Back when I was a newspaper editor in Salem, Ind., I had a lawyer friend named Delson Cox who happened to be a race fan and who was also a pretty good pilot. He owned a Mooney, which was a pretty fast single-engine aircraft, and we took a lot of rides together.
One day he called me and asked if I was working the ARCA race at Talladega that weekend.
I told him I wasn’t, but I was game to make the trip if he wanted to go.
So, Sunday morning we load up the Mooney and head for ‘Dega.
We were wandering around the pit area when Bobby Watson, an old friend from Louisville and a pretty darn good race driver, came up and asked if I was doing anything but watching.
He explained that he didn’t have anybody who knew anything about superspeedway racing, and although I wasn’t much more informed, he knew I had worked with Harry Hyde for awhile. He asked if I would help plan his race for him and keep track of fuel mileage, etc. He told me how many laps they got on so many gallons, and I said I’d help if I could – handling the blackboard, but NOT stopping him on pit road – I talked about that experience at Daytona in 1966 in a column last year.
Bobby had his own operation with a Dodge owned by H.P. Rainier, the patriarch of the Rainier Racing clan. I believe the overall Rainier operation later morphed into Robert Yates Racing. They had another Dodge with Andy Hampton driving, and were pretty successful in ARCA.
Things went along fine for about 20 laps, when Bobby’s big ol’ Hemi exploded halfway between turn 4 and the tri-oval.
He was close to the pit entrance, and he tried – oh, Lord, how he tried – to make it onto pit road. Unfortunately, at about 170 mph that Dodge wasn’t going to turn that sharply, and he headed into the tri-oval grass.
It had rained a lot during that week, and I looked out there to see that Bobby was headed for a king-size water puddle. Maybe 50 feet across and 100 feet long.
I dove behind the pit wall as I heard the splash (you could even hear the sizzle as the water hit what was left of the hot engine), and although I didn’t get too wet just about everybody within a quarter-mile, including my pilot, got soaked. I got up and noticed that the water puddle was gone, and Watson was stuck in the mud down toward the end of the tri-oval.
When I asked how bad it was, Delson said, “I think it probably rained in Birmingham for a minute there.”
That experience didn’t turn Delson off. The next February, he said he wanted to go to the ARCA race at Daytona.
That flight went fine, even after we left our refueling stop in Chattanooga and he headed east. Turned out he was messing with us.
“It’s easy, we just fly to the first ocean and then turn right,” he said.
The problem came up when we landed at Daytona and the right landing gear folded up. The wing hit the ground, and we finally skidded to a stop in the grass after decapitating a runway light. The conversation with the tower was classic.
“Uh, Zero Two Quebec, is everybody OK out there?”
“Yeah, Tower, we’re fine, do you see any sign of fire?”
Did he say fire? I set a new record for diving out the right-side door and rolling down the wing.
We had my father and brother along on that trip, and between the three of us we worked out a travel plan to get back. We took a bus to Jacksonville and rented a car. Ever try renting a car in Daytona during Speedweeks?
Delson commented that my whole family was pretty calm about it. I told him that Mom wasn’t along, and she was in charge of worrying, so we had to do without it.
Actually, when I called her to tell her we’d be a little late getting back, I told her we broke our airplane.
“You mean you CRASHED???”
I was trying to avoid that word.