A SPECIAL UNCLE, A SPECIAL SPEEDWAY, AND A SPECIAL LIFE
A SPECIAL UNCLE, A SPECIAL SPEEDWAY, AND A SPECIAL LIFE
by: Tim Leeming
It was August or September, 1952, not exactly an easy date for an almost six year old to remember, although the impact it had on my life should have made it another one of those days that will “live in infamy”. My mother was pregnant with my soon-to-be second brother and my other brother was in the latter stages of the “terrible twos”. It was not a small wonder then that my mother agreed I could accompany her 15 year old brother and her father to a place called Columbia Speedway. She always told the story about how, out of all the toys I had as a small child, it was the little car I always played with. No teddy bear, no rattles, no anything else but that little car. So it was, on that warm summer evening, we entered the gates of that race track located on The Charleston Highway in Cayce, South Carolina.
My detailed memories of that first adventure are dimmed by the years and events that have since made laps in my life, but I do remember it was very warm, the lights on the track were not all that bright, there was a purple car, what they called a coach I think, with yellow number 37s on the door. I do, without a doubt, remember that from the first sound of a racing engine starting up, I was hooked. .. completely, entirely, absolutely, and forever. Starting that night, I was consumed with the desire to drive a race car, to compete on that track and to win races.
That night in 1952 was either the last race of the season or the fact that I came home absolutely filthy with red clay dust all over me precluded me going to any more races that year. I do remember begging my uncle (he was much easier than my grand dad) to take me back to the races. Sometime in mid-summer, 1953, I was back at Columbia Speedway, just my uncle and me, and this time we were in the infield rather than the grandstands from which I had watched my first race. This time I could get up against the fence separating me from the pits and I could see everything! Not only that, but I could get right up to the track fence in each turn as we walked around the infield, and see the eyes of the drivers as they raced. If my first trip there in 1952 had not fully inspired me desire to be a race driver, those summer trips of 1953 surely did.
Sometime in the summer of 1954 was the first time I got to meet the drivers, as we stayed around after the race long enough to get into the pits. I recall the Dangerfield name so I must have met Dick and Johnny Dangerfield, and it seems there was a Dink Widenhouse also. I’m sure I didn’t have much to say because in my eyes these drivers were super heroes, God-like creatures that could do things ordinary men could not do. Men that defied death with the worst inconvenience being very dirty when they got out of the cars. That was the same night I touched a race car for the first time. I had actually touched a race car! I remember the special smell of the car, somewhere between smoking tires, gasoline, and the smell of very hot water as it gurgled through the rubber radiator hoses. The metal of the car was warm, maybe more so from the competition than from the summer evening, but it was as though that car spoke to me, called to me. If I had not realized it the first night I ever came to Columbia Speedway, I realized that night that the day would come when it would be my turn to roar around that track in pursuit of a checkered flag. There was no doubt.
From that night forward, my thoughts, my dreams, my actions, my talk, were all permeated with racing, being a race driver, and winning races. I thought about it all my waking hours, dreamed about it every night, talked about it with anyone who would listen, or pretend to listen, wrote terms papers in school about driving, and made every single speech, except one, in my Senior year public speaking class about racing. I was consumed. My senior annual was signed by many of my class mates ALL mentioning something about my racing future.
All the while, from the time I was 12, a group of guys in my neighborhood had built race tracks all around the neighborhood where we would race bicycles. We had flat tracks, short tracks, long tracks, and even a couple of road courses. We would run 500 lap races in the morning, 500 lap races in the afternoon, and if we had a track where there were lights, we would race at night. Having measured the tracks, we were racing between 30 to 70 miles a day during the summer heat. Talk about being in shape!!! All my magazines were racing magazines and I was reading every book I could find about racing which, in those days, were not that many. My uncle was still taking me to the races and by 1957 our trips included two a year to Darlington. But it was Columbia Speedway that was the Mecca from which I could not escape, nor did I want to. If there was racing there, I wanted to be there.
Graduation from High School would normally mean picking a college. But as I had already caused my guidance counselor severe mental problems when I told her I planned to attend The University of Daytona to study drafting and the fact that our country was engaged in the Viet Nam conflict and the draft was a real possibility, I decided to join the Navy and start saving up money to get that first race car. I was stationed on a ship full of guys from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and all those other “Northern States” who knew nothing about racing. Before the end of the second week on board, I had 98% of those guys converted to race fans who would wait as anxiously as I for the Sunday broadcasts. There is a story about my Navy days and my desire to drive race cars that is most amusing, but that is for the telling in person, not for the printing in this publication.
Finally, in 1969, my “hitch” was up and I returned to my home. All my racing buddies were right there, waiting for me to get back and get racing. I learned quickly, however, that what I had saved in the Navy was not enough to jump right into racing. But, we were not about to give up. There was a group of us, Ricky, Sam, Tommy, Eddie, and Marty who were determined that we would be racing at Columbia Speedway before the end of 1969.
Monday evening, August 18, 1969, I answered my phone to an excited Tommy saying he was in West Columbia and he had found a race car for sale he thought we could afford AND, it was a PLYMOUTH. Being the biggest Richard Petty fan in the country, a Plymouth was a requirement but there just weren’t that many Plymouths around in short track racing in those days. We made arrangements to meet the owner on Tuesday evening, a Mr. Gross, and at approximately 7:00 p.m. the group of us gathered in his back yard where sat the Plymouth. A race car! What was actually said that night has long faded into history but honestly I couldn’t take my eyes off the car. Then, the bad news. Mr. Gross wanted $400.00 more for the car than our “team” had managed to save. Time to think, plot, scheme, whatever it took. We told Mr. Gross we would be back tomorrow with the truck to pick up the car and he agreed to hold it “unless someone else showed up with the money”.
Even before the bank opened Tuesday morning, I was in the parking lot. As soon as I felt sufficient time had elapsed for the loan officer to have finished his coffee I went in and asked to see him. I was 22 years old then, had my own place, was married, and was a good credit risk and I convinced the loan officer that with my down payment ( our team cash) the investment by the bank of $400.00 in a 1959 Plymouth sedan was a loan-worthy endeavor. He did not ask to see the car and I didn’t elaborate that the car had only one seat, and had numbers painted on it. It seemed a fair deal to me. Oh, and lest you worry about the problems in the banking industry these days, that loan was paid in full, paid off early in fact. Whether or not the banker ever knew what he financed is unknown to me.
Tuesday evening, we all piled in my car and Marty’s truck and headed back to West Columbia with a chain so we could pull the car home. We counted out the twenties into Mr. Gross’s hand, hooked up the chain behind the green Ford pickup of Marty’s father, and we were off. When we pulled into my yard about 9:30 p.m. the scene was beyond description. All the neighbors who had listened to my dreams for so long where there to see what exactly was about to happen. That evening, several of us sat around the car, or in it, as we envisioned what we anticipated was going to happen Thursday night at Columbia Speedway.
Wednesday, after work, my yard was full of guys wanting to have a part in this race team. There were are least 12 guys washing the car, inside and out, waxing it, polishing it, even the undercarriage. Someone had painted my name as “Tim” on the door, and “Plymouth” on the quarter panel just as it was on the Grand National number 43. An “STP” decal was put on the front headlight cover and new seat belts were installed. My “mechanics” had replaced the spark plugs and fuel filter and that was about the extent of what we knew to do. Finally, somewhere around 2:00 a.m., the crowd dispersed and I went to bed to dream about what Thursday night would bring.
Being at work on Thursday was a total waste of my employer’s pay and I should still feel guilty about that but I don’t. Finally, I took off work at 3:00 p.m. Once home, Marty was already there with his Dad’s green Ford pickup truck and we had a chain hooked to the back of the Ford and to the front of THE Plymouth. The chain ran through a pipe so we could hopefully not smash the vehicles together. Thinking back on that now, it seems a really inept attempt to be impressive with knowledge. In any event, we headed out to Columbia Speedway, Marty driving the truck, me steering the race car, and several car loads of friends following us. We got to the speedway and I confidently walked up to the driver’s sign-in booth, something I had longed to do for years. I paid the man whatever was required for the coveted NASCAR license although I can’t now remember what that amount was. I do know that buying that license and my pit pass took ALL the funds our racing team possessed.
We pulled into the pits, parking just to the right side of the concession stand up against the fence. My two “mechanics” , Eddie and Tommy, slipped through the gate and into the pits without pit passes and got the car unhooked, with the help of Marty, and Marty moved the truck into the infield. We had a very small Sears toolbox with just the most basic of tools. We really didn’t need anything though other than the lug wrench to check all lugs as being tight.
As we finished up the preliminary preparation, a guy walked up to introduce himself as Dan Scott and clarifying the fact that he was THE NASCAR official on the scene. He looked over the car, gave it a pat on the roof, and cleared us to hit the track at first practice call for Hobby cars. I was so cool! Leaning against the car, talking with my crew, and just waiting for practice. Another guy comes along checking pit passes and my “crew” sort of disappeared under the hood and we got away with it that time. Later that evening, my “crew” was booted into the infield because we had no pit passes for them.
Sometime shortly after 7:00 p.m., practice was called for Hobby cars. I climbed in the window of number 83, fastened the seat belts, and put on the helmet. We had bought the helmet with the race car and it had never occurred to me to try it on for size. To say that it was a little large would be a huge understatement. I actually had to stuff a shop rag in the lining to keep it from falling over my eyes. I reached for the switch to turn on the ignition, flipped it up, pushed the button and the engine came to life. Wow! I had heard it several times, but this was the first time at a race track, at THE race track, at THE Columbia Speedway. It sounded different. It felt different. It WAS different. No longer was this a car sitting in my yard, but this was MY race car at the race track I had dreamed of for so many years.
Putting the car in reverse, I slowly backed out of the pit and pulled slowly onto the very muddy track. In second gear, I headed into turn one, warming up the engine and being very careful of the soupy mud from the very wet track we were sent out to “iron out” as they called it. As I came through turns three and four I noticed several people in the infield with signs and posters supporting “Tim” and “Plymouth 83”. Seems like all those people who had listened to me talk about racing all those years were there to see me put that Plymouth where my mouth had been for so many years. Even today, forty-one years later, I can’t forget what that felt like.
When the practice for all divisions was over, we had the drivers meeting and drew for our starting positions in the heat race. I drew inside third row, second heat race. The first heat race, 10 laps went off without much action, other than a couple single car spins. I was so ready to go when it was our turn that I was the first car on the track although I was back in the third row. That was the minute I really seemed to connect with Mr. NASCAR, Dan Scott, as he came over laughing to tell me the “hurry didn’t start until the green flag fell”. Once lined up, we started the pace laps and I saw that gang in turn four again and I was floating. We came off turn four, under the flag stand with Dan Scott showing us the one finger indicating next time around we were going green! Going green in my first race!!!!!!!
We were bumper to bumper and side by side going very slowly through three and four, watching the flag. When the front row was about 30 yards from the flag stand, Dan waved that flag with such flourish that you would have thought it was the start of the Daytona 500. I slammed the accelerator to the floor, pulled the shifter into fourth gear and we were off. As fast as we were off, the two cars on the front row tangled and started to spin. I jerked the wheel to the left and went right against the bank in front of the pits and (when I finally opened my eyes) I was in second place right behind a white Ford going into turn one. Once the race restarted, I was all over that Ford, mostly because my brakes were failing. I actually finished second, but didn’t want to get off the track. I wanted to just keep going!
My crew checked the Master Cylinder and discovered it very low on fluid. We filled the cylinder and waited for our feature race. We had to wait through the Late Model heats which I had so loved for so many years. Now, the Late Model heats were only delaying my return to the track and I was getting most impatient. I wanted back in that car, back on that track.
Finally, it was our turn for the Hobby Feature. I was lined up outside second row. We were all lined up and the word was given to fire the engines. We started our two warm up laps and I proudly waved to the gang in turn four (I got a thrill out of that) and then Dan Scott waved that green flag. There were a few caution laps, there was some close racing and I was running second right on the back bumper of that white Ford. On lap two, going into turn three, when the white Ford backed off, I did too, when he hit the brakes, I did too. Problem here was that he HAD brakes and my brake pedal went completely to the floor. I had no brakes. I slammed the back of that Ford and the eyes in the rear view mirror of that Ford did not offer much promise of becoming a Tim Leeming Fan. The Ford could out run me down the straights, but in the turns I was all over him. It was bump, bump, bump on the back of that Ford. I actually ran second the entire feature race until third turn, last lap, when I slipped too high and the blue Chevrolet got under me. So, as we crossed the line, it was the white Ford, the blue Chevy pushing him, and the white Plymouth up to about the driver’s door on the Chevy.
I got off the gas immediately, pulled the car into the boggy mud just on the inside of the turns to slow it down. By the time I got back to the pits, I was down to about 15 mph which was easy to manage as the little uphill entrance to the pits further slowed the car. I turned off the engine and coasted the car into the pit we had and just let out the clutch and let the transmission stop the car about 2 inches from the fence going into the infield. As I looked through the windshield, I saw so many of those friends on the other side of that fence cheering and going crazy. There in front of that crowd, watching me through the windshield, was that uncle who so long ago had taken me to Columbia Speedway to get me out of my mother’s hair for an evening. The uncle who took me to races all over. The uncle who taught me to drive, who taught me to work on cars, who taught me to love the sport of stock car racing. I unbuckled the seat belt, took off that oversized helmet and climbed out of number 83. I walked to the fence and my uncle put his hand through the wire. We shook hands and I noticed a little mist in the corner of each eye as he said “you did it boy”. I finished third in that first race, but having my uncle Bobby there for me like that was a first place trophy never equaled by anything NASCAR ever designed.
So, don’t ever wonder why Columbia Speedway is so special to me. It was where I first discovered what would preoccupy the rest of my life. It was where I got to compete in my first race. It was where my uncle Bobby finally would tell me for sure who his favorite driver was.