On a hot July afternoon in 1958, three guys, Dale, Red and Richard, left Level Cross, North Carolina towing a 1957 Oldsmobile convertible to a half-mile dirt track in Columbia, South Carolina. That night, a just turned 21 year old driver, Richard Petty, would finish in sixth place in his first ever NASCAR race. It was a convertible event won by Bob Welborn. What began that night was a career in NASCAR racing that would last until the last race of the 1992 season when the older Richard Petty, by then known as "The King”, would retire. (Many mile markers were yet to come.) After the race at Columbia Speedway, the three men would tow the Olds back up U.S. Highway 1 to Highway 220 and back to the little reaper shed converted to a garage on Branson Mill Road in Level Cross. It was all two lane highway then, many small towns, but I am guessing the trip back was late enough that the towns that may have had traffic lights back then merely had them blinking yellow as the truck towing the number 42 Olds made its way north.
This past Saturday, May 16, 2015, three men, Leon, Jeff, and Tim made their way to Level Cross, North Carolina, to that same plot of real estate from which the Petty Racing Dynasty had been born. In an odd twist of circumstances, it was the same Columbia Speedway that had brought these three men together when RacersReunion started cleaning up the long time ghost track for a rousing event there in 2009. Many friendships were born of that effort and these three men are testaments to the fact that friendships so begun endure as time passes.
The trip made this past Saturday took just under three hours and was driven on some fine Interstate Highways in both South Carolina and North Carolina. When the interstate was left behind for the back roads leading to the Petty Compound, it was a beautiful and leisurely drive. When the silver Mercury Grand Marquis pulled into the grassy lot and parked, the men exited the car to a warm, slightly breezy North Carolina spring morning.
By now most of you have figured out those men of Saturday were Leon Phillips, Jeff Coward, and myself. We were going to a Fund Raising benefit for Mike Sykes. We arrived a few minutes early and the crowd was already assembling for a day of enjoying the company of other fans and racers and to explore the new location of the Petty Museum. As we walked the few steps to the entrance, we were embraced with a warm welcome from many folks we have come to know and with whom we have developed deep friendships. Danny and Janice Whitener pulled in just in front of us and Danny walked back to welcome us and to give me a gift he wanted me to have. That man has given me several things I treasure and keep here in The Lair, but he has given me nothing as valuable as his friendship. I was a little worried that his wife Janice was going to come down on my head because Danny had told me she was listening last week when I was mouthy. But she, as always, was the perfect Southern Belle. Speaking of material gifts, I would be remiss if I didn't publicly thank Bill McPeek for all he has given me. He loaded me down with memories two weeks ago at the Hall of Fame, including a chunk of the original asphalt from the back straight at Daytona International Speedway. To think that I have, right here on my desk in The Lair, a piece of asphalt on which raced Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker, Joe Weatherly, Junior Johnson, Tiny Lund, Marvin Panch and so many more of the heroes of yesterday. That is a valued material treasure to me but, again, it can't begin to compare with the gift of friendship given by Bill. To think he drives all the way from the North Georgia Mountains to meet us in Charlotte for a few hours of racing history is impressive. He stopped in Whitmire, SC and picked up Bob Warfield who added much to that trip. And, one more mention here. Larry Eury is a quiet man when it comes to words spoken. Even when he speaks, his voice is soft and pleasant. But Larry's friendship is more precious than gold as he has proved repeatedly since I've known him.
But, let us return to the purpose of this Legendtorial. As stated, we traveled to Level Cross for a benefit for Mike Sykes who is undergoing treatment for lung cancer. Mike is a very dear friend to me and he is held in high esteem by so many folks, thus was the reason for the fundraiser to help with the huge expense of fighting the cancer.
As we progress here, remember that I am one of the most ardent of Petty fans. My Uncle Bobby who started me in racing was a Lee Petty fan and I was pulling for Lee up until that night in 1958 when I met the closer to my age Richard at Columbia Speedway. What started that night lasted throughout Richard's career and he is on record as stating that no one person on earth aggravated him more during his career than did I. I have stated before that I was very fortunate to have been able to attend many races every year. By 1962, I was at every race at Daytona, Darlington, Charlotte, and Atlanta. I was at the first race at "The Rock" and every race thereafter until they closed it, and was at all the Talladega races from 1970 through 1990. In addition, I was at races at most of the other tracks in the Southeast and once ventured to Pocono, Michigan, and even a super speedway in Trenton, New Jersey, which I would just as soon forget. I was there many times when Richard won, and many more times when he lost. I was at Darlington in 1970 when he flipped that Plymouth right in front of where I was sitting on the trunk of my Road Runner. Some friends and I had started one of the very first Richard Petty Fan Clubs ever established and I have the Charter signed by Richard and Lee on the wall here in The Lair just over my right shoulder. Flags hang above my head that flew from the front fenders of our cars when we went to the races in the 60s. My life has been immersed in the career of Richard Petty and, admit it or not, he knows I was with him all the way. For these reasons, it was a special feeling for me when I walked through the front doors of that Museum.
Oh, Jeff and I had done an interview with Richard at his other Museum in downtown Randleman back in March of 2009, but this was THE Petty compound where it all started. Just outside the museum is the house in which Richard and Maurice were raised and a little further up is the small brick home where Richard and Lynda started their family. This was Petty Country and it felt great to be there.
My good feelings only became more enhanced when I saw Mike. I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting but having observed cancer patients over the years, I at least expected him to be somewhat weak. What was I thinking??? There he was full of energy and genuinely happy, NOT because folks were there to raise money for him, but because folks were there. He didn't have to say it. He didn't have to explain it. You could just see it in his face, just like always; it was Mike sharing himself with others, something he does very well.
I attempted a tour of the museum but as I walked past cases full of trophies, watches, knives, dolls, rifles, and picture upon picture of the history of Petty racing, emotion began to overtake me as I realized that so much of what is in that museum is so much a part of my memories of my life. Just thinking of all the STP used in every mechanical thing I ever owned in the 70s and 80s is mind numbing. Seeing those STP red and Petty Blue Plymouths and Dodges brought flashbacks of days when I was watching those cars race for championships.
When it came time for those of us so honored to sign autographs, I went over to the Museum addition where the table was set up for signing. Entering there, I saw the real life cars used as the models for the Pixar Movie "Cars". Right before my eyes was Mr. The King. My youngest grandson, Michael was maybe four when I took him to see that movie. Oh, how he loved it and oh how he loved Mr. The King. He actually talked me out of one of my Franklin Mint Superbirds, which he still has in his room. I had to smile as I thought of all the memories I shared with Michael and Mr. The King.
My place at the table was between Hank Thomas and Don Johnson with Rex White to Don's left. To say that I enjoyed the conversation the four of us shared for those 90 minutes would be a huge understatement. I learned so much about the early days of racing from Hank Thomas stories that I have no doubt a book could be written on his life alone, which would be a valued addition to any race fan's library. Oh, and Don Johnson's card that he autographs and hands out states "On the road with a Legend" but the picture of the guy he's with is Rex White, NOT me!!!! I must discuss that with Don the next time we are together.
Every time I see Frances Flock, the widow of NASCAR pioneer Tim Flock, she is smiling, bouncy and full of life. I know it's not polite to ask a lady her age so I never have, but it is clear she is pushing some years. Her demeanor and appearance would never indicate her to be much past 60, but then she is full of the wonderful life she has shared through racing. Still name dropping here (hey, it's my segment and I can if I want too), it is always great to be around Bill and Shelia Blair although we didn't have much time to share together this trip. And of course our own Jimmy Johnson. All of the great guys from The Historic Speedway Group were there and if start naming them surely I will unintentionally overlook one so I will just say to each and every one of you that it was great to see you and I'm looking forward to seeing you again on September 26th.
I had so many highlights in my day Saturday that I won't attempt to relate all of them. One of them I don't dare relate because it is somewhat overwhelming to know that I no longer need Dave Fulton to make those "Famous" signs for me. But that is a story best shared in The Ford, and Jeff knows what that means. But one highlight, possibly the very best, was when Michael W. Smith presented Mike Sykes the drawing he had done in honor of Mike. Included in the drawing was the 1972 STP Plymouth, which Mike had allowed me to drive at Rockingham at an event there, very early in our friendship. I was standing in the Petty compound when I heard my name being called from the distance where Mike was. He was motioning me over to see the picture. He asked me if I knew which car that was and of course, I did. Mike was smiling broadly, as I am sure he was recalling that day when he surprised me with the opportunity to drive the Petty Plymouth around "The Rock" for what turned out to be about 8 or 10 laps. We laughed together at the memory.
When it was time to head back to Columbia, I sought out Mike to say “goodbye" for the day. If there was ever any doubt that there is a deep friendship between the two of us, it was dispelled as we hugged each other and said, "See you in September". You have no idea how valuable those wrap-around sunglasses are at times like that for me.
So, three very different personalities heading down the road from Level Cross to Columbia. No two-lane roads this time. No racecar being towed. But it was a car full of memories on the way back to the place where the career of the King began and the making of The Legend was shaped into what it has become. I think it was Lou Gehrig who said, as he was retiring from baseball due to the disease which bears his name, "I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth". Sorry, Lou, but I'm going to have to contest you for that line.