I bid you welcome gentle readers, and hope you’re succeeding in your efforts to keep warm as yet another winter makes its attempt at breaking records on the low end of the Fahrenheit and/or Celsius scales. Who ever thought we’d be praying for global warming? As I sit me down to type on this fairly frigid morning, there are two ideas fighting it out for supremacy within my cranium. A reader gave me an idea for a column about fans and how we’ve related to drivers or racing personalities over the years. That sounds like a great topic for this off season and one I’d have fun writing about. But then, on the other side of the coin we have Brian France… you all remember him, the HMWIC (Head Man What’s In Charge)… doing his usual January sound-off on MRN’s NASCAR Live on Tuesday evening. Ah, choices, choices everywhere! What to do, what to do?
After 10 seconds or less of hand wringing, I’ve made an executive decision to write about some personal encounters with a few of the elite of racing… at least in my estimation. Brian will keep because he won’t go away. The idea for this topic was originally inspired by an article by my friend in the next office, J.L. Steele, when he wrote of the inconsideration of fans in demanding time and autographs from drivers that are forced these days to adhere to an incredibly busy schedule of advertising and public appearances. It was given a final shove to the fore by a reader conversing with me about tracks, amenities and why he prefers one, while I prefer another. That’s the sort of constructive dialogue that helps to shorten the winter and hurry racing back to our hearts and TV screens. Then darned if J.L. didn’t go write another one about meeting Richard Petty. I’m not sure your scribe can surpass that one, but I know she can equal it. Hopefully, what follows will warm your hearts a bit, if not your toes. Fleece lined footwear is good for that.
For openers (Jacks or better?) this writer seldom ever writes employing the first person singular. To me, that is to be avoided as often as possible, but this once, it really cannot be avoided. Folks have asked to hear about me, and to do that, the use of “I” is inescapable. The first thing we must establish here is that I have absolutely no racing background whatsoever. My parents, my immediate family and probably my most distant cousins, have never been to a race track, with a couple of minor exceptions. My wonderful and loving Aunt Isabelle did take me to the Grand National race when the tour visited the Monroe County Fairgrounds in 1955, and took along my poor, long-suffering Gram, who I promise you had no interest whatsoever in cars running in circles and kicking up dirt. In those days, we three also took in every rodeo, demolition derby or car show that came to town. My Aunt was a fun person; you would have loved her! I believe I might have gotten my brother Mike out to Spencer Speedway at least twice, but he never caught racing fever. He still calls a mighty mean square dance though, even at his “advanced” age.
It took me 30 years or so to get my husband off the couch, out of the woods, off the boat and to a race track, but once there, he wanted to go again and again. He did catch the fever! However, limited vacation time is the curse of the working man, and we were never rich, so we had to pick and choose our track visits carefully. We soon discovered that we could do two races close together in less than 2 weeks if planned properly, so the tracks of Martinsville and North Wilkesboro soon supplanted Pocono, which was much closer to home but near nothing else save New Jersey and Delaware. You could not trade me 10 Daytona tracks or Talladega tracks for just one of either of those great short tracks, and I find it heartbreaking that North Wilkesboro was summarily kicked off the schedule in favor of Texas and New Hampshire. Ah, but therein lies another tale and most of you have already heard it a time or twelve.
Today, looking back, it seems that all of my people-oriented memories have come from Martinsville, each at a different race in a different year. I can’t in most cases even pinpoint a year, but in one instance, I know when it happened. The year was 1990. We had been to the earlier race in North Wilkesboro the previous week and wound our way through North Carolina before going up to Martinsville. On the way, because I planned it that way, we found ourselves in the little town of Welcome N.C., home then to Richard Childress Racing. Despite Don’s attempts to tell me we most assuredly could not just walk into a race shop, he knew differently, as we had already visited several. RCR was no exception, and a lovely lady by the name of Carole Houchins let us in and showed us all there was to see. Back then, it wasn’t called a museum or anything so grand. It was a race shop. It was where they built the cars, housed the trophies and in Richard’s case, displayed some very large game animals, all taken by him and properly stuffed so as not to attack passersby.
We were treated like royalty throughout our entire visit, and with one of those quirks of fate that life likes to hand us occasionally, I would meet Carole again much later in life, when a dear friend of hers, racecar driver Cecil Gordon, also employed at RCR in later life, passed away. She knew of a gal that wrote for a website where both were members, and asked her if she could write a eulogy for Cecil. That writer was I, and in talking we discovered that we had met all those years ago, and actually held each other while we cried over the outcome of the 1990 Daytona 500, when Dale suffered a flat tire in turn 4 of the last lap of the race. I’ll stay right away from the irony of that in years to come. I did, of course, write the eulogy. In some strange way it was rather nice to write about a driver that passed away from natural causes.
We left Welcome that day and continued on up to Martinsville; well, actually we always stayed in Stuart, about 30 miles up in the mountains above Martinsville itself… the little town that was home to the Wood Brothers, Glenn and Leonard. Most of our time, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday was always spent at the track, and on that weekend, probably on Friday morning, we were walking from the grandstand outside the main gate over to where the souvenir trailers were parked. That path takes one over the crossover road that provides access to the gated infield entrance, and as we were crossing, a large black vehicle came to a stop for pedestrian traffic. I looked up into the black Chevy Blazer and found I was staring eye to eye with my forever hero, Dale Earnhardt. I’m sure you’ve seen folks do “star-struck” imitations in movies or skits on TV, but gentle readers, I did one for real! I stood stock still, right in front of the Blazer so he could not enter the track and just stared, mouth agape, I’m sure. Don turned to me and asked if I knew who that was. I could only nod.
Of course, by that time, a crowd had gathered by the Blazer and when I regained motion in my legs, I would be last in line, hoping for an autograph. Unlike many fans, I’ve never sought autographs and normally wouldn’t walk six steps to get one, but this was different. This was Dale Earnhardt! By the time I got to the car, I was so afraid he’d be out of time and have to go into the infield, I was stammering and stuttering about how grateful I was that he’d still had time for me. He reached out and patted my arm… Dale Earnhardt patted my arm… and said, “Don’t worry Darlin’, we wouldn’t disappoint you.” Even today, 25 years later, I get goose bumps and my breath is taken away. Dale Earnhardt patted my arm and called me “Darlin’.” All I had with me for him to autograph was a small note pad, since I had not planned on meeting the greatest driver of all time. Sometimes, wonderful things just happen, and that day, one did. I have that autograph laminated and inserted in the corner of a picture hanging over my desk here in the office. In the picture are Dale, Cale Yarborough, and Neil Bonnett, taken at Dover in 1987.
Then gentle readers, we have the hat. I’ve no idea why someone chose to market a hat in light orchid and emblazoned with Dale’s name and number, but they did and I bought one. As it turned out, it was a great investment because folks could write on it with a Sharpie and it would show up, which did not happen on the many black ones I also owned. Again, this was at Martinsville, and probably happened before my chance encounter with Dale. We always had seats on the aisle right above the start-finish line and as close to the top as I could get them. There were no reserved seats in that day, so when tickets went on sale, I was on my dial phone from 8:00 until I was able to get through to the Martinsville ticket office. This usually took place almost a year ahead of the race itself. I am a very persistent little bulldog.
One of the perks of those seats was that they were directly under the press box, which in those days was not that fancy suite you see today. I’d say the word “box” described it fairly well back then. There were no fancy elevators or sneaky back-stair ways to get there either. Bob [Jenkins], Ned [Jarrett] and Benny [Parsons] all had to pass right by us to get to their little aerie above the track. Bob always gave us a “Hi”, as did Ned, and Ned did stop to talk one day when he was a bit early. That day I not only had the orchid hat but a camera as well. “Gentleman Ned” as he was always known, was happy to sign the hat and pose for a picture.
Now, whose signature is on the hat besides that of Ned Jarrett? That would be none other than Richard Childress. My allegiance never strays far from home. That one was the product of another chance meeting, ironically at that same crossover road between infield and parking lot. This time it was after a race, and we were on our way back out to our car. Traffic leaving Martinsville is the same as at any other track… inching forward or stopped dead… and that included traffic trying to exit the infield. Helicopters had not yet become the accepted mode of escape. The automobile was still king in southern Virginia, and right there, first in line, sat Richard Childress, a victim of a traffic jam like every other fan. We stopped and talked for a few minutes, then so as not to be obnoxious, said we’d be moving on. I guess talking to a couple of mature folks, one of which was an obvious Earnhardt/Childress fan must have seemed preferable to being assailed by who knows what or whom if we relinquished our spot by the car window, so he asked us if we could please stay until traffic began to move in his favor. Only then did I take off the orchid hat and ask him to sign it on the same brim where Ned had signed it.
That’s it as far as my autographs go gentle readers. As I told you, I’ve never actively sought one from anyone. Don had a couple that I guess are still tucked away in a program somewhere. I know he had Mark Martin and I think Darrell Waltrip, and he had an autographed picture of Alan Kulwicki, mounted on a plaque, which I gave him for his birthday in 1992. That one became precious and priceless far too soon, and it too now hangs here in the office.
There were many, many times when it was possible to get autographs, but that just never much interested me, and I have to say, it would interest me far less today, when drivers sign by appointment and seldom even look up at the faces that comprise the long lines of folks waiting for their 20 seconds of non-contact. I have my three, but far more important than those autographs was the time I spent with each of the signers… up close, personal time, the memory of which is so much more important to me than the ink that dried on paper or fabric. That ink is frozen in time, but my memories are still living, still breathing and still wonderful. Come on! Dale Earnhardt touched my arm and called me “Darlin’!”
One day perhaps I’ll tell you why I don’t have Benny Parsons’ autograph, but right now I’ve talked far too much and it is past time for our Classic Country Closeout. I must say that I’m surprised at the almost total lack of response on those old radio shows from Hank Williams and his Drifting Cowboys. Perhaps I’m older than I thought. Today, let’s visit a few of the old “story” songs by some of the great storytellers of days past. I’ve purposely chosen to play ones that were not the most popular, but the ones this old fan prefers to listen to.
Here then are Lulubelle and Scotty Wiseman to start us off with a rather tearful old song called, “Rocking Alone in an Old Rocking Chair.”
Next is one done by several artists with the most remembered being Rusty Draper, Jim Reeves and Walter Brennan… what an interesting trio. I love Walter Brennan to death, but for this song, I’ve chosen Jim Reeves. Rusty had the biggest hit with it, but there is always something so compelling in the dulcet tones of Jim Reeves that I simply have to play his instead. Here then is Jim Reeves offering his version of, “Shifting, Whispering Sands.”
Finally, comes a song, or story if you will, inspired by the textile mills of the South in the days when cotton was king. This one is told from a rather different point of view… that of the boll weevil, that crop destroying little bug that crossed the southern border just to make life miserable for the cotton farmers. This, I believe, is the original offering and the song, “Boll Weevil” is done here by Tex Ritter. Please enjoy:
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!