When the Daytona 500 rolls around each year, I’m pretty much like everyone else. I eagerly anticipate what may happen and how it might well make a spirited debut to the new season.
For 2021, things are tempered a bit. The COVID-19 pandemic is still with us, and as it was last year, everything is going to be different.
But hey, the actual competition won’t change. We’ll see the usual: Cars locked in packs in the high-speed draft racing two (or three) abreast, daring passes, a mistake here and there that creates a multicar crash and, perhaps, even an exciting, jaw-dropping finish.
Like the one in 1976.
I remember that one not only because Richard Petty and David Pearson were involved in one of the most spectacular and unusual finishes in Daytona International Speedway’s history, but also because it was the second Daytona 500 I ever covered. And when I finally finished filing my copy, I wasn’t sure I had a job any longer.
My first trip to Daytona in 1975 resulted in a feel-good, easily composed story about Benny Parsons’ first ever 500 victory.
For me, it was a healing tonic that cured the effects of a harrowing experience.
In 1975 my trip to Daytona from Roanoke, Va., – where I worked as a sports writer for the Roanoke Times – had an ominous beginning.
Snow and ice had pelted the area, and the streets were treacherous. It was doubly so for me because my house was located atop a hill and a twisting, two-lane road was the only path to the main drag.
I got near the bottom of the hill – that main thoroughfare was in sight – when the company car, a red Ford Galaxy, suddenly went to a slide. I was sideways.
I did what I had learned from talking to race drivers. I locked down the car and turned left. It stopped just a few feet from a ditch. I was lucky.
From there, it was just a matter of survival. The snow and ice had accumulated all the way through South Carolina. When I got on Interstate 95 at Florence, S.C., I discovered that only the right lane was open, and its path had been formed by tire tracks.
I couldn’t use the left lane. Heaven knows I couldn’t use an exit ramp. I could only go about 35 mph in the right lane and fervently hope there would be nothing ahead that would block that lane.
Fortunately, there wasn’t. And after hundreds of miles of tense, both-hands-gripping-the-wheel, eyes-wide-open driving, snow gave way to water at Savannah.
I cruised into Daytona Beach unscathed. I arrived at my motel at 9:20 that evening. My journey had began at 6:30 a.m.
All I wanted was a shower and something to eat. But I discovered a serious problem. My room had no water. Only a trickle found its way out of the bathroom faucet.
After a call to the front desk, I was moved to another room. Thankfully, there was plenty of water. The heat left something to be desired, but I said to hell with it. Reckon you know I wasn’t staying at a Hilton.
The remainder of the week went smoothly. I thought I had filed good stuff for the Times, and I was anxious for the race itself.
It turned out to be one for the ages.
As history records, the 500 came down to a shootout finish on the last lap staged by Pearson and Petty, two of NASCAR’s all-time greatest drivers.
They swapped the lead several times on the last circuit. Then, as they entered the fourth turn for the last time, Petty made a move to the low side. His right front bumper struck Pearson’s left side.
Pearson fought to keep control but his Mercury hit the wall. Petty’s Dodge fishtailed and also hit the wall. Petty slid into the infield grass, stopping just short of the finish line.
Pearson, meanwhile, slid to a halt at the entrance of pit road, well behind Petty.
Petty’s crew scrambled to his dead car and began to push.
Pearson rumbled to life and began to move across the infield grass toward the finish line.
The only reason Pearson could move at all is that he kept his foot on the clutch and his engine never died.
He hobbled across the finish line and took the checkered flag at about 20 mph.
It was an astounding finish. The fans had never seen anything like it. I know I hadn’t. I was mesmerized. I was like a deer caught in the headlights.
After Pearson’s winner interview, the press box erupted in activity. The sound of clacking typewriters (remember them?) reverberated. Writers were furiously producing copy.
I wasn’t. Oh, I tried. I attempted several lede paragraphs but rejected them all. There were piles of wadded up paper around my seat.
I just couldn’t come up with a way to express what I had seen. It’s called writer’s block. But for me, it was near panic.
Finally, I came up with something and started writing in earnest. When I finished, the press box was at least half empty.
I barely made my deadline. I was not pleased with what I had written. I was sure my editors wouldn’t be pleased, either.
I thought to myself, “Well, toad, this might just be the end for you.”
Fortunately, it wasn’t. But I had learned a valuable lesson. If I was going to have a career in motorsports journalism, I had to report everything I saw – good and bad – quickly and thoroughly. That’s what reporters do.
It was after midnight when I got back to my room. I thought about my Daytona experience. I concluded that it was a learning, yet unpleasant, one.
I doubted I would ever have another as bad.
I was wrong.