I’m not a very good friend. It’s too easy for me to get all wrapped up in the details of everyday life and work; my schedule usually sits front-and-center ahead of most else in my mind. That’s probably why I totally ignored the bulletins reporting the death of Wanda Lund-Early this past January. As I said previously, I’m not a very good friend.
If I was a better friend, I would have been all over the news that Wanda died on January 5th of this year. If I was a better friend, I would have been stunned by the tragic news. If I was a better friend, I would have been even more stunned by the idea that her death was self-inflicted. If I was a better friend, I would have known that she was hurting on the inside while trying to make things right on the outside.
Wanda Lund-Early had a big heart for all those around her. She did whatever she could to help the cause of those in need, and she was an indefatigable voice for all things NASCAR. That was because of her close connection to the sport – she was the widow of DeWayne “Tiny” Lund, the journeyman racer from Iowa who proved any skeptics wrong by winning the 1963 Daytona 500. Tiny Lund’s victory in The Great American Race has been referred to as a “storybook” finish, but I doubt that any writer could have ever imagined such a classic narrative.
Unfortunately – based on what I eventually learned about Wanda’s suicide – her story, too, followed a classic narrative of its own.
How I met Wanda Lund-Early was a story in itself. It was late May in 1997, and I had been invited to the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Mooresville to do a number of book signings during their “Champions of Speed” celebration. The entire event was overwhelming to me, since I was being regarded as a “champion” on the basis of having a book so newly printed that I had to deliver the first several cases to Mooresville directly from my publisher. Numerous events were scheduled to coincide with Race Week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and I had been selected to appear every day alongside NASCAR’s elite.
As former crew chief Barry Dodson said to me at one point during the week, “You must be blown away by being part of all this!”
I smiled at Dodson (who was standing next to driver Mike Bliss at the time) and replied, “You have no idea…”
Dodson’s “blown away” comment was the understatement of the century.
During the course of the weeklong “Champions of Speed” event, I was privileged to spend time in the company of such NASCAR legends as Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison, and the late Benny Parsons. I also appeared with other racers like Don Miller (who co-owned cars for Rusty Wallace at the time), J.D. Gibbs (during his driving days in the Truck Series), and Larry McReynolds (who was working as Dale Earnhardt’s crew chief at the time).
For a wet-behind-the-ears college professor who was winding down a two-year gig at Michigan State University, hoping that his new book might simply result in future employment, meeting such luminaries (and being treated on a level equal to them) was akin to being a prospect at the NFL draft. Promise and potential hung in the air and surrounded each “big name” I met.
It was my being mistaken for a NASCAR driver that led to my meeting Wanda Lund-Early…
The walls of the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame were decorated with all kinds of paintings done by motorsports artists, and several of the pictures were of legendary drivers. Near the tables where all of us “champions” met the public was a portrait by Jeannie Barnes of DeWayne “Tiny” Lund following his 1963 Daytona 500 win.
Now, it’s important to understand here that I was – in 1997 – a much larger man with more hair than I currently possess. At a quick glance, I guess someone could have confused me with the Tiny Lund in the portrait (although they’d have to be unaware of the fact that “Tiny” stood 6’5”, weighed 270 pounds, and died in 1975 after a wreck at Talladega).
As odd as it might seem… someone did.
An older couple approached me and asked if I was the man in the painting with the trophy. Once I realized who they meant, I laughed, thanked them for thinking I’d won the Daytona 500, and explained who I really was. The couple said they were passing through the area on their way to Florida from upstate New York. I said I had family in upstate New York and mentioned the town. Less than five minutes later, we were marveling about the connection between us – the couple had worked for the same shoe company as my aunt and uncle from New York, and my uncle had even been their floor manager for many years. The coincidence was nothing less than staggering to me.
Their driver error was also, I’ll admit, a bit flattering.
Later that day, I was scheduled to “appear” with Wanda Lund. As the time of the session approached, I was greeted by a petite woman with a big smile and a hearty handshake. Wanda introduced herself, and I immediately launched into my story about the couple’s confusion over me and the portrait of Tiny. We laughed about the case of mistaken identity and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting about all sorts of topics, and not just NASCAR. We talked about our families, the towns where we lived, and our love of “down home” comfort foods.
Our talk about NASCAR gravitated toward the benevolence of the “good ol’ days” and the various ways that Bill France, Sr. kept his sport both running and growing. Wanda also spoke of how drivers and car owners looked out for each other. She told me about the day in 1964 when Wendell Scott broke racing’s color barrier and won a Grand National race in Jacksonville, Florida. Wanda explained how Tiny noticed that Scott’s Chevrolet badly needed new tires, yet the Virginia driver didn’t have the resources to buy them.
Lund walked over to the Firestone truck and told the crew there to supply Wendell with whatever he needed; Tiny would personally pay the bill. Four brand new Firestones were soon delivered to Wendell’s pit stall – a gift from the reigning Daytona 500 winner that helped Scott to win his first (and only) major Grand National event.
Wanda also related the fact that Wendell Scott’s victory had to be “confirmed” by NASCAR officials before the race results could be considered final. This additional step was, in her mind (and in the minds of others) because “Big Bill” feared the repercussions of having an African-American driver kiss a white trophy queen. Scott’s victory was not declared “official” until many hours later, after the crowd had gone home.
Wanda’s years with Tiny Lund eclipsed some turbulent times in NASCAR. Tiny, who lovingly referred to his wife as “Hillbilly,” was a recognized name in the sport during those years when factory support waned, leaving R.J. Reynolds Tobacco an opportunity to underwrite what would soon become the Winston Cup Series.
Wanda Lund had a front-row seat for the attempted rise – and eventual fall – of the Professional Drivers Association in 1969. The PDA’s boycott of the inaugural Grand National race at the Alabama International Motor Speedway (now known as Talladega Superspeedway) gave Tiny the chance to drive a 1969 Ford that was “owned” by “Big Bill” France and sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. Lund drove the Ford – his first and only Grand National ride that season – to a ninth-place finish, leading 28 of the 152 laps he ran before dropping out with clutch problems.
It was on the high-banking of Talladega where Tiny Lund died in August of 1975. Ironically, his fatal wreck occurred in what would be his only Winston Cup start of that year. On lap seven of the Talladega 500, Lund’s No. 26 Dodge was T-boned on the driver’s side. According to sports writer Kim Chapin, in his 1981 book Fast as White Lightning: The Story of Stock Car Racing, Tiny Lund died as the result of “massive internal injuries” about ten minutes after the collision that also involved Walter Ballard, Terry Link, and the late J.D. McDuffie.
As the legend goes, eventual race winner Buddy Baker – a dear friend of Lund’s – broke down in tears during post-race interviews when told of Tiny’s passing. As Kim Chapin’s book tells the story surrounding Lund’s death and memorial service, other NASCAR drivers moved about nervously with blank expressions and a “That’s Racin’” attitude. The fate that befell Tiny Lund at Talladega that afternoon in 1975 could have befallen any one of them any time they climbed inside a race car.
Despite her loss, Wanda Lund recognized the plight of others who raced for a hard-earned living, back before the corporate jets, NASCAR’s office in Manhattan, and the need for twenty million (or more) dollar sponsorships. She spent her time with the racing community trying to preserve the memory of those who’d struggled to make a career out of building cars, racing them, wrecking them, and then starting all over again.
Victories in competitive cars with stable teams may have been few for many of that generation in NASCAR, but their efforts were notable and worth remembering, especially in that ESPN era of 24/7 sports coverage.
Wanda knew that NASCAR was an important part of my life, as well. I mentioned the need for someone to collect the definitive stories of racers like Tiny, Wendell, J.D., Walter, Terry, and so many others – the stories of where they raced, what they drove, and how they worked through the trials of NASCAR in those “early” days, regardless of their successes or failures. Before I knew it, Wanda Lund-Early was flipping through a date book she’d fished from her purse. She scribbled furiously on a blank page, then handed me the slip of paper.
The page was covered with the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of a “Who’s Who” in NASCAR. To this day, that sheet of paper is one of my most prized possessions. I’ve used the numbers several times over the years to arrange interviews and assist with various media contacts, and I’ve never reached for the page without thinking of Wanda first.
Through Wanda’s generosity, I was able to interview Doris Roberts, the widow of NASCAR legend Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, who died following a fiery accident at Charlotte in May of 1964. Doris, who passed away in 2004, reaffirmed my theory – as did Wanda – that the real courage in “old school” NASCAR resided with the wives who provided stability on the homefront while their husbands were racing to try and provide a decent life.
One of my fondest NASCAR memories was the afternoon I spent visiting with Wanda at her home in Waynesville, North Carolina – the small town where she was born, and also the town where she took her own life. She talked openly with me about Tiny’s career, their adventures together, and the ways that automobile racing affected the lives of so many in their social circle. Wanda showed me family photographs over coffee and freshly-baked treats that – by themselves – were well worth the trip from Charlotte.
I left Wanda’s home that day carrying stories, photographs, a slew of cherished recipes, and a firm reminder of why NASCAR was such a unique culture within the universe of professional sports.
I guess it’s been my lack of personal contact with many in-and-around NASCAR of late that allowed me to miss the tragic news about Wanda Lund-Early’s passing earlier this year. Hearing about her suicide, coupled with rumors I heard about her possibly being a victim of domestic violence, gave me even greater pain. Wanda and I had lost touch over the years, especially as the daily demands of parenting and teaching and writing consumed much of my time and energy.
As I look ahead to next year’s Daytona 500, it’ll be impossible to not think about Wanda Lund-Early and the kindness she showed to those she met during her all-too-short life. She was a caring connection to NASCAR’s past who saw the sport through its rough-and-tumble developmental days, even after Tiny’s death in 1975. She was a friend, even though I didn’t rightly deserve her help, nor did I return the generosity she provided to me.
For what little it’s worth – to all the connections we shared, and to all her surviving family – please allow me to say how deeply saddened I am that Wanda is no longer with us. A little bit of the real NASCAR died along with her that day last January.
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