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Beside the Rising Tide: Objects In the Rearview Mirror

The First Law of Stuff states unequivocally that the amount of stuff you have will always be greater than the amount of room you have to store your stuff. (Expressed mathematically, St>Space-SF³.) While I downsized a few years ago, there’s no denying the laws of space. If you’ve achieved stasis, it’s only for a brief period; you’ll quickly accumulate more stuff even while your space to store it remains the same. You can try cheating the laws the way I did when I rented a storage unit, but there’s pushback there as well. When you enter your extra storage area, the object you are looking for will always be in the box furthest from the entrance at the bottom of the stack.

All I was hoping to find was a box with some colorful old shirts I moved to storage over the winter, thinking I’d dig them out next summer. (Yep, it was almost the end of July. I accept but do not embrace the Laws of Space. You might say I’m a Space Cowboy.) While digging through boxes (and cussing the triple digit heat), I stumbled across an old two pack of die-cast race cars. I have quite a few of them. Back in the day, they were supposed to be an investment that would be worth a lot of money eventually. Instead I’m now paying to store them.

That’s apparently is the First Law of Antiques. I’d have done better hoarding Pokemon cards. The Petty-Earnhardt package was a slow seller (fans tended to like one or the other driver, not both) which led to some sore feelings amongst Dale and Richard’s peeps back before “peeps” were a thing. My guess is you could still find them on the shelves of Toys “R” Us if in fact you could still find a Toys “R” Us.

These two particular cars were released as a set in special packaging. It was released in or around 1994, the year Dale Earnhardt won his seventh NASCAR Cup championship, matching the King, Richard Petty’s total championships. Both cars are late ’70s or early ’80s Chevy Monte Carlos. Petty’s No. 43 is in the familiar orange and blue STP colors. Earnhardt’s car carried the No. 2 and rather than Man in Black, it’s blue and yellow, as in that era Earnhardt was sponsored by Wrangler Jeans and Richard Childress was still racing himself in the No. 3 car. 1979 can be seen in retrospect as a changing of the guard in NASCAR. Petty earned his seventh and final title. Earnhardt claimed Rookie of the Year honors in ’79 and his first Cup title in 1980. (Still driving the No. 2 car, by the way.) Earnhardt had actually made a run for the championship in 1979 as a rookie, but his title hopes were derailed that year when he got in a hard wreck, broke his knee and missed four races.

Mr. Peabody, set the Wayback Machine for July 30, 1979. Mr. Sulu, set coordinates 41.0543N, 75.5113W. Pocono Raceway.

Reigning Cup champion Cale Yarborough won that Pocono race in 1979. Yarborough had in fact won the Cup title in 1976, 1977 and 1978

Richard Petty finished second that July day in 1979 after going winless in 1978 as Petty Engineering tried to transition from Mopar to GM. The 1979 race at Pocono was NASCAR’s sixth Cup race at the track (they only raced at the track once a year until 1982). The King had won the inaugural race at the triangular track in 1974. Oddly enough, he also won a 500-mile race at Pocono in 1973 the year before NASCAR first ran a race there. Back in the day, USAC ran a stock car series that competed head to head with NASCAR. With rumors Pocono would be added to the NASCAR schedule, Petty and a few of the other usual suspects from “Down South” ventured up north to get a look at the three turn track.

That ’79 race was a barn-burner with 56 lead changes over the course of 200 laps. That’s back before anyone felt the need to trumpet such statistics. It was NASCAR stock car racing. A lot of lead changes were the norm, not the exception, in that era.

Among those drivers taking multiple turns at the front that swelteringly hot Sunday afternoon was a rookie out of North Carolina. Kannapolis, to be more exact. Among the sun-soaked fans in the stands that day was your humble correspondent, proudly decked out in a Richard Petty T-shirt. To the best of my recollection, I’d barely heard the name “Earnhardt” before that afternoon, though the Intimidator to Be had already won a Cup race at Bristol that season as a rookie. Earnhardt was said to be a fairly successful short-track racer out of the Carolinas back in the era when tracks in and around Charlotte were the Cradle of Future Cup Drivers. Earnhardt was not a very well-spoken guy in that era. He was about as cuddly as a cactus, answered questions in monosyllable grunts in many instances and other than that win during his rookie season, didn’t seem to be anything special quite yet. But if that No. 2 car was approaching the rear bumper of your favorite driver back then the contest held your rapt attention … or it did during the brief period that state of affairs lasted. Even then, Earnhardt had a reputation as a hard, some would even claim dirty, racer.

On lap 98 of that race, Earnhardt’s Chevy got out from under him and he slammed the wall hard. The wreck left Earnhardt with a broken knee and he was forced to sit out the next four races.

Richard Petty had a wreck of his own the following year at Pocono, and it was one of the worst of his career. While the extent of his injuries were downplayed, Petty had broken his neck. He continued racing that year against his doctors’ strongest advice and warnings that even a routine accident could leave the King paralyzed while he healed. Earnhardt would go on to take the 1980 Winston Cup championship. No, Petty couldn’t get away with driving with that sort of injury in today’s Cup racing especially not with all the TV coverage devoted to the sport. Quite a few things have changed between that era and now.

Like I hinted, I was at that race in Mount Pocono that day in 1979. I am almost certain that my ticket for an upper level grandstand seat with a view of the entire track cost twenty bucks. Yeah, that was a lot of money to a young man my age making $3.25 an hour, but I saw it as well worth the money, time and effort. I was already preparing to head to that year’s Southern 500 at Darlington about a month later, and I knew those tickets were going to be more expensive and harder to get. In that era, races like the Southern 500 routinely sold out. I checked Saturday evening. A seat to Sunday’s race in the “Terrace Club” where I sat back in 1979 going by the seating chart is now a staggering $250.

Also to the best of my recollection (Lord, has it really been 40 years now?), I took my black El Camino to that day’s race. Some younger readers may never even have heard of an El Camino. An “El Kabong” as we called them in the era was sort of a reverse mullet haircut kind of vehicle; business in the back with a pickup bed, party up front with what amounted to a Chevelle SS especially when the original purchaser had sprung for the Z16 SS454 and M21 four-speed options. That platypus of a vehicle could haul my dirt bikes to the MX tracks and then haul ass street racing on Front Street on Friday night. It did have quite an appetite for gasoline and rear tires, though. But it sure did look cool parked at the local White Castle burger stand in Upper Darby.

Doubtless, the El Camino would have left my nieces and nephews baffled. You had to change gears manually. There were no buttons to raise and lower the windows. You had to use a crank to do the trick. There were no air bags in that Chevy, much less a navigation system other than some Texaco road maps stuffed in the glovebox. Air conditioning? Don’t be absurd. The apartment I lived in 1979 didn’t have air conditioning either. You cranked down the windows with those oddly shaped cranks, popped open the sliding rear window and cracked a beer if it was hot out. Mothers Against Drunk Driving were formed in 1980, and they likely had my friends and I on their first “Wanted” posters. For the record, I was 19 that race weekend with my 20th birthday weeks away. Yet somehow they tell me this year I’ll be turning 60. How the hell did that happen?

Pocono was about 90 minutes from where I lived back then, though it took an additional hour or so to get there. The drinking age in PA was 21. Jersey had also raised their drinking age, but if you’d already turned 18 before the law changed you were grandfathered in under the old law. No, that doesn’t make any sense in retrospect. But back then any road trip involved a quick detour over the Ben Franklin Bridge to the Admiral Wilson Boulevard Liquor Longue to stock up before departing. Also back in that era, the 55 MPH speed limit was still the law of the land. Thing was traffic tended to move along about 20 MPH above that on roads like the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Northeast Extension that led up to Pocono.

If you were making the trip you’d likely have had a Whistler or Fuzz-Buster radar detector (perhaps an Escort if you were well off and read Car and Driver) to keep your license (or fake ID) valid. The 55 MPH speed limit never actually saved that much gas or reduced accidents, but it surely was a revenue bonanza for State Troopers with radar guns hanging off the side windows of their Plymouth Grand Furies. Also back in that era, a Pennsylvania drivers’ license contained no photo. It was a monotone cardboard rectangle that was ridiculously easy to forge or alter with an X-Acto knife with a quick lamination package out of a vending machine at the grocery store to disguise your treachery. There are still people who knew me back then who think my real first name was “Coleman” because that’s what my fake ID identified me as. 21-year-old “Coleman,” let me add.

Back in the mid-’70s to ’80s, your departure procedure also normally involved grabbing a pencil out of the glovebox if your car was made after 1973. Early attempts by car makers at adapting emission control systems to new cars went less than smoothly. Having to remove the air cleaner lid and insert that pencil into the carb’s choke mechanism to hold it open, cross your fingers, and twist the key. Occasionally this would result in an impressive size fireball belching out of the carburetor.  Recall this was on nearly new cars. If a driver took his hard-to-start, two-year-old car to the dealer, the technician’s likely response was “they all do that.”

My parents bought a brand-new Dodge Aspen in 1977. During the fortunately brief period my family owned the car, it would always stall out taking left-hand turns. Once it did, you popped the hood, removed the air cleaner lid, inserted your pencil, let everything cool off a few minutes and then resumed your journey. According to the dealership, they all did that. My dad ran out of patience and rid our garage of that garbage scow. Unfortunately for the dealerships, customers in that era tended to all do that. If you traded in your almost new car for a new set of wheels back then, you had a lot more options that you do today.

Plymouth, Mercury, Oldsmobile and Pontiac still made and sold cars in 1979. But given how awful domestic cars were back then, increasingly potential buyers were at least taking a look at a Honda or Toyota. If you were nearly blind and incredibly stupid in that era, you could get a Renault, a LeCar, an Alliance, or even a Turbo Fuego. You can’t buy Renaults in the US anymore, so at least some things have definitely improved since the ’70s and ’80s. Fuel injection and other computer controlled trickery under the hood allow today’s cars, domestic and foreign, to meet tough emission standards and rising fuel mileage standards even while putting out amounts of horsepower we’d never have dared dream of returning back in 1979. And they don’t even stall when you took a left turn, so you can leave your pencils at home.

Driving to the track was the only way that fans could watch most races in that era. Only a handful of the big races got any TV coverage at all, and that was usually tape-delayed several weeks after the event. That year’s Daytona 500 (the one with the memorable last lap wreck involving Cale Yarborough and the Allison Brothers) was the first one ever shown live flag to flag. Happily, a severe winter storm crippled the eastern portion of the US that weekend. Showing the 500 live was considered a huge gamble, but it paid off in spades given the limited entertainment options the snow-stranded had available to them back when most homes got all of three TV channels; CBS, NBC and ABC. But that was in the course of changing already. ESPN was founded in 1979, and the new sports network was desperate for programming that didn’t cost too much. ESPN and NASAR were a good fit and the relationship benefitted both parties, though in the end I’d say ESPN did better by NASCAR than NASCAR did by ESPN, kicking them to the curb when other networks offered more money for the broadcast rights.

Of course back in 1979 there were a whole lot of people either not willing to or able to pay a monthly cable TV bill. TV had always been free. (And worth every dime of it in most instances.) Things weren’t going too well in the US of as the ’70s decade lurched toward its conclusion. The Iranian hostage crises had a lot of American’s feeling demoralized, which earned that time period the nickname of “the Malaise Era.” The second energy crisis was in full swing. Gasoline prices had soared to 85 cents a gallon. Yeah, that seems laughably cheap right now, but I can’t recall the last time I haven’t been able to pull directly up to the pumps when I needed to fill up. Back in ’79, you often had to sit in line over an hour to get your “Ten Dollar Minimum, 10 Dollar Maximum” Low Lead fix. That was thought to be a fact of life unlikely to change back then. Three Mile Island nearly melting down that year didn’t do the energy situation any favors either.

The inflation rate in 1979 was an astounding 11.2%. The prime interest rate was 15.25%. Even a well-qualified would-be home buyer likely paid a higher rate than that for a mortgage. Average annual income back then was $17,500. The unemployment rate was still around 6% but would crest at 10.8 % in 1982. I was in college back in this era and things were looking pretty grim for my peers and me. A lot of folks I graduated with ended up working as waiters or waitresses. If you got along well with people, maybe you’d get a job as a bartender. Just about all of us lived in our parents’ basements, our diplomas thumb tacked to the wall. There was a consensus opinion among my classmates and I as we pored over the “Help Wanted Ads” in the newspaper (don’t ask) looking for any sort of job that the American Dream was out of reach for our generation. The idea of home ownership and having more expendable income than our parents did when they raised us was laughable. A brand new Oldsmobile in the driveway every three years and a winter break trip to Disney World for the kids? It wasn’t ever going to happen.

If you had some extra cash, you could go out and pick up a newly-introduced Sony Walkman for about $200. It played cassette tapes (don’t ask). For about the same amount you could go get an Atari game console. While the stock market recently crested the 27,000 point mark, in 1979 it had slumped to 838.

So, despite accusations that I sometimes see the past through rose-colored glasses and my constant “good old days” references are tiresome if typical of a curmudgeon of my age, I am ready to admit in some ways “nowadays” are a whole lot better than the “good old days.” A lot of stuff has changed. Some for the better and some for the worse.

There are certain things we take for granted or even consider essential these days that were still the stuff of science fiction back in 1979. Among those things I’d include cell phones, the Internet (no more dial-up either!), light beer, four-door pickup trucks, ATM/debit cards and free long distance calling.

Other things have changed as well. Back in 1979, or all those years later when I bought that Earnhardt/Petty diecast set, I would never have imagined the Cup series would be racing at Pocono not all that far from my home 20 and I wouldn’t be there. But over the years, the quality of the racing became mediocre on a good week, the price of a race weekend simply got out of hand, and while I’m typically a laid-back Deadhead sort, the traffic on race weekends eventually got me screaming at the top of my lungs in the bluest terms possible telling those unfortunate enough to be within earshot how I was never going to that track again.

The racing has, in fact, gotten a little better lately. Maybe next year? We’ll have to see. In another major change, rather than having two race weekends as it has annually since 1982, Pocono will once again host two Cup races (and a NXS event, a truck race, a single ARCA event and presumably whatever merriment and mayhem then can fit in over the course of a single weekend) in a doubleheader. With fans invited for 2021, I’m still sorting through the pros and cons of the concept as are many people I know.

One thing I have figured out finally is while perhaps objects in the rearview mirror are, in fact, closer than they appear, even if your race has a new-fangled emergency braking system, if you spend all your time looking in the rearview mirror, you’re never going to get anywhere. Put down the cell phone, keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel. The future is uncertain and the end is always near.

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Bill B

Nice read but I turned 60 a couple of weeks ago and I am almost sure (from prior articles) you are at least a year older than I am so what’s with the “Yet somehow they tell me this year I’ll be turning 60”?
Am I mistaken?

Carl D.

I think Matt is the same age as me… 62. Maybe.

DoninAjax

David Pearson won the ’79 Southern 500 subbing for Earnhardt in the 2?

Carl D.

My racing buddies and me spent a lot of weekends up on a platform mounted to a pickup truck in the infields of Charlotte and Darlington. We had a sign that said “Win or lose, we will booze.” attached to the side, and those were the words we lived by at the track back then. Those were the days, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t survive one of those weekends today.

janice

we’re the same age Matt and i’ll cross into 62 in may. when i was 18 in ’77 you could legally drink everything, beer, wine and the hard stuff. my brother lost out 2 yrs later cause MADD made the law changes.

i remember that pocono infield, watkins glen also had a notorious area for partying too. i think back in the day most infields were party central.

i remember looking for a house in 1979 and interest rates were 13.5% and that was a fha, government backed loan.

just for a month i wished prices would drop to what they were back in the late 70’s but with my income today, just so i could get a head a bit. gas is $2.56 a gallon here in ga this morning. i remember the gas lines and thinking 85 cents was a lot of money. remember when the gas went to a dollar a gallon, all the signs and pumps had to change. now they’re talking about gas being back to $3/gallon this summer.

i have all my diecasts packed in a box in closet. got one that i think still might fetch some money. limited edition all star race car that was that earnhardt drove when the special paint scheme deal started. what killed the diecast marked was when they went to mass production. when it first started they’d only do a run of 100-500. then popularity came and they would do a run of 10,000, and they were sold on QVC. i do remember watching qvc prior to daytona 500, sr would always be on it selling his new merchandise for the upcoming season. qvc use to have a show “for race fans only”. long long time ago.

they’re coming here to ams in a few weeks. a sell out, well they sold out of the allowed 20,000 tickets. not sure how much seats were going for.

funny you mentioned the window crank. i was explaining to someone last week how passenger side mirrors were an option and you opened windows by a crank and ac was an expensive option.

DoninAjax

Gas up here in the Frozen North is about $1.25 per LITER. That works out to about $5.60 for a Canadian gallon which is 4.5 liters. Your gallon at 3.785 liters works out to $4.70 a gallon. After conversion to real dollars (USD) it’s $3.55 a gallon. Things can always be worse.

janice

true, but my income hasn’t increase and everything else has gone up in price. i’ve survived before will survive again.

Tom Bowles

To clear up the confusion, this was an older column Matt wrote and sent by mistake. His regular one will now run Thursday just for this week only.

Joshua Farmer

Oops. Still a fantastic read. Best I have read linked to Jayski, all day.

Joshua Farmer

Jesus. I love Frontstretch. This is talented magazine-journalism at it’s best. Informative, interesting…a little nostalgic as well. Things are getting better and I truly sense a real NASCAR fan when I read your work McLaughlin. Keeps me coming back for more. I’d elaborate but I have a garden to til up. :)

Bill B

I still loved reading it (again). Much like I will always read the Pocono article “1313 Turkey Court” whenever it appears in reruns,

Irvan fan

Quote: “1313 Turkey Court”

That was a good one. And the fathers day column, a great tribute to a dad

Bill B

Just had to point out that, if this article was indeed from 2012, the line “Yet somehow they tell me this year I’ll be turning 60. ” makes even less sense as you would have been turning 53 in 2012.
Just sayin’.

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