Monday, April 17, 2017

April 17, 1976 - Nashville's new season begins

NASCAR's 1976 Winston Cup season opened in January with the road course race in Riverside, California. Nashville Speedway's weekly series didn't kickstart its new year, however, until mid-April. The Winston Salute To America 200 was slotted for Saturday, April 17, 1976.

The race was sanctioned as a NASCAR national Late Model Sportsman division race. It was one of many during a pre-Busch Series era when national LMS points could be earned at tracks scattered all over the place.

The race attracted a few of the big dawgs of the day such as 1975 national LMS champ L.D. Ottinger, future Cup winner Neil Bonnett, Cup regular Donnie Allison, 1972-1974 NASCAR Late Model Sportsman champion Jack Ingram...

...and Midwestern hotshoe Bob Senneker. His car didn't exactly match the look and configuration of most LMS entries. But hey, he towed all the way from Michigan, was a proven winner in his area of the country, was making his first Fairgrounds start, and had a last name that rhymed with WINneker. So they let him race! OK, I made up that part about the rhyming name.

They were joined by local racers such as 1975 Nashville late model champion Walter Wallace, Alton Jones (who claimed the 1976 LMS track title), James Climer, and second year Nashville driver but first year LMS racer Mike Alexander.

The 200 was also a homecoming of sorts for Dave Sisco and Darrell Waltrip, two Cup drivers who were also Fairgrounds champions earlier in their careers. Waltrip's Nova carried the colors of his new new Cup sponsor, Gatorade. Nashville fans got their first opportunity to see the colors live on DW's late model. They saw them again about three weeks later when Waltrip raced his DiGard 88 Monte Carlo in the Music City 420 Cup race.

Four-time Fairgrounds champion and Cup regular Coo Coo Marlin did not enter the 200. However, he assisted the efforts of a rookie driver who prepared for his debut professional racing career start: his son Sterling.

Source: The Tennessean
Today's NASCAR fans can often be stereotyped as chronic whiners about everything - especially changes. Almost any change these days triggers a social media outcry. But one change in 1976 even had the competitors chirping.

NASCAR implemented a rule change for LMS teams at short tracks. Rather than using air guns, crews were required to use manual lug wrenches. NASCAR's position was the change would help level the playing field on pit road as well as reduce operating expenses a bit for the teams. The new rule, however, was met with almost universal derision.

Source: The Tennessean
Ottinger captured the pole in his #2 Chevelle. Senneker lined up alongside him in his interesting looking car. When the green flag fell, Ottinger got the hole shot and paced the field for the first 10 laps.

Allison then took the top spot and dragged the field around for the remainder of the first half of the race. Following the crossed-flags, Senneker decided it was go time. He took the lead, dominated the second half, and seemingly was on his way to the win.

Ottinger's luck went from good to bad to worse. After leading early, he faded back and lost a lap during a pit stop. With 30 laps to go, he pounded the wall as he tried to get back on the lead lap. He was able to continue, but then his fuel pump broke fifteen laps later. His wrecked ride caught fire, and he was finally and mercifully done for the night.

As the laps continued, Senneker built a sizable lead - even after late cautions resulting from Ottinger's incidents. His car developed an ignition issue with three laps to go, however, and he began slowly limping towards the finish. At first it was thought he may have been out of fuel; however, he later noted it was his electrical system that had simply laid down on him with victory in sight.

With Senneker's fade, Donnie Allison roared past him in his #8 Nova to claim the win. Allison sported 88 on his car to match the number he used to race in Cup. He was fired by DiGard in 1975 and replaced with Waltrip. Both showed up at Nashville with 88 on their cars. With Allison being a late entrant, his car was scored as the single-digit #8.

Ingram finished second, and Randy Tissot placed third. Former track champs Sisco and Waltrip rounded out the top five finishers. Sterling finished an admirable seventh in his first professional race. He continued having a pretty successful rookie year - including his first career Cup start in the Music City 420 less than a month after his late model debut. He banked several consistent runs his rookie season, built a solid fan following, and finally nabbed his first of many Nashville wins in June 1977.

Source: The Tennessean
Nearly 40 years later, Marlin's passion for racing still burns. Though no longer a Cup driver, he is a fixture at the Fairgrounds racing regularly in the once-a-month Pro Late Model division.

Special thanks to Russ Thompson for providing several photos and a few trivia nuggets for this post.

TMC

Thursday, April 6, 2017

April 6, 1997 - Texas Motor Speedway Arrives Alive

Schaefer Hall of Fame co-founder Philly and I made multiple efforts to attend the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. Tickets were available of course, but at some ludicrous prices. We held our ground and refused to overpay. Result: We missed the show. Oh well, life goes on. And we did get to go to the second Brickyard in 1995 thanks to my brother-in-law taking care of us.

Three years later, a similar scenario arose. Bruton Smith's new Texas Motor Speedway scheduled its inaugural event for April 1997 - the Interstate Batteries 500. Again, Philly and I wanted to be there for Race #1. Unlike our failed Indy venture, however, the Texas trip played out perfectly. Well, it did for us - though not so much for many others, fans and competitors alike.

My sister and brother-in-law had relocated to Farmers Branch TX - a Dallas 'burb. As luck would have it, he wrangled tickets for all of us for the first event at the best price of all: FREE! Furthermore, he landed us suite passes for Saturday's Coca-Cola 300 Busch Series race (remember Bruton's praise-rant about Coke during his NASCAR HOF induction speech?).

Next challenge: getting there from Tennessee. I thought I'd won the lottery when I learned I'd been assigned a work project in Terrell, TX the week before the race. Only 50 miles or so lay between my work stint in Terrell and race weekend.

And it rained. Every. Stinkin'. Mile. Of my Friday drive to Farmers Branch. But I arrived! Philly landed at DFW the next morning, and race weekend was officially underway.

I've previously blogged about the start to race day by my brother-in-law as well as my pre-race lap adventure around TMS. A few other non-racing memories from that weekend still make me smile as I recall them.
  • My brother-in-law introduced us to Razoo's Cajun Cafe. Lawdy, did we put a dent in a monster-sized platter of fried seafood and hushpuppies. As we waited near the bar for a table, I spotted a couple wearing white golf shirts and white hats. Both simply had the NASCAR logo on them. I smiled, nodded, and asked "How are y'all? First race this weekend?" They were stunned a bit as they replied pleasantly "Yes! How did you know that?"
  • We had four suite passes for Saturday's Busch race - but also a stowaway: my niece. Upon arrival at the elevator, we were (rightfully) given the third degree about our passes, the need for a wristband, etc. The deal breaker was our fifth person. The cute smile and blond hair of a four-year old fortunately warmed the guy's heart; however, and he sent all five of us on our way.
  • The Busch race was the first time for Philly and me to watch one from a suite. We'd always wanted to do so, but once there we concluded it was too sterile of an environment for us. Plus our host booked it on the cheap. No munchies, sandwiches, or beer. Just a few meager Cokes and water. If for no other reason other than to have some fun at my brother-in-law's expense, we leaned on him. "C'mon man. Nothing to eat? And no beer?? Fix this mess." He asked around and returned with an answer that the catering fee for a case of beer was eighty dollars and a sandwich board two hundred bucks or something like that. We held his stare, said we didn't care, and to make it happen. To his credit, he got his host to pony up more from the marketing budget!
  • The track distributed rally towels for the Cup race. I still have mine, keep it in my race pack, and wave it often 20 years later at the races I attend.
Though we had a good time, fortunes weren't so great for some at the track. I cringed when I got word Thursday evening that Ricky Craven wrecked hard during a practice session. He destroyed his #25 Hendrick Motorsports Budweiser Chevy, and the wreck nearly destroyed him. Fortunately, Craven returned to race another day (and win). But by his own admission, his health today is very much affected by the wrecks of his racing career - perhaps most notably by his Texas lick.

Race day excitement in the Lone Star State was amp'd. Well, maybe except for many fans bitter about the transfer of a race date from North Wilkesboro to Texas...or those stuck in traffic or muddy parking lots. Nonetheless, the fans, drivers, Ken Squier, etc. were pumped about getting the 500 underway.

We were standing at our start-finish line seats and watched the field roar past the green as they barreled into turn one. And then what happens? The Big One. In the first turn of the first lap of the first race at a new track.

Johnny Benson got into Darrell Waltrip, and the rest of the field piled in like a game of Buck Buck by Fat Albert's friends.

In less than a quarter of a lap, all sorts of fan favorites were essentially done for the day. Both of the Petty cars driven by Kyle Petty and Bobby Hamilton: Involved. Both continued - but neither were a factor. And Darrell Waltrip's chrome-wrapped 25th Anniversary Western Auto Chevy returned to the garage looking like a ball of aluminum foil.

About fifteen laps later, NASCAR's Three Stooges of that era - Bobby Hillin Jr., Derrike Cope and Greg Sacks tangled in another turn 1 accident. All could just about be assured of being involved in an accident on a week-to-week basis. But I'm not sure you could've secured Vegas odds to have all three involved in the same wreck.

For those who made it beyond the lap one wreck, many found their way to the front. Lap bosses included Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, and crowd favorite Terry Labonte. Others getting a shot at clean air included Bobby Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd, and Todd Bodine who was hired as the substitute driver for Craven.

Just shy of halfway, Rusty Wallace lost the edge in his #2 Miller Lite Ford, hit the wall coming out of turn 4, and drifted slowly through the quad-oval frontstretch. Several other cars spun to avoid Wallace or because of the fluid from his car. Ernie Irvan - Swervin' Irvan - tried to bonsai his way through the accident in an effort to make up a lap by passing leader Terry Labonte. He instead drilled at full speed a slowing Greg Sacks - this after Sacks had returned from his earlier accident. Rather than getting a lap back, Irvan nearly found his engine block sitting in his lap.

Throughout the afternoon, a steady presence on the track was the #99 Exide Batteries Roush Ford of Jeff Burton. Crew chief Buddy Parrott tweaked the car and worked with the fourth-year Cup driver to set both up for the finish.

As the race entered its last 100 miles, the 99 got a nose for the front. Burton took the lead from Bodine (who *ahem* wrecked while leading) and led the rest of the way to notch his first career Cup win.

A 20+ minute recap of the race.

To date, the inaugural race is the only one I've attended at Texas. I genuinely want to return, but circumstances just haven't played out yet to do so.

Over 20 years, the track has had its share of storylines including:
  • opening weekend jitters with rain, parking, and traffic
  • the lap one wreck
  • a disagreement between drivers and the track's general manager Eddie Gossage that was humorously transferred to a Shut Up And Race t-shirt
  • a subsequent re-working of the track's configuration to blend the sharp transition angle at the apron, and
  • a controversially cancelled CART race in 2001.
Yet my memories of race weekend #1 are nothing but great. My hope is to again enjoy a second memorable experience down there. Meanwhile, I wish nothing but the best to Gossage and his team as they ready for another 20 years of racing.

TMC

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

April 4, 1976 - Gwyn Staley 400

Richard Petty ripped through the 1975 Cup season like a Ginsu knife through a mater. He nabbed 13 wins as well as his sixth championship. The Petty Enterprises / STP team had every reason to believe they'd keep the mojo rolling in 1976.

David Pearson notched 18 wins for the Wood Brothers' famed #21 team over the two-year stretch of 1973-1974. He only won three races, however, during 1975 in the Purolator Mercury. The team was ready to prove the single digit number of wins was an anomaly vs. the new norm.

Cale Yarborough began 1975 as his third season with Junior Johnson's Chevy team. Like Pearson, he bagged a double-digit number of wins in 1974 - but slipped to only three victories in 1975. Cale, Junior, and Herb Nab were ready for another shot at knocking King Richard off his throne in 1976.

The Winston Cup drivers rolled into North Wilkesboro in early April for the Gwyn Staley 400, the seventh race of the 1976 season.

Clearly, the story line of the season to-date was the amazing finish between Richard Petty and David Pearson in the Daytona 500. Pearson backed up his superspeedway Daytona win with two more victories at Riverside's road course and then at Atlanta.

The King rebounded nicely from Daytona. The crew thrashed on the wrecked 43, towed it to Rockingham two weeks later, and celebrated as Petty won the Carolina 500 in the rebuilt Dodge. Dave Marcis nabbed a win at Richmond, and Cale put a whuppin' on the field at Bristol.

Wilkesboro was slotted as the third short-track event in the first seven races of the season. The scarce number of short track races now compared to the abundance of them then has robbed today's fan base of some legendary racing facilities, rivalries, and driver skills.

Dave Marcis' #71 K&K Insurance, Harry Hyde-prepared Dodge Charger was fast in qualifying just as it was at Richmond. Marcis captured the top starting spot - his third pole of the season. Benny Parsons - who was born in Wilkes County, NC - qualified on the outside of the front row. Darrell Waltrip timed third, and Dick Brooks notched a surprising 4th in Junie Donlavey's Ford. Yarborough rounded out the top five starters.

On race day, a thunderstorm kept many folks in their cars and trucks until closer to race time. Once the weather moved to the east, folks headed for the gates. Track employees were stubbing tickets as quickly as they could. Assisting them was NASCAR's president, Bill France Jr. - on his birthday no less!

Prior to the start of the race, track officials recognized Wilkesboro legend, former driver, and car owner Junior Johnson by renaming a new section of backstretch grandstands in his honor.

Source: High Point Enterprise
Credit to & courtesy of Keith Hall
Petty started seventh in his rebuilt Dodge and was still sporting the beard he'd grown to commemorate America's bicentennial.

Credit: Mickey York
Parsons got a good jump at the green and led the first dozen laps. Yarborough then took the lead and dominated the rest of the way. He allowed Parsons to lead another dozen or so laps and spotted the 43 the lead for about a baker's dozen of his own. Otherwise, it was all Cale all day. He punished the field and won by a full lap over second place Petty.

The race was the 25th of 31 times Petty and Yarborough finished in the top two spots.

When Cup racing began its rapid ascent in the 1980s, North Wilkesboro expanded its seating. Fans continued sitting in the Junior Johnson Grandstand, but many more seat options became available. Then...racing was gone. The track has remained silent for 20+ years. It has deteriorated to the point of being an unusable facility - despite the cries from well-meaning and hopeless romantic fans that continue to proclaim "NASCAR ought to return to Wilkesboro!" A few years ago, the remnants of the Junior Johnson Grandstand were finally demolished - about 35 years after being named in his honor.


TMC

Thursday, March 9, 2017

March 9, 1980 - Rockingham's Carolina 500

The 1979 NASCAR Winston Cup season was one for the ages. Richard Petty won his sixth Daytona 500 to end a losing streak that spanned a season and a half. The King then battled Darrell Waltrip for the top points position in the second half of the season, and he ultimately prevailed to claim his seventh title.

Waltrip and his Gatorade DiGard team did not hang their heads after losing the title to Petty. The 88 bunch came out of the chute hot in 1980 by winning the season-opening race in Riverside, CA and the third race of the year at Richmond - both from the pole. Buddy Baker's 1980 season also started off in grand fashion. After years of fast cars and frustrating luck, he finally won his prized race - the Daytona 500. As Waltrip had done, Baker won the 500 from the top starting spot.

With races on a road course, superspeedway, and half-mile short track in the books, the grind of the season moved to Rockingham for the annual Carolina 500.

As often seems to happens with NASCAR, the larger story of  the race weekend happened off the track. When the teams rolled in to the North Carolina sandhills, many eyes turned to an unexpected team.

L.G. DeWitt was a long-time car owner. He fielded Chevrolets for Benny Parsons for most of the 1970s - including for Parson's Cup title in 1973 and Daytona 500 win in 1975. Second year driver and 1979 rookie-of-the-year runner-up, Joe Millikan returned as his driver in 1980. DeWitt also owned the tracks in Atlanta and Rockingham.

The garage buzzed when word got out that the FBI was investigating members of DeWitt's #72 race team for dealing in stolen cars. The seriousness of the allegations was magnified by the embarrassment of having the news released when DeWitt was hosting a race at his own track.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Though I'm uncertain how the allegations eventually played out, DeWitt's team was all but done. Millikan had a miserable finish at Daytona, flipped his car over the guard rail at Richmond, and lost an engine for a third consecutive poor finish at Rockingham. A few races later, the team folded leaving Millikan without a ride.

Source: Rockingham Speedway by Rick Houston and Bryan Hallman
Teams and fans also faced the news former driver Lee Roy Yarbrough had been committed to a mental institution. Yarbrough was a genuinely successful driver in the mid to late 1960s. A series of bad accidents in NASCAR and Indy cars shortened his career. Yarbrough likely suffered a series of serious concussions - and CTE likely followed. Around the time of the Daytona 500, Yarbrough tried to kill his mother and was declared incompetent by a court.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald-Journal
In qualifying, Darrell Waltrip had a ton of Robert Yates horsepower yet again. He won the pole - his third top spot in the first four races of the season. Despite the noise of the FBI investigation hanging in the air, Millikan put DeWitt's car on the outside of the front row.

Cale Yarborough puked a motor and wrecked his Junior Johnson-owned, Busch Beer-sponsored Chevy Monte Carlo during final practice before qualifying. Johnson rallied his guys to head back to the shop and return with the Olds 442 Cale had raced in the Daytona 500. Yarborough was unable to lay down a lap on the first of two days of qualifying. In the second round, however, he was the quickest car despite his concerns the Olds wouldn't hustle around The Rock as well as the Monte Carlo.

third storyline involved the race itself. As noted on the program, the race was originally scheduled for March 2. After qualifying was completed, however, a winter weather system arrived. Snow and ice scuttled the plans of all to race for a week.

The race was delayed by a week though the line-up from qualifying was retained.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald-Journal
When the green flag fell, Waltrip set sail. He led 77 of the race's first 78 laps. After winning Daytona, Buddy Baker's Ranier Racing team skipped Richmond. Baker laid down a solid qualifying lap, started third, and led a chunk of 100+ laps after taking over the top spot from Waltrip. After giving up the lead to others, however, his day ended prematurely - as it often did in his career - when he skidded through a patch of oil and popped the wall.

Source: Decatur Daily Review
Yarborough didn't count himself among the favorites to win the race. His finishes in the first three races of 1980 were lousy - and he had wrecked his preferred Monte Carlo at Rockingham - and he had to start deep in the field - and he was nursing a leg injury after having been kicked by a calf before the Richmond race. Yet after Waltrip and Baker had their initial turns up front, Cale led significant chunks of laps during various points of the race.

The King was pretty sporty at one of his favorite tracks. Petty followed up his 1979 championship season with P3s at Riverside and Richmond. He had a lightning quick Olds at Daytona; however, a burned clutch ended his day with a DNF and rotten finish. With a little over 100 laps to go at Rockingham, Petty had worked himself up to the point as he pursued yet another Rockingham trophy.

Cale's #11 Olds, however, had a nose for the front. Despite his moaning about how the 442 would likely pale in comparison to his preferred Monte, Junior Johnson likely spent the second half of the race with a wry smirk on his face as he leaned on a jack.

Petty hounded Yarborough for much of the final 100 laps. He hit a slick spot of oil as Baker did, wiggled, recovered and continued. He didn't stick his 43 Chevy in the fence, but he did lose his momentum in birddogging Cale.

Source: Rockingham Speedway by Rick Houston and Bryan Hallman
Yarborough kept his foot to the floor and built a sizable enough lead that he was able to make his final pit stop without losing the lead. He cruised to a relatively comfortable win over second place Petty.

Speaking of Petty, the race was also the first Rockingham start for Kyle Petty. Kyle made his first five Cup starts in 1979 and had a disappointing 1980 Speedweeks. His Dodge Magnum was wiped out in a qualifying race wreck, and he DNQ'd for the Daytona 500. He qualified deep in the field at Rockingham, lost an engine, and returned to Level Cross with a poor finish. About a decade later, however, he and crew chief Gary Nelson (who coincidentally worked with Waltrip at DiGard) dominated the field for a win at The Rock.

Source: Greenville News
The race was the 29th of 31 times Petty and Yarborough finished in the top two spots.

Courtesy: NCMarrk on Twitter
TMC

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

TMC Racing Stories: Charlotte 1

As a native North Carolinian, Schaefer Hall of Fame co-founder Philly grew up going to races at tracks such as Rockingham, Wilkesboro, Martinsville, and Charlotte. He and I met when both of us were living in Chattanooga. In May 1994, he suggested we go to the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. Done, I'm in.

The two of us, our wives, and their eight-month old young'un loaded up in Philly's recently acquired green Pontiac Trans Port mini-van that looked like this one.

Our Friday destination was Matthews, NC to stay with Philly's in-laws. The weekend plans were for Philly and me to go racing and the ladies to shop, tour the area, or whatever people do to waste time when they aren't at a race.

Philly and I set our Saturday sights on the original Petty Museum in Level Cross. We then planned to return to Matthews to load up on tailgating food and beer supply. What we had not anticipated, however, was having a third wheel. Philly's better half said matter-of-factly "We'll have him on Sunday, so y'all get him on Saturday." With our marching orders in hand, we loaded up Woodhead and headed out for the day. After all, I've learned many racing weekends involve living in Plan B.

Woodhead had already been introduced to racing...sort of. The night he was born in The Nooga, I took him his first NASCAR t-shirt - a Dale Jarrett Interstate Batteries yute size. He traveled fine to Level Cross and tolerated us as we soaked in the Petty history displayed in the wood paneled, low ceiling museum.

When we made it back to Matthews, Woodhead was getting a bit fidgety. He'd ridden the better part of four hours strapped in his car seat after having ridden in it for several hours the day before. Yet, Philly and I were on a mission. We still had beer shopping to do.

Food Lion was our destination. They were still heavily involved as a sponsor in NASCAR, had supported Richard Petty's Fan Appreciation Tour in 1992, and was the last grocery store chain in North Carolina that sold Schaefer. We squeezed Woodhead into the kid's seat of the buggy and set sail.
  • Chips ✔ 
  • Loaf bread ✔ 
  • Pack of ham ✔ 
  • Private label cheese ... product ✔ 
  • Little Debbie's ✔ 
Up next, a careful examination of Food Lion's beer offerings. As we stood there pondering our options, each of the brands in the chiller seemed to holler Pick Me.

We were so engrossed in the process that we took our focus off the buggy behind us. Suddenly, we heard a muffled whoomp followed by crying. We wheeled around to find Woodhead laying atop our smashed loaf of bread and bags of crushed chips.

One thing was certain about Woodhead. That boy loved to eat. He was sizable enough at eight months that we were unable to buckle him into the buggy! Up until that moment, we'd done a yeoman's job of keeping our eye on him. Being distracted by beer, however, nearly cost us dearly. He could have just as easily flipped the other way and landed on the floor.

As Philly picked him to see that all was OK, we noticed a woman across the aisle giving us the stink eye and a tsk, tsk head shake. Choosing to make her opinion  known, she stated directly "you put a mark on that boy, and y'all may as well not go home."

I'm pleased to say Woodhead survived his free fall into the grocery mosh pit. I'm also pleased to have seen him grow as a racing fan as well as one who appreciates Schaefer. And he's so smart Jenny. He was inducted into the Schaefer Ring of Honor in Daytona before the 2015 Coke Zero 400.

TMC

Friday, February 17, 2017

TMC Racing Stories: Daytona 3

The 1980 Daytona 500 was my first to attend. A few months earlier at the wedding of my uncle Earl, my uncle Ronald who had introduced me to racing about five years earlier committed to taking me to Daytona. With King Richard having won the 1979 500 and his seventh title, I was on a high knowing he'd likely return strong in the 1980 race.

Ronald was always somewhat of a free spirit. As race week arrived, my travel plans suddenly changed. Rather than have me ride with him to Jacksonville to stay with Earl and his new bride, Ronald called my mother to say he was already in Jacksonville! Today, I'd be frustrated as hell if he pulled that stunt - but then it was simply no big deal. I kept my eye on the prize and really wasn't worried about the details - even if my parents were.

On a Friday night, my mother put me on a Greyhound bus for an all-night ride to Jacksonville. I naively slept pretty much the whole way. Fortunately, my uncle was there to pick me up at the station - well at least Earl was. Ronald, who'd promised the trip and the ride, was a no-show.

Earl surprised me with an unexpected outing Saturday night. He took me to NWA wrasslin' at Jacksonville's Memorial Coliseum. He was very intellectual, college educated, informed of current events, opinionated, and a sports junkie. Professional wrestling, however, was kind of his soap opera or trashy novel vice. Unlike many who immersed themselves in it, he knew what was real vs. staged. Yet he still enjoyed and laughed heartily at the story lines. We got to see The American Dream Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, and the largest man I've ever seen in my life - Andre The Giant.

Earl, my new aunt, Ronald, his girlfriend, and I left on a cold Sunday morning in the mid-size motorhome belonging to my aunt's father. I went to Florida thinking the weather was always warm. My long sleeve shirt, denim jacket and orange/blue Petty cap were about to be tested.

We were in front of Lake Lloyd without a really clear view of anything - not of the pits or of turns 3 and 4. I could barely see the start-finish line through the myriad of folks on top of their motorhomes. But we had a pretty good view of turns 1 and 2 before they thundered down the backstretch.

With the 43 starting 4th, that day-glo red and Petty blue Olds 442 popped from the starting grid whereas the gray pole-winning car of Buddy Baker was hard to spot anywhere on the track from where we were.

The King was competitive, and I remember shaking as he made lap after lap in the draft. Part of it was adrenaline - but I'm sure a lot of it was because the temps were dropping as a stiff wind intensified. But I simply could not believe it when Petty disappeared from the track.

I used a Winston AM radio headset back in the late 1980s and early 90s and have used a scanner since. Looking back, I find it funny I didn't have any sort of radio with me. I had no idea what happened to the 43. By the time the car disappeared, Ronald had already climbed down and disappeared into the motorhome. One reason was to warm himself from the weather. Another was to warm himself with a few nips from a bottle of Old No. 7! He had MRN on the radio, and that's where I learned 43 was done for the day after climbing down myself.

Yet the race continued, so I went back on top. After another dozen laps or so, the cold got the best of the rest of 'em. One by one - my aunt, Ronald's girlfriend, and then Earl - all retreated to the motorhome leaving me alone. I shivered with hands thrust in my pockets and collar upturned as a hedge against the wind. I know Buddy won, but I simply could not see that gray Olds cross the line.

The race is one of a few where I don't have a ticket stub. I think we just paid a flat fee or maybe a per head fee to get into the infield. But I did return home with a couple of collectibles:
  • a Daytona t-shirt that I wore until it was thread bare - well, actually until I piled on the freshman fifteen (and then some) in college. I'd hate to think what I'd look like if I tried to sport a shirt that small today.
  • a patch with the old DIS logo that I bought at Stuckey's on the way back to Jax. My mother stitched it plus multiple other racing patches to the back of that jean jacket I wore to the race.

  • a Richard Petty 'jersey' shirt. I happened to be wearing it later that spring when a few photos were taken for our high school yearbook.
I got to observe plenty of adult things from heavy drinking, hootin and hollerin, a portable hot tub even in the cold air, etc. (I wish it'd been much warmer to have my eyes opened by the bikinis that were certainly sported under heavy jackets.) But I remember thinking one of the neatest things I saw was this little custom roadster made to look like a Busch beer can.

Only recently did I learn the 1980 500 was likely the debut of the roadster. A couple of New Smyrna entrepreneurial designers built it. Later they contracted with Stroh's Brewing to build several as promotional cars.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal
The arrangement between Ronald and my parents - written in sand I suppose - was for Ronald to drive me back to Tennessee on Monday. Schools may have been closed because of President's Day, or maybe I simply missed the day. Either way, I needed to be back in school on Tuesday.

But again, Ronald's plans were always fluid. Instead of driving me home, he decided he'd stay in Jax a few more days. So he bought me a one-way ticket on Eastern Airlines. At least he did park and wait with me at the gate until flight time. While waiting at our gate, he nudged me and said "Recognize those two?". I wasn't sure who he was referring to as I scanned around. Finally he pointed "Right there. It's Junior Johnson and Cale."

Suddenly it was an oh yeah! moment - yet I just sat there. I had the opportunity the meet Cale at my first Cup race at Nashville in 1978. But because he dominated for the win and because I'd drawn a bead on getting to the 43, I passed up my shot. In February 1980, I passed on the opportunity again. I still was no big fan of that 3x champion. I recall Ronald laughing as he said I may be taking my Petty loyalism a little too far.

TMC

Thursday, February 16, 2017

TMC Racing Stories: The Horseshoe Lounge 2.0

The first visit to Johnson City, TN's Horseshoe Lounge in 1992 by Schaefer co-founder Philly and I was random. Our return visit in 1994 was planned. As we hit the county line to ready for the Food City 500, we knew after our destiny was to once again order the best burger in Johnson City along with a cold Busch or two to wash it down.

As we pulled into the parking lot, we were confused a bit by a new sign. Instead of Casey's Horseshoe Lounge, the sign now read McCreary's Horseshoe Lounge. Yet we walked into the place like we were old timers and found a seat at an empty table.

Our waitress came over and politely let us know the table was reserved. (I don't remember her name, but I'll refer to her going forward as Shirley because the name fit the place.) "Reserved? Y'all take reservations??" Surprisingly, they did take call-ahead seating requests - especially for regulars which we were not. But Shirley said they weren't expected for another hour, so we could stay until then.

We had to ask - McCreary's? What happened to Casey? "Aww, that changed a couple of months ago hon. Hey y'all! When did we change the name?" [from behind the bar: "Wasn't it the week after the Super Bowl?"] DOH! OK, that answered that question.

Hot, fresh, tasty burgers and fries arrived along with a cold brew - and then began the afternoon entertainment: karaoke. Some sad sack named Johnny took the mic - black toboggan on his head, scraggly beard, a pack of smokes in his pocket, and a beer in hand. Johnny commenced to singing (or attempted to sing) some sort of sad, country ballad. Something along the lines of Merle, Hank or Cash - though I've long forgotten the barely recognizable tune. But rather than just sing, his drunken state led him to keep the microphone almost in his mouth. His singing came off more like a Bill Cosby bit or a low-octave version of Miss Othmar, Charlie Brown's teacher.

After Johnny finished and earned some tepid applause, another couple of brave souls took the mic to sing redneck karaoke. Johnny soon returned, however, and was ready for more. Our burgers had fortunately vanished by then; otherwise, we could not have eaten them because of our laughter.

Having lost track of time, we were a bit surprised when Shirley returned, apologized, and said she needed our reserved table. We understood and were prepared to make our break. But this sweetheart had more. "Y'all ain't gotta leave. Nina and Larry said y'all could sit with them."

Who? Sure enough, we turned around and spotted a random couple at another booth waving at us. Shirley had done some recon for us, explained we were race fans from out of town, and were facing "no room in the inn." We laughed, politely declined the kind offer from Nina and Larry, but chose to stick around for a bit more of Johnny's hillbilly lounge act.

Shirley continued to be an excellent waitress. She kept an eye on us and made sure we had a cold replacement. As we stood against the wall, a table of beastly females started grinning and asked if we wanted to sing with them. Before I could suggest we tab out, Philly said "Sure! Sign us up!"

Shirley returned and asked "another'n?". Though I wanted no part of road pig karaoke, I did make a final request.
Shirley, we want two Miller High Lifes. But - I  want you to peel the labels off of the bottles. Miller sponsored Bobby Allison. Did you know when he got hurt at Pocono in '88, they dropped him like a bad date? So we ain't about to publicly support the brand. Got it?
She walked away confused - and rightfully so considering my embellishment. Meanwhile, we got a countdown update. "Y'all 'bout ready? We're number 6! What y'all wanna sing?" Lawd almighty, get me out of here.

Philly then nudged me, pointed and said "Look at that." Sure 'nuff, Shirley was at the bar with with two High Lifes and a butter knife.

We're number 3 y'all!

She brought two nekkid bottles to us, and I gave her a hug and asked for the tab. With a clink and a laugh, I told Philly "Bury it so we can go."

We're up next y'all! Chug man.

When Shirley returned, we palmed her plenty of cash to cover our tab plus a generous tip. We tossed our empties, turned for the door, and thankfully escaped the grand stage of McCreary's Horseshoe Lounge.

A few years ago, I stumbled over Horseshoe Lounge written by songwriter Slaid Cleaves. Though I understand the song is based on a real bar by that name as well as plenty of general bar adventures, the song isn't about our Horseshoe. Nonetheless, Slaid included enough close-to-the-pin references that I can relate it to our two visits.


TMC

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

TMC Racing Stories: My Significant Other

A fitting post for Valentine's Day I think...

Aside from the racing, time with friends, and enjoyment of Schaefer, one of the most enjoyable parts for me of attending a NASCAR weekend is meeting new folks. We've had some of the best times meeting couples from Loudon to Vegas and from Phoenix to Charlotte. It's fun to see their tailgating styles, menu options, which driver they pull for, their pets, whatever. Having said that, I travel as the sole representative of my own household on racing trips for three specific reasons.

Strike 1

Not long after a co-worker and I started dating, I regularly mentioned my passion for racing. She agreed to give it a try, and we went to Talladega in May 1989 for the Winston 500.

I'd been to Talladega once before. For the 1987 Winston 500, I sat on the frontstretch just a couple of sections to the right of Harold Kinder - not far from where Bobby Allison horrifically ripped the fence. The tickets were comp'd, and I really didn't explore the track much or have a strategy for parking.

Because our plan to go in '89 was last minute, I didn't buy reserved seats. Instead, we opted for general admission backstretch tickets. My girlfriend's first impression of the scene was not a favorable one.
  • The morning air was pretty chilly. 
  • The wooden bleachers were full of splinters. 
  • The smell of cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air. 
  • And the hootin' and hollerin' from the rowdies was already at volume level 8.
As race time drew near, the sun jumped the temps pretty quickly. A good ol' boy lounging on the grassy bank below our bleachers decided it was time to get in the zone. He was wearing a pair of sweat pants, and he stumbled a bit as he tried to shed them in favor of his shorts. But in the process of doing so, he managed to hook his thumbs in the waistband of this sweats, shorts, and tighty-whities. He mooned the whole bleacher section - including my girlfriend. Don't look Ethel!

When the green flag dropped and the restricted engines of the bunched pack muscled up to speed, I focused more on the race than I did her. Hey, we were at a race. Right? It wasn't as if we were on a date date.

The bleacher bums amp'd their lusty cheers to 11 as their heroes screamed down the backstretch - the Earnhardt's Goodwrench Chevy, Rusty's Kodiak Pontiac, Neil Bonnett in the Wood Brothers' Ford, and Alabama's newest favorite son Davey Allison in the Havoline Ford. WHOOOOOO! But my girlfriend just sat there stoically and wasn't buying it.

About halfway through the race, one of the fellas behind us needed a break. Rather than cross over his brethren, he decided he'd step down a few rows of empty pine. After navigating a couple of them successfully, he misstepped one and pitched forward. Fortunately for him - but not so much for us - my girlfriend was his brake. He caught her in the upper back and bent her over as he stopped. To his credit, he pulled up and slobbered out a meek sorry ma'am.

To my credit, I was chivalrous, defended my lady friend, dog cussed the guy, and tossed him to the aisle. Actually, that's a bald-faced lie. I laughed heartily at the whole scene and earned a death glare from her when it wasn't directed at Gomer.

The bad situation (for her - still funny to me) got worse as the race hit the 3/4 mark and the dicing intensified. The intensity was too much for another one of our new-found buddies behind us to stomach. Or maybe it was the prodigious amount of booze he'd consumed that weekend. Either way, we heard the unmistakable sound of wretching as the Puke Monster unloaded on the empty bleacher row in front of him. That's it, enough. She was ready to bolt for the car, but fortunately I talked her into moving a couple of sections away so I could be there for the finish.

Amazingly, we made it to the end. Even more surprising is she later agreed to marry me, and we got hitched about 18 months later. I'm glad we stayed. As it turned out, I was there to see Davey take the win as I was his other two times in 1987 and 1992.


Strike 2

Two years after Talladega, she agreed to give racing a second chance. Being a bit wiser myself, I opted for going to Atlanta instead of coaxing her into a return trip to Talladega. Our target: the 1991 Motorcraft 500. To help things a bit, a friend of mine and his wife went with us.

We were prepared for a great day of racing fun. Alan Kulwicki qualified fastest in his debut race with Hooters as his sponsor, and Ken Schrader had a fast car which made my friend happy.

The race began, but then a persistent rain followed. We sat in the stands with our meager ponchos as we hoped for relief. The track's PA announcer and MRN reassured the fans that we'd soon be racing again because a weather window was opening. I bet we heard weather window a hundred times that afternoon.

The window never opened, and the remainder of the race was postponed until Monday. On our way back to Chattanooga, my buddy and I made the decision to take a vacation day and return for the conclusion. But not my wife. She'd had enough.

Strike 3

When Richard Petty announced his plans to retire after the end of the 1992 season, Schaefer co-founder Philly and I made plans to hit as many races as we could that year. Of critical importance to us was attending his final event - the Hooters 500 at Atlanta. I asked my wife if she wanted me to buy her a ticket as well. The King's last race - on a fall, southern afternoon? C'mon.

Her answer was along the lines of "Fine, but I'll take a book to read." What? A book? I replied it would be wasted money if I bought her a ticket only to have her read the whole time. Who could even do that? "Then don't buy me a ticket. I really don't wanna go anyway." So I didn't.

My 43rd year as a racing fan is now underway. And I've been the sole representative from my home at all races I've attended since March 1991. I generally have a great time meeting other couples at races, but odds are slim to none any of them will ever meet my better half.

TMC

Thursday, February 9, 2017

TMC Racing Stories: The Horseshoe Lounge 1.0

Schaefer co-founder Philly and I made our way to Bristol in April 1992 for the Food City 500. The race was to be my first Bristol race since Rusty Wallace's first win in the 1986 Valleydale Meats 500, and I believe it was Philly's first Bristol trip.

Philly scored us a pair of tickets when he traded with his apartment neighbor for a set of bar stools. With the transaction being a somewhat last minute deal, we had to wrangle a place to stay. Remarkably, we found a room at the Red Roof Inn in Johnson City.

As we checked in, we asked the desk clerk for a recommendation to watch the NCAA basketball tourney games that afternoon and evening. She politely and articulately directed us to a neighboring chain restaurant. It had a lounge and would likely be airing the game.

Philly and I looked at each other, sneered, smirked, and returned to her. "That's fine and all. But it'll probably be crowded, overpriced, and boring. Where would you go if you weren't working tonight?"

She lowered her head, slipped into her natural east Tennessee country accent, and replied with gusto, "Well hell, I'd go to the Horseshoe Lounge up by the VA Hospital. They got the best burgers in Johnson City." Sold!

After getting directions, we dumped our gear and then laughed as we pulled into the parking lot of Casey's Horseshoe Lounge - a fine looking, hole-in-the-wall, entertainment venue. Once inside, we wondered if we'd gone to heaven. The bar had a NASCAR theme with name badges affixed to each table and driver swag hanging on the wall above each of them.

The burgers were indeed fantastic, and we downed them with a NASCAR-related but non-driver-specific Busch. After a couple of them, I was the first to break the seal. Returning to my chair, I found that Philly had ordered us a couple of PBR tall boys. Nice.

When Philly hit the can, I returned the favor and ordered a couple of Old Milwaukee quarts. Yes, they had genuine 32 ounce glass Old Mil bottles. They were dreadful, but the laughter, hoops, and fellow bar patrons were all fantastic.

As the night wore on, Casey's added several more folks. Being noobs in the place, we kept an active sixth sense in case the vibe turned south. We surrendered our table and moved closer to the door just to keep our options open.

After peaking our awfulness with Old Mil, we returned to an icy mug of something more mainstream. Miller Lite, Coors Light, whatever. I made what I believe was a very astute...and prescient... comment to Philly:
Ever notice in the movies when they have bar fights where folks smash beer mugs over each others' heads? But have you ever actually seen a mug break? These things are indestructible! I've seen waitresses drop them and drunks knock 'em over, but they never break. 
Within moments after had I said it, chaos broke out..kinda. With no warning, some dude found himself laying right in the middle of a couple's table. Their burgers went flying as did their beer mugs - which shattered as they hit the floor!

The new centerpiece managed to lift himself from the table to reveal a shirt smothered in mustard, and he feebly muttered Sorry. His buds came over to assist him - and brought a pair of cuff crutches! Turns out the poor slob had serious issues with his legs and needed the crutches to walk. When he went to take a leak, however, he was so drunk he had forgotten his crutches! He took one or two steps and pitched right over into the poor couple's date night meal.

TMC