September 24, 2013 Legendtorial – Warmth from the pot-bellied stove
By Tim Leeming
Once, back about 1967, I was driving from Norfolk, VA, where I was stationed while in the Navy, to Columbia for Thanksgiving weekend. I had the duty Thanksgiving day but I left my ship at 7:30 a.m. Friday morning heading for Columbia in my trusty 1961 Plymouth. Back then, part of my trip went through the Dismal Swamp and then I would turn right onto another highway to make my way to what portions of I-95 were open back in those days. Really, when you were in the Dismal Swamp, at least back in those days, and on that two lane heading for I-95, there was very little in the way of gas stations or stopping points. I was getting a little hungry when I spotted a small country store/gas station on the right with four or five cars around it so I stopped for a Coke and most probably a honey bun as honey buns were my choice for sweets back then.
As I opened the door to get out of my car, I realized how good the heater in that car felt as the cloudy and blustery day quickly chilled me. I headed inside and as I entered, the warmth of the pot-bellied stove engulfed me as a warm glove would warm a hand. There were two guys sitting at a table playing checkers and two guys watching them. The guy with the white apron said “good morning” with a big smile. I responded and then went looking for the restroom. Once the restroom visit was finished, I located the Cokes but could not find the honey buns. The guy with the white apron apologized when I asked about them and said he never carried those but he had some donuts his wife had made. I looked over the donuts and picked two and reached for my wallet. The guy in the apron had seen my U.S. Naval parking sticker in the windshield of my Plymouth and told me there was “no charge” for service men. This was during the Viet Nam era and we had been instructed NOT to wear out uniforms off base as it was not safe and here this guy was giving me a free Coke and a couple homemade donuts BECAUSE I was in the Navy. I decided that rather than drive off with my refreshments, I would hang around awhile as these guys were involved in deep discussion of Viet Nam and politics in general while playing checkers and it was quite interesting to me. Besides, somewhere in my childhood I had seen a picture, or maybe a television show with exactly such a scene and I had fond memories of that part of Americana.
I guess I hung around for maybe 30 minutes listening, answering a few questions about life in the Navy. Obviously these guys were veterans of World War II, but they were more interested in what I had to say about things going on in the world then than relaying war stories although, from time to time, there were mentions of Anzio and Iwo Jima. As I said my goodbyes and headed for the door, all four of those guys walked out with me and the guy in the white apron handed me another Coke and they all wished me a safe trip. I pulled back on the two lane and glanced in the rear view mirror as I hit the accelerator. All four of those guys were waving. As the station was about to become lost around the upcoming curve, I saw them head back inside.
I had not thought of that experience in years until I sat down to write this Legendtorial. I remember four total strangers reacting to a kid (I had just turned 21) with such graciousness. I really don’t have a recollection of my thoughts as I drove on southward, but reflecting on that stop today, I think of it as a way of life that has become such a rare event that it is unlikely there are any stores like that with the pot-bellied stoves and checkerboards and old guys in bib overalls discussing and offering solutions to all the problems of the world. Too bad! You know, I’m almost tempted to look at a map and find that two lane highway I used to travel and go look for that store. But that is sheer folly of an older man with special memories. Surely all four of those guys have passed on and I would guess the little store long ago became an abandoned shell with walls that held memories but no longer fought off the cold with that little stove.
So, you may be asking yourself what this has to do with racing and/or Racing Through History? Well, you should know me by now. I love to paint a picture to lead up to something I want to say about racing history. The picture I hope you get from this memory is that the little store and the pot-bellied stove may be gone, but the feeling of stepping into a place where you are immediately welcomed and will have a chance to listen to stories, this time of racing history, can still be realized. All you need to do is join us in Hillsborough, NC, at the Occoneechee/Orange Speedway, this Saturday, September 28, 2013, as The Historic Speedway Group presents the annual Celebration of the Automobile.
I went up for my first time four years ago. As incredible as that first visit was, I can only say that each one since has been better. And, yes, that includes last year when it poured rain all day Saturday. I mean to tell you, it was rainy and cold. Thanks to Frances Flock for Tim’s old jacket she gave me to keep warm. She did admonish me about being prepared in the future for the weather, but I still have that jacket hanging in my closet as a special prize as it was once worn by Tim Flock. Those of us who hang out here don’t have to ask who Tim Flock was, we know. Part of what The Historic Speedway Group does is ensure the men like Tim Flock are not forgotten and swept under the stands of all the race tracks now making the Bopper’s list of ghost tracks.
The folks who are a part of the Historic Speedway Group are to be commended for their dedication to the speedway which was an integral part of NASCAR’s history. The story goes that Big Bill France flew over the speedway, then a horse track, in 1947, and set about buying it. Then the improvements were made to replace horseshoes with horse power. Occoneechee/Orange Speedway was a part of NASCAR racing from the first season (1949) through 1968 when the last Grand National race was run there. Measured as either ONE mile or .9 of a mile, depending upon to whom you are talking, the track hosted the very best of NASCAR’s pioneers as they raced for the wins. Bill Blair, Gene Hobby, Herb Thomas, Curtis Turner, Lee and Richard Petty, Marvin Panch, Rex White, Jimmie Lewallen and so many more battled each other and the track to make their marks in the record books.
In 1997, a group interested in preserving the history of the facility joined forces and began working toward what they have today. The first Celebration of the Automobile was in 2007. The first year I went up, the track was little more than a footpath in some places but last year much of the track was restored and many classic and historic race cars once more rumbled around the dirt surface. Oh, there wasn’t supposed to be any “racing” but what happens on the track stays on the track (sorry Vegas).
The track is one of only three race tracks in the country on the List of Historic Places to be preserved. The Historic Speedway Group has fought off the challenge of the North Carolina Legislature to put a by-pass highway through the race track and is now proceeding full speed to restore this historic facility as a showplace for the early days of stock car racing. While North Wilkesboro sits in disrepair and decline, Oconneechee/Orange Speedway is slowly returning to the grandure of a dirt track so deeply steeped in NASCAR racing history.
Each year, the event honors an individual who has contributed so much to racing. Last year it was Wendell Scott and it was very emotional for me to see the joy on Wendell’s widow’s face as she saw the outpouring of love for her husband. This year, the honoree will be Marvin Panch, another name those of us who hang out here at RacersReunion recognize immediately. Marvin is a great story teller and immensely entertaining recalling his memories. Rex White will be there too along with so many more. Just go to www.historicspeedwaygroup.org, now that is DOT ORG and you can find a complete list of the folks who will be there. That list is like a NASCAR history book and, from past experience, I can tell you there are some not on that list who will show up and be a part of that day.
There is no admission charge for the event. Things start happening at 7:00 a.m. with registration for the show cars and race cars. Yep, there is a car show on premises and from what I’ve seen there the past four years, if you’re into classic cars, you really, really, need to be there Saturday. As for race cars, just take my word for it. You will be amazed at what you see. Race cars of all types and beautifully restored or replicas of such cars as Earl Brook’s Ford and the Mario Rossi Dodge 22 which will be piloted by Mario’s son Bill.
So,now do you understand why the thoughts of going to this event Saturday is like my stop off in that little country store? Because that little country store was full of the personalities that made this country of ours great. The Oconneechee/Orange Speedway facility will be filled with the personalities that made our sport great. And, you know what? The warmth of that pot-bellied stove can’t approach the warmth you will experience when you become a part of this event Saturday. Hope to see many of you there.