The kid was two months from turning six years old when he was taken to his first stock car race on a half-mile dirt track not far from his home. From the moment the first race car fired the engine, the kid was hooked on that sound. As the cars went out onto the slick track to “iron out” the surface for racing, the colors, the sounds, the smells, all blended into a tapestry that would continue to be woven with care for many, many years to come. The beginning was an August night in September of 1952.
All the way home that night the kid could not stop talking about all he had taken in on that magic night. Whether or not he realized it at the time, the sport of stock car racing would consume his life from that point on. As he lay his head on the pillow that night sleep came quickly, as did the dreams about what it would be like to actually drive one of those race cars and the wheels were set in motion that would lead to one day climbing through the magic window of a stock car racer to compete on that same track where he saw his first race.
When the kid got old enough that his parents would trust him with a bicycle, it was not long before all the kids in the neighborhood were painting race car numbers on pieces of cardboard and taping them to the front of their bikes. Tracks were built in several locations, from an almost half mile road course, to two high banked tracks, one resembling Darlington and another resembling nothing more than the imagination of the kids who built it as the only superspeedway in NASCAR at the time was Darlington. Races were between 50 laps on the road course and 500 laps on most of the other tracks. Scoring was kept by the leader shouting out the lap count each time he crossed the start/finish line. Those races could be very exciting at times, especially the battles between the top two “drivers” who always seemed to be involved in the side-by-side racing and always finished one-two, or so it seemed.
School was the little inconvenience that got in the way of our daily racing in summer. The season never ended for the band of 12 boys who circulated the neighborhood, racing every day except Sunday. Nevertheless, school was a requirement parents and society enforced. Fortunately for the kid, his friends were all there with him and the subject of every lunch time conversation was about racing, either of the bike kind, or the NASCAR race over the weekend. All notebooks were covered with drawings of race cars and race tracks. It was school, but for the kid and his crew, it was always racing related.
Alliances with the drivers of the day were set in stone. Your favorite driver was beyond reproach no matter what, and the kid’s driver was always the best, at least to hear the kid tell it. The kids, all of them, had met their favorite drivers and had actually spent many hours hanging around talking and learning racing from the stars of the day. Drivers were easily accessible then.
The kid did ok in school, mostly A’s and B’s. In his Senior Year, he decided to take a public speaking class taught by the reported “meanest teacher” in the school district. The rules for the class were simple; you could speak on any subject you wished except for the one speech by someone famous you were required to memorize and a couple of speeches on specific subjects as assigned by that “mean” teacher. The kid loved that teacher from the very first class because she told you what was expected and the kid loved the challenge of meeting those expectations. Every speech the kid made, with the exception of the required topics, was on stock car racing. By the end of the year the entire class knew more about stock car racing than probably any other subject taught in any class. The kid’s year book was signed, page after page, with good wishes in the “doubtless racing career ahead”.
The kid graduated the year things were starting to get really hot in a small country half-way around the world… Viet Nam. The kid only wanted to race but he knew he needed to get the military service behind him so he immediately joined the Navy. During his stint in the Navy, he introduced all his shipmates to stock car racing, even taking several of them to events in Richmond, Langley Field, Darlington and Daytona. As much as the kid enjoyed that, it was all tempered by count down until discharge day so he could get started racing.
The kid was discharged in September, 1968, and headed home to South Carolina. He had saved some money while in the Navy but didn’t have enough to build or buy a race car. He took a job that paid a living wage with enough left over each week to put in a savings account for a race car. The kid also had all the same friends from the bicycle days who believed in him and wanted him to race as much as he wanted it.
On Monday evening, August 20, 1969, the kid got a call from one of the friends advising that he had found a race car for sale just across town. Arrangements were made to go see the car on Tuesday night. The kid and several friends rode over to the address where the car was located. It was apparent from the start that the owner of the car had his price set in stone and that price was $600 more than the group had. Nevertheless, the kid told the owner of the car that he would be back the next night to pick up the car.
One of the kid’s friends put up some money but there was still not enough to buy the car. The kid went to the bank where he had his checking account and had become friends with the manager. The kid talked the manager into loaning him the needed $400 to cover the shortage as a loan to buy a car. Never mind the car had only one seat and numbers painted on it. The manager never asked to see the car.
That night the kid and his crew headed over to the car owner’s house with a friend’s pickup truck and a chain to pull home the car. A check was written and the car was hooked up and towed across town. It was the night before the race at the local speedway and the kid and his crew were so excited about finally going racing they couldn’t sleep anyway so they spent the night sitting around the car and talking about what a wonderful future the kid was going to have driving race cars. Talk was of how many Southern 500s and Daytona 500s we would win and the truth is, we believed it all.
The next day the kid went to work as usual while two of his crew took the day off and worked on the car. When the kid got home that night, the oil had been changed, the spark plugs replaced, properly gapped, and the kid’s name painted on the door. A few racing product stickers were placed on the car. The kid and his crew didn’t realize these companies paid the big drivers for display of those decals. To the assembled group of kids, now young adults, they were going racing and that’s all that mattered.
Race night was hot and sticky as are August nights in South Carolina. The car was hooked to the back of the same friend’s truck that brought the car “home.” Upon arrival at the track, the kid bought his NASCAR license. There was not enough money to buy licenses for the crew but that was not a problem as they just rode in with the car.
Many people who had listened to the kid talk racing for 19 years came to the track and assembled in the infield in turn four, many with signs encouraging the first-time driver to do well. The car was unchained, pushed back, and the crew checked lugs to be sure everything was tight. Officials were calling for all cars in that division to get on the track and begin the “ironing out” process, which is to say take a soupy red clay watery mess and dry it out to a smooth racing surface that would become much like asphalt. It was time… time to climb through that magic window of a real race car.
The kid put one leg in, ducked his head, and then pulled in the other leg. His helmet was handed through the window and the kid put it on, pulled the straps tight, buckled up the belts and flipped the switch on the dash and mashed the starter button. He had already sat in the car at his house with the motor running and already knew that feeling of power, but it was different at the track. There was magic there; there was the hope of a future in racing lurking around those turns. Climbing through that window was a feeling of euphoria unlike anything the kid had ever dared to dream.
The kid eased the white car onto the slick track and as he had seen his heroes do for so many years, proceeded slowly around the track to allow the engine to properly warm. As he rolled through the fourth turn, the kid looked over to see all his friends gathered there, cheering wildly because they were watching a dream become reality. Lord knows, they had heard about this night long enough.
Looking through the windshield, the kid could see the track he had watched so many drivers race on through the years. The guardrails were oak wood in the turns and railroad tracks mounted on steel posts on the front straight. The stands looked smaller from the driver’s seat but the infield looked larger. Perception was different for the kid than ever it had been.
When the practice/track ironing was over, the kid climbed out of the car, not sure he wasn’t dreaming all that had just happened. The feeling of putting his foot down on the accelerator and flying down the straights and flying through the turns. Had he been asked to describe the feeling of being on that track, words would have failed him, something not common to that kid.
Drivers’ meeting was held and positions were drawn for the start of the heat race. The kid drew sixth position in the first heat race. The cars were lined up on the track and the kid sat in his car realizing he was about to compete in his first race. Two pace laps and the starter waved the green flag as the kid was coming off turn four. Almost immediately, three of the cars starting ahead of him tangled and were spinning wildly. Almost instinctively, the kid cut to the inside and came through the mess running second going into turn one. As he hit the brakes to slow, the pedal went to the floor and it was clear he had no brakes. The white car went really high in turn one and then pulled down against the infield embankment where the still-wet mud would slow him down.
The mess on the front straight was cleaned up and the green waved again with the kid on the outside front row. For maybe the first three feet, the kid was leading but the swift Ford to his inside took the advantage and raced into turn one. The kid was hard on the gas directly behind the Ford when he recalled he had no brakes. Well, the Ford had brakes, so all the kid had to do was bump into him and be slowed. The kid hit the Ford driver pretty hard, which was not appreciated by said Ford driver. So it went for the 10 laps constituting a heat race. When the race ended, the kid had to take an extra lap to get slowed enough to safely enter the pits. Fortunately, one of the crew had figured out there were no brakes so they were able to grab the roll bars and get the car stopped.
The crew went to work and used electric tape to patch the brake line that was cut. Brakes were repaired and the kid was ready to race the 25-lap feature where he would start inside second row. The second heat race seemed to last forever and then it was time for the upper division to hold their two 25-lap heat races. The kid had to keep looking at his watch to be sure it was only the passage of minutes, NOT days, keeping him off the track.
Finally the call for the kid and his group to return to the track. The cars began their pace laps and peace had been made with the Ford driver about the bumping when the brake problem was explained. The kid looked through the windshield as the Ford driver gave him the “thumbs up” sign going down the back straight.
As the cars exited turn four, the green flag was displayed and the race was on. The kid raced in second place, directly on the bumper of the lead Ford and tried a pass on the inside a couple of times but couldn’t pull it off. On the last lap, coming off turn two, the kid tried the outside pass and pulled almost even with the Ford, but that allowed the third place car to take the inside spot and as the pack exited turn four, the kid was in a very close third place.
As the kid pulled in the pits, one would have thought the Daytona 500 had just been won. All the friends were going wild behind the pit fence and the crew was actually jumping up and down with the finish. The kid who had climbed through that magic window was now officially a NASCAR race driver, never mind in the lowest division in NASCAR at the time, but the license he received from Daytona a week later said “NASCAR”.
In those days, days of the kid, many young men would find the means to buy or build a race car and climb through that magic window to feel the heartbeat of a well-tuned, powerful engine and compete. Some had success, some not so much, but it is never to say one failed by not becoming a star or winning a race. Racing was a passion, unlike any other sport, or any other endeavor. Thinking back, the kid wonders if he would climb into a car like that first one in 1969 to race. Safety features were there, if you consider a sparse roll cage and a driver’s seat which was once the driver’s seat in a school bus to be “features.” Would he? Would you?
The magic window of a race car is just that for someone with the passion. Climbing through that window opens up the magic world of being more than you are… being what you could only dream about as the kid. To have dreamed it was one thing; to actually climb through that window is amazing. Even today, the no longer kid can remember that first race as if it happened 10 minutes ago. Time passes and memories fade, but not that memory.
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(Editor’s note: This story is publish with the permission from the author! It was originally published on Race Fans Forever. If you missed any parts of Tim Leeming’s Magic Window series they can be found Here; NASCAR Guest Articles Archives – Pure Thunder Racing )
Photo Credit ( Cover); Stock Car Racing Photos | racersreunion.com
Great to have you on board, Tim. When you write, it’s worth reading, and this was a good example. Hope there will always be kids having that experience.
Thank you Frank. I enjoy writing and it almost always comes out “racing”! lol
I never tire of hearing about your racing experiences, Tim. The stories never get old. The passion resonates from the page like a rumbling Plymouth stock car engine!
Dave! How great to encounter you here. There are 7 or 8 more chapters to the magic window written for my youngest grandson. Thank you for your kind words.
Was right there with you all the way! Great memories. Thanks for sharing.
Look forward to your next installment!
Thanks David. Great to be here. I realized today that my youngest grandson had asked me to write about my whole career so there are like 7 or 8 chapters written.
Happy to see you here, Tim! Thank you for such great reading. This is one I will read again and again because ‘it is real life!’
I look forward to the next one.
Thanks for joining in!
Great to be here Vivian. Thank you.
An awful lot of your story sounds eerily familiar, but with a few curves. I grew up in Cincinnati, and Tried-County/Queen City Speedway. I got to be “friendly” with several drivers that raced there, like Bruce Gould, Dick Freeman, Rodney Combs, and Joey Stricker. I say “friendly” because I was just a high schooler that was consumed by stock car racing, and they tolerated me stopping by, and some even seemed to enjoy our conversations and my endless questions. Dick Freeman was a bit different from the others though. For some reason, he seemed to genuinely seemed to like our visits.
I went to a vocational school (auto mechanics of course) near where Dick worked (KOI Kenworth), in Sharonville, OH. That year he won the late model championship in a 1967 Mercury Comet. I built him a 1/24th scale model of that car. That was no easy task, as there was only 1 model car kit of a 1967 Comet. Dyno Don Nicholson’s Funny Car. Back then, a funny car body’s wheel base was altered, moved forward. I cut up another model kit’s body, to remake the rear wheel well openings. I was able to give it to him at the awards banquet. To be able to go to the banquet, I had to get creative, as I didn’t make much money pumping gas. Bill Redwine was the track owner, and I just happened to go to school with his daughter, Dawn. I got friendly with her, and convinced her to talk to her dad. I gave her a picture of the model I built for Dick, and I guess that was enough for Bill to give me a ticket to the banquet.
Dick was blown away. In early spring the following season, he invited me to got to the track, as they had rented it to test a new car, a 1968 Mustang fastback. I skipped school that day to attend. I was already talking to him about driving a race car someday, and he was giving me pointers. Unfortunately Dick only got to drive that new car for part of the season. He was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died a few months later.
That season I started helping on the pit crew for a young Gary Bowsher, son of the ARCA great Jack Bowsher. It was a 1967 Ford Fairlane. Gary was a couple of months older than I was. All these years later, Jack is still the most intense person I ever met. Gary went on to race some ARCA and USAC races after that season, and I went into the Air Force. Thank God for ESPN over the next 20 years, as I was never closer than 200 miles from the nearest race track. I’ve been married to the same beautiful lady for 45 years now, and I think she still thinks that I love racing more than her. I don’t, but racing is a close 2nd.
My last duty station in the AF was in Tucson, AZ. The second day We were there, I found out that there was a dirt track there. Now I like dirt racing, but I love asphalt racing. But hey, it was a race track, so I was still happy. I went as often as my duty & wallet would allow.
A couple of weeks after the season ended, I just happened to be watching the local sports segment, on the local news. The sportscaster said that they were going to pave that track. I nearly lost my mind! Guess who the promoter was, and who was operating the track? Brian France, yes, that Brian France. I know that most people’s opinion of him isn’t very flattering, but what he did at Tucson Raceway Park was unbelievable. Two years after the track was paved, TRP started hosting the Winter Heat series races. A whole lot of future Cup drivers came out of that.
I retired from the AF, and started my own business. I also started helping a couple of different father/son modified teams over the next 4 seasons, becoming crew chief on both. Still I was always hoping to start my own driving career someday. I bought the complete roller from the second team I worked for. At the ripe old age of 42, I took my first laps of competition in a 600+ HP modified, on 8″ wide slicks. WOW, what a learning experience!! I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t awful or dangerous either. A good night was finishing in the top 15, and loading up a whole car. My second season I got to running 8th to 12th most nights, and I had gained the trust of most of the other drivers. I didn’t win but a couple of heat races that season, but I was awarded the most improved driver. That meant more to me than anything else I ever did in racing.
I had more fun during my years of racing, than I thought were possible, especially for being as old as I was when I started. Unfortunately, I had to stop due to some orthopedic injuries that I had accumulated during my AF career. I was blessed to have never had “the big one” during my driving career, but my spine was getting to the point that it wasn’t smart to continue. I know that racers have generally never been considered to be Rhodes’ Scholars candidates, but this couldn’t be ignored. Especially after the doctors said I would probably end up in a wheel chair, without even having that big one. But I can tell you this, I don’t think my love for racing has diminished much, and I’d do it again if I could. I miss it every day.
Thanks for posting Ron. Always love a racer’s story and you’ve got a good one!
Thanks David. I always wanted to drive, but really wasn’t sure that it would ever happen. One thing I said I’d never do, is make my family do without, so I could race. I’ve known a few guys that did that to their family. Surprise, they lost their families too.
Believe me, it wasn’t an easy process for me though. My wife saw me race 3 times, period. She was always certain that she’d be a widow because of it. My third race was the first time she saw me race. On the last lap, I got pinched into the wall coming off turn 4. That shot me back across the track, collecting the next car. He went airborne over the nose of my car. It cut my left rear tire off the rim. I spun the full length of the front stretch, throwing sparks all the way. Once she saw me climb from the car, she snatched our son up, and went home. Our next door neighbors were sitting with her, and they said that she was losing her mind until I got out. I tried calling her to let her know that I was fine. She wouldn’t answer the phone. I saw the video, and it was a pretty spectacular looking crash. For me & my car, neither were damaged much. I had to replace the left front spindle, ball joints and control arms, and there was no crazy thrash to be ready the following Sat. My wife didn’t go back for 4 years.
As I said, we have a son. Boys and race cars go hand in hand, right? Yeah, you’d think that I was shoving bamboo under his fingernails, if I asked him to help me push it into the trailer. He had a beautiful girl that he was dating. Somehow she found out that I had a race car, and wanted to see it up close. He broke up with her!
Aw, but the friends that I made. Carlos Serrano may not be a name that you are familiar with. He was a really good super late model driver, and an OUTSTANDING motorcoss rider, both in the US & Europe. During the Winter Series years at Tucson Raceway Park, Ron Hornaday Jr still owned Victory Circle Race Cars in LA. He would run whatever the premier series that was running that weekend; Winston West, NASCAR Southwest Tour, or Super Late Models. Those races were the first 3 weekends in Dec. & the last 3 weekends in Jan. He couldn’t afford to be in Tucson for nearly 2 months, so he brought all of his 3 series’ cars to Carlos’ shop. Whatever car he was racing that weekend, Carlos would set it up, then track test it on Thur. Ron won 2/3s of the Winter Heat races, and got hired by some guy named Earnhardt. Now I’m not saying Ron didn’t build and set up a race car, as he was outstanding at both. But Carlos really knew TRP, and how to set up a car. To great minds & drivers.. I was at Carlos’ shop getting some work done on my car, when Ron called and said he’d been hired to drive AJ Foyt’s Cup car. I kid you not, Carlos told him that was a mistake. It was, as AJ’s Cup team sucked.
I also got to be friends with a guy named Jim Pettit Jr too. He was running the Southwest Tour when I got to meet him. In 1998, NASCAR put out their top 50 Cup drivers of all time. Not long after, they issued their top 25 Weekly Racing Series drivers of all time. Jim was on it. At a pretty young age, Jim had won several track & regional championships, on dirt and asphalt. He then went on to do what only 1 driver had ever done before. He won the Southwest Tour championship back to back. The other guy that did it was Ron Hornaday Jr. He then won 3 SRL Series championships. I really think that Jim would have been great at the truck or Xfinity level. Who knows, maybe the Cup level too. I truly think that some teams really missed out.
I have been truly blessed by having met so many really good people in racing. Not just the big named people, but just every day good people. As much as I have loved racing, and being around racing, I’m most grateful for the people.
Thanks Ron for sharing you storys I love to hear them.
Thank you Bernth.
Great overview Ron. You are so right on so many points. I have three grandsons I have taken to races, including the 600 in Charlotte, and they just can’t get into it. I’m proud of all three of them but I wish at lease one of them would watch a race with me.
My wife and I were only blessed with one child (our son), and had the terrible misfortune of 1 miscarriage (our daughter). As I said earlier, our son hated racing. My brother and I went to circle & drag races, even dragging one of his cars a few times, when I was home on leave from the AF. Even he didn’t love racing the way I did.
All of my friends in high school, they only liked drag racing. My nickname given to me by that group was AJ, after Foyt. That was in 1971. Three years later, I was working on Jack Bowsher’s team for Gary. Jack fielded cars for AJ for 2 or 3 USAC championships. Funny how things sometimes happen..
Now that’s a great story Ron. I have three grandsons who have been to a few races with me but they never really got interested. When I started doing appearances as “The Legend” they were pretty revved up about that. Too bad they never got the racing bug.
Ron, that is beautifully written and contains so much truth. Thank you.