My Intro to Charlotte Motor Speedway
This story starts in the wrong sport: basketball. I was in Charlotte, N.C., for the 1969 Southern Conference Basketball Tournament. The University of Richmond was a member of the SC in those days and was seeded seventh in the tourney. I was a cheerleader (stop snickering).
This is a picture from eBay, not my ticket.
The Spiders managed to win their opening-round game, so we had an extra day to spend in town before the semifinal against dreaded Davidson (led by Mike Maloy, Doug Cook and a strong supporting cast, the Wildcats were clearly the class of the league). Since I had driven to the tournament and had a car available, I decided to wander over to Charlotte Motor Speedway and check things out.
I’d been a race fan for several years by then but had not yet made it to a race at Charlotte. The World 600 always took place around exam time, and I had yet to bump racing ahead of college football as a fall priority - although that would happen soon. But on a Friday afternoon in late February, I drove out to see the big track.
There had been a few improvements to Charlotte between this 1966 picture, and my 1969 experience, but the place still looked a lot more like this photo than it does today.
There was no security or fences/gates, so I drove up to one of the grandstand entrances, parked, and walked in, drawn by the sound of a car on the track. Had I shown up during a tire test?
I looked down from the top of the stands and saw a current-model Plymouth GTX or Roadrunner bookin’ it around the mile-and-a-half. From the outside, it looked like a regular, “civilian” car, but the handful of workers doing routine maintenance were paying it no mind, so I assumed it was legit… although, when the driver misjudged the stopping distance to the exit gate on the backstretch and skidded a few hundred feet to a halt, I kind of figured I wasn’t watching Richard Petty.
I have absolutely no recollection what color the GTX I encountered was painted, but it had the same number of tires/wheels as this one.
Once the mystery Plymouth left the track, I returned to my car and drove to the speedway office, which in those days was an old house right in front of one of the main entrances. I was going to go in and see what was there, with no particular mission in mind - but as I got out of my car, the fast Plymouth pulled up next to me. A wiry guy who looked to be in his late 20s got out, came over, and asked if I’d seen him on the track. He introduced himself and declared that he was the proud owner of four shares of Charlotte Motor Speedway stock.
“… and I figure anybody that owns a share of the track ought to be able to use it.”
Tire test, indeed.
My new friend then volunteered that some other guys were down in the infield and asked if I wanted to go down to meet them. Now at some point earlier in my life - perhaps at many such points, in fact - I’m sure my Momma told me never to get into a car with a stranger, but this was Charlotte Motor Speedway… so off we went.
In those days, the parking lot at CMS was frequently used for an earth-moving equipment school between races, and the grooming of on-facility roadways wasn’t always perfect, but that incidental was lost on my friend, and if we didn’t leave the ground once or twice during our trek from the track office to the backstretch pit/infield entrance, it sure felt like we did. It only got smoother when we pulled through the gate and onto the track.
Then it got faster.
That Plymouth accelerated “right good,” and by the end of the first lap, the speedometer needle was buried. I couldn’t tell you if we were doing exactly 120 or something more, but I could tell you we were going fast - way too fast!
Any resemblance between what’s happening in this photo and my 1969 experience at Charlotte is purely fantasy. If you see it, you need glasses.
I was also aware that, while I had seen cars racing at Charlotte on TV, and they seemed to hold a pretty consistent line through the turns, my friend’s “line” was more like those Sunday “Family Circus” cartoon strips where little Billy is taking dozens of detours to elongate the straight line between wherever he is and home. One minute the Plymouth was down near the apron; the next minute, we were up to the guardrail. It did not inspire confidence.
After three laps, I allowed as how I’d had enough. I’m sure I tried to make it sound like something other than, “I’m scared shitless,” but I’m just as sure that’s how it came across.
My “Intro to Charlotte Motor Speedway” course had one more element, though. Mr. “Four-Shares-of-Stock” slowed, slowed, slowed and stopped - almost - up near the wall in the middle of the third and fourth turns.
“Doesn’t it feel like we’re going to fall down off the track?”
“Yes, it does. Now I need to leave.”
I never did meet the “other guys” in the pits.
He apologized for scaring me and drove me back to the track office and my trusty ‘65 Chevy Impala (327), and then he offered me a chance to take my car out on the track. Having snow tires seemed a good enough excuse to decline, although I was more than a little tempted. We shook hands, and I returned to the comparative safety of basketball cheerleading. That night, Davidson beat Richmond, 97-83, and by Saturday, March 1, 1969, I was back home.
This is what I was driving in Charlotte that day, and I turned down the opportunity to give it a spin at CMS.
I haven’t owned or regularly driven a car with a V8 engine since that ‘65 Chevy, but I’d reclaim my old Toyota Echo from our son and his family if I thought I could get a picture if it on the CMS racing surface, just for the comic value. My current wheels, a Hyundai Elantra, would look better than it’d likely act on a race track, but that day at Charlotte comes back to haunt me from time to time.
And at today’s closing price for Speedway Motorsports stock, I could buy four shares for about $85. If they hadn’t already picked Alex Bowman to take Junior’s place… well, you’re never too old to dream.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Sometimes, reading about NASCAR can ruin your day. First there was the PR pap about the new Cup team fronted by Derrike Cope, which cheerfully said that opportunities would be available next year for “drivers with sponsorships.” Might as well just say, “We can be bought.”
Then we see another driver, Xfinity this time, fired because he wasn’t coming through with the promised sponsorship payments. What happened to replacing drivers because they didn’t get the job done? They used to have yellow bumpers for rookies; maybe now we need two different colors: one for drivers who have their rides because of talent; the other for those who have their rides because they can pay the sponsorship freight. Junie Donlavey is rolling over in his grave.
On the rules front, just when you think things can’t getting any wackier than putting Joey Logano in “time out” (maybe the NASCAR store will start offering dunce caps in a variety of designer colors, “designer” meaning they match sponsor colors for those that do a particularly good job of sweetening NASCAR’s financial coffers), NOW we have a third-place finish encumbered for a rules violation. Does that mean Gilliland can’t frame the results for his wall at home? Hey, Jeff Green, do something outrageously illegal on that #93, then pull out after one lap with your signature “vibration,” and see if your last-place finish is encumbered and they take away the single point you earned.
During the Cold War and for a while afterward, the Union of Concerned Scientists (or somebody like that) had an “Atomic Clock,” which ticked forward toward 12 (Armageddon) every time a world leader with nuclear weapons did something really dumb. I keep imagining one of those clocks for NASCAR’s existence, and right now the hands are spinning like a clock face being sucked down Alice’s rabbit hole.
I thought about making up an incredibly idiotic next dumb move from the Daytona suits, but I gave up. I just can’t top their reality.
Today Emmanuel Zervakis would keep the win but have it “encumbered,” and he might be required to sit in a cardboard cutout car with “Cheater, Cheater - What Would Your Momma Say?” on the side. (Actually, today’s NASCAR inspectors would probably have held up most of the field for failing template inspections.)