From time to time, the fact that time does actually fly impacts me like a Toyota slamming a SAFER Barrier. I can't believe I am approaching 70 at the speed of Martin Truex, Jr. last Sunday night as he won the 600, which, by the way, will always be the WORLD 600 to me in spite of whatever commercialized name Charlotte Motor Speedway chooses to apply. But, the fact is there. In just over five months, I will be 70. Mentally, I think I'm in my twenties, although Ann would say about eight. Physically, I'm not in that bad a shape although I can't do all the things in the yard this year that I did last year, or last year what I had done the year before. Where I once visited a doctor's office maybe once a year, if it was necessary. I am there so often now, everyone in the huge practice knows me by name. But this Legendtorial is more about racing than about my physical condition, and please note I do NOT reference mental condition.
I am guessing what took me back through the nostalgic days of my past was my recent adventures both in Mooresville at Memory Lane Museum on Sunday the 22nd, and the adventure of the gathering Friday at Speedway Harley-Davidson. I met some wonderful new friends at Memory Lane and shared some smiles and laughs with some old friends as well. Not to mention the gathering of racing royalty surrounding me. I was seated next to Soapy Castles and his wife and we rollicked through years of racing history as we signed autographs. I knew Soapy did a lot of stunt work for movies, but when he told me he is STILL doing it and his most recent adventures have been for all of the "Hunger Games" movies, I was speechless. Yes, that can happen to everyone on the planet with the exception of the mouth in the FOX Broadcast booth. It was an interesting afternoon and the three plus hours we sat there seemed no more than 5 minutes as we got up to leave.
On Friday, a beautiful sunny day that would prove to get very warm by the noon hour, quite a crowd of celebrities from race drivers, race historians, politicians, and musicians were seated behind a very long row of tables interacting with fans and signing autographs. The day was incredibly awesome for me as it was for most. On Friday, I had my first ever Monster Energy drink, the huge can, because Monster was giving it out. It was pleasant tasting enough and I drank the entire thing. Then, being the monster I am, I told the Monster Energy rep who gave me the drink that I had fallen asleep almost immediately after consuming the beverage. Now I know why NASCAR marketing is so screwed up; he believed me!! Nevertheless, I had another can before my drive home.
I met an 18-year-old kid from Mexico who, at first I believed to be mentally challenged. After all, it was 90 degrees and he was wearing one of those Jeff Gordon heavy jackets zipped up to his neck. I happened to stop by his table and was blown away by what I saw there. This kid is an artist, a racing artist, and he had saved his money to fly in from Mexico for race week at Charlotte. His primary goal was to meet Richard Childress, which, I heard, he actually was able to accomplish. As he and I talked, he said Sam Bass, and you all know who Sam Bass is, had highly complimented him on his work and I could certainly see why. This kid is beyond talented. His name is Sagarinho Varga and you will be hearing much from him in the coming years I'm sure. He even brought up the subject of politics but I won't go there other than to say you would be shocked at his opinion of our two Presidential hopefuls. I mean truly shocked.
As I was preparing to leave around 3:00 p.m., I was surprised to have Larry Eury walk up. He had been working but had gotten finished early and came to visit the event. I couldn't go without mentioning Larry for he is truly a man of deep integrity and true humility. Having Larry as a friend is worth more than gold and I am very blessed that RacersReunion brought us together. Larry, you are simply awesome.
Now back to the main subject of my time tonight. I guess what got me on the time flying subject was when I was leaving the Harley-Davidson dealership and preparing to head home. I could have taken a right onto Bruton Smith Boulevard and ridden only a short distance to see the track I last visited in 2011 when I took my three grandsons to the 600. I thought about it, but at the last minute, I changed lanes and headed for Southbound I-85 to take me back to Columbia. I couldn't help but think of that June day in 1960, when Uncle Bobby decided we were going to the new track in Charlotte to find out what that was all about. We were veterans of Darlington by that time, from the 1957 spring race on, but Charlotte was supposed to be bigger, with higher banked turns so we were headed there. As I recall the trip back then, we traveled up a two lane Highway US 21. When we reached the track, it was literally in the middle of nowhere. We parked in the infield, sort of on a hill behind the pits.
I spent most of the morning walking up and down the fence behind the pits watching crews get the cars ready. I loved those 1960 Plymouths the Petty’s had but seeing them that day was like seeing a blue train with a screen "cow catcher" on the front, and perhaps a cage for chickens built over the windshields. I had seen cars with screens over the grills at some dirt tracks, but never anything like this. These cars were modified to be like tanks.
As it came close to race time, I walked down the fence, down into a huge hole to the fence in turn four. There is a picture in the speedway archives of a solitary teenager standing next to that fence which I can only assume to be me because it's not close enough to identify. I stood there almost the entire race, except for a couple of bathroom runs. Even though I read about that race these days and how long it went on, I remember only that it seemed to pass quickly. I was watching colorful race cars scream around those high banks at speeds greater than I had ever witnessed. Joe Lee Johnson won that day. I don't recall ever actually meeting him, but I did see him win that day. That day began my yearly visit to Charlotte, twice a year, until about 2000. I was there in 2009; I think it was when it was rained out and then run on Monday. And, I was there with the three grandsons in 2011.
I saw David Pearson win in that Pontiac on three wheels. I saw Nelson Stacy out gun Joe Weatherly to win the 1962 race. In 1963, Fred Lorenzen out dueled Junior Johnson to win with our good friend Rex White coming in third. It was the 1964 race that forever changed the way I would look at Charlotte.
The race was seven laps old and I happened to be watching the trio of Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts race off turn two. As I recall what I saw, or what I think I saw, the front of Johnson's Ford barely tapped the back of Jarrett's Ford and then began to spin right in front of Roberts. Whether Fireball lost control or spun to miss the two other spinning Fords, I cannot say, but Fireball's mount hit the concrete abutment on the inside wall, flipped and burst into flames. Jarrett would run over to help Fireball from the overturned car but Fireball was badly burned. He would succumb to those burns on July 2, 1964, and the sport had lost one of its greatest heroes.
What I remember most about that day was the huge column of black smoke rising from the back straight. We were parked right behind the pits so we could only see the smoke, not the actual burning car. When the mess was cleared, they brought the number 22 on a flatbed right through the infield and entered the garage area gate less than 30 yards from where we were parked. It was a devastating sight but I could not accept that Fireball wouldn't be back behind the wheel of a racecar by Daytona's July 4th race. Jim Paschal won that day in a Petty Plymouth with Richard running second. In 1967, Jim would come back to Charlotte in a Tom Friedkin Plymouth and lead 335 of the 400 laps to win. Click Here. Until this past Sunday night, that was a record seemingly unbreakable.
Although we kept attending the 600 each year, there was nothing really memorable to me unless my guy (Richard Petty) won. The one year he won when Elizabeth Taylor was there with her then husband John Warner, I ended up in Victory Lane standing right beside Ms. Taylor. I told her how I had such a crush on her when I was a kid and saw her in "National Velvet". She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I must say Senator Warner did not like that one little bit. Guess he was the jealous type.
As I merged onto I-85, I traveled back through time and all the years I had been at the 600 and the 500 in the fall. Charlotte was a favorite track of mine, just behind Historic Columbia Speedway and Darlington, and I will forever hold fond memories of time spent there. Things are different now, so different. What consisted of limited grandstand seating and a dusty and granite infield has turned into a palace. Seeing the speedway from the outside makes me think that "Daytona Rising" was seeking that status, but, in my opinion, it didn't make it. All my visits to Charlotte are logged in my memory bank and other than the one time I was rear-ended on the way out of the speedway, heavily damaging my car, by my brother no less, no serious incidents occurred. Oh, there was the six-lap race AFTER the race in 1970, but it wasn't sanctioned but would have made a good newspaper story if the cops had decided to join the affair.
Sunday night we saw Martin Truex, Jr. take the win, dominate the race, and I was very happy about that. We all know I don't care for JGR and I darn sure don't care for Toyotas, but for a man like Martin Truex, Jr., I overlook those things. He has been through a lot, as his girlfriend. He had managed to lose at least three races this year that should have rightfully been his. I watched all this from my recliner and absorbed the beauty of the track, thinking back to that first visit there in 1960. Congratulations Martin and Furniture Row.
So, as time continues to "fly" on its endless journey, there are more 600s to come. More winners to be determined. More fans to enjoy the 600 experience. As time flies by us, let us never forget that 13-year-old kid standing at that fourth turn fence for that first race. That 13-year-old kid has lived a life, as fast as it has gone by, with a love for the sport of stock car racing. That 13-year-old kid could have never dreamed that he would be doing the things he is doing these days, but he is most thankful. That 13-year-old kid, now far advanced from those halcyon days, still tries to connect with the younger generation so they will continue not only to enjoy the sport, but also to learn about the history of the sport. To know, first hand from the gatherings I attend, what it was REALLY like. To see through this old man's eyes, all the things that made racing great and all the men who gave it their all to make it happen.
Tempus Fugit. Time flies. Yes, it does and it will forever be so.