Every Fan Needs a Racing Buddy
Snow flew today.
Race season is over. For race fans there are only two seasons-race season and season to prep for the next race season. It’s time for the other season.
Now that we are in the other there is a lot of work to do to get ready for the next one. New driver/team/sponsor combos mean there are new hats, shirts, jackets, and other paraphernalia to buy.
Got tickets ordered? Scanner, ear plugs, seat cushions and cooler put away where they can find them in a few short weeks? RV winterized? Reservations made?
Only thing missing is a Racing Buddy. Every Race Fan needs a Racing Buddy.
Not to be confused with NASCAR’s on-line Race Buddy, a Racing Buddy is that someone who goes to the track with you, someone who shares in the racing experience.
Race fans know that racing is awesome. It gets in your blood. It becomes a part of you. Although Television does its best to capture the experience, it doesn’t hold a candle to experiencing racing live. The only thing that makes the racing experience better is sharing it with someone.
That’s where your Racing Buddy comes in.
Depending on where you are in life and in your fan career it can be a spouse, parent, child, friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, relative, neighbor or maybe a co-worker. Racing is just better if you have someone to share your racing with.
There is probably a better term for them. A new, hip, modern term. Something more appealing, cool, sick, or whatever descriptive term is used today. If officially endorsed by NASCAR it must begin with the letter E though. Whatever they were called when you went racing, it’s OK to use it in place of Racing Buddy here. The term is not as important as the person and their role in your “fanness.”
I’ve been richly blessed to have several over my nearly six decades of being a racing fan. I’ve mentioned some in my earlier writings. I’ll share others later on. As great as all the racing has been, each has made it so much better than going it alone. Each has been special in their own way.
My first Racing Buddy is someone very special to me, my baby sister, Susan. Two years younger, she was alongside as far back as I can remember.
When this snow is gone, we’re going racing!
Dad was a big race fan. Mom was too. So we were race fans whether we wanted to be or not. Being blessed to live in an area that had three local tracks, summer weekends would usually find us at one or more of them. We grew up at the track.
We grew up Racing Buddies.
I can’t remember her first race. My earliest racing memory was at the Owensboro Speedway. The night was hyped up as it was the big car debut of the “Wild Child”, Darrell Waltrip. A wreck ended his night before it started. Even at that early age I remember thinking, “Well, that was really something” and my disdain for overhype was born that night.
Susan was probably there as we were a racing family.
My earliest race memory for her was at the Kentucky Motor Speedway. It had been a long day and she had held on for as long as she could. Before the “show” was over, amidst the noise and chaos of the feature race she gave up the ghost and somehow fell asleep. Mom laid her on the empty bleacher seat in front of her and seated me next to her to put a hand on her, to watch her and make sure she didn’t fall off. It was tough to watch the feature, one eye on the track and the other on my sleeping sister, but somehow managed.
That’s what Racing Buddies do.
Weekend after weekend it was Owensboro Speedway, Kentucky Motor Speedway, or my favorite Ellis Speedway. Mom liked Kentucky because it was paved. Ellis started as dirt but was later paved. After that, we spent more time there. But it didn’t matter, if there was a race, we were likely there, together.
Often times, if the night’s race had been crash-filled and ran long, our parents would pull up in the driveway after the drive from Newman in West Daviess County only to find us asleep on the backseat floorboards, Sis behind Mom and me behind Dad, our heads using the drive shaft hump for a pillow.
Locally, we had favorite drivers-I liked “Stokey” Hamberg and she pulled for his brother John. And like good race fans we cheered on Stokey and John and were ecstatic if they won, clapped for others if they were fortunate enough to beat them and boo’ed (until we’d get caught by our parents), those we didn’t like. As Racing Buddies, we’d relive the Hambergs’ wins and mope over “those cheaters” who beat them.
Early on, Stokey drove the #96 coupe for Gil’s Radiator Shop out of Hartford, KY. When our Uncle Jim, who lived nearby scored a visit for us to see the car stored in the back of the radiator shop, you would have thought it was Christmas Day and Daytona rolled into one.
She, like me and my cousin Jeff, and my young uncle Terry, crawled and climbed everywhere we were allowed to on the blue and yellow coupe and saw and touched everything we were able to. Talk about giving racing a new perspective!
As we grew, our racing soon expanded to new for us tracks-Bowling Green, Haubstadt and Salem. It was at Salem, we first got to see Indy Car drivers whose names we had heard on WOMI broadcasts of the 500 tackle the high banks there-Foyt, Andretti, Unser....
As our racing expanded, so did our interests in favorite drivers. Dad, Mom, and I liked A. J. Foyt. Susan, now ever the contrarian, was a die-hard Mario Andretti fan. How could she?!?! That lead to many a serious discussion, with me, trying to reason with her, trying to convert her, to get her to see the light. I would throw out logical reason after logical reason why she was pulling for the wrong guy and her defense was always a laughingly, “Mario is a better driver… plus he looks so dreamy.”
Her first point would tick me off and her second… well, there was no swaying her on that.
Racing was part of our play as well. Most neighborhood kids of our era played outside. Foot races were a big deal back then, but our neighborhood did it different as we raced around Steve Roberts’ house, our pretend Kentucky Motor Speedway. Susan was always in the thick of those races, especially the powder-puff races. When we moved up to racing bicycles, she tried her hand at that for a while, but she operated at a distinct disadvantage… she had a girl’s bike, so her racing success was limited.
When we started going to the USAC races at DuQuoin, IL, the importance of having a Racing Buddy grew. Three days of racing and camping meant there was also a lot of time at the campgrounds and at the fairgrounds. It was always easier to introduce yourself to other kids in the campground so you could hang out when it was two of you. Two made it easier to go to the Bettenhausen camp and hang out and listen to their racing stories.
The Fair Rides were always a lot more fun together as well. Plus, she was never bashful about asking for what she wanted, so I found myself the silent beneficiary of her pleadings for fair snacks when our parents would occasionally cave to her persistent requests.
Even when we weren’t at races we were racing., If Mom and Dad had listened in on the intercom of our truck camper on our big family vacation across the great West they would have heard us collaborating on a song about Bobby Unser set to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” (see I started early... but I had help!). It worked because my voice hadn’t changed yet.
Together, we finally reached the ultimate-NASCAR. It was back to Nashville when we would get to see Petty, Pearson, Isaac and the others. Together, we had come a long way from those Daviess County bullrings to finally see the best of the best. It had been quite a journey.
As we grew up, life changed. When it came to racing, we began to grow apart. Somehow, racing became a “guy” thing as it was now Dad and I racing. Ellis and KMS fell away, replaced by Windy Hollow and Central City. Stokey Hamburg was replaced by Maxey Colyer. The faraway races weren’t USAC and ARCA but NASCAR’s Talladega and Atlanta. We even made it to the Indy 500, a race Dad could only dream of.
One of my lasting racing memories together with my sis was back at Salem. This was one time when Dad decided we’d go up early and camp at the track. We had the place to ourselves and after we played all the camp games and with nothing else to do asked if we could “walk the track.” To our surprise, our parents said if you can get in, have at it. Just one lap though and then come back.
“Walking the Track” was the old open-wheel drivers’ pre-race prep where they would get an up-close look at the surface, see where to run and where to avoid. Knowing the surface, especially dirt surfaces was as critical as the car’s setup. Knowing where to run and what to avoid was as important to winning as horsepower.
We were finally going to get our chance to do what we had often dreamed of doing.
We looked around and found a place to get in. We slipped over the guard rail and tried to keep from tumbling down the 33-degree banking. Once at the bottom of the track being on that side of the fence was like nothing we’d seen before. The banks were so high. The straights so long. The surface was hardly as smooth as it looked from the stands. Looking back at the bleachers you could almost hear the fans cheering now like they would be tomorrow.
We climbed back to the top of the Turn One banking, just to see if we could. There, while resting on the guardrail, the track’s history and our racing memories began to weave together. In 1956, about where we rested against the guardrail, 1955 Indy 500 winner and National Champion Bob Sweikert lost control, cleared the fence and crashed outside the track to his death.
The next day from our seats at the end of the front straightaway we would watch the open-wheelers and hold our collective breaths hoping the high banks would contain the battles, silently praying another one would never leave the track again. None ever left while we attended races there but in 1992, a young Tony Stewart would exit the track. Thankfully for him and the racing nation, the outcome was different.
We almost tumbled back down and continued on. We walked the long backstretch where open wheelers and stock cars alike would jockey and dice, making their moves to get into position to pass in Turns Three and Four. The groove on that end of the track was high, almost against the wall. A lot of action took place there.
It was on that end of the track where we saw Iggy Katrina knock ol DW (then young DW, the “Wild Child”) out of the lead to take the win. DW’s plan was to use the winnings from that race to cover honeymoon expenses for his new bride, Stevie Rader. Unfortunately, DW hadn’t counted on Mr. Katona taking the big money, resulting in a significant changes to the Waltrips’ nuptial plans.
Out of Turn Four and onto the front straightaway and under the pedestrian bridge. We never got a chance to walk over it, even though we always wanted to. Dad saw nothing good about the infield, even though to us kids it looked perfect. It was so big and had so much grass and so much room to play. But we had seen tragedy strike in the infield when an errant wheel came through the infield fence and struck fans watching from where we wanted to play. Later, at a race we would have gone to but chose to stay home and watch it on ESPN we, along with a viewing racing nation watched in horror as Rich Vogler struck the fence at the bridge and lost his life
Finally, across the Start/Finish line where we had seen victor after victor in stock cars and open-wheel cars take the Checkers. We’d also seen Larry Dickson come sliding across it upside down with sparks a’flying off his new open-wheel contraption- the full roll cage.
We finished our only lap and headed back to the camper. Tomorrow the place would be nothing but chaos and noise... today, silence except for the eerie popping and creaking of the ARMCO barriers expanding in the summer sun. We hadn’t said much on our journey. Didn’t really have to. A good Racing Buddy just knows.
So with the off-season in full swing off, Christmas right here upon us, New Year’s Day just a Stage break away, as you prep for the upcoming season just a few short weeks away, use this time to get your Racing Buddy lined up. You’ll be glad you did.
And like Sue said, in almost sixty years of being a race fan I’ve been blessed with the best. May you be so fortunate.
When this snow is gone, we’re going racing!