Some time ago, in fact years back I believe, there was a picture made famous worldwide. If memory serves (and that is doubtful at best), the picture was taken in Times Square in New York. A man, clothed in what appeared to be shredded bed sheets and with a long beard, was carrying a sign stating, "The End is Near". Some folks attributed his actions to religious convictions, some to his mental condition whatever it may have been, and some to political issues at the time, which seemed to be hell-bent on ending life, as we know it. I have no idea what became of that individual but it is obvious that the end of the world has not arrived, at least not at the point when I am writing this.
I have no intention of marching in protest of anything with a sign proclaiming the end of whatever is near. I will, however, offer up this little comment tonight as to the nearing end of a lifelong passion, or, if not the end, certainly a redirection which is long overdue. From comments I've heard in person, from e-mails and texts, and from comments made by others on social media sites and actual sports news sites, I am not alone in what I am about to say.
It was about this time of year, some 63 years ago, that my mother allowed my grandfather and my Uncle Bobby to take me to Columbia Speedway to a stock car race. I'm convinced the main reason she and my father allowed that to happen was that they had their hands full with my then two-year-old brother. I have memories of that night that often appear in my dreams and recollections but how much of those memories are actual or just residual compilations of so many years around the sport I can't say. I do recall, without any doubt, that my favorite car that night was purple with yellow 37s on the doors. Although I didn't know it at the time, it was the model referred to as a "coach". The sounds and sights of that night are indelibly retained in my memory banks.
Thanks to my Uncle Bobby, that night in 1952 was only the beginning of what would become my passion. I ate, slept, breathed, and dreamed stock car racing, specifically NASCAR stock car racing from that night forward 24/7, at least until these past few years. I have vivid memories of late night rides from tracks all around Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. I remember such dusty venues as Newberry, SC, Speedway, long ago gone away. Quarter-mile tracks, half-mile tracks, all dirt back then. The dust, and on more than one occasion the red clay I had managed to get on my clothes from walking on the track either before or after the race. There were not so many options of Tide Detergent back in those days and I can remember my mother's chagrin every time she had to try to wash that red clay out of my clothes.
With Darlington's Southern 500 (if they still call it that by race time) coming up in a month, I can only think of my first visit there for the first convertible race in 1957. That track immediately became my all-time favorite track because I saw speed as I never had, and I saw drivers doing things with racecars I had never dreamed possible. We parked in the third turn, infield, against the fence, which would become our permanent spot for all the races until we moved around to turn four in 1970 and then behind Victory Lane when my parents got the motor home. Watching those drivers ride that guard rail in turn three is something defying description. All those years being in that infield, from 1957 until my grandstand days in the late 90s until I quit going altogether, are as much a part of me as these big ears that hold my glasses on.
What Darlington has become now, in spite of publicity efforts to the contrary, is a joke to me. Darlington was meant to run 500 miles on LABOR DAY, in the daylight, not some Sunday Night race. The Southern 500 was meant to test the driver and the machine, as so many years in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, proved. How can you forget Buck Baker bringing home that Pontiac on three tires in 1960, or winning again in that Dodge in 1964? Larry Frank in the Cafe Burgundy Ford in 1962? Ned Jarrett's 14 lap win in 1965. Richard Petty finally winning a Southern 500 in 1967? Fonty Flock, in shorts, leading the grandstand crowd in the singing of "Dixie" after winning? Jim Reed winning in that Chevy? Fireball Roberts winning in 1958 in a year old Chevy and then coming back in 1963 and driving that Lavender Ford to a win? Herb Thomas winning three Southern 500s? And now, just because NASCAR has moved the date back to Labor Day Weekend we are supposed to accept this as recognition of the great heritage of that track. All the publicity NASCAR chooses to throw out there is lost on me because I know what tradition IS. I know what Darlington tradition is and it is NOT what NASCAR is trying to spout forth these days.
All of my years, from 1952 through probably 2013, were spent preaching the gospel of NASCAR racing. That is not intended to be a sacrilegious statement by any means, but what I'm saying is that just as Billy Graham was preaching the Gospel of Christ, I was preaching that there was no other sport like NASCAR racing. I actually had the minister of my Methodist church come with me to the NASCAR Grand National Race at Columbia Speedway in 1963. I had talked to The King earlier in the day and told him my minister was coming to the race. When the pastor and I got to the track, parked in the infield and walked up to the pit fence, Richard saw us and came over to meet my pastor. He talked to the pastor for at least 10 minutes as time was leading up to qualifying. Afterwards, my minister said I had chosen a great hero. One more note on that, as the race was going on, the minister and I walked around the infield to observe the race from different viewpoints. As we were in turn two, a news photographer was snapping flashbulb pictures. My minister walked up to him and asked him not to snap the flash bulb when Richard was coming by because it might momentarily blind him! What a night that was.
I talked racing all the time to anyone around, whether they were a race fan or not. I can't help but wonder sometimes how many people moved to Alaska just to get away from the incessant racing talk. With me, it was endless. For me, a guy who played no sports, it was an outlet that became an obsession. I was known throughout my school years as "that stock car racing boy". My high school newspaper was the ONLY high school newspaper we knew of that was publishing a racing column during my junior and senior years, which was taken over by one of my racing fan recruits after I graduated.
During my time in the Navy, I was assigned duty on a ship on which I was the ONLY guy (55 enlisted men and 7 officers) from South of the Mason-Dixon Line. All of my shipmates were Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, with a crazy guy from Ohio thrown in for good measure. All were, of course, football and baseball fans. Took me about three months to get them interested in NASCAR and soon there would be 20 or 30 of us gathered near the radio on race day.
We happened to be in port when the Richmond race of 1967 came around and as I had my trusty 1961 Plymouth there and Richmond was not that far from Norfolk, five of the guys and I piled in that car and drove to Richmond for the race. We were one of the first vehicles in the infield that day and parked at the end of the pit fence going into turn one. We got out and walked behind the pit fence. The crew, including Richard, was working on the car that was just inside the fence from where we were standing. Richard glanced up, saw us standing there, and recognizing me for the aggravating fan I was even then, walked over to speak. The five guys with me were in awe as Richard shook all of their hands and stood there and talked with them for quite some time. Richard went on to win that race on that April afternoon and all the way back to Little Creek Amphibious Base those five guys couldn't stop talking about meeting a real sports star. After all, they had never met a football player or baseball player they had watched on television for so many years. When we got back to the ship, word spread like a grass fire on a parched landscape, that they had met Richard Petty and that he actually knew who Tim was.
Through all these years, I have promoted stock car racing in general, and NASCAR in particular, in my day-to-day life to anyone who would give me a minute. I have more NASCAR clothing than probably the current NASCAR traveling "Fan Store". My Lair is wall-to-wall die casts and racing photos and posters. I have a collection of racing programs and magazines going back to the '60s. I have ticket stubs and press credentials from almost every track from Daytona to Darlington, Talladega to Charlotte and all the short tracks in between. I have been the part of a broadcast team of live broadcasts of short track NASCAR racing. I have worked with NASCAR official Dan Scott in every area of NASCAR. I was NASCAR and NASCAR was I.
Having said all that, now hear this. My "Legendmobile", the Mercury Grand Marquis my Uncle Bobby left me when he died, was adorned with NASCAR stickers on the side windows, the rear bumper panels, and even a static cling sticker on the wood grain on the dash. I proudly displayed my affinity for NASCAR for anyone and everyone to see. This past Thursday, I removed all the NASCAR stickers from my car. I did leave the sticker from Richard Petty's Fan Appreciation Tour and the sticker from the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR. Those stickers still represent a NASCAR of which I am proud. I wish I could get my hands on some of those NASCAR stickers from the 50s and 60s to put on my car. Are you listening Bill Blair????? Thursday was a big day for me when I did that and it is not lost on me that Thursday was always race day at Columbia Speedway.
NASCAR has abandoned its heritage and history, in spite of the lip service they try to give it. Even their best media gurus are not going to smooth that over with me. We are living in the days of drivers lacking all the things the pioneers of the sport had, although I do hold out some hope for Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, David Ragan, and Trevor Bayne. Today's NASCAR is so far removed from what I grew up admiring that it is as far as the East from the West. It is no longer a sport, in spite of all my years preaching that a race driver was as much an athlete as any stick and ball guy. Today we have media generated propaganda and manipulated race results. We have a Championship driver determined by a convoluted Chase system that is disgusting and even with that, NASCAR manipulated, at its pleasure, who may be included in that Chase.
NASCAR has been my addiction for over sixty years. At least as severe as one addicted to drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. But I am in my withdrawal program and, for you NASCAR, the end is near. I haven't watched a complete race this year, with the exception of the Daytona 500. Whether or not I watch Pocono today (it's Sunday morning as this is being written) remains to be seen, but it is highly doubtful, as the insides of my eyelids don't require further inspection until bedtime tonight.
For me, as for so many others I talk with, the end IS near for NASCAR. I was never a business major, but I do know enough to recognize mismanagement from miles away. In my opinion, the most inept individuals in the business world are attempting to keep a sport going when all they are accomplishing is finding new ways to kill it. My loyalty to the history and heritage of the sport remains strong and always will. I will continue to "preach" of the days when the sport was vibrant and relevant. Those days are bright in my memory while the dimness of what is known as NASCAR today can only be appreciated by those who have never experienced the true beauty of what made the sport the entity it once was.
The end is near NASCAR. You've made your fortune; you've milked your fans. As you have no conscience, obviously, I doubt that it bothers you one bit that I choose to live in the past of the sport from where came the true heroes we can honor even today. Sure has freed up my Sunday afternoons for other pursuits.