#60 - Kid Lightning
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
When old time fans gather together to discuss the heroes of yesteryear, names like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, and David Pearson are always mentioned with near reverence. But in his time, there was one driver, who despite limited factory support and a special challenge in the common sense department, beat them all like a drum when things went his way. That driver is of course, Kid Lightning, if not the greatest racer ever to turn a wheel on the track, certainly one of the most persistent.
Born Matthew Leichtzinger on April 1st 1950, the Kid was the 8th of 10 brothers born to the clan. The son of a prosperous automobile agency owner, and grandson of one of the South's most notorious moonshiners (Whitey Leichtzinger, AKA White Lightning, perhaps the originator of the term White Lightning for corn liquor) the Kid was born into one of the most prosperous families in Houston Hollow, North Carolina. (No great shakes considering the poverty of the town in those days, which those from Charlotte invariably referred to as "Hoot and Holler".) While prosperous, the Leichtzinger family was not well regarded by the town's gentry, including the Minister who regularly preached each of the vile Leichtzinger Boys was twice as fit for hell as the one before him. The Minister had a point. The Leichtzinger boys were well noted for breaking jaws and traffic laws, not to mention breaking up an occasional marriage with their incessant tomcatting around. Matthew may have been the best behaved of the lot, but that's like trying to decide which is the most pleasant form of flu.
Having ridden go carts and motorcycles from an early age, the Kid's first car was a '39 Ford purchased from his grandfather's wrecking yard, while he was still the tender age of 11. The car was outfitted with a hopped up Chevy 327 thundering through worn out glass-packs, and painted "Carolina Gray" (as in gray primer.) The car was soon the scourge of the community, as the Kid seemed to confuse local roadways with race tracks. He attributes his survival to "a guardian angel Richard Petty taught to drive." At 12, two years before he was of age, the Kid built his first race car, a '39 Chevy painted in the family's trademark silver, and running number "00b" in honor of his daddy, who was seven time track champion at the Houston Hollow Speedrome in the infamous "00" Fords. To help distinguish his car from his dad's (who was still racing at that time) and because he ran out of silver paint, the roof of the "00b" was painted a shade of blue the Kid recalls as "a shade deeper then Petty blue and a hell of a lot prettier." The silver and blue 00 cars would remain the Kid's trademark throughout his career.
Matthew entered the car under the name of his older brother Henry, who had retired from racing to pursue a full time career in drinking heavily. The ruse proved to be a fine one for Matthew, who got to go out there and race, then make a hasty exit while all the racers he wrecked stood in line to beat the snot out of Henry. The Kid's driving style was compared to "a blind drunken man who confused an oval track race with a demolition derby." Still, while a bit wild, Matthew was fast and he won his third race out at the track, actually winning on his roof after getting into another car while racing to the line. Once his treachery was discovered, Matthew was allowed to keep racing, because the locals drove from miles around to see his antics. It was his tender age that earned him the nickname "Kid" which was to stick with him all his life. While he won his fair share of championships and races, the Kid's style was such that he either went home with a trophy, or with what was left of his car shoveled into paper sacks. To finance his career, the Kid started "Thunder Road Brewery" selling beer to other underage kids, to keep his tiny dirt floor race shop open. That same Thunder Road Beer is still produced under contract with a local brewery and currently sells for 10 dollars a bottle in the tony clubs of Los Angeles.
The Kid made his first Grand National (now Winston Cup) start during the tragedy-marred World 600 of 1964, while still only 14. His older brother Paul saw the wreck that killed Fireball Roberts and immediately pulled into the pits and retired from racing. The Kid could not see the wreck from the pit, but was so furious that a perfectly good race car was just sitting there ready to go, he hopped on in, and took to the track in it. As he recalls it, the sight of that fiery wreckage did give him pause, but once the green flag dropped he put the thought aside and started passing cars right and left. As a longtime friend, Junior Johnson, once commented, "I don't know if the Kid was just the bravest SOB I ever met, or if he was just too damned stupid to be afraid. I'm guessing the latter." Once Bill France figured out who was at the wheel of that car, he threatened to suspend the Kid for life if he didn't pit and get out of the car immediately. Threats of lifetime suspension were as common during the Kid's career as boneheaded wrecks.
At 16, the Kid began running the Cup circuit full time. His crew consisted of a good friend, Catfish John, several of his brothers, his dimwitted best friend Virgil Kane, and the Kid's long suffering girlfriend, Carolina Charlotte North, better known as Carrie. He recalls those days fondly in his autobiography, labeling the rag tag group, " a bunch of long-haired country boys without a teaspoon of sense between us, kept out of trouble by Carrie, and living on hot dogs boiled on the manifold of a beat up old Ford truck we used to haul the car, washed down with copious amounts of beer." While he usually ran better than his equipment allowed, the Kid turned some heads, by being able to battle occasionally with the legends of the sport, though more often he inadvertently wrecked them. His first of 37 eventual wins in NASCAR's top division came at the infamous Black Rock Speedway in West Virginia. (Now the site of a nuclear waste dump.) A night race run on Halloween, it featured 500 laps on the grueling high banked dirt half mile oval. That night's race was made that much tougher by the fact the last 10 laps were run in a violent thunderstorm, which knocked out the lights on the last lap, and turned the track into a swamp. The Kid's heartfelt celebration in the track's muddy victory lane, is forever etched in the memories of those few fans who didn't have the sense to run for cover by that point. In an ironic twist, as Kid Lightning celebrated his first win, a bolt of lightning came down and split the tree directly behind him. In a panic to get down off the car before he ended up fried as well, the Kid slipped on the wet roof and broke a collarbone. Perhaps Richard Petty summed it up best by saying “A driver had to be a damn fool to want to race at Black Rock. That night the Kid was the biggest damn fool out there."
While he won no other races that season, the Kid did come close to taking the honors at the inaugural race at Talladega. He was one of the few Grand National regulars to compete at that boycotted event, against the strong wishes of Carrie, who feared for his life. The Kid was leading on the last lap when his worn out tires finally let loose, and he went high out of the final corner giving the race to Richard Brickhouse. Still, Talladega would become his favorite track, and the Kid won 7 races there. In a sad irony, that same track almost took his life in 1987, when a bad wreck sent him rolling end over end 13 times, and left him badly injured. That wreck was the worst of the Kid's career, and as he recalls, "during the long recuperation I found both God and the bottle. I just wish I had paid more attention to the former and less to the latter." It was a problem with alcohol and pain pills that started during that recuperation that would one day end the Kid's career.
Still, he seemed to be doing well. The Kid married Carrie in Las Vegas during the ride home from Riverside, then remarried her in the infield at the Daytona 500, with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison as groomsmen, because the racing community was miffed they hadn't been invited to the original service. While he won occasionally, the Kid will perhaps best be remembered as the Forest Gump of NASCAR. In 1967 when the King won 27 races and the championship, the Kid finished second in points. (Which, as he puts it, "Is sort of like saying the English came in second in the Revolutionary War.") In 1973, he helped Benny Parsons win the championship by subbing for Benny at Bristol and driving the car to the victory. During the same season, at the finale at Rockingham, the Kid and his crew helped piece back together Benny's Chevy to allow him to go out for a few more laps and win the title. The Kid was the first driver ever to be wrecked by Dale Earnhardt, during Dale's very first Cup start. One drunken evening, the Kid's tongue got a little loose, and he accidentally explained how to pull a slide job to Dale. At the 1984 Firecracker 400 the Kid was instrumental in helping Richard Petty win his 200th victory. With two laps to go, the Kid accidentally got his radio wire caught up in the steering wheel, wrecked and flipped his car. While he was able to drive away, the wreck bought out a caution that allowed the King to take the win. After the race, then President Reagan asked Petty, "What sort of fool flips his car over at 190 MPH and then keeps on driving?" The King replied, "That would be Kid Lightning, sir. He's our kind of fool." Leichtzinger relief drove for Petty at his final Pepsi 400, after the King succumbed to exhaustion. He bought the car home 11th, the best finish for the 43 car that season. The Kid also gave Jeff Gordon his first Busch series start, driving for a team he co-owned with Carrie.
While past his prime, the Kid still managed to win a second World 600, though some still say because his sponsor was so chummy with Charlotte's owner, the car was allowed to run underweight. To this day Leichtzinger still claims if the car was illegal he didn't know anything about it. His biggest victory was certainly the 1995 Daytona 500, a race he was awarded after the driver flagged the winner was disqualified for a minor rules infraction. A series of personal tragedies within his family, disastrous experiences with sponsors who were crooks, and his increasing drinking eventually wound up costing the Kid his career and marriage in 1996.
NASCAR's record books have been expunged of any mention of the Kid, due to an incident that occurred that off season. The Kid had once again fallen off the wagon (something he did so regularly that winter, he winces recalling it and jokes that perhaps that wagon ought to drag a mattress behind it to keep him from getting so busted up) during the Big Red boat cruise. Denied a chance to pilot the boat, the Kid mooned Bill and Betty Jane France, earning himself a third lifetime suspension, and NASCAR's corporate wrath.
Once again sober, and reunited with Carrie, Kid Leichtzinger keeps talking about a comeback. He has in fact made several Busch and Truck series starts over the past couple years, under assumed names to get around that suspension of his. There were even rumors flying around at Bristol it was Kid Lightning, not Buckshot Jones, in that 00 car in the Busch race that caused the big wreck. Certainly, the driver showed the old Kid Lightning style. Considering the possibility of a Kid Lightning comeback in Winston Cup, The Kid's old friend, Dale Earnhardt, can only smile and shake his head. " If the Kid ever gets to race in this series again, NASCAR better tear out the front 20 rows of seats, cause as hard and dumb as he drives, that's most likely where Matt will wind up… on the parade lap."
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.