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Beside the Rising Tide: Darlington 1979

Could it really have been 38 years already? The memory plays tricks when it comes to time but the lines I see on my face in the mirror say perhaps it really has been that long. Blame it on too many late afternoons squinting into a setting sun aboard the Harley but back in 1979 I looked not so much like a son of mine but a grandchild. Also back in 1979 I set out on one of the first great adventures of my budding adult life (I was 20 years old at the time), a grand road trip down South. By either divine providence or sheer dumb luck I survived it and am not still incarcerated. (Hopefully the statute of limitations has expired on any inadvertent misdeeds. In my defense, yes, I actually was that stupid.)

I was already a hard core stock car racing fan and had been since I was five or six. My uncle in South Carolina used to cut the articles about races out of the paper and mail them to me and it was those articles that played a large part in my learning to read and gave me the first glimpses of the big old world out there beyond the New Jersey Turnpike over beyond the soybean fields near my home. I’d already been to races, most notably the 1976 Daytona 500 (and a couple Dover races) with my dad and a few Pocono events with a friend’s family. But the 1979 Southern 500 was to be the first race I road-tripped to borne in the belly of a big block beast counting on a fake ID to buy beer along the way, just me and a buddy with no adult supervision.

The call came in from my cousin Joe in South Carolina mid-week. He’d broken up with his girlfriend and as such had two spare tickets to the Southern 500. Would I like to join him? I don’t recall hearing a heavenly host playing trumpets but it didn’t take me long to answer “Hell yeah!”  The Southern 500 was a very big deal even back then. The inaugural 1950 Southern 500 was only the third NASCAR Cup race run on a paved course. (The first two having been run in Dayton, Ohio earlier that season.) The track’s owner, Harold Brasssington, decided on the epic 500 mile length of the race to match the Indy 500. Prior to that race there was some very real questions whether any cars would be left running after 500 miles. As it turned out somewhere around 25 of the 75 cars that started the race were in fact running in some semblance of the term at the conclusion of the race. Johnny Mantz won that first Southern 500 in a 1950 Plymouth co-owned by Bill France, Sr. Earlier that week France had been driving that same car around on the street hanging promotional posters for the race. Mantz finished the entire race without having to change tires because the team elected to run truck tires rather than passenger car rubber. Given Darlington’s notoriously abrasive surface tires turned out to be the key issue in the race. By the halfway point some teams were raiding the parking lot to find more tires. Whether they consulted with those vehicles owners or what happened to said owners after the race is a matter of conjecture. But over the decades the Southern 500 had earned its reputation as the toughest event on the circuit on both man and machine. We weren’t just going to a race. The trip was practically a hajj for stock car fans.

The first two people I asked to accompany me declined. One might have been grounded. The other one knew we had tickets for Dover in a couple weeks anyway and had to get back to school. Chris on the other hand immediately agreed enthusiastically to the trip. That kind of worried me in that he was a lousy driver as I’d found on some earlier road trips to see the Grateful Dead. No worries. What’s the worst that could happen, right? I was too young and dumb to have any clue that weekend.

Back in those days, because of the Blue Laws, they ran the Southern 500 on Monday. We started our trip Friday. To help set the scene both Chris and I had long hair in that era, mine hopelessly straight and not very attractive but still more than shoulder length. When we packed for the trip we both bought faded blue jeans, T-shirts and more T-shirts. I also had a pierced left ear back in an era when that was still pretty out there…even in Pennsylvania, much less South Carolina. The chariot that would convey us South was no less conspicuous, a 1970 El Camino SS454 four speed, with headers, glass packs, air shocks (to clear N50-15 rear tires) and ladder bars. It also featured a gas tank that leaked if you tried to fill it beyond halfway. Naturally said Chevy didn’t get very good mileage. We had to stop a lot. That meant we got to meet the locals along our trip and they in turn got to meet us. How we didn’t end up hung by the neck or imprisoned is beyond me in retrospect. As is the fact I haven’t required a liver transplant after that period of my life. The El Camino, Chris’s trucklet, also lacked AC but it did have a pass-thru rear window convenient for grabbing stuff out of the bed. Out of coolers in the bed if you get my drift. El Camino’s also have a hidden spare tire well that’s behind the driver’s seat but below the bed. Any vegetative matter you might not want the cops to find in your pocket could be hidden there cleverly placed in a brown paper lunch bag with someone else’s name written on it. James Bond had nothing on us. The trip was approximately 500 miles. We’d take turns driving. We each threw a duffle bag in the bed of the truck, followed by the coolers, a tool box and lawn chairs. But no jack. Chris and I also had another problem. We had no idea how to get to South Carolina. “South” I reasoned with great gravity. “Route 1 I guess. We’ll find it.” With that I cracked a beer and hopped in the passenger side.

No, the El Camino wasn’t the perfect road warrior. In addition to having no AC with the headers the truck got dementedly hot inside. In fact the headers were so close to the floor (no carpets in that gem either) it melted the heel of Chris’s sneaker. Our alternatives were my Boss 302, which had a trunk smaller than a rural mailbox or my GS455 which was sporting slicks in that era. It would have been a great cruiser but any rain would have led to a fatal wreck within a mile. So I took off my T-shirt and stuffed it in my back pocket while Chris turned on the 2-60 AC, two windows down at 60 MPH creating a nice breeze. And a whole lot of noise. But damn did my right arm get a great tan that trip.

Our trip had to take a detour almost from Jump Street. My fake ID didn’t pass muster at the local beer store. In Pennsylvania, the drinking age was 21. It was the same in New Jersey, but it had been 18 previously, and if you turned 18 before the law changed (as we both had) you were grandfathered in. We had to fight shore traffic to get to a liquor store connected to a strip club on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, but the thought of setting out on our epic trip with only two six packs of beer was unthinkable. We got five cases of beer. Here’s a hint. If you think you and a companion need 5 cases of beer for a 500-and-some-odd-mile road trip you probably ought to call for an Uber. But the El Camino needed gas by the time we got to the liquor store anyway, a portent of things to come. I overfilled the tank. Gas was pouring out of the broken weld as we departed in earnest. No worries. What’s the worst that could happen, the chicken asked Colonel Saunders?

Back then I95 wasn’t complete yet. Route 1 was the main corridor south until you got down below Delaware. On our second gas stop we finally got serious. I ran inside the Exxon station and got a road map of the eastern United States. No, kids, you couldn’t get driving directions on your cell phone back then. They didn’t exist. I’d only seen one portable phone in that era and it was the size of a knapsack. We spread the map out on the hood of the Chevy, both using both hands to hold it down against the winds kicked up by 18 wheelers leaving the truck stop. Which is when the Delaware state trooper happened by. “Ignore him.” Chris muttered. The cop flipped on the party lights and pulled in behind us. Kind of hard to ignore that I suppose.

“You boys lost?” the trooper asked amicably enough as I kicked our two beers under the truck out of his view. Chris explained, somewhat wordily given he was rather high at the time, that we were not in fact lost because as of yet we didn’t know where we were going. But with the help of that map we’d figure it out. The trooper asked to see Chris’s license. When Chris pulled his license out a pack of EZ Wider papers fell to the ground. Oops. Very big oops. Next thing I knew it was Chris and I not the map spread out on the hood of the black El Camino, Chris making the usually noises about rolling his own cigarettes to save money despite there being a pack of store-bought Winstons in his shirt pocket. My guess is that the trooper was about to go off duty and didn’t want to fill out the volumes of paperwork he would have had to if he busted us. He confiscated the papers, gave us a stern lecture, and said that he wanted me to drive, a one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind. No, problem, officer. I would in fact fasten my seat belt if this vehicle had any. I fired up the Chevy and designed to get out of Dodge post-haste without exceeding the limit. Our new friend the trooper had warned us he was going to radio our description ahead and other troopers might not be willing to cut us the massive break he had. But before we could roll, Chris said to hang on a minute. Son of a bitch if he didn’t run into the store and buy another pack of rolling papers. And a tube of Visine which epitomized the term “locking the barn door after the horse is done gone.”

Suddenly made the Jiminy Cricket of the journey by the close call, I flat out insisted Chris was not to roll another number…not at least until we got out of Delaware, where every trooper on the road would be looking for us. Chris looked at me concerned and I recall him asking “Delaware isn’t a very big state is it?” We toasted with our beers and set out south. An unmarked unit did in fact fall in behind us at one point but never pulled us over. I was just trying to keep up with the flow of traffic seeing as how the speedo in the Chevy hadn’t worked since Chris swapped 3.73 gears into the rearend. We made Maryland with a great deal of relief. Minutes later we were pulled over in the breakdown lane by a local cop if I recall correctly. “Do you know why I’m pulling you boys over?” he asked crossly. Chris and I looked at each other faces blank with innocence. Anything we guessed out loud would only make things worse. As it turns out we were stopped for an equipment violation…mufflers too loud. What was the standard for “too loud”? Whatever a local cop decided was too loud. He seemed to get even angrier when the registration showed Chris’s name while I was driving. He would have written Chris the ticket as the vehicle’s owner not me. I told him he could write me up and I’d make Chris repay me. But since we were both out of state he might have to run us in. In a moment of inspiration I asked “how much is this ticket anyway?” It was $50. I asked if I could pay it right then and there….cash money. He grinned and told me that arrangement was acceptable to him so Chris and I fished out 50 bucks between us and minutes later we were on the road. “He didn’t give you a receipt” Chris noted. I told him to shut the hell up.

It was in Virginia I was first asked “You’re not from around here are you, boy?” (Yes, I was trapped in that age void, too old to be a “boy” but too young to be a “guy” and way too freaky looking to be a “sir.”) And I learned the magic response that would seemingly keep us from being strung up by the neck behind a local VFW on the ride. “Nah. I’m on my way to the Southern 500!” All of a sudden I was a kindred spirit, not a hippie Yankee lad who smelled a bit like the fancy candles section of the Woolworths. When asked who I predicted would win, I always went with Richard Petty while Chris went with David Pearson. Those are two blue-chip safe responses that rarely failed to elicit a grin and occasionally provoked a painful punch in the shoulder. Somehow or another at a burger stop Chris came up with the bald-faced lie we both went by “Junior.” I have no idea why other than the horticulturalists in Hawaii had dong a bang up job that season. At first the new nicknames were only for roadside stops. By the time we reached the Carolinas we were calling each other “Junior” even alone in the truck.

Potential disaster struck leaving a North Carolina gas station. Chris was hard on the gas spinning the rear tires to merge back onto the road when there was a sound like a bunny rabbit being tossed in food processor and a huge cloud of sweet smelling smoke…..in that case coming from under the hood, not the interior. The El Camino had no radiator shroud. Somehow the upper radiator hose had gotten into the fan and sliced the hose damn near in two. Whoops. Fortunately there was an auto parts store a mile or so down the road, and back in that era they stocked an upper radiator hose for a big block El Camino. Good luck finding one locally today. The place was fairly busy but a buxom young lady with long blonde hair finally asked us what we needed with a southern drawl so enticing I probably just stood there and stared at her a minute. Fortunately Chris was not rendered mute. (Unfortunately he wouldn’t be for the rest of the trip either.) When she heard that we were from out of town and broken down, not only did she get us the hose and antifreeze we needed,. She offered us a ride back to the truck in a shop K30 pickup. Chris asked her if she might consider accompanying us to the Southern 500. Fortunately she said no, because she was the owner’s daughter, not a full time employee. But she did hang around long enough to ensure one of us had enough left on the ball to replace a radiator hose. But it turns out that wasn’t our only problem. A motor mount had broken, which allowed the hose to hit the fan, a situation that would doubtless repeat itself if we tried to soldier on. She gave us a ride back to the parts house but they didn’t have the motor mount in stock. The owner’s daughter asked one of his employees to give us a hand then said “Goodbye, Junior…and you too of course Junior,” she added winking at me. Right then and there I was ready to get down on a knee and propose marriage to her, but I was about to miss my ride if I had. And most likely miss my front teeth as well. The parts guy was pretty clever. He used a long piece of steel cable and a half inch extension to wind it tight to get us back on the road then turned down our offer of a twenty for his help but did accept a beer for his services.

“You think she liked me?” I asked Chris hopefully.

“Who? The blonde? Dude, she thinks your name is Junior.”

”And whose fault is that? Maybe we could stop by again on our way home.” We never did of course.

I was well and truly ready for the road trip to be over by the time I dug through my pockets to find enough change to call my cousin Joe to get the final directions to his place. As it turned out, he could have simply said “find the edge of the earth, turn around and go back a quarter mile, it’ll be on the left. I know Joe referred to his place as his “house” numerous times, and as such we couldn’t find it. We actually turned around in the “motor court” where he lived several times, but as a Yankee I did not recognize a trailer, even a double-wide, as a “house.” It was a “camper” in my eyes. Again there were no cell phones then, nor could we find a payphone. Finally, in no condition to drive any further, we pulled over in the parking lot of an abandoned diner, got lawn chairs out of the bed, and fell asleep to the grating tune of the crickets. I awoke to the even more grating sight of blinking blue lights. Fortunately we weren’t that far from my cousin’s and the trooper recognized the address. He led us right to it, as I drove carefully behind him with an open beer in my lap. Joe confirmed that we were in fact expected guests, and the trooper was off. There were already four or five guys up and awake in the living room and I was about to ask Joe what the hell time he got out of bed in the morning to be up so early. That’s when I realized he and his crew hadn’t been “down” yet. Wishing to be social, I went out to the truck and carried in a cooler with a case of Bud inside. I remember one of Joe’s friends looking at me funny and saying something along the lines of “ooh. These rich Yankees drink the expensive stuff!” Bud? I asked flabbergasted. When he eventually had one of our Heinekens, I recall the same fellow referring to it as a “Commie beer.” Yep, 500 miles and about two decades from home.

Saturday night, it seemed everyone in the trailer park showed up for a kegger and bonfire. Celebrating new guests was one excuse, but I’d guess “Saturday night” was reason enough to party. At one point Chris told me he was going to find some music besides “this damn country” to play. I reminded him or our latitude and present company and he lost the attitude. In fact he began singing along to some of the songs to the great amusement of the drunks in attendance, particularly when he mangled some lyrics into something obscene. It’s a gift. You’re either born with it or you or not. I am very gifted in that I was not.

It did seem to me as mirthful as Joe had been the previous night he was up awfully early and eager to leave for the final trip to Darlington. I’d soon learn why. His former girlfriend and her brother arrived. Neither seemed to be in very good moods. There was some dispute over the legitimate ownership of the tickets to the race, Joe having picked them up but she having allegedly paid for them. As a birthday gift to him, he countered. “I am so not going to this race.” I recalled thinking. As the argument grew a little heated Joe said he didn’t want to air his dirty laundry in public. (Ironically in that most of the park was doing just that on clotheslines.) He suggested that Chris and I head over to the corner store outside the park and wait for him. It wasn’t the most subtle ruse in the world, but within ten minutes Joe was vaulting the fence as quickly as his ample physique allowed him to vault. He leapt into the bed of the El Camino, and pounded on the roof yelling for Chris to hit it. What it lacked in highway manners, that old black Chevy made up for in “git up and go” leaving twin black rubber streaks down the road as we exited stage right. We might have hit 70 before Chris had to hit the gas station for fuel. As it turns out in South Carolina, as elsewhere, possession is nine tenths of the law. Joe had possession of the tickets and possession was also one of nine to ten charges we might have faced had his ex called the cops.

After a clean getaway from the gas station Joe wedged himself into the cab of the El Camino. Fortunately that thing had a bench seat not buckets. Unfortunately while Chris and I had the physiques of roadies for the Eagles, Joe was had the physique of a Coney Island hot dog eating champion. And gas. And a bladder the size of a cashew. I “got” to sit in the center, handling shifting duties, while Joe road shotgun and handled bartending duties.

Our accommodations were at the King’s Inn and of course a bit unusual. A friend of Joe’s and two women would share one bed while Chris, Joe and I would share the other one. Or I should say I’d sleep on the floor had things gone to plan. While Chris and Joe tried to figure out which one was the dude’s girlfriend and which woman was thus available the three of them went out to an early dinner and never returned. Seems one of the women had shoplifted something and the friend had the bad manners to clock the security dude that busted her. I don’t know if the other woman got arrested as part of the plot or she reasoned staying in a motel room with three guys she’d met only hours before might not be wise.

That evening in the parking lot we met Bill Elliott (briefly) and some members of his crew. King’s Inn was sponsoring Elliott for the 500 and gave him a room as well. We hung out and drank beer until I decided that I was going to grab a couple hours sleep before our bunkmates returned, as I was well and truly spent to put it politely. That’s the only reason I can think of that I woke up with my boots still on. It made it rather handy to get dressed in that I already was. A fresh T-shirt and I was ready to go. We let a bunch of guys from the No. 9 team use our shower in that our would-be roomies never showed up. All their suitcases and even a purse were still there, so the three of us decided they’d probably settle up on the room when they got back. Naturally all the local eateries were mobbed that morning. After a long wait for a breakfast table Chris managed to get us thrown out before we ate by asking hypothetically “What the f— are grits?” Well his language was actually a bit more colorful than that and he might have added they looked like vomit to him and if the waitress insisted on putting them on his plate he’d throw it through a plate glass window. We did discover a miracle at the McDonalds we detoured to. While the drive-in line seemed endless, walk in service at the counter was actually quite reasonable. Maybe because that McDonalds smelled like vomit inside. It might have been the grits, which McDonalds served in that era down south.

After a long morning of partying in the parking lot the race was somewhat anticlimactic to be honest. David Pearson won by a margin of two laps. Rather than the traditional Wood Brothers Mercury his name is associated with, Pearson was at the wheel of a Rod Osterlund-owned Chevy subbing for an injured rookie by the name of Dale Earnhardt. (Senior for the record.) Chris and I were mainly aware of Earnhardt because we’d seen him wreck hard and break his knees at Poconos earlier that summer. In a bit of a shock, Bill Elliott, who none of us had known until we met him the previous evening, finished second and the three of us were well pleased. We “knew” someone famous. Which didn’t get us one step closer to the garage area as we tried to go celebrate with our new buddy.  But I went on to be an Elliott fan and Chris went on to be an Earnhardt fan and Joe, well he just liked drinking and farting a lot. Oddly enough for anyone attending their first Southern 500 this weekend, Dale Earnhardt’s kid will be starting his last Southern 500. Bill Elliott’s kid Chase will be making his third stab at Darlington in a Cup car but did win at Darlington in an XFINITY Series race.

In happier news, Darrell Waltrip (who was already a polarizing personality I couldn’t stand) left that year’s Southern 500 with a 162-point lead in the standings. (Which were in fact year long. There were no Chases or Playoffs back then and the sport was the better for it.) Though there were just eight races left that year, Richard Petty rallied back to win his seventh and final championship in 1979 by just 11 points and I was well pleased by the unexpected turn of events. Kids, don’t let Brian tell you there was never an exciting championship battle until he pulled the Chase system out of his backside.

On the ride home that evening I finally had enough of the stench and crowding so I leapt out, put a lawn chair in the bed and rode back there like the King of Siam while we were stuck in soul-crushing traffic after the race. Chris eventually turned the wheel over to Joe and joined me, which was fine while we were in bumper to bumper traffic but got us pulled over on the Interstate. The trooper sad he was going to write us for not having on seatbelts in the bed of the truck. Chris got unruly and said something along the lines of “you’re going to have to pull something else out of your bag of tricks. There’s no seat belts in the truck either!”. Poor choice. After much discussion with a senior officers as to whether the bed of an El Camino counted as riding “inside” the truck, Chris got a ticket for an open container violation. He compounded the error by trying my trick and asking the trooper if he was able to pay the fine off in cash money right then and there. Years later Bruce Springsteen would sing something along the lines of…

“Driving out of Darlington County,

My eyes hath seen the glory of the Lord,

Driving out of Darlington County,

Saw Chris handcuffed in the back of a state troopers Ford….”

(Yes, Darlington County is actually in North Carolina, closer to Rockingham than Darlington City, and Chris was in the back seat not cuffed to the rear bumper of the trooper’s car, but Bruce hasn’t consulted me on lyrics since B2R.)

Joe was able to talk to the cops and get Chris sprung. Even if between the three of us we would have had a hard time filling a teaspoon with common sense, the trip back home to the north was postponed that evening. Bright and early the next day (OK, at least an hour before noon) Chris and I headed home, him sound asleep in the passenger seat drooling out the corner of his mouth while I white knuckled the steering wheel and tried not to count how many miles remained ahead of us. Somewhere midafternoon at a gas stop we traded places and sleep finally had its way with me. I recall waking up (coming to?) and hearing the familiar cadence of concrete rumble strips thumping in time. I finally forced open my eyes to confirm we were on Route 202 about 20 minutes from home. Chris had gotten a speeding ticket along the way and despite the lights and sirens pull-over apparently I had woken up only long enough to declare I was asleep and I was determined to remain as such. Somehow Chris made it to classes at Villanova the next day. I believe I returned to class at the same school the following Monday needing a bit more time than my traveling companion to get my sea-legs back under me. All in all it had been a good trip. No one was formally arrested and neither of us ended up in one of those South Carolina chain gangs using sickles to cut the grass in the highways meridians as I’d feared at one point. We’d withstood the worst heat and humidity the south could throw at us for a long weekend and seen the Southern By Gawd 500. Compared to most of our friends who’d simply gone to the shore that Labor Day weekend we had some tales to tell about the places we’d been and the things we’d seen along the journey. A couple decades later I returned to traveling through the south though in a decidedly more adult fashion,, nothing but antacids in my pockets and an occasional red Coke to drink.

That black El Camino kept drifting in and out of my life occasionally with some lengthy gaps between sightings. Chris sold it and somehow or another it ended up in the hands of a mechanic my parts store catered to now with a small block Chevy replacing the Rat engine it once had. Years after that it showed up in the possession of a co-worker at a tire store where I worked who tragically hit and killed a young child who darted out between two parked cars. (While the driver was stone cold sober on his way home from work I must add.) It then showed up at a used car lot in Pottstown where the husband of a co-worker bought it. I bought it from him after he got laid off and needed a few hundred bucks to make the mortgage. To make a long story short, it was basically stolen from me and sold to my soon to be ex-girlfriend’s drug dealer with a forged signature on the title. It didn’t seem worth arguing the point with a well-armed man with a bad temper, especially since it was already missing the engine, transmission, rims and tires before I located it. The last I heard of that girlfriend was in a police briefs article that stated her name and added “of no known address” and recounted how she’d hit a cop in the course of resisting arrest. And so it goes. Given my choice if one of the two of them were to reappear in my life I’d prefer that Chevy to her, and doubtless the El Camino will in fact one day come back.

And here we are almost forty years later. The Southern 500 will once again be run at Darlington this Labor Day weekend after it wandered in the wilderness for eleven long years. It’s a night race now (kids pace yourselves) but one day perhaps it will be returned to its rightful place in the afternoon. The track looks a bit different now. The front and back straights were flip-flopped and the shaded terrace areas was torn down. I still dream of retiring one day to one of those sturdy old Victorian homes that line the road to Darlington. And, of course, of the parts store owner’s daughter who is now 65 if she’s a day.

Chris and I remained friends through school and kept in touch for several more years after he wound up working on the west coast. It was never a friendship I purposely decided to end but as the years passed and we both moved place to place with no forwarding phone numbers we just sort of drifted apart. I am sure if the two of us were to run into each other even today, perhaps at a race, more likely while fueling up our bikes at some out of the way gas station somewhere, we’d still be able to sit down over a beer and swap stories about those days until our sides ached from laughter after making sure that no children or potentially grandchildren were within earshot.

Oddly enough there was a partial solar eclipse back in the early spring of 1979 ,months before the race, just as there was a week or two ago this year. I don’t remember it being as big a deal back in ’79 but we all did drag ourselves outside to have a glance up at it and we must have had special glasses or something because I don’t recall the campus suddenly being overrun with blind students that week. Despite all the hype about these eclipses being a “once in a lifetime” experience the most recent eclipse was in fact my third partial eclipse. They tell me there’s another one in seven years and I’d say it’s even money I’ll be around to witness that one though with the next one not until 2079 I’m not banking on being around for a fifth helping. I’d be 120 and gumming cake while staring with unseeing eyes wondering what all the hoopla was about anyway.

While I reckon I’ll still be around in seven years, I’m not so sure NASCAR will be, at least not in any sense or form where any of us will recognize it. By 2079 my guess is that the only internal combustion engined vehicles anyone will see will be in the Smithsonian as a new type of American hominoid trade second amendment protected shots at the solar recharging stations along the highway rather than at gas pumps from sea to shining sea.

As always when writing this type of article (and this is just the second one in over 25 years so I thank you for your indulgence) I feel the need to add “don’t try this at home….or out on 95 and Route 1, kids. It was a different world back then even if one could argue our occasionally dicey trip south back then was any more dangerous than walking from the Loop to a White Sox game in modern day Chicago.

If Brian France was at the 1979 Southern 500, I did not make his acquaintance that weekend. If he was there my guess is he’d have been working the family “Dunk the Idiot Boy” concession in the parking lot at 17 years of age. Actually I doubt he was there. He’s never seemed to like going to races much, odd for a man of his position and heritage. But every once in a while when France speaks about the future of the sport (usually right after he does something to hasten its demise) he’ll talk about the change being good for all the “Stakeholders” in the sport. By that I take it he means himself, his family, the team owners, the track owners and the drivers. I wouldn’t care to guess how much of my own money I’ve spent going to races, buying NASCAR T-shirts and die-cast not to mention unquantifiable investments like afternoons spent glued to the TV screen and miles spent on the interstates (or caught in hopeless traffic) for decades. Nope not a clue and a I don’t want to know any more than I want to know how many beers I put down that Labor Day weekend. Both are too scary to contemplate. So perhaps if you stretch the definition far enough “stakeholders” could include the fans like you and me. And maybe as such the powers that be could occasionally consider the fans best interests rather than the sponsors and TV networks. NASCAR fans have never been shy about offering up their opinions for free even if it’s been a very long time since anyone listened.

It would seem that I’m not the only one that misses the days of yore. A popular part of the “new” Southern 500 tradition is “throwback” designs for the race cars, drivers’ uniforms and even haircuts. (Eventually that will cause some confusion down the road. In 25 years will someone be driving a throwback paint scheme paying tribute to the 2017 paint scheme that paid tribute the 1972 STP No. 43 paint scheme?) But as it turns out, you can only look back, you can never go back.

“And I’d trade all of my tomorrows, for one more yesterday…” -Janis Joplin-

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Earl Jr.

Great story!!!

Bill B

Excellent read Matt! I was starting college in the fall of 1979 and I’d say that anyone our age that LIVED in that era has similar stories of run ins with the law. You could get away with a lot more back then than you could today, especially where drinking and driving was concerned. I often say that if I went to bed one night back then and woke up the next morning in 2017, I’d have serious legal issues within a day or two.
It was fun to be that age in that era (and I am glad I survived it). Thanks for bringing back a lot of memories of a time when long haired humanoids roamed the earth and there was a lot more freedom (for better or worse).

PattyKay Lilley

Good morning! I really wasn’t expecting this when I came to read, but I’m so happy that I found it. A trip down Memory Lane is always good for what ails us. My wild oats came a bit earlier though. Heck, in ’79 I was already past 40. I do recall going to the races at Spencer Speedway one weekend night with a girlfriend and since we were that far already, deciding to keep on going up to the Adirondacks and visit a couple of friends who spent summers there… friends of the male variety of course. We made it in record time and were never stopped along the way. Much dancing and a bit of imbibing followed our trip, since we found our friends in a local weekend hangout by the lake. The following day, I did think to call my Mom and let her know we were alive and not in jail. I don’t think she was thrilled to hear from me, and I seem to recall her making some veiled threats on my life.
When we look back from this end of the telescope, we can see stupidity. On the flip side of the coin, today we laugh at those we call millennials… those air-headed kids that think they know everything and we are just doddering old fools. And the world just keeps on turning…
Thanks for sharing the memories!


When you mentioned Spencer Speedway it reminded me of a weekend in the mid 70s. I went to Spencer on Friday, Oswego Speedway on Saturday and Perry Speedway on Sunday. I’d go to Holland on Wednesdays if the Modifieds had a big race with Richie and Jerry and the boys. Good times and a lot less stress! I drove down to the 1980 Southern 500.


in 1979 I was married. a lifetime ago. we did some stupid things back then, but you know, it wasn’t as bad as what’s going on now in the world. last week when everyone was making such a big deal about the eclipse I told them I remembered the one in 1979. we made our viewers out of boxes, but we also knew not to look directly at the sun. funny, I recall being raised and told not to look directly at the sun. was just part of growing up and learing. guess the internet and all the electronic gizmos today don’t provide common sense information on being a human being.

maybe we didn’t know better about racing back then. we had the oil embargo but still refused to give up our cars. smething to be said to drive a bonafied made in American machine, not a rice burner that were butt ugly and putted along the road.

maybe there is something to be said for not having access to the world 24/7. sure I enjoy coming here and have made some interesting acquaintences along the way, but how it’s absorbed in peoples lives. being hit and injured by a distracted driver really jaded me this year.

I wonder if chase will shake the curse of being the son of a champion in the sport.

hopefully mother nature will keep her temperament at bay this weekend.

Fed Up

Great read Matt! Brings back memories from the 60’s when we spent weekends at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The infield had not been finished and
it was tough navigating in the dark. Lots of times we were revived when the race engines roared.


Great story Matt, you can really tell them. Brought back memories of my own youth antics!