Montana Horse Race

(Excerpt from Hoofbeats)


One night I received a very interesting call from Reno, Nevada. My childhood friend, Syd Smith, was purchasing an automobile dealership in Hamilton, Montana. While I was over in Germany doing missionary work, he was going to dental school. Now he was practicing medicine in Nevada, but he was getting ready to move to Montana where the fishing and hunting were better. He wasn’t ready to move up there yet, but he had found a business for sale, a Dodge car and truck agency, and felt like he needed to move quickly before someone else picked it up. That’s why he was calling me. He knew I had experience in the car business, plus I had an MBA degree. He thought I would be the right guy to run his new car and truck business.

I told him I had never sold cars before and that I wrote speeches and read newspapers at Ford. He insisted we could learn the business together. A few weeks later he picked me up at the Missoula airport, and we drove down through the beautiful Bitterroot Valley to check things out.

Mellott Motors was a little business, not on a main street, and had sold only sixteen new trucks that year. Harry Mellott, the owner, was getting old and wanted to retire.

Shortly after Christmas, Sharon and I threw all our earthly possessions into a U-Haul truck, and with our two little boys, we headed west to our new home in Hamilton, Montana. I started work January 2, 1971. I was wearing a white shirt and tie and my best suit, ready for two events that would help set the course of my future in Montana.

First, a young man named Bob Maloney, who had been severely wounded in Vietnam and was now confined to a wheelchair, came in to look at new Dodge Chargers. We had one in stock, and it was loaded. He had a substantial disability benefit, so after an hour or two of talking and test-driving, we filled out the papers and he drove away in his new Dodge. I had sold my first car. I believed I would sell many more. I was glad we had moved to Montana.

The second event that shaped my future was a get-acquainted visit by the other car dealers in town—the Cadillac-Olds dealer, the Chrysler dealer, and the friendly Ford dealer. All of them were men twice my age. None of them wore suits. They weren’t nervous and jumpy like some of the executives I had known at Ford. They were self-confident small business owners, used to doing as they pleased.

I was impressed until they began to explain what they perceived to be the reality of doing business in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. They said 80 percent of the cars and trucks were purchased by farmers and ranchers, men and women whose grandparents killed Indians to get their land. These folks had deep roots and traditions and did not like buying cars and trucks from city slickers like me.

My fellow dealers knew I had moved to Montana from Philadelphia. Others before me had come from the big cities to sell vehicles, and all had failed. I was an outsider, a city slicker; the farmers and ranchers would not buy from me, and I would fail. They said it couldn’t be done. They told me I seemed like a nice young man, but I ought to start looking for a different way to make a living because the car and truck business was not going to be kind to me.

I explained all this to Syd on the phone that evening, and he thought they were bluffing. We knew about that from our childhood poker games. I wasn’t so sure. In the weeks to come, though I was selling a reasonable number of new and used vehicles to the townspeople, the absence of the farmers and ranchers was apparent. I didn’t know what to do about it.

Sharon and I were renting a house a mile or so east of town, up against the mountains. We had a barn and nineteen acres of pasture and woods. Though I was nervous about the warning from the other dealers, I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to start riding horses again, the activity I had loved so much as a child.

A local racehorse breeder named Darrel Cozad was in the Hamilton ward where we went to church. I told him I wanted to buy a horse that both my wife and I could ride. He said he had several like that for sale and I ought to come and take a look. I did, and the least expensive one was $650. In 1971 that was a lot of money to pay for a horse, at least it seemed that way to me considering the precarious nature of my new profession, so I decided to keep looking.

A few days later I found a four-year-old quarter horse mare advertised in the newspaper. The owner wanted only $225 for her. She looked every bit as good as the more expensive horses Darrel Cozad had tried to sell me. There were two reasons for the low asking price. She didn’t have any papers, and she had been ridden only twice. I figured I was a good enough horseman to finish the training, so the purchase was made and I took her home.

After that, when I ran into Darrel at church, he would tease me about my mongrel horse, wanting to know if she had bucked me off yet. Sharon was a little nervous about me bringing home a horse that was not broken. The horse was nervous too, trotting back and forth in the little pasture outside our kitchen window. We named her Sundance.

The second or third morning after we brought her home, as we sat down for breakfast, two-year-old Bobby turned up missing. He was nowhere in the house. His huge Tonka dump truck was missing too. Then we saw him, outside in the pasture with the new horse. Bobby was bent over his dump truck, trying to push it under the horse’s belly. One of the mare’s feet was in the way, and our boy was ramming the truck against the foot. The horse appeared relaxed and calm and made no effort to kick Bobby. Quietly, we went outside and persuaded him to come in for breakfast.

At first I rode Sundance in a corral, and then I started taking her out on the logging roads through the forest above our house. In time I started galloping her, faster and faster. She liked to run, and seemed very fast. She never tripped or stumbled. I was very pleased with my purchase. In time I let Sharon ride her around the yard. At church, Darrel continued to tease me about my mongrel horse, while telling me how well his Appaloosa racehorses were doing on the tracks in Montana and Washington.

Then one Monday morning, Darrell Cozad showed up at my place of work. We had changed the name from Mellott Motors to Smith Motors. Darrell had a lot of miles on his Chevy pickup and wanted to trade it in on a new Dodge. He was a tough customer and worked hard to get the best possible price. I wanted so much to sell him a new truck, but I wasn’t about to give it to him.

After more than an hour of dickering back and forth, a strange and wonderful idea entered my mind. We were about fifty dollars apart, the difference between what he was willing to pay and what I was willing to accept.

“Let’s stop dickering over price,” I said. “We’re only fifty dollars apart. I’ll race you for the difference, my mongrel pony against any one of your fancy racehorses. I’m tired of you giving me a bad time over my cheap horse. I believe I can beat you in a horse race. If you win you can have the new truck at the price you have agreed to pay. If I win, you will give me an extra fifty dollars. Do we have a deal?” I extended my hand.

He looked at me like I was nuts or that maybe I knew something he didn’t. He was sure my little mare didn’t have a chance against one of his racehorses, and I guessed he was probably right.

“Do we have a deal?” I asked again, still holding out my hand. Finally he reached out to shake my hand. We both smiled, the tension between us gone. He gave me the title to his old truck, and we filled out the papers with the understanding that he would give me another fifty dollars if I won the race.

“Let’s get our horses,” he said when the deal was done.

“Not today,” I said. “How about Thursday night, eight o’clock at the fairgrounds?”

“Why wait?”

“I want to invite a few people to watch.”

“Fine, see you Thursday at eight.” He climbed into his new truck and drove away.

I went to my desk, opened to a clean page on my yellow note pad, and scribbled out the copy for a radio advertisement announcing a grudge race between a Montana rancher and a city slicker car dealer from Philadelphia, two men who could not agree on the price of a truck, so they were settling their difference the old-fashioned Montana way, a horse race at the Ravalli County fairgrounds, Thursday night, eight o’clock, public invited.

I called the fairgrounds to make sure we could have our race there and then took the ad over to radio station KLYQ, the only one in the Bitterroot Valley at the time. They started running the ad ten or twelve times a day. By Thursday everyone in the valley knew about the race.

I had no idea how many people might come to watch. I didn’t know for sure how the farmers and ranchers would respond to a publicity stunt like this, but I had a good feeling about the whole thing. Besides, it was not a publicity stunt. It was an honest and courageous way to settle a legitimate difference. If I had not challenged Darrell to the race, he might not have signed the papers. Nothing was faked. It felt right, win or lose. After the race things would be different between me and those farmers and ranchers who wouldn’t even talk to me about their car and truck purchases.

I was pretty sure I would lose, but I told myself it didn’t matter. The important thing was letting everyone know that this city slicker was willing to have a horse race to settle a dispute over a new truck. I hoped they would no longer think of me as a city slicker but someone who belonged in rural Montana.

Since the ads described me as a city slicker, when I headed down to the fairgrounds Thursday evening I dressed the part—white shirt, suit and tie, and polished church shoes. Nobody in the Bitterroot dressed that way unless they were going to church or a funeral.

Darrel showed up, smug and confident, his horse saddled and ready to go. He was wearing a big white John Wayne cowboy hat.

I chose as the course for the race the straightaway in front of the grandstands. We would start at the north end and run to the middle of the grandstand, a distance of nearly four hundred yards. Since there was no starting gate, we would ride to the end of the straightaway, turn around, and start back toward the grandstand. I had arranged for a mounted cowboy with a loaded Colt .45 to ride behind us. When it looked to him like we were even, he would fire his gun to start the race. This kind of start, I later learned, was called lap and tap.

As I was explaining all this to Darrel, I noticed that the grandstand was filling up. Hundreds of people were coming to watch, including newspaper reporters and photographers. One was from The Missoulian, the largest newspaper in western Montana, fifty miles to the north.

I was beginning to think I had made a terrible mistake. What if my horse started bucking? She had never raced before. What if I fell off, looking like a true city slicker in front of all these people? My palms were sweating.

Slowly, Darrel and I rode to the end of the straightaway. The old cowboy rode with us, slipping a slug into the cylinder of his gun. We turned and started walking real slow toward the grandstand. The gun went off.

Grabbing the saddle horn with my free hand, I leaned forward and rammed both heels into the little mare’s ribs. In a second we were running full speed. My suit coat was flapping in the breeze. My necktie was a red streamer over my right shoulder.

I couldn’t see Darrel. I worried that he was holding back, waiting to pass me just ahead of the finish line. I hoped he was struggling to keep up. It seemed like Sundance was running really fast. I loved the sound of the hoofbeats.

The race was over almost before it began. I beat him by three or four lengths. I was so proud of that little horse. I was glad I hadn’t fallen off. The reporters were asking questions and photographers were taking pictures as Darrel handed me a check for fifty dollars to complete our transaction. Our picture appeared on the front page of the Sunday Missoulian.

My good feelings had led me right. Farmers and ranchers wanted to meet the city slicker who defeated Darrel Cozad in a horse race. They brought in their old Chevys and Fords to see what kind of deal I would make them on a new Dodge. I sold eighty-three new Dodge trucks that year, compared to sixteen the year before. I believed if I had spent a million dollars in advertising I could not have accomplished as much.

Share this:
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Linkedin Digg Delicious Reddit Stumbleupon Email

4 thoughts on “Montana Horse Race

  1. Barbara Mellott Tidyman

    What a joy to read about Lee Nelson’s early days as the new city-slicker owner of a Dodge agency in the Bitterroot Valley. My parents, Harry and Florence Mellott, were the former owners of the agency, and enjoying their retirement when Lee and Syd Smith were building their business in Hamilton. I don’t know how much Lee knew about my dad, the oldest son of Irish immigrants, who had to quit school in 6th grade in Butte when his miner father died, leaving a widow and eight children. The family moved to a homestead at Waterloo, near Whitehall, and my dad worked at neighboring ranches while his mother and siblings worked the homestead. My parents met at a country dance near the one-room school where my mother taught. They helped at the homestead for a few years and then moved to Butte, where Harry became an auto mechanic and auto-body repair man. In 1945, Harry and Florence moved to Hamilton with their three daughters, and founded Mellott Motors. I was Harry’s shadow, spending lots of time in the “shop” on weekends, and joining him fishing and hunting pheasants. I was always very proud of him. He died much too young at 72, and it is a huge regret for me that my children grew up barely knowing him.
    Barbara Mellott Tidyman
    Tucson, AZ

    1. Lee Nelson

      Barbara, I remember Harry, big and strong, and so savvy in the car and truck business, showing me the ropes when I knew so little. And Florence, so tiny, always kind and friendly. I still have the oak stool that was in front of the parts counter. The grandchildren love to spin around on the seat.

  2. Joy Finlayson Birch

    I remember you from Hamilton and I was one of your seminary students.. You sponsored chariot races too didn’t you?

    1. Lee Nelson

      Yes, I sponsored chariot races. That’s where I learned to drive teams. Here is Utah I drive a chuck wagon and carriage in two or three parades every summer. It was hard moving away from the Bitter Root Valley, but we still drive through there every year or two on our way to visit a daughter in Spokane. I have fond memories of the seminary class too.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *