I think it goes without saying that, over the years, Charlotte Motor Speedway has been anything but an ordinary racing facility — and by “ordinary” I mean one that simply conducts a race. It’s never been “sell tickets, open the doors, let folks in and get the race started” at CMS. Now, that may also be said of several other well-known speedways in this country, but few can approach Charlotte’s showmanship.
I have no doubt you are aware of this. You are familiar with The Winston, The Winston Open, Legends Cars, Bandoleros, the ROVAL and several other NASCAR (and non-NASCAR) events.
There’s more, of course. There’s “Jimmy the Flying Greek,” “The Great American Taxicab Race,” “Robosaurus” and assorted motorcycle jumps, boxing matches, circus acts, flyovers, fireworks and military invasions.
In the late seventies, there was even a chicken plucking competition — and I’m not making that up.
Most of this, if not all of it, came from the mind of the speedway’s long-time president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler. Wheeler’s racing background was largely in local, short-track promotion in which he learned that neighborhood folks were more likely to attend a race if it looked and functioned like a carnival.
While he certainly felt the same while promoting Charlotte races, he also advanced another theory: “We don’t want people sitting in their cars because there’s nothing to do at a quiet track before a race starts,” he said. “Let ‘em come in and see something going on; something they can enjoy.”
I once suggested to Wheeler that another reason to lure fans into the track was to provide more income for the souvenir and concession stands. He smiled.
One of Wheeler’s off-the-wall, “special” events is one that was conducted just once and has gone into near obscurity. I know I had forgotten about it until my memory was jolted by someone who asked me, “What year was it that Charlotte held that ‘legends’ race with a bunch of old-time drivers?”
The Winston Legends Race was held on May 19, 1991 as a companion event to The Winston. Its appeal was that since the all-star race was going to feature the best drivers of the day, why not stage an event that highlighted the best drivers of yesterday?
With R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. offering its support — something Wheeler received routinely — cars were prepared under the direction of driver/mechanic Rodney Combs. The competitors would not consist of a mere handful of names from the past. Wheeler and R.J. Reynolds were determined to get yesterday’s champions and winners, a roll call of some of NASCAR’s greatest stars.
When the entries of such drivers as Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons, Dick Brooks and Richard Childress were announced, few were surprised. All were recently retired drivers and still very active in NASCAR.
But eyebrows were raised when other, older names were announced.
Among them were Smokey Yunick, Junior Johnson, Fred Lorenzen, Neil “Soapy” Castles, Tim Flock, Tiger Tom Pistone, Li’l Bud Moore, Cotton Owens, Pete Hamilton, Sam McQuagg, Marvin Panch, Hoss Elllington, Coo-Coo Marlin and Paul Goldsmith.
Those were names that, arguably, belonged in any racing hall of fame.
Some media types were as cynical and skeptical as they were incredulous.
“Half those guys can barely walk, much less drive.”
“Humpy is asking for a heart attack or two.”
The race was scheduled for 30 laps on the CMS short track in the infield. Brooks drew the pole position and took advantage of it, leading the first 21 laps. But he got involved in an accident with Yarborough and Childress which caused a flat tire and sent him out of contention. Yarborough inherited the lead.
What was happening behind him could be called mayhem. Several drivers were in it for fun — which meant that if there were any rules, they chose not to follow them.
Beatin’, bangin’, rubbin’, whatever you want to call it, they were doing it.
Johnson was all over the place. He may have hit every car in the field, including the pace car driven by NASCAR President Bill France Jr. Johnson and Flock constantly banged bumpers and I could have sworn I saw immense grins on their faces.
The finish was a darn good one. Elmo Langley, who had won only twice (1965) in his 27-year Grand National career, slipped past Yarborough on the last lap to take the victory.
“Man, that felt great,” said Langley, who became NASCAR’s pace car driver until his untimely death in 1996 during NASCAR’s first exhibition race in Japan. “I got past Cale on the last lap and had no reason to back off.
“I had forgotten how good this felt.”
“Elmo caught me asleep,” Yarborough said. “I didn’t even see him until he passed me.”
Perhaps the best performance of the race was given by Goldsmith, who started 22nd and finished third.
Goldsmith’s stock car racing career wasn’t long but is highlighted by multiple victories and the fact he’s the last driver to win on Daytona’s beach and road course. He also competed in Indy cars and is a past motorcycle champion. Yunick called him the best driver he ever saw.
Unlike so many others who raced that day, Goldsmith is still with us. He’s 96 years old and works at the Indiana airport he owns.
The Winston Legends Race didn’t become a regular feature at Charlotte — or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s merely a footnote in the long, colorful history of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
But it is certainly one worth remembering.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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