Wednesday, June 13, 2012

2012 Charlotte race trip: Cheese Dogs and History

Having negotiated turns one and two, I now barrel down the backstretch and into turn three of my four-part blog series about the great times enjoyed during four days in Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600, the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Schaefer racing experience, and all related trappings.

After spending Friday morning at Petty's Garage, our quartet was ready for a bite of lunch before heading to the Richard Petty Museum in Randleman, NC. With no objections from the other three, I made my offer based on some pre-trip reconnaissance. I proposed we head to a dive diner called Frank and Larry's about 2 miles or so from Petty's Garage. We needed to go there for a reason.

My desired post-lunch tour stop was to be a complete wild card. Through research I've done the last several months for my Richard Petty 200 Wins blog series, I learned Randleman was once home to Tar Heel Speedway. The paved, quarter-mile track hosted three NASCAR Grand National races - all in 1963. The hometown Petty Enterprises team won all three of them - the first two by Jim Paschal and the last by Richard.

Through some web research and a chapter in Perry Allen Wood's book Silent Speedways of the Carolinas (PDF excerpt), I learned the remains of the track were on the property of Frank Millikan -  the father of Joe Millikan who worked for Petty Enterprises in the 1960s and 70s.

After working a few years in the shop, Joe then raced and won in Petty-built Dodge Chargers in several ARCA and late model sportsman events in the mid to late 1970s. He landed a Cup ride with L.G. DeWitt in 1979 and finished second to Dale Earnhardt for Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.

Courtesy of Ray Lamm
Joe lost his ride in early 1980 when DeWitt's team folded. Petty Enterprises drew on his availability when Richard broke his neck at Pocono around mid-season. Millikan relief-drove for Richard in a couple of races including Talladega and Bristol. (Incredibly, the King raced without relief for all 400 miles at Michigan sandwiched between 'Dega and Bristol.)

With the Petty-Millikan connection, I simply HAD to meet Frank and get to his property to see what was left of Tar Heel Speedway. My objective was to stand on the broken pavement - smiling - wearing a 43 hat - and holding a Schaefer beer.

Based on a local source, I was told Frank was in his 80s and co-owner of the diner. We found the place easily. After studying the menu, all of us ordered our hot dogs and Pepsi Colas - at least I thought so. I ordered two 'cheese dogs' with mustard and onions. Everyone got a good laugh when the waitress brought precisely what I'd ordered: two buns layered with Kraft Singles and toppings. Perplexed for a moment, I asked "Um, I seem to be missing my dawgs." She politely but curtly reminded me I'd ordered cheese dogs - not hot dogs (vs. a hot dog with cheese on it as I'd thought). "You want weenies on 'em? I can make 'em for you?"

Once I got the minor menu miscue behind me, it was time to move to the next step. After our waitress added the hot dogs to my cheese dogs, I felt a bond between us was beginning to develop. I innocently asked if Frank was working that day. She winced and said "Naw hon, I'm 'fraid not. Frank passed away." Slightly embarrassed and clearly under-informed, I replied "Holy cow! I'm really sorry. Was it recent?" to which she replied "Naw, twas prob'ly 'bout 2 year ago. But Larry is still here if ya wanna talk to him!" We smothered a snicker and said no thank you.

But we'd made it this far, and I wasn't prepared to concede my mission. I told her I was looking for an old race track that was on his property. She said Frank's widow was still alive and may be able to help us. As we left the parking lot, I told SHOFer Philly "turn left" (as true stock car drivers do). We drove 2 clicks of a mile away and there we found a long gravel driveway. We drove it slowly and found a nice, modest log house - but it didn't look as if anyone was home. So we drove deeper into the property. And there it was - a building that was once likely a ticket booth and/or a payoff booth for the drivers, remains of what may have been some grandstands, and a bunch of trees and ivy followed clearly by a row of "clear" which likely meant the track surface was still there. As we drove by a trailer with a pick-up truck parked outside it, we found a gate to what once an entrance to turn 4.

I got my camera and a can of Schaefer and was about ready to exit our vehicle. But then I glanced back and saw a man standing by the pick-up with hands on his hips and his face void of a smile. Sensing an uh-oh moment, I suggested we double-back to him, laugh him up with our search idea, pass him a Schaefer as thanks, and get permission to look around. Instead, we got just the opposite. The convo went something like this:

TMC: Hey sir, how are ya? We're in the area for the race this weekend. Over in Charlotte? And we're big Petty fans and racing historians of sorts.
Trailer Dude: Yeah?
TMC: Yes sir. And I learned recently Tar Heel Speedway was right over here where Richard won way back in the 60s.
TD: Dar ain't nuttin' back there.
TMC: Yeah, but I think I saw...
TD: Huh?
TMC: Well, I understood Frank Millikan once owned the area. But I understood from over at Frank and Larry's that he'd passed away, and I was sorry to hear that. (tried to name drop and get a little empathy working)
TD: Yeah, and his boys own the place. They put that gate up thar so ain't nobody gonna get hurt back thar.
TMC: Well, we were hoping we could...
TD: Yain't gonna need to go back thar.
[Pause - look at the truck - look at Philly - make a visual go/no go decision - annnnd, realize this could turn for the worse]
TMC: OK, well look. We appreciate it. Great talking with you.

With that last exchange, we were gone. Sensing he may have a high-caliber enforcer in his truck, we made the decision not to push matters. After a slow ride in, Philly kicked up a good rooster tail of gravel dust as he sped back to the main road - with Trailer Dude's dogs running and barking in hot pursuit. They matched our speed stride-for-stride for about 300 yards until finally breaking off.

The trip wasn't a total loss. I didn't get to walk the grounds or get my photo op. But we...were...there. About the only localized photo I got was the mailbox that still bears the name of the late Frank Millikan.

And ... I did find Richard's winning trophy from Tar Heel on display later in the afternoon at the Richard Petty Museum.

We were soooo close. I'm not sure the year or season of the aerial photo below. But it gives some idea of how close we were. The van marks the area near the 4th turn gate. The arrow marks where Trailer Dude stood staring us down.

In the end though, it was the right - and safest - thing to do to just move on. Saturday and Sunday race days would have sucked if the two of us had landed in the hospital loaded with buckshot. Lt. Philly, iiice creeeam. Schaefer-flavored ice cream Lt. Philly.

Once back on Randleman Road, we drove the few short miles to the Richard Petty Museum on West Academy Street. We arrived to see the Smithfield Foods / Farmland #43 Ford show car having just been unloaded in the parking lot. This Petty-blue rich scheme will run in four 2012 races: Kansas City, Texas, Chicagoland, and Phoenix.

Upon entering, I had a reunion of sorts with [name withheld] who helped me find and then hold the Schaefer 300 trophy last year. (I agreed she and I would keep her name a secret in case the King got wind of it and disapproved!) She remembered me, laughed at the Schaefer links I'd sent her over the past year, and was surprised to learn I'd brought more Schaefer devotees with me - including 200WINZ who is the only person I know who actually got to see the King win the Schaefer 300 at Trenton.

I took a lot more photos of trophies I missed during my previous visit or that had been added to the cases since then. Many will be incorporated into future blog posts about the King's 200 wins. I did spot a few other interesting items such as...

The checkered flag from Marcos Ambrose's win at Watkins Glen last August.

The winner's trophy for the King's second and final career win at Bristol in 1975 as I blogged about back in March.

Richard's 123rd career and final Winston Cup pole win also came at Bristol. He landed the top spot for the 1979 Volunteer 500 summer night race.

Petty's trophy from his 199th career win in the Budweiser 500 at Dover while driving for Curb Motorsports.

Credit to and courtesy of Brian Hauck
Amongst the hundreds of guns in the museum's collection is supposedly Richard's first BB gun, a Red Ryder Daisy. As a fan of the iconic movie, A Christmas Story, I couldn't help but wonder if Richard once pleaded with Lee to get him a Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot, Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.

I've thoroughly enjoyed my two trips to the museum. Obvious misses with some of the displays, however, are also a minor irritant to me. For example, the 1984 Pontiac Grand Prix on display is alleged to be the one the King raced to his 200th win. Except it isn't. And the impressive 1970 Petty blue Plymouth Superbird greeting visitors upon their entrance? Nope. Its neither a 'Bird nor a Petty built chassis. The two cars are gorgeous, and I certainly know what they represent. However, I think the museum would be better served to let folks know both are replicas.

On this year's trip, I noted two more facepalm mistakes:
  • A Petty Enterprises sign tagged as the "original" one. Original?? Its not even the original logo of Petty Enterprises - never mind the company was originally known as Petty Engineering. The sign may well have been the last one hanging when PE merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports and ceased operations. But it certainly isn't the original sign.
  • The other clear miss was the inclusion of a Winston Cup Series decal on the side of the restored 1969 Ford Torino. Winston didn't become NASCAR's top series title sponsor until 1971, and the red-white-checkered flag logo wasn't even used until a couple of years afterwards.
My nitpicking aside, the visit was great. I'd return tomorrow if given the opportunity to continue exploring the various trophies and items collected by the King over the years. Perhaps in my later years, I could be the curator or a tour guide for the museum rather than riding out my days as a Wal-Mart greeter feller. (caution on that last link - Rodney Carrington humor isn't for everyone)


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