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 racecar 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 ’70s 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 a.m., the guy laughed and told him, “Mister, if you’re going to the 500, you better plan on leaving a lot earlier than that. Unless you’re going to next year’s race, I mean.”
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 Hemis. Boss 429s. 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. Petty coasted to victory two laps ahead of Bobby Isaac, who finished second. Thankfully. I’m not sure how much more even a 13-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 David Pearson to the line while I was going nuts on the sofa.
Dad passed away some 18 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.
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