Lessons from a stock car legend
By Bill Fields
I would be hard pressed to name five stock car drivers currently making left turns for a living, but this was not always the case.
Could someone who grew up in North Carolina in the 1960s and ’70s and loved sports not have been fascinated by NASCAR? Possible, yes, but not very likely.
My NASCAR love existed even though I wasn’t really a car nut. My dad had managed a gas station before I was born, but automobiles weren’t his passion later on. He never taught me how to change the oil. We bonded on Sunday afternoons sitting in one of our high-mileage sedans in our driveway. Doors open, AM radio on, the races came to us — Darlington, Charlotte, Richmond, Daytona.
As a spectator warning in a program of a race we attended at North Carolina Motor Speedway stated, “Stock car races are thrilling, dangerous and spectacular.”
That first trip to Rockingham, for the American 500 in late October of 1966, put a picture to the sounds coming out of our car’s Philco. Dad and I rode south on U.S. 1 with a friend of his who had a pickup and had gotten the tickets. I don’t remember his name, but he resembled Hank Kimball on Green Acres.
I was 7, in the second grade. It was a cool day, when a Coke didn’t get warm before you finished it. The sky was the shade of Larry Miller’s away jersey. Everything at the track seemed as if it had been drawn with the brightest crayons in a box of 64, whether Marlboro red or Union 76 orange and blue. The cars were freshly painted, like glistening, just-completed models.
They were all there — the brothers Allison, Bobby and Donnie, and Yarborough, Cale and Lee Roy. Junior Johnson. David Pearson. Buddy Baker. Curtis Turner. Pole-sitter Fred Lorenzen. Way back in Row 18 was local favorite J.D. McDuffie of Sanford. When I saw that he was driving a ’64 Ford, a car two years older than what the stars had, it made sense why he struggled to run with the leaders most weeks.
Most important to me was the presence of Car 43 driven by Richard Petty. I was already a fan of the man from Level Cross, and seeing his Plymouth streak by 40 yards below me was a thrill. Lorenzen held him off to win that afternoon, which was disappointing. As I was getting in bed that evening, the roar of the car engines was still in my ears. Besides colorful, the race was loud.
Three years later, on an August Friday night at the quarter-mile track of Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, I got to see a Petty victory as he came from trailing Bobby Issac most of the 62.5-mile race to win.
I attended one other NASCAR race, the Carolina 500 at Rockingham, in the spring of 1972. Issac took the checkered flag that afternoon. For Christmas that year, I got Petty’s autobiography, relishing what I could learn about the slender, smiling man in sunglasses who seemed to win more than everybody else.
When I started covering sports, I asked a couple of writers who had covered Petty’s prime what made him so good other than having the best cars and top crew to keep them humming. One sportswriter, Harold Martin of Columbia, S.C., told me Petty’s car sounded different going into the corners, which I took to mean that The King was bolder and braver than the rest.
About a decade ago, while covering a PGA Tour Champions event in California, I was invited to a reception for kids from The First Tee who were playing in the tournament. Speakers had been invited to talk to the junior golfers about The First Tee’s nine core values.
I’m pretty certain the young people had no idea who the man talking about confidence was, but I was pleased to hear what Richard Petty had to say. And, at the end of evening, I made like No. 43 on the backstretch somewhere to make sure I could meet him and say hello.
Petty kindly indulged a childhood memory or two after I shook his hand and seemed amused that it was the tiny track in Winston-Salem where I’d seen him win. It was a quiet Pebble Beach night when I stepped outside, but in my mind I heard sounds of a big engine and bygone time. PS
Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.