On a cold January afternoon in 1961, a young newly elected President of the United States, stood on the Capital Steps to deliver one of the most memorable and quotable inaugural speeches I've heard in my life time. While there are many quotes from the speech engraved in the minds of those who heard it that day, as well as in the hearts of many who believed we were seeing the beginning of a new America, the one line I want to use tonight is "Let the word go forth, from this time and place, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century.....". All of us here tonight, over the age of 60, also have memories of an afternoon in Dallas, Texas, a little over three years after that speech was delivered, when the young president was assassinated and the world changed.
I guess one of the reasons I use the JFK analogy tonight is the race Sunday was in Texas, and as I sat and watched what unfolded before me on television, I could not help but think of the passing of the torch to a new generation as that number 21 Ford with Ryan Blaney aboard, was in control of the race through the first two stages. In my opinion, the stage racing deal robbed young Blaney of the win, but that is neither here nor there. As I watched that Wood Brothers car make cole slaw of the competition, my mind went back to the days when that car was a Mercury emblazoned with "Purolator" on the quarter panels and David Pearson's name on the door. I remember the days I cursed that car and those infernal Wood Brothers for beating my man so often, especially in that 1976 Daytona 500. I am so happy that I had the chance to personally apologize to the Wood Brothers a couple of years ago and shake the hand of each of them.
On Sunday, I saw the torch, if not being passed yet, at least getting ready for the handoff as in a relay race. Oh, Jimmie Johnson won, of course, but look at the runs by Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, not to mention such future stars as Cole Whitt who doesn't have the top notch equipment of the other three mentioned. There are other youngsters getting their start right now who ensure a bright future for NASCAR, future stars we hope will return some of the personality to the sport we all know has been missing.
When my Uncle Bobby first started taking me to races, it was Lee Petty we pulled for, along with Curtis Turner and Tim Flock, but Lee Petty was THE man. When I met Richard Petty in 1958 I decided to rebel and pull for him and Uncle Bobby opined that Richard would never be the driver his father was. I have vivid memories of the 1961 season when all three of Uncle Bobby's drivers were out of racing, Lee because of his Daytona accident and Curtis and Tim because they dared to take on Big Bill France. I really thought my Uncle Bobby may give it up, but he didn't. He decided to come over to the Richard camp and we went to Daytona in 1962 so he could see the track where Lee's career ended. That Sunday, Richard finished second to Fireball Roberts and my uncle had new respect for the kid from Level Cross.
The torch was being passed, in 1961, to Richard Petty and some kid from Spartanburg who won the World 600 on three tires and a wheel. That kid was David Pearson. Others would enter the sport in the early 60s who would contribute so much but who now seem to be brushed aside. By the end of the 60s, Bobby and Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough were added to the star train.
Remember Fred Lorenzen entering the sport? Nelson Stacy? Larry Frank? Later, Geoff Bodine, Harry Gant, Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki and others? Remember the independents who made the sport? Just to name a few, Earl Brooks, J.D. McDuffie, Jabe Thomas, Elmo Langley, Wendell Scott. Wow, that list could go on for an entire show.
Just as the day our president was assassinated, I remember the news release in 1991 that 1992 would be my driver's "Fan Appreciation Tour". I was devastated at first, but then realized all the years of pleasure and excitement that number 43 had given me. I attended several of the races that year, using my press credentials to be in the garage and pits to "aggravate" the King. Came time for that final race in Atlanta and I just could not bring myself to go. I guess I assumed if I wasn't there, his retirement wouldn't happen. But it did. And, in retrospect, the torch was passed that day to a young Jeff Gordon. In reality, the torch was passed to an already successful Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, both of whom lost their lives long before their torches could light those of the next generation.
So, as I watched the race this past Sunday, JFK’s line came to mind. I see the torch being passed to the new generation of drivers, molded by their desire and talent to become the next stars, the next champions. I'm thinking if Jimmie wants that 8th Championship, he had better get it this year because the wave of the future is coming.
I will end on this note, once again quoting a president, though not precisely. "Ask NOT what NASCAR can do for you, ask what YOU can do for NASCAR." We all have our opinions about all that is wrong with the sport but we have the power to bring it back to close to what we once knew if we realize the potential of what is coming our way. I'm already wearing my "shades" for that bright future.
Thanks for listening!