Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, December 13, 2017, 8:58 a.m.
Was that only yesterday or 50 years ago?
Fifty-two. A little more. Racing-reference.info says it was July 25, 1965. I was seven years old when I attended my first NASCAR race, the Volunteer 500 at what was then Bristol International Raceway. This year I went to three Monster Cup races, two of them official. I remember more about the Volunteer 500 than all three combined. It’s as vivid as the crack in the air outside on this bright, chilly morning.
My first stock car race had been at the Greenwood Fairgrounds. I don’t remember much about it other than the cars were old Modified coupes, and Fireball Roberts drove one of them. A few years later, that dirt track went out of business. In 1981 and ’82, my job was writing about the minor-league baseball team at Legion Stadium next door. By then, the old dirt track was just a memory, but its concrete stands were still standing, as much a ruin as anything the Romans left but not as lasting. They’re gone now.
I guess my father realized I had the racing bug, so he let me go to Bristol, Tennessee, with his buddy Ralph Barnes, who ran the meat market at my grandfather’s curb market and was a partner of Daddy in the auctioneering business. Daddy was the better auctioneer, which was generally acknowledged between the two, but Ralph was a crackerjack ring man and gave Daddy an occasional break behind the mic for most of the time the two of them had left.
Ralph’s hometown was Forest City, North Carolina, and the adventure began with Ralph working a local auction there on Saturday night. We drove up to Bristol after the auction, five of us – Ralph, sons Marshall and Steve, adopted son Mooney Mims, and me – sleeping in the parking lot in Ralph’s 1964 Plymouth Fury. It looked a little like the one Richard Petty drove, and the way Ralph talked about “Richard,” you’d have thought they were best friends.
The grandstands were similar to a small-college football stadium. They reminded me a little of Sirrine Stadium in Greenville, where I had seen my first college ballgame the year before. We walked up an asphalt incline to the stands. Ralph’s boys carried ice chests full of Falstaff beer, “Co-Colas” and two loaves of bread. My mother had removed the bread, made sandwiches with ham, egg salad, and pimento cheese, then put them back in the bags where bread alone had originally been. The walk up the incline wasn’t easy, and I was glad being seven made me ineligible to tote anything.
I like to tell people “Jarrett” won the race, pause, and add “Ned Jarrett.” That’s when I don’t mind being old. “Gentleman Ned” spent four hours, two minutes, and 37 seconds, to hold off Dick Hutcherson, the only other driver on the lead lap, for a princely sum of $4,315. The top five made more than a grand apiece. Wendell Scott finished seventh. Petty only made it a little over halfway, citing failure of the differential, and, much to my consternation, we headed back to South Carolina before the race was over, but we heard all about Jarrett’s victory on the radio.
I’m pretty sure that’s the reason I became a NASCAR fan. Fred Lorenzen’s No. 28 Ford, which started on the pole but didn’t make it till the end, was the prettiest race car, or car in general, I’ve ever seen. Photos do not do it justice. It wasn’t white. It was sparkling white, with baby blue wheels and interior, and royal blue numbers. Lorenzen became my first hero. The driver who would become my all-time favorite, David Pearson, wrecked out, along with Marvin Panch, on the ninth lap. “Li’l David,” whose hair wasn’t silver yet, earned $250, cash money, and placed 36th and last.
In my first race, my favorite driver finished last. Had my father been there, he surely would have said, “If that ain’t a Dutton deal, I ain’t never seen one.”
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