That Magic Window You Climb Through
The kid was two months from turning six years old when he was taken to his first stock car race on a half-mile dirt track not far from his home. From the moment the first race car fired the engine, the kid was hooked on that sound. As the cars went out onto the slick track to "iron out" the surface for racing, the colors, the sounds, the smells, all blended into a tapestry that would continue to be woven with care for many, many years to come. The beginning was an August night in September of 1952.
All the way home that night the kid could not stop talking about all he had taken in on that magic night. Whether or not he realized it at the time, the sport of stock car racing would consume his life from that point on. As he lay his head on the pillow that night sleep came quickly, as did the dreams about what it would be like to actually drive one of those race cars and the wheels were set in motion that would lead to one day climbing through the magic window of a stock car racer to compete on that same track where he saw his first race.
When the kid got old enough that his parents would trust him with a bicycle, it was not long before all the kids in the neighborhood were painting race car numbers on pieces of cardboard and taping them to the front of their bikes. Tracks were built in several locations, from an almost half mile road course, to two high banked tracks, one resembling Darlington and another resembling nothing more than the imagination of the kids who built it as the only superspeedway in NASCAR at the time was Darlington. Races were between 50 laps on the road course and 500 laps on most of the other tracks. Scoring was kept by the leader shouting out the lap count each time he crossed the start/finish line. Those races could be very exciting at times, especially the battles between the top two "drivers" who always seemed to be involved in the side-by-side racing and always finished one-two, or so it seemed.
School was the little inconvenience that got in the way of our daily racing in summer. The season never ended for the band of 12 boys who circulated the neighborhood, racing every day except Sunday. Nevertheless, school was a requirement parents and society enforced. Fortunately for the kid, his friends were all there with him and the subject of every lunch time conversation was about racing, either of the bike kind, or the NASCAR race over the weekend. All notebooks were covered with drawings of race cars and race tracks. It was school, but for the kid and his crew, it was always racing related.
Alliances with the drivers of the day were set in stone. Your favorite driver was beyond reproach no matter what, and the kid's driver was always the best, at least to hear the kid tell it. The kids, all of them, had met their favorite drivers and had actually spent many hours hanging around talking and learning racing from the stars of the day. Drivers were easily accessible then.
The kid did ok in school, mostly A's and B's. In his Senior Year, he decided to take a public speaking class taught by the reported "meanest teacher" in the school district. The rules for the class were simple; you could speak on any subject you wished except for the one speech by someone famous you were required to memorize and a couple of speeches on specific subjects as assigned by that "mean" teacher. The kid loved that teacher from the very first class because she told you what was expected and the kid loved the challenge of meeting those expectations. Every speech the kid made, with the exception of the required topics, was on stock car racing. By the end of the year the entire class knew more about stock car racing than probably any other subject taught in any class. The kid's year book was signed, page after page, with good wishes in the "doubtless racing career ahead".
The kid graduated the year things were starting to get really hot in a small country half-way around the world… Viet Nam. The kid only wanted to race but he knew he needed to get the military service behind him so he immediately joined the Navy. During his stint in the Navy, he introduced all his shipmates to stock car racing, even taking several of them to events in Richmond, Langley Field, Darlington and Daytona. As much as the kid enjoyed that, it was all tempered by count down until discharge day so he could get started racing.
The kid was discharged in September, 1968, and headed home to South Carolina. He had saved some money while in the Navy but didn't have enough to build or buy a race car. He took a job that paid a living wage with enough left over each week to put in a savings account for a race car. The kid also had all the same friends from the bicycle days who believed in him and wanted him to race as much as he wanted it.
On Monday evening, August 20, 1969, the kid got a call from one of the friends advising that he had found a race car for sale just across town. Arrangements were made to go see the car on Tuesday night. The kid and several friends rode over to the address where the car was located. It was apparent from the start that the owner of the car had his price set in stone and that price was $600 more than the group had. Nevertheless, the kid told the owner of the car that he would be back the next night to pick up the car.
One of the kid's friends put up some money but there was still not enough to buy the car. The kid went to the bank where he had his checking account and had become friends with the manager. The kid talked the manager into loaning him the needed $400 to cover the shortage as a loan to buy a car. Never mind the car had only one seat and numbers painted on it. The manager never asked to see the car.
That night the kid and his crew headed over to the car owner's house with a friend's pickup truck and a chain to pull home the car. A check was written and the car was hooked up and towed across town. It was the night before the race at the local speedway and the kid and his crew were so excited about finally going racing they couldn't sleep anyway so they spent the night sitting around the car and talking about what a wonderful future the kid was going to have driving race cars. Talk was of how many Southern 500s and Daytona 500s we would win and the truth is, we believed it all.
The next day the kid went to work as usual while two of his crew took the day off and worked on the car. When the kid got home that night, the oil had been changed, the spark plugs replaced, properly gapped, and the kid's name painted on the door. A few racing product stickers were placed on the car. The kid and his crew didn't realize these companies paid the big drivers for display of those decals. To the assembled group of kids, now young adults, they were going racing and that's all that mattered.
Race night was hot and sticky as are August nights in South Carolina. The car was hooked to the back of the same friend's truck that brought the car "home.” Upon arrival at the track, the kid bought his NASCAR license. There was not enough money to buy licenses for the crew but that was not a problem as they just rode in with the car.
Many people who had listened to the kid talk racing for 19 years came to the track and assembled in the infield in turn four, many with signs encouraging the first-time driver to do well. The car was unchained, pushed back, and the crew checked lugs to be sure everything was tight. Officials were calling for all cars in that division to get on the track and begin the "ironing out" process, which is to say take a soupy red clay watery mess and dry it out to a smooth racing surface that would become much like asphalt. It was time… time to climb through that magic window of a real race car.
The kid put one leg in, ducked his head, and then pulled in the other leg. His helmet was handed through the window and the kid put it on, pulled the straps tight, buckled up the belts and flipped the switch on the dash and mashed the starter button. He had already sat in the car at his house with the motor running and already knew that feeling of power, but it was different at the track. There was magic there; there was the hope of a future in racing lurking around those turns. Climbing through that window was a feeling of euphoria unlike anything the kid had ever dared to dream.
The kid eased the white car onto the slick track and as he had seen his heroes do for so many years, proceeded slowly around the track to allow the engine to properly warm. As he rolled through the fourth turn, the kid looked over to see all his friends gathered there, cheering wildly because they were watching a dream become reality. Lord knows, they had heard about this night long enough.
Looking through the windshield, the kid could see the track he had watched so many drivers race on through the years. The guardrails were oak wood in the turns and railroad tracks mounted on steel posts on the front straight. The stands looked smaller from the driver's seat but the infield looked larger. Perception was different for the kid than ever it had been.
When the practice/track ironing was over, the kid climbed out of the car, not sure he wasn't dreaming all that had just happened. The feeling of putting his foot down on the accelerator and flying down the straights and flying through the turns. Had he been asked to describe the feeling of being on that track, words would have failed him, something not common to that kid.
Drivers’ meeting was held and positions were drawn for the start of the heat race. The kid drew sixth position in the first heat race. The cars were lined up on the track and the kid sat in his car realizing he was about to compete in his first race. Two pace laps and the starter waved the green flag as the kid was coming off turn four. Almost immediately, three of the cars starting ahead of him tangled and were spinning wildly. Almost instinctively, the kid cut to the inside and came through the mess running second going into turn one. As he hit the brakes to slow, the pedal went to the floor and it was clear he had no brakes. The white car went really high in turn one and then pulled down against the infield embankment where the still-wet mud would slow him down.
The mess on the front straight was cleaned up and the green waved again with the kid on the outside front row. For maybe the first three feet, the kid was leading but the swift Ford to his inside took the advantage and raced into turn one. The kid was hard on the gas directly behind the Ford when he recalled he had no brakes. Well, the Ford had brakes, so all the kid had to do was bump into him and be slowed. The kid hit the Ford driver pretty hard, which was not appreciated by said Ford driver. So it went for the 10 laps constituting a heat race. When the race ended, the kid had to take an extra lap to get slowed enough to safely enter the pits. Fortunately, one of the crew had figured out there were no brakes so they were able to grab the roll bars and get the car stopped.
The crew went to work and used electric tape to patch the brake line that was cut. Brakes were repaired and the kid was ready to race the 25-lap feature where he would start inside second row. The second heat race seemed to last forever and then it was time for the upper division to hold their two 25-lap heat races. The kid had to keep looking at his watch to be sure it was only the passage of minutes, NOT days, keeping him off the track.
Finally the call for the kid and his group to return to the track. The cars began their pace laps and peace had been made with the Ford driver about the bumping when the brake problem was explained. The kid looked through the windshield as the Ford driver gave him the "thumbs up" sign going down the back straight.
As the cars exited turn four, the green flag was displayed and the race was on. The kid raced in second place, directly on the bumper of the lead Ford and tried a pass on the inside a couple of times but couldn't pull it off. On the last lap, coming off turn two, the kid tried the outside pass and pulled almost even with the Ford, but that allowed the third place car to take the inside spot and as the pack exited turn four, the kid was in a very close third place.
As the kid pulled in the pits, one would have thought the Daytona 500 had just been won. All the friends were going wild behind the pit fence and the crew was actually jumping up and down with the finish. The kid who had climbed through that magic window was now officially a NASCAR race driver, never mind in the lowest division in NASCAR at the time, but the license he received from Daytona a week later said "NASCAR".
In those days, days of the kid, many young men would find the means to buy or build a race car and climb through that magic window to feel the heartbeat of a well-tuned, powerful engine and compete. Some had success, some not so much, but it is never to say one failed by not becoming a star or winning a race. Racing was a passion, unlike any other sport, or any other endeavor. Thinking back, the kid wonders if he would climb into a car like that first one in 1969 to race. Safety features were there, if you consider a sparse roll cage and a driver's seat which was once the driver's seat in a school bus to be “features.” Would he? Would you?
The magic window of a race car is just that for someone with the passion. Climbing through that window opens up the magic world of being more than you are… being what you could only dream about as the kid. To have dreamed it was one thing; to actually climb through that window is amazing. Even today, the no longer kid can remember that first race as if it happened 10 minutes ago. Time passes and memories fade, but not that memory.