets or Pacers just because (the Lakers) had nine really, really good players and three role players who play maybe two or three minutes a game,” Blaney said. “I knew my job was to get those guys the ball.”
Blaney said he enjoyed his brief stint with the Lakers and today wonders how his pro career would have turned out if he had remained in Los Angeles.
“Yeah, it probably wasn’t the best business decision I’ve ever made in my life, and sometimes you don’t always make the best decisions when you’re 22 years old. Plus the game was different, but I just wanted to race,” he reasoned.
“I don’t know how many years I could have played in the NBA, and I probably should have stuck it out there and played a little bit and been a part of it, but (his decision to leave) had nothing to do with the NBA lifestyle,” Blaney added. “All of those guys were great; (general manager and former Mountaineer star player) Jerry West was great, but at that time of my life I had had enough of basketball and I wanted to do something else.”
Blaney was talked into playing in the CBA for a couple of years before eventually turning to racing for good.
“I didn’t really want to, but a few people wanted me to play and I said, well heck, I’ll play,” Blaney said. “Once I got back into racing, life was pretty good after that.”
When Blaney is not racing, he works in a fabrication shop for his brother-in-law a few days a week during the off-season back in Harford.
“It’s just a couple of miles from my house,” Blaney said. “I come down here and work for him anytime when he’s real busy and it keeps me busy during the day and I really enjoy it.”
Blaney also keeps up with the Mountaineers whenever they are on television, and he’s been back to Morgantown recently for a couple of WVU Varsity Club-sponsored team reunions.
“Before that, I hadn’t been to a game in probably 22 or 23 years,” said Blaney.
Despite the delay to his racing career, Blaney said he really enjoyed his time at West Virginia University.
“It all worked out good,” he said. “Things happen for a reason and there was a reason for me getting down there. I had a great four years there and I met a lot of people who I’ve been friends with for a long time.”You can learn more about former Mountaineer players at WVU Varsity's Club's official Facebook page.