The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: An Unforgettable Day With My Father by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday June 9, 2011

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MPM2Nite: An Unforgettable Day With My Father

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday June 9, 2011


Writer’s Note: This article was originally run on the Father’s Day weekend of 1996, and I run it again every year at this time in memory of my dad.

The 1973 Daytona 500 probably doesn’t top most fan lists as the greatest running of the real Great American Race. Its outcome was not decided by a last lap wreck like the classic 1976 or 1979 events, nor did it feature two drivers nose-to-tail heading for the stripe, as in 1993 or 1996. But it is, and always will be, the most memorable running of the February classic in my book, because it was the first NASCAR event I attended.

My dad took me.

I had been a fan of stock car racing since I was five years old, though living in the Northeast, coverage was spotty at best, limited to an occasional segment of a race shown on ABC’s Wide World of Sports or a small blurb in the newspaper Monday morning I would reread a dozen times. Nor do I come from a family involved in any way with the sport. In fact, my preoccupation with fast loud cars was considered a bit worrisome, and everyone hoped it was just a phase I was going through. To be truthful, I guess some of the family is still waiting for me to outgrow it.

In the fourth grade, my class was given an assignment to write a paper on our favorite sports hero. Most of the class wrote about a member of the New York Mets who, in 1969, were on their way to the World Series in what was considered a bit of a miracle. I chose to write mine on Richard Petty, my hero. When it came time to read our papers and I announced who I had chosen, a baffled teacher looked at me and asked, “Who?” When I explained, I was told race car drivers were not athletes, and I should sit down and redo the assignment that evening.

Dad was of the old school. He drove conservatively-colored big land barge Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs while I was growing up, with big block engines of course, but saddled with tons of luxury options that rendered them comfortable but dog slow. When I suggested he purchase a 442, I got the same bemused look I did when I suggested we have hot dogs for breakfast. Dad wore a tie seven days a week, even on weekends, and to him a great Saturday or Sunday afternoon was relaxing in a recliner and reading a novel or the New York Times. He always watched Wide World Of Sports, no matter what was on, as a creature of habit. If stock car racing came on, he’d bury himself back in the Times and try to ignore my cheering and occasional leaping about.

Fast forward to 1973. I was 13 years old, and like many boys that age, a bit of a trial, smart-mouthed, cynical, and difficult. And still very much a gearhead, of course. Dad announced he had a special surprise for the family shortly after Christmas at Sunday breakfast. He was taking my mom, my four sisters, and I to Disney World. My sisters were thrilled. I rolled my eyes, and announced I had no intention of going on such a lame kid’s trip to see a giant rat. I asked if I could stay with a friend instead. Not the sort of reaction Dad was hoping for. I continued my campaign to be allowed to stay home, until Dad made another surprise announcement a couple weeks later. If I would go along on the Florida vacation and promise not to be a pest, he would take me to see the Daytona 500 while we were down there. I may have been the first person in history to scream, “I’m going to Disney World!”

I recall hearing Dad tell Mom that he was surprised how expensive seats were for the race, but Dad was the sort of man if he gave his word, he kept it. I don’t think Dad had any idea just how big a deal the 500 was. When we arrived at Disney World that Friday, he picked up a phone book and called Hertz to arrange for a rental car. Of course, none were available. Same deal at Avis, Budget, and the rest. Someone finally explained to dad it was Speed Weeks, and there was not a single rental car to be had in the state of Florida. Dad was not a man to shrink from a challenge, so he even resorted to trying Ryder, U-Haul and other truck rental places, looking for anything with an engine and wheels that would get us to Daytona. No deal.

Meanwhile, I had grabbed the phone book in despair thinking my trip to the race was about to be canceled. I pointed out one agency dad hadn’t tried. The ad listed “Dune Buggies For Rent.” For those of you who have forgotten, dune buggies were horrible misshapen little fiberglass abominations every bit as embarrassing to recall as ’70’s hair cuts, clothing and music. With great reluctance, dad made the call. The rental agent said while they had thought the whole fleet was rented, the mechanics had just finished repairing one, and it would indeed be available. They could even drop it off at our hotel in the Magic Kingdom Sunday morning. When dad suggested 10:30 AM, the guy laughed and told him, “Mister, if you’re going to the 500, you better plan on leaving a lot earlier then that. Unless you’re going to next year’s race, I mean.”

Matt McLaughlin recalls an unforgettable moment with his father watching his idol Richard Petty win the Daytona 500.

Sunday morning, I woke up to a torrential downpour of the sort they never show in Florida tourism ads. And, in fact, the weather forecast was not good for the rest of the day, with heavy rain supposed to linger until the next morning. While we were waiting outside for our chariot, a guy told dad and I not to worry. It never rained out the Daytona 500. Bill France had a special arrangement with the Man Upstairs. Of course, he probably would have sounded a lot more believable had he not been in a Mickey Mouse suit. Our rental unit finally arrived, and I recall Dad gasping as he saw it. Not only was it a dune buggy, but it was hot pink, with a flowered roof, and oversized tires mounted on purple-painted rims. Dad was aghast. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Dad tried to negotiate for a more sedate-looking blue unit that had served as chase for the rental agent, but he explained that was his boss’s private vehicle, despite an offer of a large bribe. My sisters were as delighted as I was by the beautiful pink car, but for some reason Mom was laughing out loud. She pointed her camera as Dad attempted to climb aboard. He looked her, and said in a voice that showed he was clearly not amused, “You take that picture, and you may well end up divorced before this trip is over. “ I think he was kidding.

And so it was off to Daytona in our pink dune buggy, driving along rain-soaked stretches of interstates. Dad, of course, was wearing suit pants, a starched white shirt, and a skinny tie which had some other drivers stealing second looks. While I professed to be an expert on cars, I had some insane notion dune buggies were fast. Not with a VW engine they weren’t. We got passed by everything on the road including, I seem to recall, a couple grannys in Gremlins on their way to Sunday service. The roof leaked copious amounts of water into the car’s interior. The defrosters didn’t work, so I was assigned the task of keeping the windshield clear with my windbreaker’s sleeve. The exhaust note was a loud, unpleasant tone not dissimilar to the sound one might expect to issue from the south end of a large hog facing north that had been rooting in the bean fields all night. Conversation required screaming.

“Cool car, huh dad?” I bellowed. “Can we get one someday?”

Dad’s stare made it hard to believe there would ever be such a vehicle in the McLaughlin family garage. Traffic was pretty bad, but as we waited to get into the lot the rains stopped. With race time approaching, I was constantly checking my watch and growing nervous. When we finally parked, we had to jog through the mud to get to our seats on time. Not much of a problem for me in my high top Converses, but a bit of a challenge for dad in his wing tips, which were to end up in the trash that night. When I first saw the track, I was knocked speechless, which anyone who knew me then will tell you took some doing. It was so huge, it was beyond my imagining with those high-banked corners that looked like walls and that big old lake in the center. Even Dad was impressed.

Our seats were one section to the left of the start/finish line, only three rows up from the fence. To this date, they were the best seats I’ve ever had for a race. There were no jet dryers in those days, so tow trucks were dragging tires around to dry the track as the crowd hustled to their seats. We ended up with some stereotypical good ol’ boys sitting right behind us, a bit intoxicated even before the race began. One noticed my hand-lettered “43 Richard Petty” T-Shirt (no kids, there were no souvenir t-shirts in those days) and slapped me on my back congratulating me on my wise choice. Then, he offered me a beer. Dad about died. I thanked the man as politely as I could, but explained I was too young to drink, which set the whole crew to laughing.

“Where you from, boy?” one of them asked me.
“Pennsylvania,” I told him.
“Pennsylvania?” he asked, laughing even louder. “There a lot of race fans in Pennsylvania, are there?”
“Just me.” I explained, which caused him to laugh so hard beer came out his nose, the first time I’d ever seen that trick done.

If seeing the track for the first time was a thrill, it was nothing compared to when the cars took to the track for the pace laps. The colors were so much brighter than on TV. The sweet thunder of unmuffled race engines echoed around the track. And not those small block engines like they use today, either. The real deal. Chrysler Hemi’s. Boss 429’s. Chevy Rats. It was a sound you felt as much as heard, and a sweet music like we may never hear again. In those days, the drivers wore open-faced helmets, so you could see their faces as they prepared to do battle. Most looked steely-eyed and determined. Richard was smiling and occasionally waving at the crowd, seemingly as relaxed as if he was going for a Sunday drive. And when the green dropped and 40 cars accelerated wide open for that first turn, the music reached such a crescendo that at that very moment, I became hooked for life on stock car racing. The whole crowd rose to their feet cheering. Well everyone but Dad, who thought such a display a bit unseemly.

Buddy Baker in his orange K and K Dodge was the class of the field that day, seemingly ready to lap all comers. Country Singer Marty Robbins in his purple and yellow Dodge crashed right in front of us, and I remember the wide-eyed look of panic in his eyes as he drilled the wall and spun by us. At one point Richard almost got lapped and my heart sank, but a well-timed yellow saved him from going a lap down. With 12 laps to go, Richard came into the pits for a splash of gas. There were no speed limits on pit road back then and he kept the STP Dodge floored until the last moment, then locked up his brakes, smoke billowing off all four tires as he skidded directly into his pits, lined up perfectly.

Baker had to pit for fuel as well, and his stop took a bit longer. Petty was in the lead, but Baker was reeling him in, closing noticeably on every lap… but the laps were winding down. Everyone was on their feet screaming for their favorite driver, and even dad was standing up, transfixed by the drama of the moment. The finish was a bit of an anticlimax. With six laps to go, Baker’s engine let go on the back straight in a huge cloud of smoke . Richard Petty coasted to victory two laps ahead of Bobby Isaac, who finished second. Thankfully. I’m not sure how much more even a thirteen-year-old’s heart could have taken that afternoon. My very first stock car race, I got to watch my hero win while I was jumping up and down in my seat cheering wildly.

As he took his victory lap, Richard was once again smiling and waving at the crowd, and of course to the kid in the third row I was certain he was looking right at me, the only race fan from Pennsylvania, as he drove by.

Before the Victory Lane ceremonies finished, the drizzle began falling again. It did seem indeed Bill France had some sort of deal after all. The entire ride home, between swipes of the windshield, I was chattering away, “ Did you see when… “, or “ Remember when…” at Dad over the noise of the engine. And he was smiling. Dad enjoyed the race after all, but more importantly, he’d later tell me, I had enjoyed it more then he could have imagined, and that made the trials of getting there worthwhile.

Dad did not become a huge NASCAR fan, but after ’73, when the races came on he’d lay aside the Times and watch with me. In 1979, when CBS began broadcasting the Daytona 500 live, we’d always watch it together, and I remember Dad actually pumping a fist in ’76, willing Richard to get his engine refired and beat Pearson to the line while I was going nuts on the sofa.

Dad passed away some eighteen years ago. We watched part of the Bristol spring race in his hospital room the last Sunday of his life.

To all you fathers reading this who might have a son who has a passion for racing, may I suggest you watch the race in Sonoma with him this Father’s Day and maybe ask a few questions. You’ll see what’s chaos to an untrained eye is actually an art form. To any sons whose father might be race fans, while you can’t quite understand what the fuss is all about, why not sit down with Dad and try to figure out what everyone’s raving about. It won’t be hard to see. And to you fathers and sons who share an interest in the sport, enjoy it together this Father’s Day. Because even if you are 13, and you think spending an afternoon with dad when you could be with your friends is hopelessly lame, there’s a day coming down the road you’ll wish you two spent more time together while you could. Trust me.

Happy Father’s Day.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Bad Wolf
06/09/2011 06:03 AM

Thanks Matt, this one never gets old and is one of your best.

Bill B
06/09/2011 07:25 AM

I can’t believe you actually posted that comment Susan. Forget your medication? I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to use the c word on this site.

Nice article. Nice memories. A week early though. I had to look at the calendar to make sure Father’s Day wasn’t this weekend.

06/09/2011 08:07 AM

Wow Susan;

So sweet. Great article Matt; about brought tears to my eyes thinking of my own long deceased father.

I await some kind cheerful response from Susan.

06/09/2011 08:18 AM

susan….who crapped in your cornflakes today???

matt…confused me…i too had to look at calendar…however i don’t celebrate as my father passed away 10 yrs ago. i do enjoy the reread every june though.

06/09/2011 09:56 AM

What a great story Matt! Being the only kid in my Long Island neighborhood that liked NASCAR, I can relate. I loved all the trips I took with my dad to Pocono, despite the annual rain and spread out racing. Thankfully, we still get to enjoy our annual summer race weekend at Riverhead.

06/09/2011 10:03 AM

Thanks, Matt.
This one’s always a good read.

06/09/2011 11:33 AM

Apparently Susan’s comment was removed. I always love this article. There’s nothing quite like going to your first race especially if it was back in the glory days.

06/09/2011 01:09 PM

A great story every time I read it. Reminds me of my first NASCAR race at a dirt track in Upstate New York (Fonda) in the late ’50s.

Thanks Matt

06/09/2011 01:20 PM

Nice column, Matt. I know you cherish that memory and I think it is wonderful that you share it with all of us in remembrance of your Dad.

I hope all of us have happy memories of times with our family – at the track or other places.

06/09/2011 02:18 PM

Disclaimer: Gonna post this post irregardless of Bill S.—who never met a bitchin session he didn’t like. Go ahead Bill S, take you best shot. As Sharon said: “trailer trash”

But on to more important subjects. My father and I shared that special bond in racing too. We lived across the street form the guy who owned Fountain Inn Speedway in SC in the 60s and he would take me to those races at the 1/4 mile dirt track where David Pearson cut his young teeth. We later worked the concessions together at that track and went on to do Greenville-Pickens Speedway for years that way. So my father and I grew up at the local tracks in SC. Saw Ralph Earnhardt at his best on G-P dirt before they paved it. And later — because this vending company owned the concessions at Greenville -Pickens and Atlanta Motor Speedway I got my dad in as a volunteer gas man for James Hylton back in the day. It was a great great father-son bonding thing. And it was kinda amazing too because those years 60s, 70s, were tough on parents because we younguns were all so rebellious. It was a tough time on parents now that I am one. But racing was the common thread that my dad and I saw eye-to-eye. And man, some of those days really were the good ole days.

Good job Matt. Nice to remember your fathers as they should be remembered.

Uhumm. Go ahead Bill S.—spew your spewtum.

06/09/2011 03:47 PM

Now you done gone and got me all teary eyed!!! Great article Matt, there’s a lot of stuff I wish I could sit down and chat with Dad about now. Hope everybody enjoys this article for the meaning.

06/09/2011 05:16 PM

Thank you, Matt. I read this every year you post it, and I smile and get a lil misty eyed everytime. My dad took me to my first race (the 500) when I was 4, and I can still remember bits of it. Thank you.

06/09/2011 08:26 PM

great read Matt
My dad never has been much of a race fan ever now and then he will ask me how so and so did so next weekend instead of watching or going to a race Im going to see my father and spend the weekend with him and my mom I hope everyone has a great weekend

06/09/2011 08:38 PM

For those of you who missed it (all comments are delivered to me via email even if they are deleted on the site) Sue feels that I am a “pig” and a “loser”. She went on to say that she hopes there is no afterlife so my dad doesn’t have to endure seeing what I have become. No life after this one? I am not sure how I could get out of bed tommorow if I didn’t think there was. All of us go through hard times with faith in the Lord once we pass we might find paradise.

She went on to call Richard Petty an ignorant redneck. I disagree on that call. For a guy with no college education he’s done pretty well with the team he is now running as opposed to the rich guy who owned soccer and hockey teams before him. Petty forgot more about racing than Susan will ever know even if God curses her with a hundred more years of her miserable existence.

Yeah, sister Sue is clearly off her meds again and back to meth, tequila and peyote for breakfast again. All we can do is pray to a God she clearly doesn’t believe in if she thinks theres no life after this one to have mercy on her demented soul when she comes to judgment.

This is the one column I write every year I figure nobody will tee off on. I’m just honoring my father who I dearly love and miss. Would dad be proud of what I do now. Probably not. He wanted me to follow him into the home PC business that he virtually created (Remember the KIM 1…that’s my dad) but I just wanted to screw with fast loud cars and become a writer. And when I told Dad what I wanted out of life, he told me so something and pure I hope that it will resonate with other sons and daughters out there taking the path less taken. “Son, if that’s what you want to do, do it well.” Have I done it well? History will decide that. But I am deeply hurt that somebody who doesn’t know me from a bottle of Red Bull would post that my father is ashamed of me. That goes beyond even the standards of cruelty and insanity that Sue comes here to post regularly.

downunder fan
06/09/2011 10:33 PM

Thanks Matt, A great story. It brought back memories of my 1st race meeting 46 years ago as a 16 year old. My Dad took me even though he was not a race fan. He told me that seeing how excited I was by the noise and sound of racecars made his day. I always thanked him for the opportunity he gave me to be a lifelong fan of all forms of racing as a result of that 1st visit. Keep up the good work

06/10/2011 09:48 AM

My first race was with my Dad May 1980, the Winston 500, I was 14 years old. Buddy Baker won that day in the silver and black chrome #28 Napa/Regal Ride Shocks Oldsmobile Cutlass. Remember the big cars with the chrome bumpers?

Its a day I will always cherish and never forget.

My Dad and I still watch most of the races together that our schedules allow. My son joins us when he can as well.

Thanks for a great story Matt. I am pretty sure I read it the first time you posted it back in 96 as I have followed you for many years. I hope you never retire!

06/10/2011 09:50 AM

By the way Matt, I appreciate your post. As a rebellious youngster taking a path less traveled over the years I have tried not to think back and relive old times like tose folks did when “Happy Days” was on TV. I don’t know your age but I do not recognize the America I live in (go ahead Bill S. spew your spewtum; tell me to leave then). But to your point about Sue, this has become a mean America—no decorum.

It’s that way in every corner of our society. We are meaner, not leaner — as is painfully aware— or not better or smarter, just meaner. Politics years ago would be such that there’s a minor time for campaigning and name calling then go to the back rooms and get the peoples’ business done. It’s the reverse now—fight all the time and the peoples’ business is done if there is time leftover. Since the Internet emailing and now texting blog posting, etc. has made fools out of many and people braver than they otherwise would be. Sue wouldn’t say that to your face. Or if she did you might pull a RCR on her. And to say that about your dad, well you would have a right to hit a girl—but maybe that girl is a guy in drag (again the cyber world we live in today).

I don’t recognize this America. It’s really weird here now. People just do things they wouldn’t do otherwise if they had to actually say things to a person’s face. We are not better for it.

You go ahead guy and still respect your dad as you have — both in public and in private. You can withstand junk from junk souls like Sue. And I have more passion and have seen more of this world’s great things already than Bill S. and his bitter and tortured soul can ever understand.

Go ahead Bill S. spew your spetum. At least in my 1000 word dissertation I can make complete thoughts. I know I get long winded but the wind in you, sir, and I use that term lightly, is so bitter it burns from inhale to exhale.

06/10/2011 01:10 PM


Your Dad would be proud of you.

06/10/2011 01:34 PM

Matt great article!

My dad took me to my first race at Milwaukee Mile. USAC stock cars which had stars like Bobby and Al Unser, Jack Bowsher, A.J. Foyt, Roger McCluskey, Norm Nelson, Don White, Ramo Stott, Dick Trickle and Butch Hartmann to name a few. Rusty Wallace and Joe Ruttman came up the ranks too before USAC stock cars folded and ASA came on the scene.

When you read this just want to say thanks Dad! Happy Father’s Day!

Modified fan from LI
06/10/2011 02:10 PM

I enjoy this article more and more each year I read it as I do all your columns. My own Dad passed away almost 30 years ago and I still miss him every day. I’m sure your Dad always remembered that day as fondly as you do too.

While I have been following your column for many, many years I’m not sure I ever posted (though I have emailed and sent snail mail to you separately) but when I heard about “Wacko Susan’s” remarks I knew I just had to write to you. Why she even visits or reads your column is beyond me. It is one thing to disagree with an opinion after a race but what you say she wrote has definitely crossed the line into stalker/physcho territory. I hope there is a way that she can be banned from this website so neither you nor any of us have to read her viscous remarks again.

Hang in there, keep on writing and I’ll keep on reading.
Susan (the good one from LI)

Bill S.
06/10/2011 02:40 PM

Ed, you have been trying to pick a fight with me all week. This is my only response:

What Richard Childress did in resorting to assault to express his frustration after a sporting event speaks for itself. As did Ryan Newman’s conduct in a closed-door meeting with NASCAR officials and Juan Pablo Montoya. NASCAR reportedly took action against Newman only after Montoya threatened a lawsuit. By refusing to take action earlier, NASCAR tacitly accepted Newman’s behavior. And before you start attacking the U.S. legal system, let me remind you that the court IS the proper venue for settling disputes in our nation when all other avenues of mediation fail. (Pulling an RCR as you put it, is NOT the proper response in a civilized society – one which you say you miss in modern day America.)

As for you, anyone who posts his home’s coordinates on Google Earth on a public forum is seriously lacking in judgment. I did not bother to look, but you apparently are quite proud of where you live. That’s nice. But being a redneck does not depend on where you live, but how you live. Anyone who supports physical violence to solve a sports dispute displays exactly the mean-spirited attitude you pretend to condemn in others. And hiding behind Matt McLaughlin’s column about his relationship with his father is no sign of courage or class.

(If you don’t like the term “redneck,” feel free to pick your own pejorative.)

I hope my thoughts expressed here have been coherent enough for your understanding. Have a nice day.

06/10/2011 07:27 PM

Bill S. Spew your spewtum.

And if that’s a threat keep on comin Bill S. Because I would like to own those dirty little shoes you wear. Now you do what you gotta do big boy (little b compared to Big Bee). You started this crap with your mouth and keyboard. I am ending it. So trailer trash go back into your pie hole. You want my coordinates. Come get um. I know you will git the layst werd because that the kind of guy (hmmm) yuins is. Have a nice life little man.

And by the way the only thing I can figure with your bitterness—especially about Richard Petty; because these boards just aren’t full of Petty hate crap…The only thing I can figure is you worked for one of his teams or businesses or something. There is something deep inside you that burns about Richard Petty. So you got burned some way and that’s how all this started. Your bitterness shows way way above any nice thing you ever have done or are. You just are Bitter with a Big B Bill S. You are sad man. Take care.

06/11/2011 11:35 PM

I can’t believe anyone would have anything negative to say about your wonderful memories. I think your story is touching and I hope my 5-year-old son will have many nice memories of going to races and tailgating with his dad.