Most of you will immediately think of the words following this warning on your passengers' side auto mirror "are closer than they appear". I'm not sure when exactly they started putting those type mirrors on cars and trucks, but I do remember that my Uncle Bobby would always go to Western Auto every time he got a new car (which was quite often) and he would buy the matching mirrors to mount on the doors or the front fenders. I can still see that mint green 1959 Dodge convertible with those beautiful chrome mirrors set way out front on the fenders. Quite a sight to see. That was, incidentally, the first car in which I traveled over 100 mph as Uncle Bobby and I took it up to "Rabon Flats" on Highway 215 and opened it up. Uncle Bobby was driving.
My reference to the mirror comes about from an incident that happened to me Saturday while returning from my grandson Michael's flag football game. I was coming down I-20 in The Legendmobile (a car left to me when Uncle Bobby died just over a year ago. As I-20 widened into three lanes, I was passing an 18-wheeler in the middle lane. A SUV was to my left and as I was looking in the mirror to gauge my return to the far right lane I saw the front of a 1962 Pontiac flying around the 18 wheeler and cutting in front of that truck moving up on my right. That Pontiac WAS, indeed, closer than it appeared as it was moving on down the highway. It went by me on the right and started to disappear through my windshield. As I was approaching my exit, I saw those tail lights of that Catalina start to flash indicating he was getting off at the same exit.
The Catalina pulled up to the stop light at the end of the exit ramp and I came up right behind him. This was a beautifully restored 1962 Pontiac Catalina, gleaming black with what appeared to be red interior. As we sat at the light, I saw a stick in the back window reading "If You Want to Race, Daytona is the Place". Wow, I thought to myself, I haven't seen one of those stickers in years although I used to have several. As the Pontiac turned left in front of me when the green light granted us legal permission to do so, I noticed the license tag ended in "622". To anyone else, such a sequence would have no meaning, no significance, but when I realized that the "62" could be interpreted, at least in my twisted mind as 1962, and the 22 then becoming the number of the black and gold Pontiac driven by Fireball Roberts in the 1962 Daytona 500, my first trip to the "Birth Place of Speed". As I drove the remaining few blocks to home my mind was racing full speed over all the years of the Daytona 500.
I was 12 when the first Daytona 500 was run in February of 1959. It was not known as "The Great American Race" then, it was just a new track on the circuit for stock cars. I listened to that race with my Uncle Bobby in the living room of the old home place with his wife Mary Ruth and their little daughter Debbie (although Debbie slept through most of it). I don't recall the South Carolina weather of that day but I do remember that Uncle Bobby kept throwing coal in that old stove there in the living room.
Uncle Bobby and I had started going to Darlington in the spring of 1957 and that was our introduction to "super speedways". I can still recall my disbelief as I viewed that huge Darlington track the first time. With all the publicity leading up to the Daytona 500 we knew the track there was more than a mile longer than Darlington. That was something my 12-year-old mind could not wrap around on that Sunday afternoon sitting before that stove. The speeds the announcers were reporting were incredible to my mind. I don't recall my Uncle Bobby having much to say as he listened to the race. I could be mistaken about this but it seems that several years after that first 500 Bobby pointed out that CBS News Anchor, Walter Cronkite, was the announcer for the event. I do remember Uncle Bobby tensing up and sliding to the edge of his chair as the announcer was calling the run to the checkers between Beauchamp and Petty. The next thing I recall was Lee Petty heading to Victory Lane only to find Beauchamp already there. Then the discussions began.
It took NASCAR (defined as Big Bill France) the better part of a week to decide Lee Petty had won the race but he could have saved all that time if they had called my Uncle Bobby. With his incredible race sense, he knew, from 400 miles away and a radio broadcaster's call, that Lee Petty won that race. I mean, after all, Lee Petty was Uncle Bobby's Grand National favorite and if you ever think I'm opinionated, you should have met my Uncle Bobby. Come to think of it, maybe that's where I got mine from. The good news for Uncle Bobby is that his opinion was confirmed later that week when the victory was awarded to Lee Petty. I guess the argument over that race still rages in the hearts of the old timers even today. But, quoting the late Joe Weatherly, who was the third car in the mix at the line, although two laps down, "If Lee didn't win that race then he's never won a race” He had Beauchamp by a hood at the line". Most folks know you didn't win an argument with "Lil Joe" either.
I remember listening to the 1960 500 with Uncle Bobby but about all I dimly recall about that Sunday afternoon was Bobby's comments about Junior Johnson winning in that year old Chevy. Richard Petty, the driver my uncle had said after his first race "would never make a race driver" was third and Lee was fourth, both in those high tail-finned Plymouths. So all in all, it wasn't a bad day to be in the old home place with Uncle Bobby.
The 1961 event was one that I really don't even recall listening to. Lee Petty had been critically injured in an accident in a qualifying race and if there was ever a race fan with concern for his favorite driver, it was Bobby for Lee Petty. The first couple of days the newspaper kept us apprised of Lee's condition but then the news was not reporting. Bobby put me up to calling the hospital in Daytona every few days to check on Lee. This was before the HIPPA law and the hospital would actually tell you what was going on. It was long process for Uncle Bobby because he was truly concerned about Lee. Sometime in March of 1961, Uncle Bobby told me "we are going to Daytona next February".
True to his word, in February 1962, we packed him his hot-rod 1957 Plymouth and headed south on a very foggy Friday night. That was a very adventure filled trip as I have written about many times here on the site, but it was race day I remember so well. It was cold but sunny, windy but not too bad. We watched that black and gold Pontiac of Fireball Roberts sail around that track as if on rails with a little blue Plymouth tucked in the draft much of the time. Fireball won the race but was almost immediately protest by Lee Petty saying that Fireball had too many men over pit wall on the stop to put oil in the Pontiac. Had Fireball been penalized, Richard Petty would have won his first Daytona 500. When the film finally came out from that pit stop, there were clearly 8 men over the wall when 6 was the maximum allowed by NASCAR, but looking back, it was perfect for Fireball to have won that race. That is a part of my racing legacy I treasure as my memory banks start to deteriorate.
We were there in 1963 when it actually rained to the point we didn't think the race would run. But run it did! Two Chevrolets, Junior Johnson and G.C. Spencer were untouchable in the speed department, but mechanical failure was their undoing. As the race was winding down, we suddenly realized that Tiny Lund, driving for a severely injured Marvin Panch, was going to take the Wood Brothers Ford to the win. At the time I was not especially happy because my driver, Richard Petty, was a lap down and not in contention. Again, looking back over the years, Tiny winning that race was as appropriate as any victory ever recorded in NASCAR. In later years, I would spend a great deal of time around Tiny Lund and he never really brought if the Daytona 500 win, but if someone did, he could talk about it in detail. I remember one rainy afternoon in the race shop down near Owens Field Airport, I think he re-ran the event lap-by-lap for an audience of three totally enthralled fans, one of whom was me.
While all of my trips to the Daytona 500 are memorable in one way or another, the 1964 Daytona 500 is engraved in my mind, body and soul. We were parked by the banks of Lake Lloyd on the back side of the infield. Standing on the top of a dirt embankment where I could see everything but turn four to the tri-oval, I never came down from the green flag til the checker waved. I can still see that red Plymouth of Paul Goldsmith leading the first few laps and kicking up all the hot dog wrappers on the track making it appear as if there was a blizzard. After about six laps of that, Richard took that beautiful Petty Blue Plymouth to the front and it was an all Petty Day after that. When the checkered flag waved, I jumped off that hill (about six feet high) and hit the ground running towards Victory Lane. I was hanging on the fence between the infield and Victory Lane when Richard pulled in. He climbed out of the car and was wearing Petty Blue Boots. Note to self that day: Get me some of those.
After the infield gates were opened, I walked on in the pits and out onto the track. Ran into Lee and Elizabeth sitting on the tailgate of their Chrysler Station Wagon with Richard's trophy on the hood of a Chrysler Imperial parked next to them. I hung around taking pictures and shyly talking to Lee (yes I was a little shy that day for reasons about which I am clueless). After all the press interviews, Richard walked up still wearing those Petty Blue boots. I asked where he got them and he told me about a certain show dye that would do the trick. I already had the boots (of course) and within 30 minutes of getting out of school that Monday, I had the dye. Yes, I wore those Petty Blue boots for a long time before all the dye scuffed off.
There were many more exciting adventures for me at the Daytona 500 and wonderful memories I will cherish all of my life. The 1966 race when Richard won for the second time. The 1976 race when Richard and David tangled coming off the final turn and both came spinning down the tri-oval. I was in the pits that day with my press credentials and when I saw the number 43 stopped just short of the line, I was ready to run and push when I saw the Petty crew headed that way. I was stopped in my tracks by the biggest NASCAR Official at the track. There was 1979 when there were 14 of us on top of my parents' motor home when we saw the two leaders wrecking and jerked our heads back to turn two to see Richard leading D.W. off the banking. What a wild time we had as Richard won again.
Then there was 1988 when Bobby and Davey Allison fought for the win until the last lap when Dad prevailed. I was not, at the time, a fan of the Allisons, but as I learned in later years, the Allisons are a part of what made the sport great.
I guess that black Pontiac took me on a time machine trip back through a lot of memories. I do know that, to me, The Daytona 500 was always the start of my New Year. Even when they ran at Riverside, MY new year did not start until the Daytona 500. Times have changed and racing is, like most things, not the same, but the Daytona 500 always gets my heart beating faster. But, thanks to the black Pontiac passing me Saturday, I have just relived some wonderful times from my life AND from racing. Looking forward to this year's 500 is like looking through my windshield at that black Pontiac. But, like my passengers' side mirror, things in the mirror "are closer than they appear". Those things, my friends, are memories of wonderful years around this sport.