Sunday, January 25, 2015

19 Shades of (Henley) Gray Part 2

Here is part 1 of my 2-part series about Henley Gray.

Now where was I? Oh yeah...

Petty portion of the story

In mid-1978, Richard Petty made the stunning announcement that Petty Enterprises was leaving Dodge and moving to General Motors. Though the move was carefully made, the readiness for it was not. Petty made his final start in a Dodge in the Talladega 500. Then it was on to Chevy.

Without much lead time, the Pettys had to rally a car. They bought a Monte Carlo from Cecil Gordon, re-worked it, re-painted it, and hauled it to Michigan for its debut. The car ran pretty well and Petty landed a 14th place finish, but he wrecked the car - the only one he had - near the end of the race.

With only six days to spare before the following race, the Volunteer 500 (Bristol's first night race), the team arranged with Gray to borrow his Monte Carlo. The car Henley provided seems to be the same one Elmo Langley raced at Dover - though originally slotted for Woody Fisher.

Credit: Richard Stockman of RIS Photography
The Pettys masked the blue, painted STP day-glo red over the yellow, and raced the car to a fifth place finish.

Credit: Donald Evans at RacersReunion.com
The unfortunate part of the transaction for Gray, however, is his regular #19 Chevy was heavily damaged in a wreck with Dave Marcis and Frank Warren. Photographer David Allio captured the trio as the three cars came together.

Source: Spartanburg Herald Journal via Google News Archive
Super Tex part of the story

When the Pettys decided to switch to GM, they purchased two cars - the Monte Carlo from Cecil Gordon and a Buick from A.J. Foyt. The Buick wasn't a popular choice for teams in 1978, but Foyt and car-builder Hutcherson-Pagan believed the body style had a favorable aero package.

Source: Reading Eagle via Google News Archive
Foyt was lightning quick in the Buick at Speedweeks. He won his 125-mile qualifying twin (the same race in which Woody Fisher exited on lap 1 in Henley's car) and was considered among the favorites in the 500.

About a third of the way through the 500, Benny Parsons blew a tire going into turn 1 with Foyt behind him. Parsons spun down through the grass, had little damage and continued. Foyt had to check up as Parsons began to spin but then lost the car. He spun down to the grass water logged from several days of rain and then began to flip as his car caught the wet grass. He was taken from his destroyed Buick and transported to the hospital.

Foyt spent a significant amount of time rehabbing his injury. But as he proved countless times in his decades of racing, a wreck never kept Super Tex down for long. A new Buick was constructed, and A.J. was ready to run again - this time at Talladega.

He qualified second but started at the rear of the field after pitting on the pace lap to fix an issue with his in-helmet radio. Once the green dropped, however, he served notice the Buick was back in business. In short order, he was up front with the Cup regulars. He finished third proving yet again the Hutcherson-Pagan built Buick was a hoss. It was logical Petty would be interested in the car.

The Petty team examined their new purchase and apparently ran some aero tests on it to compare to the numbers for other makes. At the time, they may have considered running it in superspeedway events in 1979 as A.J. had done in 1978. Instead, the team made the decision to build a new Olds Cutlas 442 speedway car to take to Daytona. The decision was a good one as the King won his sixth Daytona 500. Coincidentally, Foyt was third in his own, new Olds.

Back to Henley

Once the decision was made to build an Olds, the Pettys had no need for the Buick. The sheet metal was removed and given to Henley - perhaps as thanks for letting Richard borrow the Monte Carlo at Bristol. (What Petty Enterprises did with the Foyt chassis remains unknown.)

Henley and his son Steve re-skinned one of their cars (perhaps the one Dick May wrecked at Bristol) with the hand-me-down Buick sheet metal. Dick May raced the 'new' Buick at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro, and Elmo Langley was back behind the wheel of it at Rockingham - still painted in Foyt's Poppy Red paint.

With the 1979 season underway, Henley relied primarily upon the Monte Carlo as the car of choice for the drivers he hired. The Buick was brought to the track only a couple of times for back-to-back races at Nashville and Dover in May. Steve Spencer - Nashville's 1977 late model sportsman division champion - got the opportunity to make his Cup debut in the 1979 Sundrop Music City 420. He drove Henley's Buick, still painted Poppy Red, to a respectable 12th place finish.

The Monte Carlos continued to be painted yellow-and-blue - the scheme that began when it seemed Woody Fisher would be Gray's regular driver in early 1978. Virginia's Lennie Pond, the 1973 Winston Cup Rookie Of The Year, raced the #19 Monte Carlo in the 1979 Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan. Coincidentally, Richard Petty won the race - one year after he debuted his newly purchased Monte Carlo at the same track

Courtesy of Ray Lamm
As the 1980 season began, NASCAR's teams faced a mandated obsolescence deadline. NASCAR had announced all cars would be downsized to a 110-inch wheelbase chassis beginning in 1981. The teams had one remaining year to get all they could out of their 1970s era cars. Gray's team again used the Buick - presumably the same one used since getting the old Foyt sheet metal - but focused its use on the superspeedways. J.D. McDuffie raced it in the Daytona 500. John Anderson and Dick May raced it in the two Talladega races - now painted yellow-and-blue.

Source: Rome News-Tribune via Google News Archive
Dick May raced the Buick again at Texas World Speedway, and Henley's son - Steve Gray - raced the #1 Buick for what seems to be the final time in the CRC Chemicals 500 at Dover. (John Anderson raced Henley's #19 Chevy.)

Credit: Steve Gray Facebook
Though 1981 brought new cars and the shorter wheelbase, it didn't bring a new car make or colors for Henley Gray's team. As did many other Cup teams in 1981-1982, Gray chose to run the Buick Regal. He kept the blue and yellow scheme and hired many familiar names to drive it including Dick May.

Credit: John Betts of RacersReunion.com
Henley dramatically cut back the number of races in which he fielded cars beginning in 1981. He continued to build cars on his own - as he'd done from the beginning - and entered a few races each year until he finally called it a career in 1993.

Gray is still around today. He runs his own trucking business in Rome, Georgia.

Thanks to John Evanich, Mark Agee, Jeff Droke, Chris Hussey and Russ Thompson for their assistance. 

TMC

19 Shades of (Henley) Gray Part 1

From the time I was introduced to racing, I was a Petty fan. I get it though. Some could have labeled me as a front-runner. Petty was already a multi-time champion and the all time leader in wins by the time I learned about him. Petty Enterprises was a 'money' shop. The team worked hard to keep their edge, but no question the Level Cross bunch benefited from cash flowing from Chrysler Corporation and STP. Truthfully though, I became a King fan primarily because he was a class act and because I thought his STP Dodge Charger looked cool.

Even being a committed Petty fan, I also pulled for the underdogs. Before NASCAR exploded in the 1990s, independent drivers could eke out a reasonable living towing from race to race. The teams had limited financial backing, a thin crew, an ability to make the most from cars and parts discarded by others, and an unmatched work ethic. I always wanted the best for guys such as Buddy Arrington, James Hylton, Jimmy Means, Coo Coo Marlin, etc. Henley Gray from Rome, GA was another of that long-tenured independent group of drivers.

The beginnings

After cutting his teeth in racing on some local short tracks plus a couple of Grand National starts, Henley committed to becoming a full-time GN driver in 1965. He built his own car - a practice he continued throughout his career.

Source: Rome News-Tribune via Google News Archive
He also started providing cars for others pretty early in his professional racing career. For example, Henley provided the car in which Coo Coo Marlin made his first Grand National start at Nashville in 1966. As a driver, Henley finished 4th in that race which turned out to be a career best for him.

Henley was a regular fixture on the GN / Cup tour from the mid 1960s through the mid 1970s. His driving career, however, was permanently altered during qualifying for the Champion Spark Plug at Michigan. When a suspension part broke at speed, Gray's Chevrolet hooked left off turn four and slammed into the end of a pit road wall. The wreck sounds similar to one Mark Martin had at Michigan in 2012 - the big difference being Henley hit the end of the wall head-on.


Source: Spartanburg Herald Journal via Google News Archive
Henley's Michigan injuries and long recovery resulted in his hanging up his helmet as a driver. Instead, he continued his involvement in racing as a car owner and fielded cars for a number of drivers until the early 1990s.

Driving turns to full-time owning

Gray drove #97 early in his career (or fielded it for others as he did for Marlin). By 1970, however, he began running #19 regularly. The number became closely associated with him until his days in NASCAR were completed. After he was done, #19 then became associated with drivers/teams such as Loy Allen Jr., Evernham / Gillett / Richard Petty Motorsports (Casey Atwood, Jeremy Mayfield, Elliott Sadler), and now Carl Edwards in his 2015 ride with Joe Gibbs Racing.

One driver hired to drive the #19 at the 1977 National 500 at Charlotte was raw rookie Dale Earnhardt. He piloted Gray's Chevy as he made only his 4th career Cup start. John Evanich, Mark Agee and others did a nice job at Randy Ayers Modeling Forum researching and chronicling the history of the car borrowed and fielded by Gray and driven by Earnhardt.

Leading up to his Michigan accident, Henley was apparently becoming a bit jaded with life and perhaps with racing. The wreck changed him though - and more than just physically. It gave him a new perspective on life and an appreciation for those around him who cared deeply. As he recovered, he composed a letter to his friends in racing and requested newspapers to print it to spread his feelings of gratitude.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
In 1978, Gray seemed to be on the verge of a bigger deal financially. Ohio beer distributor Woody Fisher wanted to race at the Cup level. Fisher (profiled a couple of times here previously) had raced off-and-on the past few years, primarily in USAC and ARCA events. His biggest win was at Daytona in the 1977 ARCA 200 in a yellow and Petty blue Dodge Charger purchased from, built by and maintained by Petty Enterprises.

Woody hired on with Gray in 1978. After skipping the season opener at Riverside, the team focused its efforts on Speedweeks and the Daytona 500. The preparation simply didn't translate to the track. Fisher completed just one lap in his qualifying race - a race won by A.J. Foyt in a Buick - and the #19 missed the Big Show.

Fisher and Gray regrouped and made the next race at Richmond. The results were unfortunately about the same. Fisher lost a rear-end in the 19, and he finished 28th in the 30-car field after completing only 74 of 400 laps.

As racers do, the team loaded up and headed to the next event: Rockingham. Sadly, the race was a case of SSDD for the 19. Fisher spun, wrecked the red 19 on the first lap and finished dead last.

Courtesy of John Evanich
FINALLY, the team got on track with a 'moral victory' finish the next race in the Atlanta 500. After starting 34th, Fisher took care of the car, lost a few laps, but still finished 20th in the 40-car field.

Gray's long-time sponsor, Belden Asphalt, was on the side of those first few races with Fisher. But Woody apparently had a plan to bring his own money to the table to help Gray. Whether he planned to partially fund the costs from his own pocket or arrange some beer sponsorship is unknown. Either way the car had a new look when the team arrived the next week at Bristol for the Southeastern 500. The red paint and Belden Asphalt lettering were gone. In their place was the yellow and Petty blue paint Woody had sported on his Petty-built Dodges.

Credit: Woody Delbridge from RacersReunion.com
Something apparently happened, however, between Fisher and Gray in the week before Bristol. Woody's colors and name were on the Chevy, but he wasn't behind the wheel. Dick May, who raced frequently for Gray, was brought in to qualify and race the car.

Fisher didn't return for the next few races, and May continued to race the 19 for Gray. I'm uncertain if Fisher's absence was by design based on his schedule, a call by Gray to park Woody because of limited experience and poor results, undelivered sponsorship dollars, or some other reason.

Gray wasn't finished with Fisher though. The Cup series arrived in Dover for the Mason-Dixon 500 in mid-May. Instead of the Chevy Malibu used frequently earlier in the season, the team brought a Monte Carlo - painted in yellow and Petty Blue with Woody's name on the door. This time the car bore #10 (Dick May was again behind the wheel of the #19).

Credit: Richard Stockman of RIS Photography
As happened at Bristol, Fisher didn't get on track with the car. Fellow independent driver (and future NASCAR pace car driver) Elmo Langley was put in the car for qualifying and the race. Fisher didn't return to Gray's team nor to Cup.

Though Fisher's days in Cup were over, his paint scheme continued. Henley replaced the 10 with #19, and continued running the yellow and blue combo for the next several years.

About two months after Dover, James Hylton borrowed the Monte Carlo from Gray for the 1978 Nashville 420. He modified the 19 to make his traditional #48 and had Walter Ballard qualify the car. Hylton's Olds had been wrecked by Al Holbert at Charlotte and Michigan preceding the Nashville race, and Hylton may have simply needed a car to get through the race and preserve some owner points. Race results show; however, Ballard didn't start the race and was credited with a last place finish.

Credit: Jeff Droke of nashville420.com
To be continued...

TMC

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Petty Caprice

With the exception of the 1969 season, Richard Petty was synonymous with Mopar. The King raced a Plymouth or a Dodge faithfully from 1959 through just past the half-way mark in the 1978 season. Well, there was that occasional time he raced an Olds ... and a Chevy in relief for Junior Johnson at Riverside in 1963 ... but I digress.

In mid-1978, the King and his team had seen enough. The Dodge Magnum was a sled, and Petty Enterprises just couldn't field it competitively on a week-to-week, race-to-race basis. To the surprise of many, Petty announced he was moving from Dodge to Chevrolet.

For the rest of the season, the familiar Petty blue and STP day-glo red colors were aboard a Chevy Monte Carlo as the team scrambled to put together GM cars as the Dodges were parked.

When the calendar turned to 1979, the Dale Inman-led team was ready to go to work. After starting the season at Riverside in the Monte Carlo, the 43 bunch fielded the sleek Olds Cutlass 442 in the now legendary Daytona 500 - the race remembered more for "...and there's a fight!" rather than Petty's sixth victory in the 500. The Cutlass was entered in the remaining races at Daytona and Talladega plus a few others in 1979-80.

The Monte Carlo continued to be the workhorse of the fleet for the 1979-80 seasons. After a dismal 1978 season, the King rode the Monte back to the top of the heap in 1979 to claim his 7th Cup title.

A Petty car not quite as iconic over the two-year 1979-80 seasons may have been the boxy Chevy Caprice. No, no. Not a Caprese - as in the salad...

... a CAPRICE. If the Dodge Magnum was a sled, the Caprice as a race car looked like a rectangular, cardboard box. Yet the thing simply raced.

Chevrolet also released an Impala model around the same time. I've learned through the good folks at Randy Ayers Modeling Forum the two models can generally be distinguished by the front grill work and headlights. When it came to fabricating race cars, however, the differences became a bit blurred. Consequently, all teams that ran the boxy Chevy seemed to refer to all of them as a Caprice.

The King raced the Caprice a handful of times over the two seasons before NASCAR mandated shorter wheel-based cars beginning in 1981. The car seemed to race best at short tracks which were more plentiful on the Cup schedule in the late 1970s than on today's schedule.

As best I can tell, the races where the King raced his #43 Caprice included:

1979 Busch Nashville 420 - finished 5th in the car's debut
Credit to and courtesy of Jeff Droke
1979 Volunteer 500 at Bristol - Petty won his 127th and final career pole and finished 2nd to Darrell Waltrip

Photo courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
Note the Busch beer contingency decal - a rarity for a Petty car.

1979 Capital City 400 at Richmond - qualified 6th, finished 7th

1979 Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro (David Allio photo) - P3 by 43

1980 Busch Volunteer 500 at Bristol - finished 4th
The King was recovering from a broken neck suffered a couple of weeks earlier at Talladega. He qualified 3rd, ran almost half the race, started losing feeling in his left arm, and then turned the 43 over to former Petty employee and driver, Joe Millikan, to bring it home.
1980 Capital City 400 at Richmond - strong second place finish
Photo courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
1980 Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville - finished 15th as last car running

Photo courtesy of Ray Lamm
Kyle Petty started his Cup career in 1979. His car of choice (or perhaps of necessity) was the Dodge Magnum discarded by his dad. After wrecking a few of them and thinking anew about how to get Kyle more track time, the Petty team shifted KP over to GM cars as well - including a few in the team's Caprice.

1980 Atlanta 500 - a solid 14th place finish for the youngster

1980 Northwestern Bank 400 at North Wilkesboro - Kyle raced (and spun) the box on the same day his father notched his 191st career win.

1980 Virginia 500 at Martinsville - a 15th place finish in Kyle's first Martinsville start

1980 Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway - the season-ending race where Dale Earnhardt captured his first Cup title

Photo courtesy of BakerRacingPix.com
1980 Arizona Winston 250 at Phoenix - This NASCAR Winston West series was won by Richard for the second time in three years. I find it interesting the Caprice raced at Phoenix looks to be a different car than the one raced by Kyle a week earlier at Ontario. The car has 'reverse' paint, was raced with black vs. white wheels, and has an OIL TREATMENT decal on the quarter-panel.

The Franklin Mint released a die-cast model of Richard's Oldsmobile, and the Monte Carlo has been released as a die-cast by companies such as Racing Champions. The Caprice even got a brief time in the limelight as a model. Ertl released a 1:25 scale model kit of it...

...as well as a 1:64 scale "Hot Wheels" sized car - one that I still have.

The 1970s-era models raced by NASCAR's Cup drivers were shelved at the end of 1980 though many teams ran them a final time in the 1981 season-opener at Riverside. When the teams rolled into Daytona for 1981's Speedweeks, however, everyone had a new, 110-inch wheelbase car. For the Pettys, out went the Olds 442, the venerable Monte Carlo and yes, the Caprice. In their place came twin Buick Regals.

I believe I've captured all the races in which the Petty Enterprises fielded a Caprice in 1979-80. If I missed one, however, please email me at toomuchcountry (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet me.

TMC

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The passing of a hero

he·ro (ˈhirō/)
noun
  1. a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.


My uncle slipped away Wednesday night, January 7, 2015, after a six-year or so battle with lung cancer. He not only was my uncle - he was also a hero of mine based on the above definition.

He went toe-to-toe with his disease, followed the treatment plans prescribed for him and made a few lifestyle adjustments. At his core though, he lived his life just as he always has - hard working, a bit rambunctious and selfless support of others.

He is responsible for getting me hooked on racing. My dad has always been a college sports fan - the Tennessee Vols specifically, the Southeastern Conference generally and Notre Dame not at all. Though I enjoyed watching the games some as a kid, I simply didn't develop the passion for it - nor for other traditional sports.

But one night in summer 1974, Ronald drove to our house, decided he wanted to go to the Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway, loaded up Daddy and me in his car, and off we went to watch a 200-lap late model sportsman race. I don't recall who won, if anyone else went with us, getting home, or much else about the night. Yet, I was hooked for life.

As a Chrysler man from the time he exited the US Navy in the late 1950s, he latched on to an electric blue Plymouth in the early 1960s. The driver's name was Richard Petty. He didn't pull for him because he was Lee's son - or because he was the King (that label came in the late 1960s). Nope, he pulled for him because he raced a Mopar and because he thought the blue paint job was cool.

My dad says he remembers Ronald having a Plymouth Barracuda screamer in the 1960s. But my first memory of his car was from the early 1970s - one of those ridiculously long Chrysler Newports. I recall a baby blue one he had that was as long as a Kansas prairie.

His Petty fandom was cemented when he got the opportunity to meet the King and watch him endlessly sign autographs for everyone who came to his appearances at car dealerships in Maryville and Kingsport, Tennessee. He even convinced my aunt to name their second child Richard. My aunt told me years ago he lobbied for "Richard Lee" (Petty's first and middle name), but she drew the line after the first name.

A few things I'll always laugh about as they come back to mind:
  • He was was the first relative - maybe the first person - I knew to have a tattoo. He sported Popeye on his bicep, ink he got while enlisted in the Navy.
  • He was the first family member I recall who drank regularly. My dad had the occasional brew when we were young - at Pizza Hut when we'd go with friends. But he didn't keep it at home, and my mother made the conscious decision at a young age not to drink. So having that bit of outlaw spirit so to speak in the family was cool to me. My mother recoiled when she learned I'd bragged at school in third grade "My uncle drinks beer for breakfast!" An individual can be a hero without being perfect.
  • He could use "the damn..." as the object of any preposition. He'd lose his train of thought in a sentence but could rally a finish with "the damn..." Hell, we drove back from Hickory one time *chuckle* with a load of the damn...
Around 1960, he was in an awful car wreck with three other men. The two in the front seat lost their lives. He suffered a badly broken leg, and his back seat bud was launched through the windshield. The guy survived his trip through the glass - though his left leg did not. As the two spent time recovering in the hospital, my uncle's sister spent time getting to know his buddy who was down to just one leg. Turns out their new found friendship blossomed into a pretty good future together. They got hitched in 1963, I was born about a year year later, and they recently celebrated 51 years of matrimony.

Ronald and my aunt lived in Knoxville in the early 1970s. I vaguely remember the one trip my family and I took to visit them. My mother told me go to bed at my normal time as an effort I guess to keep some sort of rhythm during the trip. I remember being almost asleep when my uncle opened the door and asked loudly "Are you ready to go to bed?" I told him no because I thought it was cool being at his house. He told me to get up and go with him. He then sat me on the couch next to him, cradled me with a vice grip shoulder hug, and told his sister "He ain't going to bed right now. He'll go to bed when we're ready."

In the late 1970s, he worked construction in Tanzania Africa and Saudia Arabia. On one of trips back home, he came to the house with a six-pack of Miller Lite to spend a bit of time with my parents. Five of them were emptied, but the sixth can stayed in our refrigerator for ages. I often asked my mom if we should just toss it. Though she wanted no part of drinking herself, she declined to toss the can thinking her brother may want it when he returned for another visit. Ronald did return a year or two later for another visit - and he did drink that remaining Lite. I cringed at what a two-year old beer must taste like even with it being in the refrigerator the entire time, but I thought he had to be a bad ass to drink it without wincing.

After being introduced to racing in the early 70s, I got the itch to go to a big-time Winston Cup race. My family accommodated my new interest to a degree. We went on Saturday nights to see the local guys race quite a bit over the next few years. Yet I wanted to see The Big Time.

On June 3, 1978, my aunt and uncle came by the house, again picked me up, and squirreled me away to Nashville's track. That night, I got to see those amazing cars and drivers under the lights of Nashville's banked, half-mile. When the race was over, I figured we'd head for the car as we always did. Instead, he pointed for the gate. We crossed over the front straightaway, meandered through the pits, and brushed by the winning driver - Cale Yarborough - who presumably was headed to do media interviews. I'm sure I was grinning from ear to ear - but I was also focused. I remember seeking out the famed 43. One of them snapped this pic of me when we finally found it. I'd like to think it was him, but it was likely my aunt as I'm not sure he was in best of shape to frame and snap a photo! Nonetheless, I remain grateful to him for caring enough to provide the experience for me.

My first trip to the Daytona International Speedway took place two years later in February 1980. Ronald arranged with my folks to take me to my first Daytona 500. My mother loaded me on a Greyhound bus on a Friday evening, and I rode overnight from Nashville to Jacksonville. The plan was for me to go to the race with two of my uncles, my aunt, and Ronald's girlfriend. On Monday, Ronald would drive me back to Tennessee so I could get back to school Tuesday. After a day of living large at the track and an impromptu decision of "nah, I think I'll stay in Florida a few more days", however, I was left without a ride home. He didn't ditch me. Instead, he took me to the airport, bought me a one-way airfare aboard Eastern Airlines and made sure I was safely aboard before leaving.

From the early to mid 1980s, he worked construction projects in Egypt as part of the US-negotiated Camp David peace accords. Begin and Sadat agreed to get along with each other via President Carter, and the US agreed to bankroll a bunch of infrastructure improvements in Egypt. Seems logical, right? Hmm.

In the pre-internet era, news from home was hard to come by - especially racing news. In high school, I periodically air mailed him news clippings of various races from The Tennessean paper. Around that time, I also began subscribing to Hank Schoolfield's Southern MotoRacing bi-weekly newspaper. When I got to college, I splurged for a second subscription and sent the extra issue to him. When the project ended, he really made it a point to thank me for keeping in the loop and allowing him to have a bit of home in the Middle East.

He was generally good about mailing me back with letters of what work and life was like while in Egypt. My uncle seemed to never meet a stranger. He'd get along with anyone - including some pretties he met while in Egypt!

After graduating from college, my bud from school and I set up home in an apartment. I didn't have much to contribute. My roommate had a small table for the kitchen, a broken coffee table, a grill and an aquarium. I had less than that. My uncle was stateside for vacation and offered us use of his furniture he had in storage. He, a buddy of his, and I left Chattanooga for Atlanta one summer morning and stopped for coffee. About the time we got back on I-75 sitting 3-wide on a pick-up bench seat, a searing heat hit my crotch. He'd splashed his coffee on me deliberately. "Well, you're likely to burn your pecker with this stuff anyway. So I figured you might as well get it over with." Of course, it was followed by a huge laugh - by two of the three of us.

In July 1991, he and cousins loaded up for another trip to Daytona. We headed to Jacksonville again to stay with another uncle, his youngest brother (who we stunningly lost to cancer in 2010). When they took me in 1980, I was a naive teen. Eleven years later, I was ready to live large. We all sat in the hot, Florida sun pounding brews as the cars circled at fantastic speeds in breathtaking packs. After we got back home, an impromptu hoops game broke out. Plenty of smack was thrown about, and many bricks were launched. I'm pretty sure the sweaty stench from that driveway rivaled any landfill. But every one of us was laughing, and when the camera came out Ronald was ready to ham it up for posterity.

A month later, the same lot of us loaded up again for a weekend of camping and racing at Talladega. The one trait I'll miss most about Ronald was his sense of humor. He always laughed. Always. And at times, it seemed he liked nothing better than getting one over on his older brother. My oldest uncle has always been consumed by what things cost, what kinds of deal he can wrangle, and assigning his own market value to stuff.

At the summer DieHard 500, a buddy of ours had a Michelob-branded cooler (shown in the pic below). He'd won it at a golf tournament, had it given to him, or whatever - bottom line: it was a freebie. Ronald looked at the cooler, heard the story of our bud getting it for free, snickered and walked away saying nothing more. A few minutes later, my oldest uncle ambled over, acted as if he was just strolling about, spit a stream of Red Man, and then fixated on the cooler. He then muttered "Hell, there ain't nothin special 'bout that cooler. No damn way I'd pay a hunnerd dollars for it." We knew exactly who had set him up.

As Petty's driving career neared its end, my uncle picked a new young favorite driver. He did a couple of unthinkable things. One, he dumped his partiality towards Mopar and began driving a Ford. At the same time, he claimed young Davey Allison as his new favorite and began collecting 28 Havoline Ford merch. I noticed this past Thanksgiving that he still has a Davey nightlight in his home. (I've generally ignored his switchover to the Allison bunch and continued to treat him as a Petty loyalist.)

About two years ago, things began to look a bit bleaker. I wondered then how much time we had left with him. I'll be forever thankful to Richard Petty for autographing a hat based on my request and mailing it back to me quickly.

That December, we even shared a Schaefer together. As a committed Coors Light drinker, he didn't like his Schaefer. But we did have a wonderful time talking about the Schaefer tradition and his memories of going to races at tracks such as Maryville, Kingsport, Hickory, Darlington, Asheville-Weaverville, etc.

But his days weren't done. Though the last couple of years slowed him down more than previous ones, he kept as solid a pace as he could. He continued to work maintain a garden, make gallons of homemade wine and help as many folks as he could. 

My grandmother hosted Thanksgiving dinner for the extended family going back to my teen years. After she passed away almost nine years ago, he didn't hesitate. He declared he'd continue the tradition, and we have gathered at his place each November since - including this past November just six weeks ago. 

He wasn't very active, let others handle all the food prep and seating logistics, and napped a couple of times while a room full of rowdy visitors was just on the other side of the wall. Yet when he was up, he enjoyed having everyone there. 

New Year's Eve 2014 was his final night at home. On New Year's Day 2015, he thumbed an ambulance ride to the hospital. His last few days were spent in the ICU - his brave, heroic battle nearing its end.

I went out each day for brief visits that seemed like an eternity because of his condition. Following my visit last Sunday afternoon - a ventilator doing his breathing, nutrition from a feeding tube, monitor cables more numerous than my computer or home entertainment get-up - I squeezed his hand, told him I 'd see him the next day, and turned to leave the room. I heard my mother who was also in the room say "What? You need him?"

She called my name, I turned back around and found him looking me straight in the eye with his hands formed in prayer. My mom said "You want him to pray for you?" and he nodded yes. That wasn't exactly what I was expecting.

I somehow returned to his bedside, kissed his hand and prayed aloud while muscling back the shower of tears that soon followed - a trait I don't exactly publicize as a skill on my LinkedIn profile. When I said Amen, he winked, smiled, squeezed my hand for what seemed like an eternity and gave me the thumbs up with the other hand.

On January 6th, he made a decision. We're convinced he made the right one - and he made it on his terms just as he'd waged his fight the past few years. About 24 hours later on January 7th, his battle was completed.

Rest in peace now Peanut, rest in peace.

TMC