It's still early, by some standards, on a Sunday morning. This particular Sunday morning is significant for others in that it is celebrated as "Fathers' Day". Last month it was Mothers' Day. As I sit here at the keyboard, listening to the radio, I hear commercial after commercial, as I have all week, advertising exactly the thing every father wants for his "special" day. In reality, I suppose, both Mother's Day and Father's Day are both very commercially profitable to the greeting card companies and other merchandisers who cater to the emotion of honoring one's parents on those special days. I do remember reading an article last week that spending on Father's Day gifts is only approximately one-third that of what is spent on Mother's Day. Not exactly what that indicates. Down the line...
It seems almost impossible to me that my Daddy has been gone 22 years this coming October. My memories of him are so vivid, at times, that I feel as though he is still here. As crazy as this is going to sound, but please don't call the guys in the white coats, I was visiting my Mama at her house about four years after my Daddy died, and as we sat on the front porch in the swing he had put up there years before, I looked up the street and saw him walking toward us. It was so real I almost got up and walked to meet him. I have since talked to many other people who have had such experiences after their parent passed on. I guess sometimes memories are so real they survive even the divide that is death.
I have to admit that growing up as the first-born of a man who had fought the Japanese Empire through some of the toughest battles in the Pacific was not easy for me. Neither was it for him. I'm not sure there was a condition identified as PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, back in the 1940s, and even if so, I'm not sure my Daddy experienced that, but he had experienced a lifetime of difficulties beginning with the death of his mother as she gave birth to him. His oldest brother never let him forget that he had no mother because of my Daddy's birth. My Daddy grew up during the great depression and actually left home to join the Civilian Conservation Corp. December 8, 1941, he joined the U.S. Army.
I've told the story before about my Mom and Dad meeting Richard Petty one day in 1963 and going from non-race fans to ardent supporters of the young soon to be star from Level Cross, N.C. We began traveling, as a family, to races all around the South, first by the family car and starting in the 70s by motor home. The back of that motor home was soon covered with racing decals, even the STP sticker off the hood of one of the Dodges The King wrecked at Darlington. We traveled all over the South in that motor home and experienced many of Richard's wins. I'll never forget all the jumping up and down on top of that motor home in the infield of Daytona on that February Sunday in 1979 when we saw Cale and Donnie hitting the wall in turn three and Richard leading a close battle to the line.
When my Daddy was battling cancer, I spent some nights with him in the hospital and we would talk throughout the night. Although we covered all kinds of topics, before the morning sun would filter through the blinds in that hospital room, the conversation would always get back to racing. My Daddy was not a racer, never drove a racecar, but when my brother and I were racing, he helped where he could. There were many things about my Daddy I never really understood, but one thing I understand even better now than I did back then is that my Daddy did whatever it took to take care of his family. As I sit here I think of all he went through in his years on earth, I wonder where he found the strength.
Of course, when thinking of my Daddy, my thoughts also turn to all the Daddies who have been so instrumental in building the sport of NASCAR. I suppose it is best to begin with Big Bill France and his son, Bill, Jr. Big Bill, arguably, was the inspiration and organizer of NASCAR. Bill, Jr., thanks to his ability to take advantage of R.J. Reynolds marketing, and his efforts to grow the sport, took NASCAR to the level of which Big Bill had dreamed from the beginning. No comment on third generation Brian Z. France.
Coming to my mind next, with no surprise, is Lee and Richard Petty. Lee was there from the beginning as a driver and Richard was there, along with Maurice, as "the crew". In later years along came Kyle Petty who enjoyed on minimal success due mainly, in my opinion, to his lack of dedication to the sport as personified by this father and grandfather. Adam Petty, who was to become the first fourth generation driver, was, in the opinion of many, including me, would extend the Petty tradition of excellence in the sport. Truly, the Petty’s are the first family of NASCAR racing.
Now let's talk about the Earnhardt's. I sort of grew up watching Ralph Earnhardt run the short tracks around South Carolina and North Carolina. I recall many fans always talked about what a "dirty driver" Ralph was. That reputation came from what seemed to be Ralph's nonchalant attitude about putting someone over the bank or into the wall to gain a position. I saw that happen more than once but at the age I was then, it was like he was doing what it took to win, even if I didn't exactly approve of it. Ralph's son, Dale, would come on the scene and work his way up from the short tracks to become one of NASCAR's biggest stars. The old saying of "The Apple doesn't fall far from the tree" was reinforced as Dale took up the practice of "rattling cages" as he did whatever it took to gain a position. Today, Dale's son, Dale, Jr., is NASCAR's most popular driver.
Ned Jarrett is a two-time Grand National Champion. His son, Dale Jarrett, further honored the Jarrett name with a successful career. Who among us doesn't remember seeing it happen, or reading about it later, when Bill Elliott won the Winston Million? Now he has a young son, Chase, coming along who promises to add more accolades to the Elliott name. Dave Blaney made racing his career and achieved what can be described as moderate success. Now his son, Ryan, is making a name for himself, which is certain to boost the Blaney name far up the ranks of NASCAR families.
Let us no overlook Bobby Allison and his son Davey. If Davey had not died in the crash of that helicopter, I can't help but wonder what NASCAR records would look like these days. And now Davey's son is racing and making a name for himself in the sport. I spent some time with Robbie at an event in Charlotte before the 600 and he is a combination, not surprisingly, of his grandfather Bobby and his Daddy. I would expect the Allison legacy in racing to be further enriched as the years progress.
I'm not exactly sure why the sport of racing spawns so many father to son to grandson participants. I suppose that racing, like no other sport, seems to be a family endeavor. As I look back over the years and all the folks I have known who raced, even the short tracks only, it always seemed to be fathers, brothers, cousins, and sometimes even sisters and mothers who were helping with the cars or otherwise supporting the teams. I think of my own mother who attended the races in which my brother and I competed and she always made sure we had awesome meals at the track. I think, more than any other sport, that stock car racing is all about family and the tradition continues. The Allisons, the Pettys, the Pearsons, The Wood Brothers family, the Elliotts, the Blaneys, and so many more. I think of a good friend who passed away a few years ago. Joe Penland was a competitor on the short tracks of the Carolinas and Georgia. In 1964, he won the State Titles for Late Model Sportsman (predecessor of Busch, Nationwide, and Xfinity) in both Georgia and South Carolina, an accomplishment not equaled. Joe fathered only daughters and none went into racing. Only an infant when Joe died was Joe's grandson, Dylan. Dylan wants to race. In his early twenties now, Dylan gave it a try on the local dirt tracks a couple of years back and I was there to watch him test at Chester Speedway. He is a good driver and with the right equipment, Joe's legacy in racing could continue. The one thing I noticed about Dylan that day at the track was that same reserved smile his grandfather would flash when he had a good race. Of course, for Joe, the only "good" race was a race he won.
Let's not forget the Myers family. Bobby and Billy Myers were both racers who made the sport a better thing in the 50s. Randy and "Chocolate”, cousins, have gone on to extend the impact of the Myers name in the sport. Both continue, today, to be actively involved in stock car racing.
I saved this father-son combo for last for a reason. I think the connection between Bill Blair, Sr. and Bill Blair, Jr. defies adequate description. I'm sure that, at some point in my early years around racing, I actually saw Bill, Sr. race at some of the tracks where my Uncle Bobby and I spent so much time. Being so young then, I have no actual memories of Bill, Sr. I will never forget, however, my first encounter with Bill, Jr. It was my first inclusion at the Stocks for Tots at the NASCAR Institute in Mooresville, NC some five years ago. As always, the organizer, Bob Hissom, designated seating for us and as I sat down at my assigned place, I noticed the sign next to me indicated "Bill Blair, Jr." Within a few minutes, Bill joined me at the table and introduced himself. I was familiar with the Bill Blair contributions to stock car racing, but I was to learn so much more that evening, not only about the Blair connection to the success of NASCAR but also about the second-generation Blair's contribution to the sport. Over these past five years, I like to think Bill, Jr. and I have become very close friends. I see him often and he has taught me so much I never knew before. I have the deepest respect for him and eagerly anticipate our next adventure together.
So, when the sun sets this evening, another Father's Day is done. But contributions of Fathers to the sport of stock car racing will never end.