October 29, 2013 Legendtorial – Personal But Not Confidential
Tonight’s Legendtorial will be of a personal nature if you all will be kind enough to indulge me for just a few minutes. There were plenty of options for discussion tonight, from hammer throwing at the Camping World Truck event to the tie in the leadership of the Chase points with Jeff Gordon winning Sunday and moving into third place in the standings with an outside chance, if not so realistic a chance, of winning his next Championship. I had considered expounding on one or the other of those options, but that changed this morning just before noon.
Some 62 years ago this past September, my grandfather and my Uncle Bobby took me to my very first stock car race at Columbia Speedway. I’ve often related that story and it is in print here on the site in three or four different places so I won’t go into that tonight. My Uncle Bobby was 17 then and I was 5, about to turn six. That was the night that forever changed my life, but it was the continued connection to Uncle Bobby, my mother’s brother, that would feed the flame of my love for racing and for cars.
Uncle Bobby could literally build a car from the ground up, as he did with an old 30 Plymouth out of which he made a “strip down” which amounted to not much more than a partial body on a frame with a hot rod engine which could not be said to be “under the hood” as there was no hood. Bobby knew how to tune that engine to make it run to the maximum capability and he would run it just like that. This was long before the days of “Petty Blue” but he had painted that Plymouth with a blue, a little lighter in shade than “Petty Blue” and had done it with a paint brush. The old Plymouth looked good and ran even better.
I have special memories of that car because when I was still too short to reach the pedals, Bobby would sit me in his lap and off we would go. Oh no, not on the streets, but on the dirt track he had constructed in the back part of the property where my granddaddy farmed. The track, he used to say, was a quarter-mile and that’s where he would go to play around. NASCAR had nothing on him. I have very clear memories of him having that Plymouth running like a scalded dog while I steered it around the track. I don’t remember if I could handle a powerslide back then, but I know he and I had great fun out there for hours on end. As I sit here and write this I can’t help but wonder if my Mama ever knew about that. Funny thing, I never thought about that until this very minute. Can’t imagine that she did know, but even if she did, with Bobby being the baby in the family he could have gotten away with it.
I don’t remember what happened to that 30 Plymouth but I’m sure Bobby traded it up for his next car. By then he was dating and the old “strip down” was not exactly the perfect date car. I do recall, at some point, he had a car with a rumble seat and I used to get to ride back there thinking it was great fun. Wonder how that would go over with all the safety issues these days? There were no seatbelts then.
It was Uncle Bobby who taught me how to wash a car. The first time I tried to help him, I was about 9 when we were going to wash his 1954 Chevy Bel-Air. I started with the right rear fender before getting soaked with water coming over the top. It was that day that Uncle Bobby told me to ALWAYS start with the top and wash down. I remember how he would take a brush and rub it in the sand of the driveway to scrub his white sidewall tires and they would come out snow white. I’ve used that trick with the white-lettered tires from years ago.
Through the years, Uncle Bobby and I, along with his daughter and wife, would travel to races all over the southeast. It was 1957 when we started the Darlington trips. The first race ever run at Charlotte Motor Speedway included us in the infield. We started Daytona trips in 1962, Atlanta in 1963. Bobby had a way of watching these races with his little transistor radio held up to his ear. Oh, the transistor had an earplug but Bobby wanted to hold the radio next to his ear because he said he didn’t “like that little thing sticking in his ear”.
As I think back to all the years we were in the infields of tracks like Columbia Speedway or Newberry Speedway, Bobby would watch the races with an interest far beyond that of a normal fan. It was somewhat like he was driving every lap with, and for, the guy behind the steering wheel. He had his favorites who could do no wrong while there were those he didn’t like that could do nothing right. In the weekly Late Model Sportsman races, the man was Dink Widenhouse. I told Dink about that when I saw him at an event about 3 years ago and he wrote the nicest note to Bobby which I delivered and Bobby read intently. Months later I was visiting Bobby and saw that note tucked inside the Bible he kept beside his wheelchair.
His favorite Grand National driver was Lee Petty which was, of course, where I was first indoctrinated as for whom I should cheer. Bobby really believed there was no driver as good as Lee Petty. One July night in 1958, we went to see a convertible race at Columbia Speedway and Lee didn’t show but his 21 year old son did. I met Richard that night and immediately decided he was going to be “my driver” from then on and although I would still cheer on Lee Petty, it would be Richard getting my loudest cheers. I still hear Bobby saying that “that kid would never be the driver his daddy is”. Whether it was the fact that Lee’s career was ended in 1961 or Bobby began to see Richard as a serious driver, Bobby became a big fan of Richard and the 43. From Darlington, to Charlotte, to Daytona and other tracks, we were there to pull for that 43 Plymouth.
It was almost a natural transition that when the Pettys went from Olds to Plymouths, Bobby was right there. After all, his first car was a Plymouth. By 1963 Bobby had convinced me that Plymouths were made by geniuses and every other brand was made by idiots. I was a believer for sure.
As the years wore on, Bobby lost his wife to cancer in the 90s and part of him left with her. His health began to decline but his love for racing didn’t. I would visit him from time to time and after discussing his latest health issues for 5 minutes or so, the subject changed to racing. His memory was amazing. He could remember details about races I would later verify in my Greg Fielden books. He would often talk about that first race I drove in 1969. That story is on the site here somewhere so you can read the details there.
Bobby was in the hospital the Sunday of the Dover race a few weeks ago and I spent the afternoon in his room watching the race with him. Of course, with Bobby and me, the chatter never stopped and it was almost all about racing. Bobby, always opinionated (remind you of me?) gave me a run down on each and every driver and his opinion of his or her talents. I won’t go into details here as to his comments, but I should write a column about that conversation someday.
Today, at 11:55 a.m. Uncle Bobby’s earthly race was over. The checkered flag waved for him in a hospital room here in Columbia. As I stood there and watched the monitors begin to go down I couldn’t help but think that if they would give Bobby a wrench, screw driver, and a pair of pliers, he could fix that 80 year old heart of his.
Bopper said, a few weeks ago, that all of us were introduced to the sport of stock car racing by family and that is certainly true for me. I have often wondered, and Ann and I have even discussed, what my life would have been like if I had never discovered stock car racing. Thanks to Uncle Bobby, I never had to worry about that.
That night I drove my first race, Uncle Bobby was one of the first to be at the pit fence when I pulled in. I remember him sticking his hand through the fence to shake my hand and saying “you did it”. I remember the surprise of seeing a tear in his eye, the man who never showed emotion. I didn’t really understand the tear at that time, but later I realized he considered MY accomplishment as OUR accomplishment and he was proud of that. It’s my turn for the tear now.
Thanks Uncle Bobby. Love you man!