Charlotte ‘Back in My Day’

Jeff Gordon started racing when I started writing about it. (Christa L. Thomas/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

Jeff Gordon started racing when I started writing about it. (Christa L. Thomas/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, October 9, 2015, 11:19 a.m.

When I was a boy, for some reason, races at Charlotte Motor Speedway were not often featured, via tape delay a week later, on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I listened to them on the radio, and then, on Monday night, WBTV would run a highlights show — 30 minutes or an hour, I forget switch — that I could watch through snowy reception because WBTV wasn’t one of our primary stations here in Clinton.

Monte Dutton

Monte Dutton

I watched Fred Kirby’s cowboy kids show — “Take me back to my boots and my saddle, yo-de-lay-hee, yo-de-lay-hee, aiieeee!” — the same way.

Charlotte’s “truncated trioval” — that was the late Bob Latford’s term — fascinated me. Often the big Mercury Cyclones, Chevrolet Monte Carlos and the Dodge Chargers would touch the grass with their left-side tires and puffs of dust would fly up, even with bad reception. No telling how much I would’ve loved it had there been high-definition, satellite TV.

Charlotte was first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of its countrymen. The facilities were better and cleaner. So were the concessions. Later there would be condominiums overlooking turn one, lights, and drivers with agents, handlers, motorcoaches, and charm-school diplomas.

Charlotte Motor Speedway. (HHP/Garry Eller photo for Chevrolet)

Charlotte Motor Speedway. (HHP/Garry Eller photo for Chevrolet)

Today I often hear people talking about how races at Charlotte are boring. This saddens me because I remember many races, and even more moments, at Charlotte that were, well, self-evidently, obviously, memorable.

Because I remember them now better than what happened two weeks ago.

In the 1980s, I was working as the combination sports editor of the local weekly and sports director of the local AM radio station. Mainly what this meant was that I got up at 5 in the morning to tape a local sports segment that ran “on the hour” all day long and chitchatted on a talk show for a couple hours.

Charlotte was also the most promotion-minded NASCAR track, and its promotions were the most outlandish. No telling what would be in a package from CMS. A crumpled can of Coors after Bill Elliott tangled with Dale Earnhardt in The Winston, for instance.

Bill Elliott. (John Clark photo)

Bill Elliott. (John Clark photo)

Tickets were often included, presumably so that we could give them away to “lucky fans” through the newspaper or radio. We gave away the tickets to the Busch race, but a friend and I drove up to Charlotte one Thursday afternoon and watched qualifying. Nowadays, qualifying crowds often swell well into the hundreds, but, back then, 20,000, maybe 30,000, would watch qualifying. Later, in the 1990s, when I was writing about NASCAR for a living, it might have been more like 40,000 or 50,000.

It was that day, though, that I arrived at the first of what later became “Dutton’s Rules”: The only driver I’d pay to see qualify is Tim Richmond.

Either his pole run was breathtaking, or I got excited a lot easier back in those days. It was undoubtedly a bit of both.

Charlotte's walls weren't Sprint yellow back in 1992. (HHP/Brian Lawdermilk photo for Chevrolet)

Charlotte’s walls weren’t Sprint yellow back in 1992. (HHP/Brian Lawdermilk photo for Chevrolet)

I watched the 1992 Winston from the fourth-turn grandstands. It was the last one I didn’t cover as a sportswriter, and I’m glad it was. The night was best watched with the people.

I have vivid memories of Jeff Gordon’s first victory in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600, of how young, naïve and emotional he was when he accepted the trophy from North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt. I think of the time Ernie Irvan drove across the grass and wrecked for no apparent reason in The Winston. I remember the night Jamie McMurray, substituting for injured Sterling Marlin, surprised everyone by winning the fall 500-miler.

I remember driving home from the Indianapolis 500 while listening to the end of the 600 on radio somewhere in Kentucky and doing simple math, trying to figure out how in the world Dale Earnhardt managed to take the lead away from Darrell Waltrip with a green-flag pit stop. Earnhardt went from way behind to way ahead, and I couldn’t figure out how it was possible.

I remember when Charlotte ran the World 600 in May and the National 500 in October. I remember listening on the radio when the crash that claimed the life of Fireball Roberts occurred. I was six.

Jamie McMurray (left) with teammate Kyle Larson. (HHP/Christa L. Thomas photo for Chevy Racing)

Jamie McMurray (left) with teammate Kyle Larson. (HHP/Christa L. Thomas photo for Chevy Racing)

What many today don’t realize is that NASCAR was always a mainstream sport in the Carolinas. It was the same way it is now nationwide. In fact, it may have been bigger here in the 1960s, ’70s and ‘80s than it is today. It’s more likely that I overestimate the events of my youth, but I remember the first time I saw Charlotte Motor Speedway, and it seemed more impressive at that age, in that time, that it does now.

Back then, I listened to races on the radio, learned about baseball games from box scores and read much more than I saw.

Somehow I remember those times more vividly than, oh, last year.

Or yesterday. When I was young.

(Graphic courtesy of Meredieth Pritchard)

(Graphic courtesy of Meredieth Pritchard)

 

(Joe Font cover design)

(Joe Font cover design)

At one time, I wrote books about NASCAR. Some of them are still available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

My proudest accomplishments these days are works of fiction. My latest novel, Crazy of Natural Causes, is on sale for $1.99 at Amazon in Kindle edition. http://www.amazon.com/Crazy-Natural-Causes-Monte-Dutton-ebook/dp/B00YI8SWUU/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

 

About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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