The Magic Window ~ Chapter Two
Among all the other things the kid will never forget about that August night in 1969 was his Uncle Bobby, standing on the other side of the pit fence with the crowd of well-wishers for that first race. He reached his hand over the wire to shake the kid's hand and said "you did it". The kid saw the tear in his Uncle's eye and for Uncle Bobby that was a milestone. Everyone knew of Bobby's temper when he was working on a car and it was many a Sunday spent walking through the two acre field next to his house picking up the tools he had flung in that direction when things didn't go right. It sometimes seemed his only emotion displayed was anger at tools. But that night, Uncle Bobby was deeply touched by what had been accomplished. The kid said to him, "it was us who did it".
The feature race for the Late Models was under way and try as he might, the kid could not take his eyes off the white Plymouth that had carried him to a third place finish in his first feature race. All of the "fans" who had come to the track to watch the kid kept him occupied and one young man who had talked for years about getting the first autograph the kid signed after his first race was there with pen and paper. The kid would encounter this young man some thirty years later and the young man went into his wallet and pulled out the paper, laminated, bearing the signature the kid had signed that night.
The "crew" was hooking up the chain to the race car and to the back of the pickup truck so we could tow the car home. Someone had to sit in the car to steer and work the brakes and there was a big discussion going on between several of the boys as to which one would actually handle that chore. About that time, the Late Model feature was over and the crowd began to enter the pits from the grandstands. The kid was a little overwhelmed by the attention he garnered that night but deep in his heart he knew it was because he had a Plymouth, the make the King had deserted that year for the blue oval.
As the crowd dwindled and finally the quiet of pit road enveloped the few who remained, a man well known for building winning cars at Columbia Speedway walked up and said "There is no way that is the first race you ever drove". The kid affirmed that it was, indeed, the first time he had been on the race track in a race car. The man, Herbert Corley, asked the kid if he would be going to Augusta for the Saturday night race and when the kid said no, he had no way to transport the car that far, Herbert said, "come by my shop tomorrow and pick out a trailer, I have four". The kid responded with "you don't understand, we can't afford to ever rent a trailer". Herbert smiled and said "did I say anything about money?" So the plans were made to visit the shop on Blanding Street Friday afternoon and pick out a trailer. But first, it was to the pay window to get paid for our finish.
The kid was handed an envelope which contained $125.00. It had never occurred to the kid to ask what the purse paid; all he wanted to do was race. Now, he had raced and had $125.00 in cash in his hand. Amazed would be a mild expression of the feelings inside the kid.
The crew got the car home and pulled it around behind the mobile home in which the kid resided. A canvas tent from Boy Scouts, a few holes included, was placed over the car as there was no garage in which to park it. Within a few minutes of covering the car, the kid's yard was full of cars containing most of the folks who had been at the speedway to see the debut. Approximately 25 people sat on the ground around the white Plymouth, now secreted under wraps, and talked about the events of the evening. It was well after 3 a.m. when folks left and the kid fell into bed, far too wound up to sleep, even if sleep would mean dreaming about his future in racing and the stardom he was sure would come.
Friday morning dawned bright and the kid blinked through the haze of little sleep to get ready for work. He worked at a bank and soon after 8 a.m. was headed that way. Listening to the radio station he always listened to, the sports announcer, Earl Arial, came on to talk about baseball, college football soon to begin and other sports in the area. Then, at the end of the segment, he raved about this new driver that raced at Columbia Speedway and assured listeners that a star was born that Thursday night, August 21, 1969. The kid felt ten feet tall and bullet proof. When he walked into his office, he was greeted by many of the employees that had read about him in the morning paper.
It was a little before noon when the kid got a call from Tommy, one of the crew members with this racing team now known as "Competition Incorporated". He said he had picked up a trailer from Herbert Corley and would meet the kid at the house for lunch. Lunch?? Are you kidding me? The kid had no intention of returning to the office that afternoon.
When the kid got to his home, he was amazed at the sight. Eight of the neighborhood boys, ages about 12 to 16 had been there all morning and had washed and waxed that Plymouth until it sparkled like diamonds. Just boys wanting to be a part of something, and they were. Oh what a sight that was to see as they were all so excited to even touch a race car.
Tommy and Eddie, who were the two most "official crewmen" had changed the oil, checked the plugs and what little things they knew to do. Friday was a long day and an even longer night as the anticipation of racing on the half-mile high black asphalt track in Augusta permeated all thoughts. The kid and his crew had been to many races there and knew what a fine facility it was. The kid also knew that the Plymouth he raced had asphalt tires on it even for dirt because Columbia Speedway would become like asphalt within just a few hot laps as the red clay hardened into stone it seemed.
Saturday dawned bright and beautiful and the kid and his crew actually saw the sun come up. They didn't need to leave until about 3 pm but they knew they would be on the road at 1 because they couldn't wait to get there. In actuality, pimento cheese sandwiches and potato chips were brought over by the kid's Mom about 11:30 and by noon, the sandwiches were history, and the car was ready to be loaded on the borrowed trailer. The kid climbed in, fired it up, and drove slowly onto the trailer, in just the right position. The crew used the chain binders to secure the car and the tow truck and two car loads of folks pulled out of the driveway and headed for Augusta.
Just at the bottom of the hill was a Pure Oil gas station where the crew stopped and filled the tow truck and the race car with gas. Next stop; Augusta Speedway. In those days there were no Interstate highways to speak of so what is today just over an hour trip took a little over two hours on two lane highways. It took the team three, maybe four wrong turns before the track was located but popping out of nowhere was the sign telling the kid he was there!
After signing in and getting pit passes (yes we had the money for the crew this time), the Plymouth selected the end of pit road at turn four for its pit. Unloaded from the trailer, the Plymouth sat there gleaming in all the radiant splendor given it by young kids who wanted to help and several of whom were included in the cars making the trip. They, of course, could not be in the pits, but they were just on the other side of the fence where they could cheer the kid loudly.
Within minutes of parking, the NASCAR official from Columbia Speedway, Dan Scott, walked over, laughing that special laugh only he could make, at the sight of the kid he had told before his heat race in Columbia to "stay out of the way" but changed that after the heat race to "forget what I told you earlier, get out there and race". He joked with the kid and the crew for several minutes before walking on to handle his official duties. It was that encounter when the kid realized that he and Dan Scott would be good friends and that really came to pass, in spades. More about that later, perhaps.
Practice for the kid's division was called and once more through the Magic Window he climbed. As he rolled on the track, the afternoon sun of an August day sent waves of heat vapors rising from the track. The appearance was almost ghostly, surreal, but the excitement the kid was feeling was at least equal to the previous Thursday night. Racing into those high banks at speed was an adventure the kid had not considered. As practice progressed, faster and faster he went, working his way higher and higher on the track. It was about lap 20 of practice when the kid, just a little too high in turn four, felt the rear end of the race car slide and then the jolt of the undeniable encounter with the guardrail. Fearing the worst, the kid pulled into the pits and jumped out to look at the car. Everyone was getting a good laugh because while the kid assumed his car was history, it was little more than a Darlington Stripe from the rear wheel well back. Just some paint scraped off.
After the Late Models had practiced, it was time to draw for heat race starting positions. The kid drew second heat race, fourth position. The first heat race saw a couple of crashes with mostly minor damage to the cars. It was over and time for the kid to put the white Plymouth into position for his heat. Pace laps were surreal as the kid watched the cars in front of him and the 15 or so behind him. All bunched together as they came off turn four, Dan waved the green and it was immediately clear to the kid, going into turn one, that there is a great deal of difference between dirt and asphalt. From his starting position on the outside second row, the kid came off turn two running 8th as he went in far too fast and way too high.
As the 20 laps wound down, the kid learned to pass low, and a couple of times high to earn a second place finishing position which would start him on the outside second row for the feature. He was happy about that. When he pulled into the pits, the crew went to work, cleaning the windshield, checking under the hood… for what the kid knew not. The hood pins were replaced and the Plymouth was ready for the feature.
The late model heats seemed to take forever, although the reality was each race maybe took 20 minutes to run the 30 laps. The kid was impatient to get back on the track. Finally, after what seemed like weeks, the call was made for the cars to line up on the track. The National Anthem was played and the most famous words in motor racing were intoned as we were required to fire up the engines. The kid was looking through the windshield at the back ends of two Chevys, one a '55 and the other a '56. The pace laps got underway and as the cars came into turn three before the green flag, the kid was right on the bumper of the '56 Chevy in front of him. The green flag waved and it was into turn one right on the back bumper of the Chevy in front of him, which was racing side by side with the pole winning Chevy.
As the cars came off turn two, the two Chevys battled each other going low, leaving the top of the track wide open. The kid pushed that Plymouth to the limit and was leading into turn three. The kid would lead 7 laps in the second feature race of his life, losing the lead to the '56 Chevy, which went on to win. The kid finished second and was floating on air (more accurately torsion bars and leaf springs).
Loaded up and heading back to Columbia, the team was ecstatic about the race and was counting the days until they would return to Augusta the next Saturday. Columbia Speedway would be hosting the Grand Nationals the following Thursday so that was out, but what would happen at Columbia Speedway will be another memory the kid will never forget. Look for that story in Chapter 3, coming soon.