Flat Spot On: Darlington or Bust(ed)

Flat Spot On: Darlington Or Bust(ed)

Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500 has meant a lot of things to a lot of people. Even sports writing people. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett )

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

The first NASCAR race I covered was the first one I had ever seen, not an unusual event in newspaper sports departments of the mid-1970 s. The newest member of the staff, as in my case, often drew what was considered when it came to stock car races the short straw.

Flat Spot On: Darlington Or Bust(ed)About the only thing I knew about the Southern 500 was passed along before the race by the assistant sports editor at my paper, the Durham Morning Herald. Trying to pump me up for my first NASCAR assignment, he casually remarked on the words of a veteran writer at the prestigious News & Observer in Raleigh. Gerald Martin says that he d just as soon skip the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Kentucky Derby, said the editor. Gerald said there s no place he d rather be than Darlington on Labor Day when they throw the green flag on the Southern 500.

Just a short while later, I really wanted to be at Darlington for the start of the Southern 500, too. But that was only because I was about to be thrown in a South Carolina jail. Alas, that s getting ahead of the story.

When I first arrived at the Darlington Raceway on a motorcycle with a typewriter strapped to the back seat, the wild party along the highway behind the main grandstand was far removed from anything I d seen at any other sporting event.

A sulphureous mushroom cloud from the exploding gunpowder of fireworks hung over the four-lane road jammed with a multitude of cars and trucks stretching a half-mile in either direction. The khaki-clad state troopers standing every 20 yards or so on the yellow center line offered little comfort, because clearly they had sketchy control over the riotous revelers swirling around them.

Early arrivals to the weekend-long celebration had backed their pick-ups to either edge of the highway. Fans sat in lawn chairs posted in the truck beds within easy reach of beer coolers and the firecrackers haphazardly thrown in various directions. Open trailers that offered carnival games of chance were positioned in various places as were rock n roll bands stratacasting from flatbed trucks. Fans in progressive stages of inebriation and sunburn wondered along the edge of the road, suddenly materializing from the fields of parked cars to join the roadside celebration.

Whoo-eeeee! Let s see you do a wheelie!

The challenge came from the back of a truck immediately ahead of me, where a handful of shirtless young toughs in jeans were perilously balancing themselves in the open rear bay of a U-haul as the driver negotiated the fits and snarls of traffic. At first I had welcomed the shade of the tall panel truck s shadow on a blisteringly hot day before the ringleader with long, lank hair had spotted me.

Yeah, yeah, came the chorus behind him. Do a wheelie! I offered what in retrospect was a classicly lame excuse for not being able to ride my Honda up onto its rear wheel. Sorry, I said, I ve got a typerwriter on the back (as if it might fall off!) and then changed lanes while showered with hoots and guffaws.

Now astride my little ol motorcycle in the outside lane, nothing was between me and the steady stream of fans strolling and stumbling along on the highway s dirt shoulder at the epicenter of this orgiastic gathering, one that probably included a couple of whore hearses farther back in the make-shift parking lots. Amidst all the Rebel flags and caught off guard, I began to feel like a soldier on the wrong side of the battle line in the forests at Chickamauga or Shiloh. At any moment, minie balls would come flying out of the cordite cloud along with the boom-thump of rock n roll, followed by a wild-eyed fan eager to knock over some guy on a rice-burning, Japanese motorcycle.

As it turned out, the credential office was closed on the Sunday before the Labor Day race as everyone except rookies, it seemed, already knew. So I had to ride the same gauntlet in the opposite direction to get to the Swamp Fox Inn. My editor, who expected a story, had passed along the fact I could find David Pearson there. The Silver Fox, as he was known, was poised to become only the second driver in NASCAR history to win the sport s Triple Crown.

Assigning me to interview Pearson the day before the Southern 500 was like having a cub reporter pose questions to the star pitcher the night before the decisive seventh game of the World Series. Earlier in the year, Pearson had won the first leg of the Triple Crown in one of the most dramatic,

Flat Spot On: Darlington Or Bust(ed)

David Pearson took a ceremonial trip around Darlington in his Wood Brothers Mercury back in 2008. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for Darlington Raceway)

celebrated and disputed Daytona 500 finishes ever, driving his crumpled Mercury at 20 mph over the finish line ahead of archrival Richard Petty, whose Dodge had stalled just prior to the finish line after their last lap crash.

To my surprise, the front desk clerk at the Swamp Fox gave me Pearson s room number and the man himself answered the door, then stepped outside into the parking lot once I mentioned a story for the Durham paper. Dressed in a short-sleeve cotton shirt with silver-flecked hair combed back in a modest ducktail, Pearson and his weathered tan exemplified the good ol star while casually leaning against one of the Fords in the parking lot.

Launching into the interview by eagerly asking him about the significance of the Triple Crown, Pearson replied that it was just something sportswriters dreamed up. Then along came a different sort of indication. A blonde and two brunettes wearing short-short cocktail dresses and carrying drinks in hand came down the sidewalk in front of the motel rooms, managing to look bashful and brazen at the same time. What are you doing tonight, David? cooed the blonde in the middle. When the Silver Fox gave a non-commital answer, the blonde dipped her knees and said with only slight understatement, You could probably take care of all three of us. They laughed and giggled, then eased on.

This indirectly explains how I almost ended up in the jail in Columbia the following morning. After talking with Pearson, I went through the anxiety-inducing discovery that all the quotes scribbled down from the charismatic, wily veteran amounted to a hill of beans. With a deadline almost past, I called in a vague story after tapping it out in the lobby of the Swamp Fox and then took off around midnight for the 70-mile trip to Columbia to find my room.

Jittery over covering my first race the day after such a disastrous start, still without credentials and never having seen one of NASCAR s big races, when I awoke the next morning the various lobes of my brain were edgier than a pack of starving hyenas and just about as lucid. If my previous day s experiences hadn t been nerve-wracking enough, a straightaway-side chat was scheduled before the race by Jimmy Carter, who was launching his campaign for the presidency versus Gerald Ford from the same Darlington track where George Wallace had once stirred the cauldron of his quite literal White House ambitions. I had no idea what to expect in the way of traffic or credential problems, much less how stock car races were covered as I kick-started my motorcycle, already behind schedule.

The Honda 400 had been purchased following a stint as the overnight fry cook at a hash house in Durham, where I was living after college graduation. With four cylinders and enough power to handle the Interstates, the motorcycle rekindled an appreciation for machines and speed, previously limited to riding around in my older brother s souped up 55 Chevy. More importantly, cheap transportation was needed to get to work at the hash house and then later that summer to the Olympics in Montreal.

I had decided that Montreal during the Summer Games would be the best place to find a job as a sportswriter. During the 900-mile trip to Canada, I dreamed of discovering a famous sports editor passed out from fatigue over his typewriter, then jumping in to write a story and thus securing a full-time job. Without credentials, I intercepted athletes in the park between the Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Village, introduced myself as a writer and got as many quotes as possible for freelance stories sent to small U.S. publications. Finding sports editors outside of the venues turned out to be a more difficult. But I eventually found out about two job openings, including one back in Durham at the Morning Herald.

I landed the job at the Herald but was now worlds away from anything resembling the Olympics or Atlantic Coast Conference football, which had gone into full bloom that same weekend. Instead, I was headed to the Grandaddy of Them All across Interstate 20. About this time a strange, mixed bag of feelings unexpectedly arrived. From the perspective of a day later, the gritty, giddy and intimidating atmosphere at Darlington was suddenly compelling in its other-worldliness. But the shame over my lame response to the hazing from the guys in the truck lingered. Even worse, the story on Pearson had been so weak, there was the threat of being fired by the Herald absent a better job on race day, since I was subject to dismissal in the first six weeks.

Under the influence of a misplaced sense of revenge mixed with apprehension, I laid down across the tank as I had learned in upstate New York en route to the Olympics and cranked the Honda to its top speed, just over 90 mph. With my chin resting on the gas tank, the pavement underneath the front wheel visually slid past much more rapidly as well as the cars and trucks on the highway. Occasionally, if both lanes were occupied, I split the difference between vehicles, another trick learned on crowded roads in upstate New York. Quickness was crucial, because you had to squirt through before drivers jerked their steering wheels out of surprise.

I began to feel much better about the day s prospects while flying over the Piedmont s long, loping hills, which in this part of the Carolinas provided a panoramic view in both directions. These high-flying spirits didn t last long. About 30 miles outside of Columbia, I spotted a speck in my mirror at the bottom of a hill that kept gaining on me. Since the car was white, the paint scheme of the state troopers, I sat up, which had the effect of an air brake, and thottled back to the 55 mph limit.

It was a good minute before the state trooper pulled me over. Having been cruising at the speed limit, I figured I would merely feign innocense. Alas, the trooper s khakis only heightened the red-tinged anger of his face. Slim and sandy-haired this officer was in little mood for discussion. His chin was tucked in and his back bowed out like a cobra ready to strike. WELLLL NOWWWW! he fairly shouted as he walked around his car to eyeball me and the motorcycle. About then, it dawned on me that I made another rookie mistake as I handed over my license.

Mr. Ingram, he said sternly in a slightly twangy Carolina drawl that made you sound like yew. Do you know how fast you were going? No, no! Let me tell you how fast you were going! You went by so fast, I didn t have time to clock you on my ray-dar. I ve been running at 95 miles an hour for six miles trying to catch you. So tell me Mr, Ingram, what seems to be the problem?

I explained that I was headed to my first stock car race as a writer for the Durham newspaper and would have to get there in time to pick up my credential, a fairly convincing tale given the typewriter case on the back of my machine.

I tell your what I m going to do, the trooper said with his pen poised over his ticket book, evidently also in a hurry. I m just going to charge you for running 70 mph and it will cost you $35 for this ticket.

My heart sank to my toes, joining the rest of my blood as I imagined trying to cover the Grandaddy of Them All from a nearby magistrate s jail. He may not have gotten a legitimate clocking of my speed, but I was in a poor position to argue, literally. And I hadn t been aware this was a state where the troopers collected cash fines at the scene.

You can t pay that? he said with genuine disbelief as he eyeballed my face, now awash with chagrin.

I had just been hired after freelancing the Olympics, I explained, and hadn t been paid by my new job yet or collected any money from the previous work. In fact, I only had enough money for supper at McDonald s after the race and a couple of tanks of gas. I had spent the night in Columbia at a friend s house.

Well, I tell you what I m going to do, said the officer once more, this time with a hint of exasperation. I like the stock car races. And I like reading about the stock car races in the newspaper. So I m going to let you go. But when you get back out there on that highway, you let all those other cars and trucks pass on by. You keep your fanny on 55. Fifty-eight at the most!

Given all the events of the preceding 18 hours, as I cranked the kick-starter with great relief and eased back into traffic, I thought to myself, Damn. These stock car races really must be something else.

Beeeeooooowwwwww!

Without having seen a single practice lap or qualifying attempt, I nevertheless arrived at Darlington well primed for my first race. The press box was a vaguely secure structure as was NASCAR itself at the time. Covered in red fiberglass siding, the press box jutted precariously out over Turn One and sat off by itself, away from the gathering throng in the cement grandstands alongside the two straights, anxiously awaiting to see if Pearson could sweep the Daytona 500, the World 600 in Charlotte and the Southern 500 in one season aboard the Purolator-sponsored Mercury of the Wood Brothers.

In pre-race ceremonies far up the narrow ribbon of asphalt from the press box at a microphone standing between the track s whitewashed walls, presidential candidate Carter promised in his soft south Georgia drawl to invite all these drivers and their beautiful cars to the White House, where they belong. He then dived into the crowd for an enthusiastically greeted impromptu hand-shaking tour with fans, who apparently knew about his fondness for stock car racing while a state senator and later governor of Georgia.

For his part, the Republican vice presidential candidate Bob Dole promised his wife Elizabeth, a North Carolina native, has always been a stock car fan! Not long afterward on a day of speechifying that included a stemwinder by Strom Thurmond, the lengedary South Carolina senator who had been present on the day Darlington opened in 1950, the track announcer intoned his thanks to the crowd for their attendance. He then added with classic lowdown manners, We want y all to get plenty of sunshine today, eat lots of fried chicken, drink lots of beer and come back next year when all these politicians ain t heah.

An already awakened curiosity about the possibilities of NASCAR s brand of racing became a conviction after looking into Darlington s steamy black asphalt cauldron awash in thunder once the green flag dropped. As the brightly painted cars roared past the press box, making the majestic, incredibly loud left turn one story below the picture windows, a multitude of compelling stories about the fate of drivers and their teams catapulted through my head.

Beeeeooooowwwwww!

It was readily apparent the good ol stars gyrating the steering wheels aboard these juggernauts were giving their all to beat one another. The cat-quick teams who serviced the bellowing machinery in the pits left the same impression. The heat and speed posed awesome physical demands for the drivers, the danger posed a severe psychological threat and crashes raised the specter of getting fired or financial troubles, according to some of the comments I overheard in the press box.

The favored Pearson indeed won the race and secured the Triple Crown, the same guy whom I d been able to interview by simply knocking on his motel door the night before. When the star driver arrived in the press box for the traditional post-race interview, Pearson seemed far more powerful in a cream white and red driver s suit that was slightly tapered at the waist, emphasizing the strength in his shoulders, upper arms and chest. A face made ruddy by the sizzling sunshine coming through the windshield all afternoon underscored the fact a driver s wheelhouse was like a crucible of fire during 500 miles over Darlington s slick, black, narrow track.

Questions were fielded from the reporters at their seats as Pearson sat in front of the picture windows, facing the gallery with his sponsor s cap slightly askew, confident in victory with the empty, conquored track quietly posing as the backdrop. Because of the relaxed comraderie, it was different than any locker room interview or post-game encounter with a football or basketball coach.

In a low-key, professional manner, for example, the N & O s Martin asked Pearson toward the end of the session about his superstitious belief in good luck charms and if he had come across any prior to the race? I found a cricket in my shower this morning, said Pearson in a well-paced answer that was met with a roar of laughter as the driver then allowed a modest shit-eating grin. The response from the writers caught me off guard; after all, it had been a bright and legitimate newspaper question and the answer had been pretty straightforward. My mind then flashed back to the blonde in the short-short cocktail dress the night before

As a sport, NASCAR, where the door to a wide assortment of characters seemed wide open, comprised a completely new dimension to me after being raised on baseball, basketball, football and the occasional street race with my older brother. The maneuverings of the team owners, corporate sponsors and car manufacturers apparently all had a bearing on the outcome of races, not to mention the sanctioning body itself, which controlled the mechanical and safety rules with, I was to learn, ruthless authority and Rasputin-like intrigue.

Beeeeooooowwwwww!

(Editor s note: Jonathan Ingram is celebrating his 40th year of writing about NASCAR and other forms of motor racing.)

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