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.
Stroh's Brewing to build several as promotional cars.
|Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal|
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.