There's a Sign Post Up Ahead
I borrow this line from the opening segment of Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" television show from the 1960s for a reason. Let me set the stage; my Uncle Bobby, who introduced me to racing when I was weeks away from turning 6 years old, was a spur-of-the moment guy. I mean REALLY spur-of-the moment. He had taken me to races all over South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina and even into Tennessee. When Bill France built Daytona Speedway and we listened to the first Daytona 500, which was won by Bobby's favorite, he made the comment that "We need to go there one day".
That day came, finally, in 1962, when Bobby decided the Thursday before the 500 that we would leave Friday after he got off work and catch the modified-sportsman on Saturday and the 500 on Sunday. I could not believe that I would finally experience the magic state of Florida where everyone was tanned and lived on the beach, and I was hyped. Now, as for the Rod Serling reference, Bobby's wife Mary, Mary Ruth as she was known, and I were big fans of "The Twilight Zone", which came on at 10:00 pm Friday evenings. As Mary and Bobby lived just across the street from me, I always went over to their house on Friday to watch the show with her. She convinced Bobby that since he wouldn't be home from work until about 7 pm and would then need dinner, a couple hours more and we could see our show and then hit the road. There were no DVRs or VCR's in those days so you either saw it when it was on or you missed it.
As soon as Bobby came in from work, Mary Ruth was sitting him down to dinner and I was packing our things in the 1957 green and white Plymouth Belvedere for the trip. It was soon all packed, everything but the ice chest with the food, and Mary Ruth and I settled in to see our show. Not sure what the episode was about that Friday night because all I could think of was seeing the cars race on Daytona. I had been to Darlington several times by then, but trying to envision a two and a half mile track was beyond even my imagination.
At 10:40 pm, after last minute bathroom visits, we piled into that Plymouth and pulled out of the driveway to head for the highway. Oh, I failed to mention that Bobby and Mary Ruth had a little girl, Debbie. At my age then (15) and her age (about 6) we did not get along. Thankfully, we would later become very close and remain so today. So, based on the inability of Debbie and me to sit next to one another for an extended period, Bobby would drive, with me in the front seat, and later Mary would driver while Bobby slept in the back seat. I was perfectly fine with that arrangement as I was a front seat kind of person.
The Plymouth had an AM radio, which was the only source for music then. As we traveled down US 321 and then US 17, the music faded in and out to the point it was mostly static. But, as Bobby and Mary both opined, the constantly running mouth of Timmy kept them entertained. And believe me, when we were headed to a race, I had no shortage of subject matter.
Soon after entering Georgia on US 17, the fog became so thick we could barely see the chrome fender markers on each fender of the Plymouth. Mary was driving then and peering ahead cautiously as we moved along, alone of the highway, and at times searching for the lines on the highway to be certain we weren't in the ocean. Mary told me to keep close watch for the road signs so we didn't take a wrong turn. I took that job very seriously because I wanted to be in Daytona in time for the race.
After several hours in the car, having stopped only once for gas, in what was then a rare instance of gas stations staying open all night, the fog thinned just a bit to see perhaps a half mile ahead of us. Mary and I both saw the sign post but couldn't quite make it out until we were right upon it. The significance of that sign post was the lettering that read "Jacksonville, 20 miles". Very soon after was the billboard sign saying "Welcome to Florida, The Sunshine State".
The morning sky was just beginning to show signs of the glow of the rising sun when we came to the roadside park. We pulled in, being the only humans in the place, and had our breakfast, which consisted of Cocoa-Krispy Cereal and doughnuts. We quickly consumed those goodies and were back in the car heading to Daytona, keeping even closer watch on the road signs not to miss our destination.
We started to encounter signs indicating we were close to Daytona and then, as if an illusion, there it appeared. Nothing as it looks today, but distinctively a race track the proportions of which could take the breath away from a kid who grew up on half-mile and quarter-mile tracks with a twice a year visit to Darlington. We entered the line of cars, not very long, to buy tickets to go into the infield. Very quickly we descended into the depths of the dark tunnel under turn four and popped out into the bright sunshine. Bobby was driving then and he slowed to look at the majesty of the sight. I know my eyes must have been as big a saucers. We were there. We were in Daytona International Speedway, with only hours to the Modified-Sportsman Race.
As soon as we parked along the banks of Lake Lloyd from which we could see most of turns one and two, the entire back straight, and with good eyes the tri-oval, I wanted out to head to the pit fence to see what I could see. Bobby and Mary decided to take a nap but said Debbie and I could walk over there. I was not necessarily excited about dragging that little brat along, but I told her to hold my hand, stay with me, and don't talk. So, together, Debbie and I walked through the wet grass towards to pits. It was a little further than it appeared from out Lake Lloyd vantage point, but we made it.
I clung to the fence to see the cars being fueled and pushed out. I had never seen so many sleek Studebakers in my life. Debbie wanted to know if they were called that because they were used to bake "Studes". Absolute truth on that. The other modified cars were sometimes not distinguishable from their on-the-road counterparts but each one excited me to see. We walked on down the fence and THERE THEY WERE. The Grand National Cars (now called Cup). I immediately spotted that blue number 43 Plymouth which had my allegiance for Sunday. Not far from the 43 was the fearsome looking black and gold number 22 Pontiac. I didn't know at the time what a part those two would play in the race on Sunday.
I remember the sounds and smell of the modified race, but not much more about it, really. I was there for the Sunday race to see my man run. I was awe struck by the track and by everything I saw, and the modified race was a part of the experience. When the track became silent, it was time to eat our supper, pimento cheese sandwiches Mary Ruth had made before we left home, along with Oreos. Most of the ice in the chest had melted so the milk had spoiled, leading us to an infield concession stand for Cokes.
As the sun began to disappear from the sky, I realized, for the first time, that I had been awake for the better part of 35 hours. Bobby and Mary Ruth had napped during the morning and Debbie had slept most of the way down to Daytona. As darkness enveloped us, we climbed in the Plymouth where I actually fell asleep with my head against the passenger's side window. Throughout the night I could hear some of the rowdier fans making excessive noise but I was somewhat accustomed to that from Darlington days.
The sun came up Sunday morning indicating a beautiful day for racing. But, as I unwrapped myself from the blanket under which I had slept, I felt quite a chill. WHAT???? This was Florida, it isn't supposed to be cold, but it was. I'm not sure what time it was when I awoke, but the sun was above the third turn. I immediately asked Bobby if I could head to the pits. Mary asked about breakfast and I told her I was too excited to eat. (I don't have that problem these days).
As I went to the trunk of the Plymouth to retrieve my jacket, the same jacket I had argued with my Mother that I would never need in sunny Florida, I thought to myself "My Mother is really smart". I pulled on the jacket and headed west to the pits. When I approached the fence, every sense of my being tingled with the excitement of what was before me. Cars of every color, seeming even more colorful than at Darlington. One would fire up and it was like music to my ears. Then another, then another. Soon the entire symphony would bring that beautiful music that was racing to all around.
I think the race started at noon, but in those days I didn't wear a watch and there weren't cell phones to remind you of every passing minute. But when the cars were given the command to start engines, I literally ran across the infield to take my place by Lake Lloyd. The sight and sound of those cars coming off turn two, behind a pace car with yellow flags flapping from the rear bumper remains a clear memory of my youth. The second pace lap seemed to pick up speed as they came by us.
Looking hard at the flag stand all the way across the infield, I saw the green flag waving the field to race. There are no words to describe the sound and fury of the cars coming by at speed. The ground shook from the pounding of those 48 powerful engines in cars driven by the finest race drivers in the world. I remember Joe Weatherly led lap one, the Fireball took over, then Junior Johnson I think and Cotton Owens was in the mix, all in Pontiacs. If there was one brand a Plymouth man disliked more than Fords back then, it was those darned Pontiacs.
I kept my eye on Richard Petty as he made that small, under powered Plymouth a pain in the rear ends of those Pontiacs as that little Plymouth would tuck right in behind those "Wide Track Pontiacs" and draft along at the Pontiacs' speeds. Lap after lap I kept my eye on that blue Plymouth. At one point he was actually leading the race and I had to get down off the trunk of Bobby's car so I could jump up and down with excitement.
The race wound down with Fireball winning in the Smokey Yunick Pontiac. Although it was a beautiful car, I absolutely detested a Pontiac that day. Richard Petty was second so I guess that was pretty good, especially after the 1961 fiasco for the Petty team that year. As always, I ventured into the pits, and as always I found Richard sitting there signing autographs. He looked up and saw me and made the comment something like "you are a long way from home". Maybe, Richard, but race tracks had sort of become my home by that point in my life.
We inched our way out of the infield to hit the highway home. It was then we heard on the radio that the Petty team had filed a protest against Fireball for having too many men over the wall on a pit stop. So, there was hope we did win!!!! Didn't happen but it was nice to dream about. But Richard would go on to win SEVEN Daytona 500s. And I would be there for all seven of them. I finally stayed home in 1987 and haven't been back since, but I never miss that race on television.
There are many memories from that trip in 1962. As we started back up the road to Columbia, the darkness set in and both Bobby and Mary Ruth were tired and I was too young to legally drive although I had been driving with Bobby for a number of years. Bobby decided to stop at this little roadside motel just out of St. Augustine. I went in with him to see about a room and there were rooms available. Bobby asked "how much for the night" and the guy told him "$19.00" Bobby, not known to use curse words often responded, and I remember this very clearly, "I didn't want to buy the damn place, I just wanted to spend the night". So it was back in the car heading north.
Just outside or Jacksonville, on the south side, we came up a motel with a flashing sign reading "Slappy's Motel". By this time sleep was a priority for the two drivers so we pulled in. Once more I went in with Bobby and we were told the room rent was $7.00 for the night since it was so late. So began our "Slappy's Motel" experience. But that's a story for another time.