Back in the mid eighties, I think it was, Mel Tillis, you know, the sssstudering ccccountry music star, had a song out entitled "It's a Long, Long Way to Daytona". The tune was catchy and the words were all about a local short track driver hoping to one day make it to Daytona to race on the two and a half mile, high-banked track. I used to walk around singing that song a lot just because of the tune and the words. One day, my son, a teenager then, called me out on the song saying that I was singing it all the time because I was upset that I wasn't going to Daytona anymore since marrying his Mom. I remember he and I sat down and had a long talk about that situation that very day. I remember telling him that my life had changed since I went from the single, always on the move guy, to the married man with two teenagers but that I didn't regret, or begrudge that change in the least. He walked away satisfied but I don't think I ever even hummed that song after that.
The song came back into my head Saturday, Valentine's Day no less, as I prepared to head to Daytona for the first time in 25 years for anything related to racing. Oh, I wasn't going for Speedweeks and would not even seen the inside of Daytona International Speedway, either as Daytona Rising, or Daytona Remembered. I was heading down to be a part of a gathering of the stars and heroes from the early days of stock car racing. These days, that is my mission with racing, seeing that the history is presented in an accurate and honorable way. Admittedly, part of that mission is because it takes me back to the days of my youth, even before my teen years. I get to hang out with Bill Blair, Jr., whose Daddy actually won on the old Beach Course before the International Speedway was built. Dink Widenhouse is there and, as I've told Dink before, he is the reason I got to attend so many races when I was just a kid because he was my Uncle Bobby's favorite short track driver and we would go wherever Dink was racing.
I left Columbia Sunday morning on a cloudless day although very cold. Wind whipping much like it did that day in 1964 at the Daytona 500. I traveled down I-26 to I-95, using the Bill Blair, Jr. driving technique he and I had discussed on the phone a couple of days before the trip. Seemed to work pretty good but I found myself wishing I had installed the CB radio in The Legendmobile and put the old "20th Century Drifter" back on the street.
I would, of course, arrive in Daytona at about the same time the fans were leaving pole qualifying Sunday afternoon. I should have anticipated that the only route I knew to the motel ran right by the Speedway and should have anticipated the traffic problems, but, in reality, there were no traffic issues. Wonder where the traffic was? Wonder where the fans where? I easily made it to the motel, with the help of Sheila Blair, who greatly out performed my GPS which was going to send me on a mission to the backwoods of coastal Florida. I pulled into the motel where so many of the RacersReunion regulars were staying just as Bob Hissom and his wife Pat pulled in. Having not made a pit stop for lunch, I was very hungry by the time I had carried my bags to my room. After sitting around Bill Blair's room bench racing through history, Bill and Sheila, Bob and Pat, and I, went to meet Zetta Baker and the "best seafood restaurant in Daytona." It was an hour and 20 minutes wait for seating but we held on and it was worth it. I did NOT order the fried alligator tail, but I took a picture of the menu and texted it to Ann.
After dinner, I returned to the room and flipped on the television, something I normally do as my first act entering a motel room. I sat down in the chair, mindlessly watching something, although I can't tell you now what that was. My mind rolled back to having passed the speedway that afternoon. From the outside, on highway 92, it is so much different from that first time I saw it in 1962. I would never know it was the same place as the last time I was there sometime in the 90s. It has become a Taj Mahal of speedways, an edifice to the sport of stock car racing so far removed from the old beach/highway course where racing was born in Daytona. The sands of the beach saw speed records set and saw stock car racing begin a journey that would lead from the sands of the beach to the asphalt of the high banks. From the ocean tides to the ebb and flow of fan loyalty to the sport.
Monday was a whirlwind of activity from my early rising until returning to the hotel room late that evening. To say I was tired would be true, to say I was euphoric would be understating the obvious. To have been a part of that day was the dream I never dared to dream because it still remains a mystery to me how I have been accepted into the cadre of auto racing pioneers, heroes, and superstars. I am honored, and humbled, beyond words to be included in this group of folks.
As I sat at the table Monday evening at Main Street Station at the "Back to The Roots" event, I know I had tears in my eyes realizing what this meant to me. One advantage of "The Legend Attire" is the wearing of the dark glasses that hide my eyes. I couldn't help but think of my Mama, who came to love racing and Richard Petty even more, and how many trips she had made to Daytona for races. I thought of her, and my Daddy, as I sat there at Bill France's original gasoline station and talked with literally hundreds of fans. That was AFTER being walked down the red carpet and being introduced to the huge crowd of folks. I kept thinking that my Mama was watching and what she must think about her oldest son sitting there with the NASCAR Legends, being a part of something so historic and something so meaningful to the participants and the fans. I have a picture here of My Mama with Kyle Petty from years ago when she had her hand on his shoulder and was saying something right in his ear. I promise you, I could almost feel that hand on my shoulder as I sat there.
There are so many people I need to thank for allowing me to be a part of the events there and just for accepting me into the group. I can't begin to name them all here but just look at the list of folks who appeared at the "Back to The Roots" event and you've got the list. A very special thanks, however, must go out to Dargan Watts, who worked so hard again this year, with publicity and everything else. Heck, he even e-mailed me by VIP Parking pass as soon as he knew I was coming. Then, he adds me to the list of VIPs appearing at the event. Let me assure you, the cold weather had nothing to do with the cold chills I experienced when I looked at that list of folks with whom I would be sitting down on Monday night.
I can't begin to thank Bill and Sheila Blair and Bob and Pat Hissom for including me in everything they did, including the late trip to the Cheesecake shop. That was an exceptional time just to listen to the conversation and share time with these awesome folks. A special thanks to Rex White and to Frances Flock for always including me in what they are doing and making it so special for me. To all who added so much to my experience, I thank you. Each and every one of you is a special part of my memories of a wonderful time. I want to give a special "shout out" to Alex Nickerson whom I got to me and share some time with. He is the young person we try to reach here at RacersReunion to be certain the history of the sport is passed on as it should be. Thanks for a great time Alex. It was a pleasure meeting his father, Barry, as well. And, as always, Leon Phillips and his wife, Anna Marie just make one feel at home anywhere. Truly the "salt of the earth people".
Yeah, ol' Mel was right. It is a long, long way to Daytona. Oh, not nearly like it was on my first trip down in 1962 when it was all 2 lane highway through South Carolina and Georgia. The fog was so thick that night that you could barely see the chrome fender markers on the front fenders of that 1957 Plymouth my Uncle Bobby was driving. We drove all night to arrive at the speedway just as the sun was coming up. Funny how I remember going through the tunnel under turn four and coming out just as the sun was breaking the horizon. Now, it's all Interstate highway. Bill Blair, Jr. gave me the secret to making time so it's not a long trip in time. But, when I think about it, it was a very, very long trip back in time. I'm thankful from the memories, I'm thankful that I am able to have vivid recall of such wonderful times. But I'm also very, very glad that the rest of Speedweeks will be spent watching the events from my recliner as Ann putters around with her chores. She can't seem to sit down very long at a time, but it is a most wonderful and comfortable feeling to be in my home, yet still a part of racing. I don't have to be at the track, I have those memories of all those wonderful times when there were some really good-looking stock cars being piloted by Richard Petty, Buddy Baker, Paul Goldsmith, LeeRoy Yarborough and Cale Yarborough, as they raced into history. Wonderful memories.
Thanks, Mel. Haven't thought of you in years. Haven't thought about the long, long way to Daytona in years. Never thought Daytona could be like it was for me this year.