Driven to the Past · Vito Pugliese · Thursday June 14, 2007
One of comedian Billy Crystal's most well known routines is of his memories growing up as a Yankee fan in New York City. His whole world revolved around Mickey Mantle and the Bronx Bombers, and going to games with his Dad. I had a similar childhood upbringing, but it wasn't with the New York Yankees. That would make sense since I am a native of Michigan and a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan. Luckily, I had the good fortune to be raised by a race fan, specifically of stock car racing.
Born the son of a life-long Mopar man, I was baptized a Richard Petty fan early on. The King was still wheeling around a 1974 Dodge Charger during the first year of my life, before dabbling shortly with an Amish hay wagon otherwise known as the Magnum. I can remember my first racecar: A plastic Richard Petty number 43 STP Oldsmobile, of which I promptly exceeded the GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) of its spindly metal axles. I had mistaken "stock car" for "stack-car", and attempted to place heavy objects and all of my weight on top if it. Ransom's replica failed in spectacular fashion, and I was suddenly short a superspeedway car.
My first race in person was the 1982 Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan International Speedway. I remember packing up our dark green 1976 Dodge Power Wagon for a date with the infield. Nothing fancy, just a fiberglass cap with some makeshift scaffolding to sit on top. Back then you didn't need a million-dollar motorcoach, a dilapidated school bus festooned to resemble your favorite driver's car, or the tour rig that Canned Heat used in â€˜69. I can still remember looking up as the cars rumbled by and seeing the white and green No. 88 Gatorade car driven by Bobby Allison as he won the race over Richard Petty by little more than a couple of Buick-lengths.
My parents still have the 8mm film of me racing around on my Big Wheel in the infield, mimicking the action on the racetrack. Needless to say, I will not be running for public office. Ever.
While in Kindergarten, my Dad plowed out a dirt track in our field for me to race my go-kart. While the go-kart was not yet ready for action, there was a 1972 Dodge Challenger with a 440 Magnum that was. It was then that I got my first experience of dirt trackin'; four-wheel drifting in a big-block muscle car with over 400hp. I strained to look over the dashboard and high beltline of the side windows, as he slid it around lap after lap, the front end rising towards the horizon each time the secondaries flung open. I remember looking over and seeing the long, skinny, orange tachometer needle bounce back and forth from 2,000rpm to over 6,000rpm with each stab of the throttle; I was gasping for air from laughing so hard. Later on, I was crestfallen when I was told we could not in fact, arrive at my school play that night in the big yellow Dodge with uncorked headers.
It was also the day my aspirations of becoming a jackman were jeopardized, as I managed to run all of the fluid out of his floor jack.
The following summer, my Dad and I were in another old Mopar, a 1969 Plymouth Valiant, inherited from his late father, on the way to pick up some parts at the auto parts store. At the same time we drove through a slightly banked bend on I-96, Richard and Cale were door handle to door handle coming through the tri-oval at Daytona, down to the stripe in the Firecracker 400, with The King notching number 200. I remember Dad pumping his fist and screaming, "ALL RIGHT!!!!" as they made the call, and laughing so hard I teared up a little.
When I was ten, I was with my Dad when we were able to meet Richard Petty at the grand opening of the now defunct Hill's Department Store. He looked pretty much then as he does 20 years later: black cowboy hat, wrap-around sunglasses, the moustache, and that mile-wide smile. He was as big as life and it felt like meeting royalty. I still have an autographed picture in my dresser, preserved for eternity, and my Dad’s is still stapled to one of the cabinets in his pole barn.
In 1989, we went to another race at Michigan International Speedway and met another group of legends along the way. Stopping at McDonald’s for breakfast on the way to the track, we ran into the Wood Brothers. All of them, with Leonard Wood actually taking time to talk to us for awhile. It was at that race I finally started paying attention to racing for real, and as my Dad had done before me, I selected my own driver who I would continue to live and die with each Sunday for what is fast approaching 20 years.
In 1992, we would take a trip down south, the first time ever in my 15 years that I had ventured further south than Toledo, OH, to The Great American Race, to see Richard Petty make one last start in the Daytona 500. To this date, it is the most memorable trip I have ever taken.
The IROC race was getting started as we rolled into town, and we made it to see one of the closest finishes in history, Dale Earnhardt edging out Ricky Rudd and Harry Gant, who wound up in a dead heat for second. At the hotel where we stayed, we ran into a former modified racer from the Northeast who shared an hour's worth of stories with us. Walking down the street in Daytona Beach, we almost got run over by Kyle Petty's pit crew in a minivan, making a run for the party store. Although the race was a bit anti-climactic with half of the field taken out in "The Big One" at the halfway point, I still had the best time of my life. I even got to meet Buddy Baker in the line for traffic getting out of the speedway who said to me, "Boy, they sure don't do much for the fans here do they?"
In 1993, we would both meet another 7-Time Champion together, the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. My Dad was less interested in getting an autograph from him as he was showing off a photo of a trophy buck he had captured the winter before. Dale was an avid outdoorsman, as was his friend Neil Bonnett. Dale saw the pictures before he had a chance to present them to him, and snatched them out of my Dad's hand. "Come awn, lemme get a look at themâ€¦" My Dad replied to him, "A little bit bigger than those over-grown jack rabbits Neil's got hanging on the wall, eh?" Dale let out a hearty chuckle and spoke to him for a minute about it. It wasn't so much a fan meeting a driver as it was two sportsmen talking hunting. I thought, "Wow. My Dad and The Intimidator. Just shootin' the breeze."
There were some bad times too. I was the one who told him that Adam Petty had been killed in 2000 at New Hampshire International Speedway. He took it pretty hard; you would have thought it was his own nephew that had been lost. We both watched together as Dale Earnhardt, Sr. made his last lap at Daytona in 2001. Although it wasn't announced at the track during the broadcast, it was apparent something wasn't right.
As many race fans can relate, when something happens to YOUR driver, it's as if it's happened to you as well. There is a distinct, unspeakable, unexplainable bond between a fan and their favorite driver that to this day, no one can quite explain. Much like a father and a son, there are certain relationships and understandings that can't be explained or rationalized, and if you can't quite get your head around itâ€¦.you wouldn't understand anyway.
My Dad never subscribed to Sports Illustrated, or waited breathlessly for the Swimsuit Issue to arrive. He received Circle Track and Southern MotoRacing; each would teach you bibles full of truth. I grew up on Ken Squier, Chris Economacki, Dave Despain, Ned Jarrett, and Mike Joy. If the clouds were just right, sometimes you could pick up MRN and listen to Barney Hall and Eli Gold, the best voices in the business calling the action.
Growing up in Michigan in the 1980's, it's amazing that I ever got interested in stock car racing. What's even more remarkable was how ahead of the times my Dad was. He was country before country was cool, and was keyed into the most unique, exciting, emotional sport around, 40 years before the rest of the country got wind of it.
I'm forever grateful that he helped turn me on to this, instead of something so miserable and futile as hitting a while ball around an empty field (walking up to it, and hitting it again….), or heaving an orange ball into a peach basket. It has provided hours of conversation, an entire library of literature, albums of photos, and a lifetime of memories. I'm just glad that he's still around, and that there are plenty more left to be written.
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