If you will allow, I would like to tell you the story of how a friendship began at Darlington Raceway during one of the most controversial and tense periods in NASCAR’s history.
In what has become a part of NASCAR lore, the 1976 Winston Cup season was marked by revolution. It was so intense that if there was no resolution, there well might have been no stock car racing as we know it.
By that year, the competition in NASCAR was clearly divided. At the forefront were the small handful of drivers whose talent and significant financial backing enabled them to win almost every race. Drivers with names like Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Allison, Baker and Parsons dominated week after week.
Bringing up the rear was another group of drivers – the losers. They had talent but couldn’t match the finances afforded the winners. They were mostly small operations, some of them self-owned. They were known as “the independents” because they received little, if any, of the parts, equipment and technical expertise afforded by America’s auto manufacturers in Detroit.
There were far more independents than there were winners.
And they weren’t making a living in NASCAR. Purses were nowhere close to what they are today, and winners took most of them. What was left was paltry.
By 1976, the independents had enough. They were tired of living race-to-race, most times making a small profit only if a race promoter provided them with a couple hundred dollars in what was called “tow money.”
The independents figured – correctly – that they had strength in numbers. So they announced that unless NASCAR provided them a means to subsist, they were going to strike. They would stop competing and find something else to do if it came to that. How many fans are going to pay good money to watch maybe six cars run a race?
It all came to a head at the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. It was there that the independents made their demands known through the voice of their elected leader, the late James Harvey Hylton.
Hylton, once a driver who won some races and made a run at the Cup championship, had always been NASCAR’s gadfly. If he thought the sanctioning body was doing things wrong or needed alterations to its leadership style, he spoke up.
At Darlington, Hylton had at least 30 drivers on his side. The numbers were in his favor and he knew it.
So he spoke freely. He told the press that unless NASCAR changed the environment so he and his fellow independents could pay their bills and make a decent living, they were walking out.
This was startling news. Other than the attempt to form the Professional Drivers Association in 1969, which ultimately failed, nothing like it had ever happened before. And if it wasn’t resolved, it meant NASCAR would have to proceed without most of its competitors.
Naturally, the media was abuzz at Darlington. They had a major story. They wanted to keep it for themselves.
To that end, something occurred in the Darlington media center – then a dungeon-like concrete building at the base of the press box.
A group of veteran motorsports writers cornered the public relations director from Charlotte Motor Speedway, there to help Darlington smoothly navigate race weekend.
At that time, Tom Higgins was the motorsports writer for the Charlotte Observer, considered the prime source of NASCAR news. He was not at Darington the day the news of the independents’ eminent revolution broke. He would be a day late because he was going to retrieve his wife from her stay at a mental health facility.
The cornered CMS PR individual was told that if he contacted Higgins by any means and made any mention of what was going on, the media guys would make sure he no longer had a job. He was to keep his mouth shut.
I saw it all. Now, I’m sure these vets really didn’t care, because at that time I was a relative newcomer with the Roanoke Times who, they assumed, didn’t have many contacts or any influence.
Not quite. For example, I was good friends with Hylton, and he gave me details others didn’t have – like how the independents demanded a meeting with NASCAR President Bill France, Jr., and the lawsuit he would file if that meeting didn’t take place.
I knew Higgins only by sight. He came into the media center the next day, aware of what he had missed – and why he was told only very, very little. He was not happy. He felt, naturally, that he had been betrayed by supposed friends.
I approached him, told him all I had seen and offered him carbon copies of all the material I had sent to Roanoke.
“There’s stuff here others don’t have, and I think it will help you,” I said.
He smiled and thanked me.
I was staying at a cheap motel in Florence, S.C. I had a dinner of burgers and fries and returned to my room, sat down and turned on the TV. There came a knock at my door.
I opened it and there stood Higgins. His car, with his wife in the front seat, was behind him. How he found me I do not know.
He pointed his finger at me.
“You,” he said emphatically, “are riding with me.”
And we rode together, from race to race, from weekend to weekend, from year to year, and remained close friends until he passed away in 2018 at 80 years old.
Incidentally, the revolution never started largely due to France’s creativity and reasoning. After a meeting at Martinsville Speedway a couple of weeks after Darlington, France announced independent drivers would receive bonus money for every race they entered and for which they attempted to qualify. That would assure each race would have a full field, and for some drivers, it could mean as much as $30,000 per year in income.
It was the start of what became known as plan money and exists, in some form, to this day.
Higgins duly and thoroughly reported on all that transpired. He didn’t need me, for sure, but we worked together.
That’s the way it remained for all those years thereafter.
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