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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: A Pirate Looks at 50

As some of you may know, after the Pocono wrap-up I’m heading off for the annual family Jersey shore vacation. Fewer of you realize that while I’m taking this time off, I will hit a dubious milestone and turn 50 years of age. Normally, I loathe to discuss my personal life because, frankly, I know most of you could give a damn. I respect that you’re here to read about Dale, Jeff, Jimmie, Carl and the rest… not me. But as I look down the barrels of 50, it’s hard not to reflect a little on a half-century journey here on this grand blue marble we all call home.

I’ve been a stock car racing fan for most of my life, getting addicted in 1964. A Southern cousin turned me onto the sport, and it’s become a lifetime obsession. Back then, I was still five years away from my first motorcycle ride (another lifelong obsession), seven years from my first beer (ditto), and was still mastering the alphabet that would later become an odd way to make a living.

Like most newly minted fans in 1964, I started my fandom as a Richard Petty backer. The lanky, always grinning North Carolina native in his brilliant blue Hemi Plymouth Furies was the perfect sports hero. That Fury, though a bit brighter in hue than most suburban dads in the era would choose for their daily driver, looked exactly like any number of similar Plymouths I’d see motoring down Boxwood Lane as I walked to Lincoln Elementary School with the neighborhood kids for morning kindergarten classes.

Mopar enthusiasts might correct me, but as best I can recall, there were no Hemi Furies on the street in 1964. The first Hemi car I had personal experience with belonged to an older neighbor. In 1968, he showed up with a brand new Hemi Road Runner in a curiously sedate color that I can only call elementary school cinderblock wall pale yellow. (It was soon wearing red primer down the right side after a mishap at the track.) It was a relative stripper with the big engine, a bench seat and a four-speed tranny, but word was soon out along the beach road where they raced in my hometown that the Road Runner was the car to beat. Curious to see what all the fuss was about, securing my first ride in the car did more to convince me of the existence of a kind and benevolent God than all the preaching of the good Sisters at Saint Charles Boromeo combined. Somehow, I managed to survive the experience. To this day, the recollection of that Hemi’s primal roar blasting through a pair of Hooker Headers and Thrush glass packs still makes what hair I have left on my scalp stand up straight. After that ride, I was a car guy for life. (Though I’d later come to prefer my next door neighbor’s 1970 Mach One to the Road Runner.)

Anyways, 1964 was a good year to be a Petty fan… especially for a kid. Petty would win nine of that season’s 62 (I’m not making this up, nor is my brain completely mush yet… yes, 62 races!) en route to his first of seven titles. After the two boycott seasons which tried even a kid’s soul, 1967 was an even better year to be a Richard Petty fan. That year, Petty would win 27 of 48 races… 10 of them in a row. Obviously, he won another title. For Christmas that year, I got a Petty Blue windbreaker with the Plymouth Rapid Transit System patch on its breast. I think I wore it every day until I finally outgrew it….

As I grew up, being a race fan in the Northeast wasn’t easy back in the day. There was little to no TV coverage of the sport. The local sports pages would occasionally devote two inches of column space to Grand National Racing – usually below the horse racing odds on the back page. My Uncle would have to send me columns clipped from the Charlotte Observer, and that’s how I kept up with the sport for much of my childhood.

Eventually, I attended my first Cup race in February of 1973, the Daytona 500 won by none other than Richard Petty. I wrote a story about that experience that’s now older than some Cup drivers. It’s out there somewhere. After that, occasionally Dad would take me to races at Dover or Pocono.

My next major milestone occurred in September of 1979. It was the first great road trip of my life – a spontaneous last-minute trip taken in a black big block El Camino with a leaking gas tank. (If I could somehow round up my neighbors’ Road Runner and Mach One and that old black El Camino, I could probably take them to Barrett-Jackson and retire comfortably on the proceeds.) Somehow, the truck survived the ride, and I avoided arrest despite my long hair and our “Trail Mix” of Budweiser and Panama Gold. Yeah, I was young, stupid, and irresponsible back then. But now that I’m older, stupid, and irresponsible, I miss those road trip adventures. Taking the trip from Philly to North Wilkes in a ’70 Boss 302 with 4.10 gears? No problem. Philly to Rockingham in a ’70 GS455 Stage One? I seem to recall the A/C in that car won the battle with the Southern heat rather handily, even loafing along at triple-digit speeds. Nowadays, though, I devote more pre-planning to the 90-minute ride to the Shore. This year, I might need some drugs to make the trip; not dope but Flo-Max to limit the bathroom breaks, along with Prozac to help me deal with morons in BMWs chatting on the cell phone and changing lanes without use of their mirrors.

Over the years, I’ve watched several crops of rookies come up to challenge the drivers of my youth. First, there was Darrell Waltrip, then Dale Earnhardt the original, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and others. It makes me think that maybe there is hope for Kyle Busch after all. Back in the day, Darrell and Dale were punks, and the more they won, the more the fans hated them. Yet both drivers would go on to be elder statesmen of the sport, with legions of fans who couldn’t stand drivers that began to beat them. I’ve watched the circle of life so many times, I’m equally wondering how the current crop of drivers will mature and I’m curious as to who the next batch of rookies might be.

It’s gotten a lot easier to be a race fan. The first NASCAR races I saw on TV were broadcast in short segments on Wide World of Sports. I watched them on a black and white console TV that two strong men would struggle to lift. Color TV, cable, cell phones, remotes, VCRs and DVRs were all decades away.

But although the coverage was small in scale, the pictures it gave us had a large impact. For all my affection for Darlington these days – it’s my favorite racetrack, as you might have guessed – originally I hated the track. Why? Because moments after Wide World of Sports joined the Darlington race, Petty got sideways and hit the pit wall, sending the No. 43 car tumbling violently. Even in black and white, that wreck was terrifying to watch, with Petty’s arm and head dangling out the window as his Road Runner rolled. The road to seven titles was not without its potholes.

Another memorable moment occurred live on CBS in 1976, when the network joined the race live at the midway point. Petty and David Pearson wrecked on the final lap, with Pearson able to drive his damaged Mercury across the finish line to take the win. Things worked out better for the King at Daytona in 1979, when CBS offered the first flag-to-flag coverage of a major NASCAR race. With a lot of the country homebound courtesy of a major winter storm, the nation got its first real glimpse at stock car racing. The sport was still a little rough around the edges, with Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison engaging in a fistfight after wrecking on the final lap while Petty sped on to an unexpected victory. Still, it was one of those defining moments for (ahem) more mature fans. If you recall where you were when you heard RFK and Martin Luther King were shot, you also recall where you were when you watched that race. For me, I was comfortably ensconced on a truly horrid plaid couch in the living room of 649 Lakeview Circle, Newtown Square, Pa., watching the race with my dad at the age of 18. He was allowing me to have a couple beers out of his stash of Schlitz in the lime-green refrigerator, perhaps knowing I’d been sneaking a few anyway as of late. Do they even make Schlitz anymore?

As time went by, color TV got to be commonplace, along with a new, expanding lineup of channels. Fledgling sport’s programming cable TV network ESPN took a big gamble in 1981 and started broadcasting races live. Dale and Darrell became the first made-for-cable TV stars of the sport… sort of like Duran Duran became the first stars of MTV. Fortunately, Darrell and Dale had a bit more staying power. ESPN and NASCAR quickly became partners in success, and what was good for one was good for the other. (That is, until NASCAR became big enough they spurned the one that brought them to the dance and put TV rights up for bid to those willing to pay the highest price.) Now, ESPN and ABC are back… I just wish the broadcast style they popularized in the ’80s had returned as well. Or maybe that’s just me being a cranky old man. Yeah, in retrospect, fans today have it pretty good compared to the “Good Old Days.”

With the advent of the Internet, race fans got another unique outlet for information. Fueled by the evergreen Jayski’s Silly Season site, a cottage industry began of Internet racing writers. The same tidal wave that lifted guys like Monte Dutton and Mike Mulhern from Southern paper sportswriters and brought them from the edge of the world to your town also brought along a new crowd of hopefuls looking to ride the bandwidth wave into your home PC.

Folks have asked me how I got started doing this, and I guess its time to ‘fess up. Like most good things in my life, it just sort of fell into my lap – a sign (I hope) that a provident Savior is more amused than annoyed by my antics. At that point in life, I was 30-something and out of work. I’d been managing a tire store until a nasty fall off a 20-foot high pallet almost left me crippled. Yet after countless years of working 50-hour weeks to rise through the ranks, I found myself getting paid to sit at home and do nothing while I healed. The highlight of my week was waiting for the next NASCAR race on TV. Ask anyone unfortunate enough to have encountered me face-to-face; I’ve been doing this laid back hippie thing for three decades but when it comes to racing, I am one opinionated son of a bitch.

Thus, I fired off an angry and sarcastic letter to the Winston Cup Scene, one of several they ended up publishing. A fellow by the name of Mike Calinoff, who was spotting for Brett Bodine (he now spots for Matt Kenseth) and running a small giveaway newspaper at the time read one of those letters and decided maybe I was worth giving a shot. He called directory assistance looking for a Matt McLaughlin in Broomall, Pa. and got my number.

When the call came in, I was just getting out of the shower. Thus that afternoon, I was standing naked, dripping all over the carpet, drinking a Coors Light (and showing the neighbors in my apartment complex why there are damn few male Irish porn stars) when Calinoff asked me if I’d like to write for a racing newspaper. Would I? That was the dream. It was like asking me if I’d like to do the horizontal hula with Heather Locklear.

He invited me to come South to talk about the job. Less than 12 hours later, I was at the wheel of John Henry, my lifted Ford pickup truck, heading south. However, my so-called career didn’t get off to a great start. Whatever guardian angel used to protect me on road trips south during my dazed and confused period had apparently decided that “aw the heck with it, that’s what purgatory is for if Hell don‘t have room for him” and I blew a left-rear tire while passing an 18-wheeler at 80. Campers, that’s how close it came to you never having to endure a word I’ve written. John Henry got up on two wheels and almost rolled, with two well-skilled semi-drivers deftly avoiding me while I slid across three lanes of traffic to the breakdown lane. With 35-inch tires, you can’t carry a spare… so I was out of luck. I didn’t have a cell phone then – hell, I don’t have one now and never will – so I had no choice but to jump a fence, then run up and down a steep embankment to go find help. Thus I found myself in Level Cross, N.C. (How’s that for ironic for a Richard Petty fan.)

I was not sure what to do next, and was panicked that I was supposed to meet my potential boss for a job interview in less than four hours. As it turned out, the police department was right there, so I walked inside and asked the female dispatcher who they used for wrecker service in those parts. Learning of my predicament, she broke out the local phonebook (which was the size of a notebook I’d used in college) and began calling tire dealers. She found one that had a 35-inch BFG All Terrain in stock. A local cop removed the wheel and mangled tire from my truck (while we dodged semis roaring by inches behind us), took it to the tire store and got it replaced. The tire store took my credit card number over the phone and, an hour later, I was on the road again. Thanks to all involved for your Southern hospitality.

Once I arrived, I figured Calinoff was going to put me up in a hotel room. As it turned out, I was to stay with him in a small apartment that technically belonged to his girlfriend… and she didn’t like me much. I have that effect on women, it seems. The apartment also was overrun with cats. I’m highly allergic to cats, so I’d spend every night throwing cats off of the pullout couch that was my sleeping area while sneezing my brains out. During those days, I’d bang out columns while Mike worked the phones trying to convince the printer to run a new edition of the paper even though he hadn’t been paid for the last press run. On one side of our office was a Holy Roller church where they handled snakes and spoke in tongues. On the other side was a business called Incarce-Ride that shuttled family members without cars to prisons to visit their loved ones. They both looked at Race City News as a shady operation, and we had to duck out quite frequently to avoid a landlord looking for rent. But despite sleeping on the couch and having to sneak out of the building, Mike got me my first access to the garage area – and that made up for all the cats, all the meals I had to buy us both, and for having to hide under a table at a restaurant as a twister passed by.

I finally convinced Mike our shoestring operation needed a website. He was reluctant at first; but since the printer wasn’t going to print our next edition, he finally gave it a shot. To his credit, when Calinoff finally decided the web was the way to go, he dove in headfirst. He learned to do all that HTML stuff that is still foreign to me and got the site live. Meanwhile, I was still banging out columns and hoping one day to get paid. One of those columns I wrote was on NASCAR and the Internet. Jayski linked to our website for that article, at which point it was off to the races, so to speak.

Another fan of that column was Derek, who ran what was then the Speedworld.com site. He invited me to start writing for him. The salary was precisely zero dollars a week at the time. Speedworld in that era consisted of Derek, who ran the site, some old guy named Mike who hated me, and me writing under three different pen names. Mike quit because he hated me, so that left Derek and I. He was a college student, while I was on workman’s comp and talking my way into garage areas by convincing rent-a-cops that, as a writer for Speedworld, I was associated with ESPN. Eventually, I started getting paid and so the long, strange trip began. There’s been some potholes, but it’s been a Hell of a ride. If I have to walk away from it tomorrow, I’ve got no regrets. It’s been fun, and some of you folks have gone from fans to friends.

I envision doing this at least a few more years. NASCAR racing has indeed been a lifetime obsession of mine since I was too young to spell “lifetime.” There may be a day in the future that I finally decide that the Chase and Car of Tomorrow make this sport a burden I no longer wish to endure; but in the meantime, if I can prove both ideas show that Brian France is a congenital idiot, I’ll keep on dusting off this dusty QWERTY one more time. When it comes time to leave this mortal coil and I am closer to death than birth, if I leave folks saying “I didn’t always agree with him but he was honest and made me laugh a few times,” that’s about the legacy I hope to leave behind as a Pirate looks at 50. Onwards and upwards, my friends and foes. Getting old is Hell… but it sure beats the alternative.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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