Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, July 23, 2015, 9:44 a.m.
My memory is mostly photographic. If you ask about some NASCAR incident, I won’t remember it by fact but by image. I’ll have to look up the facts, but, in my mind, I’ll see a wreck, say, and I’ll know where it was because of the perspective of the image or because I see “Talladega” or “Atlanta” on the wall behind my image of cars crashing.
So my memory of attending NASCAR races on the then-dirt of Greenville-Pickens Speedway involves the smoky image of Richard Petty roaring into the turn in a Plymouth Road Runner, and I’ll know those races were in 1968, and I can see that lovely Petty blue blended with the swirl of the red clay dust. The track was paved in 1969, and my image of Bobby Isaac driving the K&K Insurance Dodge Charger to victory is unclouded by having to squint to see it on the back straight.
While I covered NASCAR, there were no dirt tracks, but I sometimes traveled nearby to watch the masters slip and slide. Jim McLaurin and Rick Minter accompanied me to 311 Speedway in Madison, North Carolina, near Martinsville, Virginia, and Len Thacher and I spent a marvelous night at Grandview Speedway in Pennsylvania. I drove alone from Pocono to Big Diamond to watch USAC Sprints, and David Poole and I drove over to Eldora to watch Midgets back before Earl Baltes sold the place to Tony Stewart. The mental snapshots of all those trips are vivid.
My trips got rarer when I ran out of people who’d go with me, and now I find it amusing that a few Truck races at Eldora have turned all my colleagues who wouldn’t have gone to a dirt track with a gun on them into boosters declaring them the greatest of them all.
Back then, they wouldn’t have gone to a dirt track for Marriott Points.
I suspect many of dirt-track racing’s great media champions have never been to one that isn’t named Eldora.
It was a grand show last night, but the racing wasn’t any better than when I watched Billy Hicks win at 311 or Steve Francis capture the Shrine Race at nearby Laurens Speedway.
Plus, I watched it on TV. I expect many of those now hyperventilating watched it on TV, too, albeit from the refuge of the Eldora media center, where they had tighter access than I to all the glowing remarks from drivers who have less experience racing on dirt than they have watching it.
The true fan test of appreciating dirt-track racing isn’t from the living room. It’s better in person, and it’s better when most of the drivers have a clue about how to do it.
I’m neither surprised nor displeased that a dirt tracker, Christopher Bell, won the Mud Summer Classic. Nor am I surprised that the Dillon brothers, Austin and Ty, did well, because the first time I saw either of Richard Childress’s grandsons race was at 311 Speedway.
One of the reasons dirt tracks fell off the NASCAR radar screen was growth. The box score lists the attendance at one of those long-ago Petty victories at 7,200, which was a packed house at Greenville-Pickens. NASCAR left the dirt tracks, though, because they were untidy and NASCAR wanted races that were tidy.
When I go to a dirt track, I wear safety glasses or goggles because I also wear contact lenses, and without protection, it feels not unlike having thousands of tiny needles fired at my eyeballs.
If it’s hot — and when isn’t it? — do not wear a white shirt to a dirt track. It will never be white again.
The last time Minter and I drove down to Madison, on the Saturday night before a Martinsville Sprint Cup race, the next morning I drove to the race before the sun came up, and I left it long after the sun went down. The next morning, when I drove home, I noticed people gaping at my Honda, the one I still drive, and discovered it was no longer blue but rust-colored. It had red clay caked all over it. I pulled off the highway in Salisbury and ran it through a car wash lest I feel compelled to live out of it.
It’s worth it. Dirt tracks are great, but they’re not for the casual watcher (someone wisely pointed out to me the other day that “casual fan” is as much a contradiction in terms as “tail end” or “forward bite”) or the captain of industry. They are uncouth places to “wine and dine.” Dust is a much better condiment for hot dogs than sushi.
Many of NASCAR’s present-day movers and shakers are out of their elements at Eldora, though they are able to tough it out in the comfort of their refuges from the dust and smoke.
The race is a nice, little diversion. It’s quaint.
A year ago, when Kyle Larson’s truck spent more time on the wall than off it — one of the TV announcers actually said he hit it 433 times, and I laughed so hard — you would have thought he’d not only done it by design but because he possessed more skill than Curtis Turner.
Me? I thought it was embarrassing.
Trucks are unwieldy on dirt. Stock cars are unwieldy on road courses. It’s part of their charm, but the allure of real dirt-track racing isn’t charm. It’s control of the uncontrollable, in addition to power, boldness, courage, and skill.
I enjoyed the race, too, but if I really want to see racing that will blow my mind, I’ll go to Laurens Speedway on Saturday night.
Of course, I doubt I will. I won’t be able to find anyone to go with me. To paraphrase one of my favorite stanzas from the philosopher Tom T. Hall, they might pat your fanny and say you’re a dandy, but they still don’t like dirt tracks in Daytona Beach.
My new novel, Crazy of Natural Causes, has one small reference to a trip to Talladega, but mainly it’s crazy in other ways. Please take a look at it here: http://www.amazon.com/Crazy-Natural-Causes-Monte-Dutton-ebook/dp/B00YI8SWUU/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1436215069&sr=1-1&keywords=Crazy+of+Natural+Causes
Most of my previous books, some of which are about racing, are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1