The sheer joy that spread across the face of his 9-year-old son, winding his way through the go-kart track, wasn’t missed by Dennis Ferree.
But when it came time to go, that smile turned upside down.
The boy wasn’t happy.
“When the time came to leave, I started crying,” recalled Happy Ferree of that day long ago at Scandia Fun Center in Roseville. “But I remember, it was like the next week when Dad was looking in the Wheels & Deals to get me a go-kart.
“That’s where it all started.”
Nine years later, the thrill of speeding around a race track still propels Hap Ferree to climb behind the wheel. But he long ago traded in his kart for a car, one once again funded by his father and fast enough to often find the 18-year-old Nevada City native in the winner’s circle.
And it’s when he flies that checkered flag around the track and into a victory lane full of family and friends that it hits Happy the hardest:
Dad’s not there to see his smile.
Gentleman, start your engine
Maybe it was due to his parents holding him back in kindergarten, but Hap says he just didn’t dig the more traditional sports.
Not that he didn’t try.
He gave baseball a go, but said the kids he took the field with were practically strangers to him, always a grade higher than him in school.
“I was always on teams with a lot of people I didn’t know,” he said. “And I was shy, so I didn’t get to know the kids, either.”
As a high school freshman, he gave football a shot, but gave it up after his flat-feet only caused him to end practice with sore ankles and feet.
The fact that his brothers, Brian and Michael Dwyer, excelled at both sports at Nevada Union didn’t make it easy to give up on either one.
So while his classmates mused about one day hitting the high school ballfields as a Miner, Hap had to find his own dream.
He did just that, but didn’t share his sport with his friends ” at least not until one memorable “show and tell” session as a sixth grader at Seven Hills School, when Hap hammered the gas pedal and scooted his go-kart across the asphalt basketball courts for all his classmates to see.
“I’ve always had the dream that I was going to NASCAR,” he said. “Nobody really knew about it until then.”
His karting career brought him a “fair share” of wins, but it wasn’t as though he tore up the track each weekend. He was new to racing and his Dad, also a newcomer, was his chief mechanic.
“Dad did all the work on the go kart and he just loved to tinker,” Hap said. “He would listen to what everybody else said and the kart would end up all weird.
“We did OK, but I never considered myself all that great.”
Here’s the keys, son
Looking for the next thrill, and his next step in his auto racing education, Hap turned to family friend Mike Griffith, who later became his mechanic, for some advice. Griffith, who used to race modified stock cars down at Roseville, told Hap and Dennis that might be the next logical step.
But the cost of making the move wasn’t a cheap one ” starting with the $30,000 Dennis would plunk down on the car.
“We got two fair motors and some extra parts with it,” Hap said. “But we also had to get a big Dodge Ram truck to tow it and a different trailer. Then there were the radios, the car seat, the helmet and the suit. That stuff’s expensive.
“At first, we had to talk Dad into getting me into (a modified). But then when he saw this one, he said ‘I have to have that one. Hap has to have that one.'”
It didn’t take long for Hap to get the hang of it, producing strong showings at tracks all across Northern California, as he, his Dad and Griffith skipped around from Anderson to the north, Madera to the south, Ukiah to the west and Roseville to the east.
It was at Roseville, a year later, that the proverbial cat was let out of the bag by Dennis, who approached the track announcer with the simple request of wishing his son a happy 16th birthday ” the only problem being the minimum age for drivers was, in fact, 16.
Therefore, the announcer knew that Hap had entered previous races illegally.
“They had never asked Dad for Hap’s ID,” said Patty Ferree, Hap’s mother. “He had done so well that I guess they just took for granted that he was of age.
“Now they require ID.”
A devoted dad
Anyone who ever stepped into the front door of Nevada City’s Miners
Barbershop and took a seat in front of Dennis Ferree would attest to just how much the man loved to spin a yarn.
“You’d go to get a haircut and he was going to talk to you and you’d hear some stories,” Hap said. “And the next time you came in, they’d say, he’d just pick up the conversation where he had left off the last time.
“He was the greatest. The most loving and caring guy around. He always had his heart in the right place, that’s for sure.”
But he was human.
Whether his patrons knew it or not, Dennis had a drinking problem ” one that caused his son to somewhat distance himself from Dad when he was partaking.
“I loved my dad, but all my life I resented him because he was an alcoholic,” Hap said. “When I was little, I didn’t understand that it was a disease and I’d ask him to stop drinking and he wouldn’t. So I thought ‘OK, he doesn’t care enough about me then.'”
Patty remembers how much the drinking strained her son’s relationship with her husband.
“He was very embarrassed of Dad because of the drinking,” she said. “He shied away from his father at times because of it.
“To this day, Hap has a hard time dealing with his friends who drink, because he’s seen what alcohol and drugs do to relationships.”
And, he saw what it did to Dad.
A dark place
“Dad got sick a couple of months into that season and he wasn’t working,” Hap said. “We never realized how serious it was.”
Without Dad working, the family’s budget couldn’t afford the entry fees and upkeep of a race car, so Hap’s career was put on pause. He couldn’t stay away from the track, though, which explains why he was working for a friend’s pit crew in Ukiah when the California Highway Patrol tracked him down.
“The CHP came and told me to call my mom and she said Dad was in the hospital,” Hap said. “It wasn’t until I got home that I found out that he died.”
Patty said though the cause of his death at age 61 was never made clear to her ” only that Dennis’ heart had stopped ” she said the drinking played a role.
A parent’s death is tough enough for a child to cope with, but Hap said his last conversation with Dennis made it even more so.
“The worst thing was that the last time we talked we got into an argument,” he said. “I was 16 and I don’t remember what it was about, but I just never understood why he couldn’t stop drinking.
“He was gone and it seemed like all I did with him my entire life was argue about that. It’s kind of like ‘If I only knew then what I know now,’ things would have been a lot different.'”
Such clarity didn’t come Hap’s way for quite some time after the death. He withdrew from friends and family, Patty said, and just wasn’t himself.
“It was more or less like he was on suicide watch with me,” Patty said.
He had not only lost his father, but also his faith.
“When Dad died, I got mad at God and didn’t believe anymore,” Hap said. “I just lost all faith and all hope. I was miserable, a really angry person. I hated life.
“I just would ask Him ‘Why did you take my Dad?’ And I guess everybody looks at it like that.”
A refuge in racing
Climbing back in the driver’s seat couldn’t have been further from his
mind. But Patty and her sister, Cathy, knew something had to be done to bring Hap back.
“I tried to talk to him and told him that ‘Your life isn’t over until God says your life is over. You can sit in your room all you want, but your life is not over,'” Patty said. “My sister asked me if it would help if he went and hung out with his aunt at work, cleaning houses.
“And he went, day after day after day. He started working with her and started getting paid. He slowly started being himself again and I know my sister had a lot to do with it because of her faith.”
It didn’t happen overnight, but Hap once again started to remember the dream he and Dennis had shared ” to one day race on the NASCAR circuit.
“I told him ‘God has another plan for you. Dad’s part is done and yours is just beginning,'” Patty said. “‘You just have to focus on what you need to do?'”
He continued to clean houses and later got Griffith back on board as his crew chief, who helped him decide to make his return to racing in Roseville for the 2003 season.
But by the first time he climbed back into his car, Hap said he still wasn’t sure he was ready.
“Actually, I was kind of nervous,” he said. “I was just worried I wouldn’t have it anymore.
“But after three laps in the car, I thought ‘Oh yeah, I remember now.'”
Back out front
The first part of the 2003 season saw Team Happy trying to figure
out why its motor kept overheating ” at least they tinkered with the problem between strong showings.
Hap was off to a fast start, collecting series points and climbing to the top of the season standings. And because of a track rule at Roseville, the “hot” motor would soon be off his hands.
In order to help deter excessive spending on equipment and keep a competitive balance intact, Roseville Speedway allows competitors to “claim” or essentially swap for the winning motor.
Apparently, a driver who finished behind him thought Hap had something special under the hood ” which he knew couldn’t have been further from the truth.
“It had a cracked head,” Hap said. “But he claimed me and the motor I got in the claim was better than the one I had. I broke the track record a couple of weeks later.”
Later in the season, he was claimed again. This time, though, “I got a motor that barely ran.”
It slowed him down a bit, but he said he countered by focusing on his path around the track.
“It was slow, but I was still getting fast times,” he said. “I was rolling through the corners, passing in the turns instead of passing on the straightaway.
“I could have claimed someone back and maybe I would have gotten a better motor, but that’s not what I wanted to do.”
He decided instead that he still had something to prove. Which he did, winning the series championship at 18 years old, the youngest driver on the track each time he fired up the engine at Roseville.
“When things got going good, somebody would claim his motor and he’d win anyway,” said William Spencer, Roseville Speedway’s announcer for the past 14 years. “He’s an excellent driver and one of the crowd favorites, because he just turned 18 last year. We had driver’s out there up to their late 50s.
“He raced, I think, every Saturday with a minimal budget. He’s
definitely the shining star of the group. No matter what happened, he seemed to tough it out.”
And did so while taking good care of his car, which he knew was an absolute necessity.
“I haven’t crashed it yet,” he said. “I’ve rubbed some walls, but nothing major.
“If I did I’d probably be done racing for awhile because I just can’t afford to buy a car.”
Even before their son was born, Dennis and Patty Ferree had picked out the name. The two were so elated about having a child together that they decided on what Patty said couldn’t have proved to be more
“As in a ‘Happily’ kind of thing,” she said. “We had been married for a short time and, at the time, I wasn’t sure I could have a child.
“We were so happy that we decided to name the child ‘Happy’ ” boy or girl.”
The one problem with that name came when the parents went looking for childhood items like name tags or key chains with “Happy” on it. Undaunted, Patty said they decided to turn to symbolism instead, taking the traditional yellow smiley face as their own logo for Happy.
That emblem started showing up in large numbers through the course of the season at Roseville in 2003, as Hap suddenly had a fan club.
“We were very proud of the fact that he had finally made that commitment to drive again,” Patty said. “The only way he was going to achieve his dream was to get back in the car and start making a name for himself out there on the track.”
Whether it was friends from church or work, they came to watch out of curiosity, Patty said, but they got hooked and started to return each weekend.
Such a show of support seemed to breathe life back into their favorite driver.
“My whole family got addicted to it,” Hap said. “It’s crazy. I had this whole big fan club and I just loved it.
“I know I still have a lot to learn, but I know God also has given me this talent to get the car around the track pretty quick. It’s just up to me to do what I can with it.”
Even in the midst of the post-race celebrations, though, Hap said there was a tinge of sadness as missed his Dad’s proud smile.
But Dennis was there and his son had made sure of it. Hap pasted a photo of his father inside the car, but not on the dash where he could see Dennis’ face. Instead, he taped the portrait next to the driver’s seat to allow Dad to ride shotgun.
“I mounted it facing forward so he can see what I see, to let him
check it all out,” Hap said. “He’s the reason I am where I am. Without him, none of this would have even gotten started. He had more faith in me than I had in myself.
“I don’t think he would have been surprised by what I’ve done, but I do know that he would have been happy.”
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
The Nevada Union Boys Water Polo team is off to a 6-2 start this season after Tuesday’s 22-12 league win at Oakmont.