The Eclipse and a Race Car
August 21, 2017: Millions of people gathered at places all over this country to watch the sun be eclipsed by the moon for roughly 2 and a half minutes. Oh yes, I had the glasses and my wife and I sat on our deck and had the perfect view of this phenomenon. I can say it did get a little cooler and the crickets began to chirp at totality, but other than that I just was not amazed. Don't get me wrong here; I'm pleased we saw it. But that’s it. It was dark, now it is light again and by 8:30 pm in my time zone it will be dark again.
August 21, 1969, is the date that has the special meaning for me. I had been talking about being a NASCAR race driver since I was 5 years old (1952) and on this night in 1969, that talk was to become reality. My friends and I had bought a 1959 Plymouth from a guy who raced it weekly at the Columbia Speedway and got a good deal on it. We towed it home with Marty's Daddy's truck on Tuesday night. Wednesday we painted my name on the door and painted "PLYMOUTH" on the quarter-panel, changed the oil and changed the spark plugs.
Thursday evening, we hooked the Plymouth to the back of the same truck that towed the car home and pulled it to Columbia Speedway. I bought my NASCAR license that night (still have them) and prepared to become that race driver I had talked about for so long. We didn't have enough money between us to get my crew NASCAR licenses so we sort of used the old "sneak in the pits when no one was looking" scam.
When they called for practice for the Hobby Division I climbed in, buckled up and put on my helmet. Easing out of the pits onto the red clay track saturated from the water truck's continuous dowsing, I slowly made my way around the speedway. Climbing through that window the first time as a real race driver was pretty awesome, but as I circled that track, the feelings ran rampant. As I came slowly off turn four, I looked over to the infield where so many of my friends were gathered with poster signs to cheer me on. Every time I went by the cheers were loud. After all, these folks had been listening to my never ending talk of this night for almost 20 years.
When the practice was over, we went to the NASCAR Official (Dan Scott, a truly great man) to draw for starting positions in the heat race. Dan told me that the Plymouth I had always ran last every week and was the slowest car on the track so it was best for me to stay out of the way. I drew sixth starting position for the heat.
We made our pace laps and suddenly the green flag waved and I nailed that accelerator. The car starting outside front row was hit by the car in front of me which in turn slid down into the car starting third. I dove for the inside, missed the entire mess and came out running second behind the '57 Ford of Ray Cagle. The race was red flagged while they cleaned up the mess and then we made pace laps and on to the restart. We headed into turn one with Ray in front and I was in second. I was closing up fast and when I tapped the brakes, the pedal went to the floor. What a sight it must have been as fans watched my white Plymouth number 83 bump the back of the Ford of Cagle. I used him for a brake.
This went on the entire 10 laps and I could see the eyes of Mr. Cagle in his mirror as we entered each turn and I would bump him to slow myself down. Never really a hard hit, but it had to be annoying. The race ended with me being beaten by Ray although I was literally right on his bumper. What a finish!
I had to take an extra lap to get slow enough to get into the pits and as I passed the turn four crowd, the cheers were lusty and loud. I rolled into the pits and my crew, those guys in the pits who weren't supposed to be, stopped me. I was waiting for Ray Cagle to come bounce his fist off my nose but he never did.
As I exited the car, I looked behind the pit fence and there was my Uncle Bobby, the guy who took me to that race when I was five and to hundreds more races all through the years. He had even helped tune the Plymouth. I walked to the fence and he stuck his hand through the fence and said to me "we did it". I noticed the slightest tear in his eye and if you knew my Uncle Bobby, you would know that was something unlikely to ever happen again. Yes, "we did it Bobby". Great feeling.
About that time Dan Scott (the NASCAR official) came up behind me and spun me around to face him. I was thinking "oh no, I'm in trouble". Dan was smiling from ear to ear as he said "remember what I told you about staying out of the way"? "Well just forget that and go race."
When our feature started, I was inside second row, right behind Cagle. He still had not threatened me with bodily harm and my crew had managed to tape up the leaky brake line and fill it with fluid. Still wasn't sure if I could stop it, but then I had Ray in front of me again should I need him.
The green flag flew and we raced into turn on with Cagle side by side with Al Singleton in a Chevy. I was tucked right on the bumper of Mr. Cagle. We came off turn two onto the back straight and Cagle and I pulled ahead. Entering turn three Singleton bumped me, accidently I would like to think, but that Plymouth held its ground and we were racing for the 25-lap feature in second place.
As the race wound on, Ray would pull me by two or three car lengths down the straights, but that Plymouth would pull right to the back bumper in the turns. That car would really handle. The 25 laps went by so quickly I didn't think it was fair to end my first feature race so soon so I took and extra two laps just for fun. I'm glad Dan Scott had taken a liking to me so he didn't punish me for that.
To say it was a wild scene in turn four would be an understatement. I lost second place to Al coming off turn four on the last lap when his experience outpaced my lack thereof. He beat me by half a car length. To the crowd gathered to cheer me on that night, a close third was as good as a win and I was crazy happy. Not a dent in my car except of a little crimp in the front bumper from hitting Ray so often.
As the Late Models got ready to race, I went up to turn four to watch that race with my friends. Don't think I saw a lap of that race as everyone was trying to talk to me at once. I had driven a race car and had a pretty decent finish against some really tough and experienced competition. I was proud of myself and of the guys that helped me get there. Even that night we knew it was an effort of love by so many folks that got that Plymouth on the track.
The next day, the local sportscaster on the main radio station had great things to say about my first race. The guy who had owned the car before me called to congratulate me and ask me what we had done to the car. The newspaper for the next week included the sentence "among those with strong victory potential is Tim Leeming in a Plymouth. I was really enjoying all the perks, but most of all I was enjoying having finally made it into a race car.
I raced for a total of five years, through June of 1973. The years of 1970 and 1971 were still in the Plymouth and were pretty good years although I could win a race if everyone else fell out. I finished second so many times that we finally changed the car number from 83 to number 2 for the 1971 season. In June of 1973 I had a really bad crash a Myrtle Beach Speedway while driving for a Ford team. I wasn't hurt other than a few bruises and what the doctors at the emergency room called a "separated shoulder". The spectator I hit was very seriously injured and that weighed heavily on me. I gave up driving and worked the rest the 1973 season with Dan Scott as a NASCAR Official. In 1974, the local powerhouse FM station that carried the races asked me about doing coverage for them. Thus began my commercial radio career that lasted into 2000.
So, as the sun magically reappeared today, my thoughts were not so much on the eclipse but more on that night in my life where a dream was realized and where so many of my friends came out to support me. Magically, I still have many friends who support me in what I do and what I'm doing now is hoping to bring stock car racing history alive, just as alive as my memories of that night in 1969 are for me now.
Thanks for reading folks!