When dirt was cheaper in the Country!

Jun 3, 2021 by Richard Melzer

A New Biography of Casey Luna

Casey drove against many well-known car racers in Albuquerque, including members of the famous Unser family; he often spent time at the Unser family’s garage on Central Avenue. These established racers enjoyed great advantages in resources, equipment, staffing and money. Most had several engines ready to go while Casey had only one.

But Casey had persistence as well as skill. Determined to win as many points as possible, he never missed a race. Even if he didn’t win every competition, he remained competitive and added to his point total.

If a race was rained out, he’d be at its make-up date. If his engine needed work, he and his friends would workday and night to get it ready for his next race. Casey would not allow himself to take any Sundays off so he could win as many points as possible. Casey’s racing partner, Lewis Trujillo, compared him to a flea that persisted and refused to go away.

Casey was exhibiting and further developing the intensely competitive character that would serve him well on the track, in business, in politics and in every other endeavor he pursued in life. And so, despite stiff competition, Casey won two track championships in the modified division at Speedway in 1955 and 1956, a feat matched by only one other driver prior to 1964.

Buy a Ford, get a cord
Casey left the racetrack and entered the car business by the late 1950s. After years of success as a salesman, he and his wife, Beverly, whom he had married in 1965, summoned the courage and the capital to buy a Ford dealership in Mountainair. After a decade of success in Mountainair, the couple purchased the Ford and Mercury dealership in Belen.

Casey recalls that customers in Mountainair and Belen attempted to pay for their vehicles with all kinds of goods rather than with cash or credit. Always ready to make a deal, Casey accepted land, hay, horses, goats, cattle, piñon, Navajo jewelry and drawings from a local artist. In one instance, a customer from Magdalena wanted to buy a new vehicle, although he lacked enough money for a down payment, but he did have lots of firewood.

Casey accepted the firewood as a down payment but was not prepared for the 386 cords of wood that arrived at his Belen dealership on two large semis. Left with so much firewood, Casey devised a way to use it in an innovative new promotion.

Casey promised a cord of wood to each customer who bought a new vehicle from his dealership. Casey even promised to deliver and stack the wood if customers lived within 50 miles of Belen.
Casey advertised the promotion with a TV ad that showed him standing on a mountain of wood and making the offer, “Buy a Ford, get a cord.” Casey sold so many vehicles that he soon ran out of wood. He’s sure that many people were just as interested in the free firewood as they were in the new cars or trucks they purchased.

Mijo on Air Force One
Casey gradually entered state and local politics by the mid-1980s. In 1990, he won election as New Mexico’s lieutenant governor, serving a four-year term under Gov. Bruce King.
Casey’s political stories fill several chapters in his biography. One of my favorites is about an invitation he received to ride home from Washington, D.C., on Air Force One during President Bill Clinton’s first term in office.

Once on board Air Force One, Casey was asked if he wanted to make a phone call to share the good news that he was on the president’s special airplane. Casey attempted to call his wife, Beverly, and when Beverly did not answer, he tried calling his daughters. No one could be reached.

Finally, Casey called his mother, Ruby, and speaking to her in Spanish, told her that he was flying on Air Force One. Ruby asked, “¿Que?” Casey repeated, “Air Force One,” to which his mother replied, “Que hicites ahora mijo?” (“What have you done now, my son?”) Casey still smiles at the memory of his beloved mother and her concern about her oldest son’s getting in trouble with the U.S. president and federal government!

Lessons from a lifetime
Casey’s biography is published after more than 100 hours of interviews with Casey and many other New Mexico leaders, from Manny Aragon and Roberto Mondragon to Bill Richardson and Michael Sanchez.
Casey hopes to share his stories and values not only with his own descendants, but also with all New Mexicans who might benefit from learning how a poverty-stricken boy from a single-parent home could become a champion race car driver, a wealthy businessman and the lieutenant governor of his state.
Casey taught others by example in his life. He hopes to teach many more through this book long after he is gone. All he wants – and has ever wanted – is what is best for his fellow New Mexicans.

(Readers interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society can contact its president, Richard Melzer, at rmelzer@unm.edu.)

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