You could call him the man under the hood, the engine builder whose work helped so many – especially one of the Ozarks’ greats – win checkered flags and earn high-fives as well as praise.

In other words, you can’t talk about stock car racing in the Ozarks without talking about Joe Naegler.

“I went to my first stock car race in 1958,” Naegler said, “and I loved it.”

That love for stock car racing – from building engines to sponsoring teams – certainly helped shape the sport across southwest Missouri. And his success is why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct Naegler with the Class of 2020.

A 1959 graduate of Willard High School, Naegler was an engine builder and owner of stock cars from the 1960s and into the 1990s whose cars won in 33 states, doing so in those grueling, 150- and 200-lap races.

In fact, he and Larry Phillips (MSHOF 2001) first teamed up in 1963 and, in 1965, they won their first track championship. Along the way, Naegler built his own engines instead of turning to store-bought versions and gained numerous sponsors, including the Cookie Rice-led Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company in 1970.

Naegler’s drivers included Philips, Joe Wallace, Dave Goldsberry, Don Kordalis, Ramo Stott and Ferris Collier as they won numerous races across the country in IMCA, ARCA and USAC – which are short for International Motor Contest Association, Automobile Racing Club of America, and the United States Auto Club.

His cars also out-ran competitors such as Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Neil Bonnett and Ken Schrader in 200-lap races in the South.

What a career it was.

And it all began with an unexpected meeting with Phillips when both were in their teens. At the time, Naegler was roofing a house when Phillips stopped by.

“We hit it off from the start,” Naegler said.

Phillips went on to drive his No. 75 race car to more than 2,500 wins at the Bolivar Speedway USA, Fairgrounds Speedway in Springfield and Lebanon I-44 Speedway and tracks all over the United States.

“Most people don’t put their own engines together. But that’s the way we had to do it,” Naegler said. “We got to where we were very competitive. We just kept trying to expand.”

At one point, Phillips’ car started on the pole at a race and lapped the second-place car driven by Kenny Schrader.

Rice’s sponsorship through Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper certainly helped Naegler’s success and, all these years later, he cannot help but think how the financial backing put his cars up against racers who became some of the sport’s most notable names.

“He deserves a lot of credit,” Naegler said. “We had some good sponsors, so we were able to compete and out-perform teams that had a lot more support. And I didn’t mind doing what it took to win. It took hard work and was long hours.”

In the middle of it all, Naegler considered relocating his race teams to the South. However, drivers and teams there encouraged him to stay put in the Ozarks, explaining that race winnings were doled out only on percentages – and much lower in the South.

In many ways, it was a labor of love for Naegler.

“I always thought I could do better,” Naegler said. “When I would get home from a race, I tried to improve the car.”

And he did that not simply for himself but for many other racers in the Ozarks. At weekend races across the area, racers would be driving cars with engines that he built or fixed. And that was despite Naegler owning a car in one of those races.

Eventually, he was inducted into the Ozarks Area Racers Association Hall of Fame, whose granite monuments for years were on display at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds in north Springfield before being relocated to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in October 2018.

Overall, building race car engines and sponsoring teams was a time-consuming passion for Naegler, who certainly appreciates his family for understanding and for allowing him the time to chase his dream.

“To this day, I still miss racing,” Naegler said. “And, for us, it was a source of income. It was a way to feed ourselves and our families.”