Jackson, Miss., Thursday, May 15, 2014, 7:04 a.m.
NASCAR is far away. Books and music are much closer. The Sprint All-Star Race is at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night. I’ll be emceeing the Concert for VISTO in Gainesville, Texas. Thanks to my iPhone, I might just know who wins it.
A reader asked me to retell the story of my first all-star race (The Winston then) and the only one I ever saw as a fan. I was there because a friend was covering it and asked if I’d like to go with his son, who had never seen a NASCAR race. I jumped at the chance. The next year, I started covering NASCAR on a regular basis.
It was Charlotte’s first night race, and, at the time and within the narrow confines of stock car racing, the 1992 Winston was viewed in advance with the mysterious anticipation of a moon launch. Nowadays lots of superspeedway races are under the lights, but then there seemed to be considerable doubt over whether it could be done.
No need to bog this blog under the weight of another topic, for this story isn’t about the classic race that transpired. You already know about it, right? On the final lap, Dale Earnhardt crashed in turn three, and Kyle Petty and Davey Allison wrecked while racing side-by-side at the finish line. Allison won, hit the wall, and had to be taken to a local hospital instead of victory lane.
Meanwhile, back in the grandstands, high above the exit of turn four …
My friend’s son, who was, oh, I’m guessing, 14 at the time, was a shy kid. It took a lot to get him out of his shell. We had talked little on the drive up, but the rousing night of racing gave us some common ground. The crowd was quite a bit more aroused than we were, though, and the gulf was widening as the main event approached. The chief difference was almost completely the strong beverages they had and we did not. (Mind you, I’m unopposed to the occasional strong beverage, but not with a young person in my charge.)
Once another friend told me his father’s slogan: “Ain’t but two people I can’t abide: a drunk when I’m sober and a sober when I’m drunk.” This nicely encapsulated our predicament.
The Winston started, and we were both wrapped up in the gathering storm, when my friend’s son tugged at my shirt. The caution flag was out, so it was possible to communicate verbally.
“Those people behind us? They stole my cap.”
Well, I’ll just see about that.
I whirled around, and what I saw looked exactly like the Manson Family: Charles, unshaven and grinning wickedly, “Squeaky” Fromme at his side, Susan Atkins, the whole bunch. Okay, I’m exaggerating. It was a less malevolent motorcycle gang, maybe one that Marlon Brando would lead, but not the kind about which one would write Mother.
I think it’s fair to assume that I gulped.
I faced the leader – let’s call him Charlie – pointed next to him, and said. “The cap. It’s the kid’s.” I then picked it up, handed it to “the kid,” and turned around. It was at this point that I anticipated the piercing of my back with an Army knife. Self-evidently, this did not occur. The race did not go uneventfully, but the rest of our night did.
As Tom T. Hall wrote, “Lord, if I judge ‘em, let me give ‘em lots of room.”