It’s 1966 and a smiling, 19-year-old Al Lytle is behind the wheel of his 1930 Chevy, waiting for the race to start at the Elma race track.
It’s a magical moment, one that captured Lytle for life. As a young, exuberant teen, Lytle won that race – his first. And figuratively, he’s not let his foot off the accelerated since.
Now, 51 years later, Lytle is still in love with racing. Except now, instead of being the guy behind the wheel, 70-year-old Lytle, who grew up in Hoquiam and now lives in Aberdeen, is a race car owner, putting a car and driver in races across the west coast.
“We had so much fun those first five years,” Lytle said. “That’s really what got me started. It’s been a 51 year love affair.”
His commitment to racing hasn’t gone unnoticed. Recently, Lytle was one of five people inducted into the Elma Auto Racing Hall of Fame.
“Over the years, Lytle drove, he owned, he crewed, he supported, he helped others out,” said Rick Leighty, president of the Elma Hall of Fame. “He was one that did a little of everything in racing at Elma. He just seemed like a perfect candidate and the selection committee agreed.”
Lytle was overwhelmed with the recognition.
“It’s quite an honor because I knew everybody who came before me in the hall of fame,” Lytle said. “Their careers were ending when mine was starting. They’re my mentors. All of the ones who have been inducted the last eight years, I’ve known them all. For me to be included with all those people is just an outstanding thing. Those are the people who started my career.”
To his delight, joining Lytle in this year’s posthumous induction was longtime friend Arie Callaghan, who died in 1971 from stomach cancer.
“That was just outstanding because all of the Callaghan family were there and my family was there too,” Lytle said. “A lot of those people I hadn’t seen for a lot of years were there. My induction was all the better because Arie Callaghan went in at the same time.”
Callaghan’s “let’s have fun” attitude helped fuel Lytle’s interest in car racing.
“It was his attitude that sustained me for many years,” Lytle said. “His love of the sport and his attitude toward it and his approach to it – that’s what kept me going through the years. It was the people I met at the track that got me hooked.”
For Lytle, the induction ceremony was bittersweet. Sweet because he was able to reunite with old friends. Bitter because his son, Tim, wasn’t there. Tim died from a heart attack at age 52. Years ago, while Tim was in the Army and serving in the Middle East, Lytle entered his granddaughter, Andrea, Tim’s daughter, in some quarter midget races at the Elma track.
“It helped her,” Lytle said. “It was a little bit of a distraction from worrying about her dad.”
Andrea ended up being Rookie of the Year.
“It was a moment of joy for us at this induction,” Lytle said. “But it was also a lot of heartache because my son should have been there.”
Lytle and his son were at the track together a lot when Tim was just a little boy.
“He was involved with me right from the get go,” Lytle said. “And I’m now retired and it was supposed to be our time together at the race track, but he didn’t make it that far. My granddaughter kind of broke down a little at the induction ceremony with people talking about her dad.”
Through the years, racing for Lytle, who worked as a longshoreman, gave him not only a fun activity, but it also gave him a purpose.
“I’ve always had a goal out there,” Lytle said. “That will sustain you through a lot of problems you may go through. Now, as I look back, I can see that it was good for me.”
This year, Lytle, who owns one of the fastest cars in the country, will enter races in Boise, Salt Lake City and possibly Las Vegas. Tony Tomas, who lives in Oregon, is Lytle’s driver.
“One day, you’ll see him racing in NASCA,” Lytle said. “He’s a good one.”
Also inducted into the Elma Auto Racing Hall of Fame were Corinne and Bruce Williams, Brian Sutherby, and Dick Aduddell. They’re all friends of Lytle, people he raced against over the years.
For Lytle, racing wasn’t just about getting behind the wheel, stomping on the accelerator. It was about connecting with people and making lasting friends.
“Racing is like a big family,” said Rick Leighty. “You go out and try to beat each other on the track. But off the track you’ll do anything to help each other out. You make friendships that last a lifetime. It’s something that gets into your blood.”
It did for Lytle.