Calm down Jeff. I mean memories of some of the World 600s, NOT actually a count of 600 memories. Not going to be that wordy tonight so don't go trying to mute me or otherwise prevent me from participating in tonight's show.
I am actually writing this Sunday afternoon. My Richard Petty clock on the wall indicates it is 1:38 as I start, so you know I'm not watching Indy and the 600 hasn't started yet. I had seriously considered watching the Indy race but decided that was entirely too much idle time in the recliner for one day, even if it is a holiday weekend. So, I decided to write this Legendtorial to free up my Monday for yard work and my Tuesday for whatever other chores requiring my attention outside. I do love working outside in the summer. Now, on to the 600 memories, so as, to save Jeff's blood pressure from zooming up like the Goodyear Blimp on steroids.
My first 600 was THE first 600. Uncle Bobby decided, last minute as he often did, that we would make that race. We left Columbia before the sun came up and headed up highway 321 to Charlotte. I remember very little about the actual drive up until we hit the traffic heading into the track. We went into the infield and Uncle Bobby just hooked a left as soon as he could after coming through the tunnel, which put us in position near turn four. Of course I immediately staked out a place on the fence from down in the hole looking up at the track. I remember I had a clear shot of turns three and four and a little bit of the dogleg straight. It was still a long time 'til race time so we walked up along the fence behind the pit road and the sight I beheld was unlike anything I had ever seen at a racetrack. Now, bear in mind I had been going to short track races for eight years by that time and had been to all the Darlington races since the spring race in 1957.
Walking behind the fence, I saw racecars with cages built around the windshields covered with what appeared to be chicken wire. I saw racecars with mud flaps on the back wheel wells. I had no idea what all that meant but I heard a couple of guys talking about the asphalt coming up in chunks. I could not imagine.
When the pace laps started, the difference in Charlotte and Darlington was apparent, as the cars were high on the banks with the sun dancing off the brilliant colors. Sixty starters in that race with Fireball Roberts on the pole. The cars were three abreast for the start with Jack Smith in the middle and Curtis Turner on the outside. I remember watching the third turn to see who would be leading on that first lap and as the roar of the engines grew louder to my vantage point, the Pontiac of Fireball Roberts came into view with the field right on his heels.
Being the Petty fans we were, Uncle Bobby and I were fairly content as the Petty’s had three Plymouths in that race, Richard, Lee, and Bobby Johns driving the third blue "Thumper". The blue Plymouths raced in the top ten most of the day, in fact several times in the top five or six. Jack Smith was the spoiler for us as he had his Pontiac in good form and actually led most of the race, building up a huge lead of five or six laps. Suddenly, the Smith Pontiac was missing from the track and we learned later the track had thrown a chuck of asphalt through the gas tank and Jack's day was over. When the checked flag dropped, the three blue Plymouths were all up front, although it was Joe Lee Johnson winning in a Chevrolet.
Driving back to Columbia, after spending a great deal of time getting out of the track, Uncle Bobby and I talked about the new track, and the performance of those Petty Plymouths. We were to learn later in the week that NASCAR had disqualified both Lee and Richard, leaving Bobby Johns in third place as the Petty's best effort. A guy named Paul Lewis was also disqualified, although I didn't know who he was in 1960. Sure am glad to know that gentleman these days.
In 1961, Charlotte ran two 100-mile qualifying races much like Daytona does. We were there for those and saw Richard Petty win the first one, which put him on the pole. Joe Weatherly won the second one, which put Richard and Joe side by side to start. The race seemed to last forever as caution laps consumed the competition. Reds Kagle had his car impaled on the guard rail and the accident cost Red his leg. We watched a young upstart named David Pearson, driving a Ray Fox Pontiac take the lead and just stay there lap after lap. With two laps to go, the number 3 Pontiac came by our vantage point throwing sparks from the left where the left rear tire should have been. Pearson stayed on the track and finished two laps ahead of Fireball Roberts. Our man, Richard, went out with a little more than 60 laps to go but that really didn't cool my excitement as there were race cars pounding the track and that was good enough for me.
Our 1962 trip was ok with Richard finishing fourth in the "Ketchum" Plymouth. In 1963, Richard was out early but he had won at Columbia Speedway a few weeks earlier so that made it better. In 1964, we arrived at the track later than usual in Uncle Bobby's 1956 Ford Station Wagon on which he had mounted roof rails and plywood from which we could watch the race. We could see the entire front straight, back straight and turns one and two. As it turned out on the seventh lap of that race seeing the action in turn two was something I'll always remember. Even more, the black smoke rising into the air as Fireball's lavender Ford burned on the back straight is something I still see every time I enter that speedway. Petty Plymouths finished first and second that day with Jim Paschal winning and Richard running second. Our good friend and Hall of Famer, Rex White was third in Hall of Famer Bud Moore's Mercury. We did not know, when the left the track, the extent of Fireball's injuries, only that he was in the hospital.
The 1965 World 600 was a race boycotted by Chrysler Corporation, meaning Petty wasn't running, so I was not there. Starting in 1966, I was at every 600 and the October race at Charlotte except when the Navy kept me away from the 1968 World 600. My Mom and Dad bought their first motor home, used, in 1975 but not in time for the 600. I was parked in the infield on the little hill between turns one and two as the infield was packed that day. Richard won and I went right on into Victory Lane with him. I ended up standing next to Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, Senator John Warner. As Richard was celebrating the win, I told Elizabeth that I had the biggest "crush on her when I was 12 and saw the movie “National Velvet". She kissed me on the cheek, picked up by the television network, which later showed that where my cousin in New York saw it and wondered how I pulled that off. All I could tell my cousin was that Elizabeth Taylor was as nice and sweet as she possiby could have been. Not sure Senator Warner approved of all that, but what the heck, I wasn't in politics.
Once the parents started taking the motor home to the races, we took a crowd with us every race. We had such adventures in the infield at Charlotte that I can't begin to relate them all. Ah, the Charlotte memories. A couple more that stick out in my memory.
We were exiting the track in 1970, one of the last few vehicles to be leaving the infield. Ahead of me was a Ford pickup with about five guys in the back. I was in my '69 Road Runner. Behind me was my brother, Richard, in his '69 Road Runner. There was a '63 Chevy behind us. As we prepared to cross the track at the then turn one exit, the Ford pickup stopped and the driver looked all around. No doubt of his intentions. With the tires on that Ford smoking, he hit the track with me right behind him. My brother Richard followed, as did the Chevy. That day, in Charlotte, was another strictly stock race as those four vehicles blazed around that track without any interference from NASCAR or the North Carolina Highway Patrol Racing Team. It bears mention, I think, that at the October race, my blue Road Runner was leading my brother's orange Road Runner out on Highway 29 leaving the track. A Oldsmobile switched lanes in front of me with no signal and immediately slammed on brakes. I stopped, but Richard didn't, at least not until he was three feet inside the trunk of my car. As we were beside the road surveying the damage to our cars, it was obvious that his radiator was busted and the headlights knocked out. My tail lights were gone but my trailer hitch was still intact. As we stood there, new friends we had met during the race, from Charlotte, drove by and stopped. The man, whose name I cannot recall, took us downtown to borrow a tow bar and took us back to hook up the cars. If you can only imagine the look on the faces of the Allstate Agent with whom we had insurance as we pulled the cars in on Monday morning. I think that's where they got their "Mayhem" advertising strategy.
There are dozens more Charlotte memories, especially 600 memories I may share someday. Having attended all those races at that track, seeing all I saw, and experiencing all I did at that track, some may ask me what my favorite World 600 memory may be. Well, I’m going to tell you! I note there are no gasps of surprise at that statement. My best 600 memory by far is the 2011 600. My son-in-law had obtained four tickets in the stands in turn four and called and asked me about taking the three grandsons, then ages 7, 11, and 14. I agreed to do it as that would be the first race for all of them, but as the time drew close to head to Charlotte I began to wonder what had possessed me to undertake such a responsibility. I think I was absolutely scared to death. We went into the stands at 3:00 p.m. and were still there at about 11:15 p.m. when Dale, Jr. ran out of gas on the last lap almost right in front of us. But the boys didn't care about that. They knew their Pop was pulling for number 43 and that was, of course, the car that got their cheers.
We got back to the van about midnight and piled in to head back to Columbia. Almost before we moved into the line to exit the parking area, all three of them asleep. As we moved out on the highway and started home, I marveled at what a wonderful experience that had been for me. I wondered if my Uncle Bobby ever felt that way when he and I attended the races. But I remember what Uncle Bobby told me only weeks before he died two years ago and I know he felt the same way. Of all my Charlotte memories, that will forever be the best.
I was in Charlotte this past Friday. Drove right past the speedway and all the hundreds of motor homes and campers in the camping areas. As I came to the light where Bruton Smith Boulevard intersects U.S. 29, the track was in front of me. As I waited for the green light, I could recall that first trip 55 years ago when this track was in the middle of nowhere with hardly a grandstand structure observable from the highway. It is now a massive facade of gleaming steal and flashing white concrete where thousands will be gathered in a matter of a few hours to watch 600 miles of racing. No chicken wire windshield screens this year. No rear wheel mud flaps this year. No flying chunks of asphalt this year. No Joe Lee Johnson, Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Rex White, Richard Petty, or dozens of others who built this sport and that track. No Curtis Turner who was a driving force to get the track built. No Tim Flock who gave so much of himself to the track, along with his wife Frances.
So much of what was, so much of what drew me to the sport in the first place is gone forever. Things are different now and whether or not that difference is better or worse is up to the individual listening tonight or who will read this later. I'll be watching tonight, even though that means enduring the Waltrip brothers. But, I'll let you in on a little secret; I was invited to attend the 600 tonight, as the guest of a good friend, with seats in The Speedway Club and reserved parking. I truly and deeply appreciate my friend thinking of me. Don't ask me to explain it because I'm not sure I can. Maybe it's just Charlotte will never be the same to me again without those three grandsons marveling at all they were seeing for the first time. When I was seeing it for the first time, it was incredible beyond words!