Tuesday, January 24, 2017

TMC Racing Stories: Nashville 1

Far too many NASCAR-related press releases include home track references. Yet some old school fans and a handful of (mostly retired) drivers can legitimately claim one. Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway is indeed my home track.
  • I saw my first race at Nashville in 1974 - a national late model sportsman race of which I don't remember much. 
  • I watched Cup cars for the first time live in 1976 during qualifying for the Nashville 420. 
  • The 1978 Music City USA 420 was my first Cup race to attend, and
  • Qualifying night for the Busch Nashville 420 gave me my first chance to roam a NASCAR 'garage' area on July 9, 1982.
Following my first Cup race, my aunt and uncle led me through the gate, across the start-finish line, and into the pits to look for drivers and cars. It was arguably my most memorable experience to that point as a fan. Other than that night in 1978, I simply used a ticket to sit in the stands.

I don't recall how I learned a pass could be purchased to simply walk through the back tunnel and into the hub of activity on qualifying night. But I remember the cost wasn't much - ten bucks or something like that. Other memories have faded from that night too.
  • I can't remember if I went with someone or alone. I was a fairly new driver, and it's hard to believe my folks would have let me take the family Olds to the fairgrounds. But I have zero recall of conversations with anyone else I knew that night.
  • Did I take a pen and paper or did someone let me borrow some? I've got several autographs from that night on varying scraps of paper, but I don't remember taking a notepad or pen from home.
I do remember, however, wanting to see two specific cars: the 43 of King Richard and the 42 of Kyle Petty. Roaming the inner loop of the track that served as Nashville's 'garage' area, I found the Petty Enterprises transporter - but not the cars or drivers.

I continued strolling by the transporters and trailers and then back up towards the quarter-mile track and pit road. A few drivers autographed my meager supply of paper including future NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt from Bud Moore's Ford team, Terry Labonte, and Bobby Allison and other legends such as Harry Gant, Ricky Rudd, Buddy Arrington, and Sterling Marlin.

A J.D. Stacy Racing van was parked on the quarter-mile, and I stopped for a look in hopes of meeting the #2 Buick's crew chief: Dale Inman. Though I didn't cross paths with him, I did spot the car's driver: Tim Richmond. He offered me a signed postcard, but someone told him they'd run out of them. Tim leaned into the van and said something to the effect of "Toss me that one right there. Yeah, that one." Next thing I know, he had autographed a copy of a race program, handed it to me, winked, and thanked me as he returned to his conversation. Needless to say, I was sky high and had renewed energy to seek out the Petty cars.

I made it to pit wall - and there they were. Most of the cars had been pushed to pit road for qualifying. Each car had a ribbon of individual orbs of light reflected from the track's grandstand roof bulbs. And there it was - Kyle's 42 with new sponsor UNO playing cards from his new deal between STP, UNO, Petty Enterprises and Hoss Ellington.

Stepping across pit wall and standing next to the car was a rush. Using my pitiful GAF 110 camera with the four-sided Magicubes, I carefully tried to frame and snap some choice pics. I opened plenty of sleeves of racing photos as a kid and had been disappointed with the results. But all in all, I was pleased with what I captured on pit road that night.

Not far from Kyle's Pontiac was the The King's 43 with the reverse day-glo red and Petty Blue scheme. I'm sure crewmen such as Mike Beam, Steve Hmiel, Richmond Gage, Wade Thornburg, Robin Pemberton, etc. were all over the cars. For whatever reason though, I tuned out anyone milling about the car and focused just on absorbing the colors and shapes of them.

After getting the snaps I wanted, I crossed back over pit wall and just tried to soak in what was happening. Suddenly it dawned on me I recognized a driver sitting on pit wall with his back to me.

By 1982, I had three or four Richard Petty autographs in my collection. All, however, were on postcards sent to me by STP or Petty Enterprises.

But here he was - the man, the legend, the King - sitting in front of where I was standing. And now I had a chance to meet him. Yet a weird and ill-timed thought crossed my mind that I still vividly remember: How do I get his attention? What would my proper mama have me say?

I tried door number 1: Mr. Petty? (She would've been proud of me.) No response.

Door number 2: King? (Hey, I was a fan.) Nothing.

Door number 3: Richard? (She would've cringed.) Again, nothing - and I wasn't sure I was up to tapping him on the shoulder as a fourth attempt.

Finally and fortunately, a crew guy nudged his leg, pointed behind him, and said "That kid's trying to get your attention."

"Hey man, how ya doin'? How long ya been back there?"

It's kind of embarrassing now to look back at how pathetic my first encounter with Richard Petty was. Good grief, I was well up in my teen years. I had already approached other drivers that night, collected autographs, thanked them, smiled, and moved along - all without issue. For some reason though, meeting The King seemed different. It's a wonder I didn't just puddle right there from my nervousness.

Despite the fact he was about to climb into his car to qualify and was likely done for the moment meeting fans as he got ready to do his job, he did what King Richard seems to have always done. He took the time to greet a fan - and sign an autograph for this one for the first time.

As last year's racing season concluded, it dawned on me 2017 will be my 43rd year as a Petty fan.



  1. We surely "passed in the night." Too bad it took 3 more decades to strike up a racing friendship.

  2. EXCELLENT read as usual dude. Similar King story: First time I met him I could neither speak nor move. If not for him our first meeting never happens. They don't call him The King for nothing.

  3. Ya gotta love it.

  4. Nice. Much like Ralphie waiting on his Red Rider BB Gun. I"ll relate my wife's first meeting with the King sometime

  5. Great read, but the ending make my blood run cold! 2017 will mark 50 years since my first Petty autograph and ....we'll..you know the rest of the story!!