(Editors note: If you missed any of the previous parts of Tim Leeming’s Magic Window series they can be found Here; NASCAR Guest Articles Archives – Pure Thunder Racing )
Sometime late in January of 1973, Tim was watching something on television as he sat in his warm living room. The walls of that living room were covered, as was most of his home, with racing posters, pictures, and whatever else was racing related. But, alas, Tim’s career behind the wheel was over. That is until that magic ringing of the telephone that cold evening. The caller was the man who was the local radio station sports announcer who had made big waves for Tim on every Friday morning show after the Thursday night events. Straight to the point, as always with Earl, he asked “do you want to race this year”? If ever there was a rhetorical question asked, that one had to top the list. “Of course” was Tim’s response. That phone call lasted well over an hour.
The deal was that Earl, and three guys he worked with at an auto dealership had a chance to buy a used Hobby Car. In fact, it was a car Tim had raced against many times. Earl wanted to know if they bought it would Tim drive it. For Tim the answer was easy but details had to be worked out. That would be arranged the following Sunday afternoon at Earl’s house.
When Tim arrived at Earl’s home about 2:00 that January Sunday afternoon, he was welcomed in and met the other three guys who were to be a part of this venture. Basically the deal was the guys wanted to run Columbia Speedway, Savannah Speedway and Myrtle Beach Speedway, all asphalt and all half-mile tracks. Columbia Thursdays, Savannah Fridays, and Myrtle Beach Saturdays. The first race of the season would be in Savannah on Sunday Afternoon, April 8, 1973. The talk turned to the car, what we would need and then Earl got up and motioned us all to the stairs leading to his two car garage attached to his home. Entering the garage, Tim saw the orange number 58, 1958 Ford. All shined and polished, it looked race-ready as it sat. Earl’s teenage stepson had worked endless hours cleaning and polishing that car.
Back upstairs, the guys talked about making that first race in Savannah. The race was only two months and a few days away but with the willingness of all involved, there would be no issues being ready. One of the mechanics from the auto dealership, Jack, was willing to do all mechanical work at no charge just to be a part of the team. From the very outset it appeared this was going to be a first class operation and Tim was very excited at the prospects of moving on up in the racing world.
Two weeks before the first race date in Savannah, Earl called Tim over to his home. Upon arrival Tim noticed a really good looking 1970 Dodge Station Wagon to which a trailer was hitched, obviously the trailer to tow the car. Earl said that was the rig we would use. Entering the garage, Tim observed the car was up on jack stands and had brand new tires all the way around. Two extra new tires were in the back of the station wagon. This now appeared so very real. It was going to happen. The two weeks between that visit and loading up for Savannah seemed like two years to Tim but they did pass, FINALLY!!
It was a cool but sunny April Sunday morning when the crew pulled out heading for Savannah. Jack was driving the tow car with Tim inside. They talked all the way to Savannah. Signing in was really funny because all the folks knew Tim was a Plymouth guy and here he was in a Ford, the same brand for which he had criticized the King for driving in 1969. But, as Tim learned, if you want to race, you have to be willing to bend. Since this was a free ride with all sorts of side benefits, looking over the hood of a Ford was not much different than looking over the hood of a Plymouth.
The car was unloaded, the crew was ready, and Tim changed into his tailor-made white driving uniform. There was nothing to do to the car but check tire pressures so the team (without a name) sat around talking and waiting to draw for the heat race starting positions. Finally that draw came and Tim drew the number 4 chip which put him on the front row of the second heat. That was exciting. First race he had ever started on the front row.
The cars slowly circled the track under the bright April sun and surely Tim’s smile was brightening up the inside of that Ford. After 2 laps the green waved and Tim blasted into the lead and roared into turn one. The first five laps of the ten lap heat was nip and tuck between Tim and two other drivers with Tim leading, sometimes only by inches. On lap six, a much slower car spun going into turn one and came to rest in the middle of the track. This happened after the leaders passed under the flag stand so the first indication of an accident was as the three leaders bolted into turn one. Tim took the high side and the other two went low. All were slowing but having been going that fast it was difficult to stop that close upon the spinner. Just as Tim approached the stalled car the driver (a rookie) got the car re-fired and moved up the track closing what would have been Tim’s door to pass. The sound of the crash was probably not that noticeable to many but to Tim inside the Ford, it was as if General Sherman was bombarding Savannah again. When the dust had settled and all the cars were stopped, Tim climbed out to see the left front wheel of his car turned far out. Looking at the suspension it was obvious much damage was done.
The wrecker hauled the Ford back to the pits and the crew went to work to repair the car enough to get it on the trailer. It was not going to be raced today. Somewhat dejected, Tim watched the crew work to make the car at least steerable to get it on the trailer. Overall, however, Tim was elated that it appeared he had a car that would run out front and one that handled pretty well as well. Maybe not as well as the Plymouth, but better than most of the competition that day.
The trip back to Columbia was long, but discussion inside the Dodge station wagon concerned plans to the race coming up Thursday night in Columbia. Jack was absolutely certain he could have the car ready for Thursday so everyone was happy. And ready it was.
The results at Columbia were disappointing as Tim drew 10th starting position in the first heat. Starting ahead of him were some of the really good drivers from Columbia as well as some really fast cars. At the end of the 15 laps, Tim had managed to pass only one car which moved him to 9th which set his feature starting position as inside 9th row. There were over 25 cars on hand with it being the start of the season. Tim was not over confident but he knew he had a good car and had 25 laps to improve his position.
When the green waved for the feature, everyone dove to the inside groove which put Tim running far from the front. It was that night that Tim learned two things; 1) the Ford was not good in the high line and 2) you can actually move a car from in front of you with just the proper placement of your front bumper. Although he didn’t wreck anyone, Tim did improve his position using that bumper finishing the feature in 8th.
Throughout the month of April, racing Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the “Better Idea” Ford had did not transfer well to the efforts of the 58 team. After being accustomed to regular second and third place finishes in the Plymouth most of the time, Tim was finding it a little difficult to handle finishes out of the top five. He did manage to hang in the top ten, usually around 8th or 9th, but those up front finishes just weren’t happening.
The month of May in South Carolina and Georgia is usually when the warm weather moves in. It was much warmer, not the August kind of hot, but much more comfortable to be outdoors on racing evenings. Something unexpected took place with the number 58 with the warmer weather; the Ford began to handle differently. The team had put new tires on all the way around the car the second week of May and for whatever reason the Ford began to handle in the high groove where before it was almost impossible to run up there, the groove Tim had always preferred in his Plymouth.
That first Thursday night in May at Columbia, Tim finished 5th in the feature. Friday night in Savannah he was 4th in the feature. Saturday night at Myrtle Beach, Tim encountered a local driver from that area, Jim, who was driving a Chevy and like the nemesis Dennis from Columbia, Jim’s car was an exact match in handling and speed and Jim was equally matched with Tim’s driving style. That first time encounter put the two cars side by side in the third row of the heat race. It would be understating the action to say it was “wild and wooly” as Jim, on the inside, literally hooked the side of Tim’s Ford and the first six laps the cars were glued together. Going into turn one starting the seventh lap a faster car behind the duo felt he was being blocked by the Jim and Tim alliance and he bumped Tim hard from behind sending the orange Ford over the first turn embankment.
In those days there were no guard rails on those turns so the Ford bounced in all the little bushes outside the track as Tim kept his foot on the floorboard and came back up on the track on the back straight. By now he was in 12th position of 12 cars. He would start the feature on the inside of the 12th row. Tim went over to officially introduce himself to Jim and it was an immediate friendship. Jim even offered to replace all the paint AND the number he had rubbed off the side of the Ford but that would mean Tim would have to do the same to the Chevy of Jim.
After the heats were finished for Hobby and for Late Models it was time to mount up for the feature. As NASCAR lined the cars up on the front straight Tim could hardly see the cars on the front row. He couldn’t recall ever being so far back. When the race started and the cars sped into turn one, all sorts of issues commenced inside the Ford. Trying to keep the car under control took every ounce of Tim’s muscles. Same in turn three. Something was bad wrong. As lap two began it was another close call going into one. Tim slowed to the back straight and headed into the pits.
Willie, who was actually heading up both Richard and Tim’s teams stuck his head in the window as Tim cut the engine. Tim told Willie what the car was doing and Willie dove underneath with a flashlight as Tim remained strapped in. What seemed like several minutes, although it was actually maybe a minute in time, Willie pulled himself out from under the car and told Tim to re-fire the engine and pull the car on the trailer. Front end suspension pieces had been damaged during that off track hike which had not been noticed in the two laps Tim had slowly run in the heat.
Loaded up and heading home, talk was about what other problems we would encounter during the 1973 season. Someone said Tim was being paid back for all the flack he had given Richard Petty for switching to Ford in the 1969 season. Everyone got a good laugh out of that one. But maybe, just maybe, somewhere in Tim’s mind he wondered about “Karma”.
It took the crew only a few hours Monday night to replace the damaged suspension parts, change the oil, check the plug and fill the car with gas in preparation for the Thursday night event at Columbia. The car had been washed and waxed and was ready to go. Willie inspected and re-inspected every minor detail on the car.
That Thursday was a cloudy day with just the misty type of rain on and off. About 4 that afternoon word was out the race was rained out, so it would be Friday night racing in Savannah. Memories fade over the years but the best recollection of that weekend was a 5th in the feature in Savannah and a 4th in the feature at Myrtle Beach. The fortunes of the Ford team 58 were looking better.
Even as the team was on an upswing, the four guys who had banded together to buy the car and have Tim drive it, were not in total agreement on every detail of racing. Tim was not sure of the details, only that there was dissention and he could feel it. On May 29th Earl called Tim and told him to come get the race car, the trailer and the Dodge Station Wagon we used to tow the car. Tim was being given the car and everything. Not quite understanding but accepting it, Tim had Willie drive him over to Earl’s and the race car was loaded on the trailer, hooked to the Dodge, and headed out to the Competition Incorporated tin shop.
Moving forward to June, weather was much dryer and warmer than May had been. The first two weekends of June saw the Ford a steady 4th to 5th place car at all three tracks. It was handling great, which allowed Tim to run higher and gave him most options in improving his positions. Luck seemed to be changing for the better as even drawing for heat race starting positions from Dan’s little canvas bag of metal tags was allowing Tim to start the heats somewhere between second and fifth every time.
The June 21st race at Columbia Speedway resulted in a second place finish, less than a car length behind the Chevy driven by Mike. The June 22nd race at Savannah saw the Ford finish second in an almost photo finish with a guy named Johnny from Georgia. The entire team was so pumped for the Saturday night event at Myrtle Beach, sleep was hard to come by that Friday night, but eventually the eyelids grew heavy and the anticipation of finally winning his first race was front and center in Tim’s mind.
Having spent the night in Myrtle Beach after pulling up from Savannah, the crew had breakfast at one of those all you can eat pancake houses. Tim loved pancakes and probably set an international record for the number eaten at one sitting that morning. But he was young then and metabolism would take care of the extra calories. After breakfast the team returned to the house provided for them by one of the four previous team owners and the car was washed and polished and all mechanical and suspension issues were checked.
The team arrived at the track about 3 pm in hopes of getting in a few early laps of practice. However, the ambulance and wreckers weren’t due at the track until 5 so it was bench racing all afternoon with a couple other teams arriving early from out of town, killing time waiting to get on the track to see what we had.
Finally! It was about 5:05 when the wrecker pulled in and 20 minutes later the ambulance arrived. Tim put on his driving uniform when Dan came over to tell the teams the track was open for practice. Two laps of warm up and Tim came off turn four beginning to push the Ford to the limit. Man, he was flying. Willie stood on the trailer with a stop watch and after 10 laps or so waved for Tim to bring the car in. As Tim rolled up to the pit box, Willie was very excited, slapping the roof of the car. He said, according to his stop watch, that we were less than .01 second off the record for Hobby Cars. We were all ecstatic. Willie asked Tim how the car felt. Tim didn’t mention the very slight vibration he felt coming off the turns as he assumed it was just because they were faster than ever before.
The heat race was a solid third from Tim and the Ford, putting him on the outside of the third row next to Jim, the tormentor in the Chevy. It was going to be a good race. The unusual circumstances of both heat races in Hobby and in Late Model were the number of spins and crashes. Most unusual for these drivers, especially at this track.
As Tim walked to the car for the feature, everyone on the team was excited for the possibility of that first win. The car was fast, was handling great, and was starting in a good position. This was going to be THE night, June 23, 1973.
The cars rolled around the track for their two warmup laps and Tim and Jim were making hand signals to each other (not that one finger kind) but all attention was directed to the starter’s stand once they entered turn three. Green flag in the air and Tim found an opening on the outside into turn one and came off turn two in second place, leaving on Jim behind. Looking in his mirror Tim realized Jim wouldn’t be back there for long. Sure as God made little green apples, Jim caught Tim on the front straight and took up his usual position of rubbing. Tim and Jim swapped second and third positions almost every 100 yards. By lap 10, Tim noticed the vibration was getting more pronounced, but by that time more than 20 laps had been run under caution (caution laps didn’t count back then) and Tim was more concerned about beating that Jim guy AND every other guy on the track.
Restarts were always single file at Myrtle Beach and this put Jim ahead of Tim. That was second and third. The name of the driver leading the race has been lost to the annals of time but the next 7 laps of that 20 lap feature were going to be hotly contested. As soon as the green came back out, Jim dove to the inside of the lead car and almost made the pass but couldn’t quite pull it off. Tim was alongside Jim and the always constant battle between the two seemed to escalate as both wanted to win this race.
On lap 16 Tim’s Ford began to lose just a little power, not much, but enough to allow Jim to clear him as Tim fell in behind. Going into turn one on lap 17, Jim had pulled maybe 10 car lengths ahead and Tim could see a grey Chevy coming up behind him obviously now faster than Tim’s Ford. Tim held his high line in the turns and the grey Chevy loomed in the mirror moving to the inside. Tim had him by a car length coming off turn two when suddenly there was an explosion inside the Ford. The flywheel had exploded and came through the floor board cutting off the brake and clutch petals and shearing the steering shaft as well. The grey Chevy bumped the inside quarter panel of the Ford turning it toward the infield.
For Tim, everything seemed in slow motion as the Ford hit the dirt embankment on the infield which was more like a launching ramp than an encumbrance to a car attempting to enter the grassy infield. Tim felt the Ford lift into the air and then hit the top part of the fence separating the infield from the track. With absolutely no control of the car Tim was sliding directly toward a Pontiac Bonneville with a guy standing on the hood watching the race. Tim was screaming for the guy to jump when the Ford impacted the front of the Pontiac.
Tim was knocked unconscious from the severe impact. As he was returning to his senses, probably three minutes later, Willie was there trying to unhook the seatbelts. The first thing Tim noticed was the totally destroyed Bonneville into which his Ford was now imbedded. The next thing he noticed was the blood all over the front of his white uniform. Then he realized he had severe pain in his right shoulder but could not feel his legs. The ambulance crew was frantically working on the young man who had been standing on the hood of the Pontiac as Willie and the Horry County Deputy Sheriff were working on Tim. As Tim tried to talk it became obvious he had bitten his tongue pretty badly when his car hit the Pontiac as he was yelling at the guy to jump off that hood.
The deputy and Willie had Tim lie down on the grass, wet from dew that time of night, while they waited to medical assistance. The young man injured in the incident was in critical condition and was loaded into the ambulance and Tim watched as the ambulance raced from the track, the siren disturbing the night. It was deathly quiet as no race cars were running and the fans were in shock at what they had witnessed.
Although Tim insisted he was not severely injured, the deputy would have none of that. He put Tim in his patrol car and they left the tracks, lights flashing and siren screaming as they headed for the Conway Hospital, arriving there within minutes. Had the situation not been so serious, it was almost comical to watch as Tim was rolled into the emergency room, full of those who drank too much on a Saturday night (it was 10:30 pm.). Blood all over his previously sparkling white uniform was only an indication of the pain he was feeling, not only physically but emotionally as he had hurt another person, obviously severely.
Doctors took Tim right into an examination room. Maybe injured race drivers got priority over black eyes, broken noses and such from bar room brawls. After little more than an hour, it was determined Tim’s right shoulder was “separated”, a term he had never heard, and the loss of feeling in the legs was the result of both knees slamming into the under dash roll bar upon impact. So, it was an injection for pain, a bottle of muscle relaxer pills for what was surely to be a painful Sunday, and back into the patrol car for a ride back to the track. The deputy had stayed with Tim the entire time.
On the way back to the track the deputy talked about all his years of serving at the Myrtle Beach track and how he always enjoyed talking with Tim and other drivers. He told Tim it appeared the Ford was incapable of being repaired so he wondered what Tim’s plans were. At the time, Tim could not think that far ahead. All he could think about was the unknown man he had injured.
Once back at the track, after midnight now, Willie had the wrecked Ford on the trailer and was sitting outside the track, alone, waiting on Tim’s return. The Horry County Sheriff’s car pulled up beside Willie to tell him Tim was ok but was going to be really sore Sunday. Tim, with his right arm in the sling provided by the hospital, got out of the patrol car, shook hands with the deputy and thanked him for everything and then lowered himself into the passenger’s seat in the station wagon. As the deputy left and the Dodge pulled onto the highway, it was then Tim realized he didn’t even know that deputy’s name.
It was a dark and lonely road back to Columbia that night as Willie kept switching radio stations as one would fade and another come into range. He played the radio low. For the first 50 miles or so not a word was spoken. Tim then asked the condition of the Ford. “Totaled” was Willie’s response. Maybe only the rear end salvageable. Willie went on to say it was amazing Tim had not lost at least his left leg when the fly wheel came through the floor board and could only attribute that to Tim hooking his left foot into the lower portion of the roll bars during a race.
Tim had put off asking about the injured spectator because of his fear of what the response would be. Finally, 30 miles or so outside of Columbia he asked Willie what he knew. All Willie really knew was that the guy’s name was James and that he had severe leg injury, both legs, and possibly a broken back. Tim sort of withdrew from the world with those words and remained silent the rest of the way home.
When they pulled into the yard at Tim’s home and pulled the tow car and destroyed Ford behind the house, it was almost 3:00 a.m. Willie said he was going on home but would be back Sunday afternoon to unload the car, and maybe see what the future held. Tim went into his home and headed for the bedroom, feeling very weak. He would realize the next day it was the combination of exhaustion, the pain shot, the muscle relaxers and the uncertainty of what would come next but he fell into the bed still wearing his bloodied white uniform.
It was well after noon when Tim awoke Sunday. He was ravenously hungry and went to the kitchen to make a sandwich. It was only then that the events of the previous evening made their way into his foggy mind. He looked out the kitchen window to see the crumbled Ford still on the trailer. Willie would get it off when he gets here Tim thought. Still groggy Tim attempted to call the track not even thinking no one would be there on Sunday. Next he tried Dan but there was no answer. Well, he thought, he would just try Dan later as surely Dan would know about the spectator.
Willie did not show up that afternoon. He called about 3:00 to apologize and said he would be down after work on Monday. Tim could tell by the inflection of Willie’s voice that he was prepared to devote all his future endeavors to Tim’s brother Richard’s racing future. Tim spent the rest of the day sitting alone watching television and being totally silent. The one thing that had never occurred to Tim in his pursuit of racing stardom was the possibility of actually injuring someone. Injuring someone… a spectator no less… so severely, as he would discover later, that it would change that spectator’s life. That was more than Tim could emotionally handle.
By the time Tim went to bed Sunday night, very late, he had decided he had driven his last race car. He knew he couldn’t walk away from racing because that was really the only thing he knew outside of working in an office. Surely, he thought, there could be some option for staying around racing.
Monday morning Tim was able to reach Dan and got information on the young man injured. He was in ICU at the Myrtle Beach Hospital in critical condition. Severe leg, back and internal injuries. He was expected to recover, but would never be able to return to his job as a lineman for the electric co-op. Tim hung up the phone and had to leave his office for some alone time. He drove almost 100 miles before turning around and heading home. Nothing had been resolved but Tim called the hospital every day to check on James. This was before HIPAA laws and Tim could get reports. Tim planned to drive down to see James but was told no visitors in ICU but immediate family. Tim tried to get the names of James’ family but that information was not obtainable through the hospital.
It was around 7:00 pm when Willie got there to unload the Ford from the trailer. He asked Tim if he wanted it in the garage and Tim said “No. Let’s take it to the back of the lot and park it under that tree. So it was done. Tim took a long look at the car, especially the hole in the windshield through which the flywheel had taken flight, then turned and walked back to the house wondering how he had been so fortunate and the man he hit so severely injured. There was no explanation as to how those things happen.
Tim called Earl to ask about returning the Dodge station wagon and the trailer and Earl said the weekend would be fine. Willie walked back to the shop where Richard’s race car was housed and prepared to go to work on that car. It would be easier for Willie to manage one car instead of two and would certainly be an opportunity for Richard to have a great mechanic all to himself. As Tim sat in silence in his living room, surrounded by pictures and other mementoes of racing his thoughts were so jumbled. He could hear the work going on in Richard’s shop but he knew there would be no more work going on in that tin monstrosity known as Competition Incorporated. It was now his plan to demolish the tin garage as soon as he could engage some of the teenagers in the neighbor for assistance.
The following Saturday the Dodge and trailer were returned to Earl. One of the neighborhood teenagers, Larry, followed Tim over to Earl’s so he would have a ride back. Earl and Tim talked only briefly, both realizing that their combined venture into racing ended with results unimagined when the adventure began.
Within three weeks of the return of the Dodge and trailer, the tin garage was torn down, the tin and lumber stacked to the side of the property and only a huge sandy spot which had been the floor of the enterprise remained as a reminder of what was. Tim never walked back to look at the Ford resting in repose under the tree as vines and briars began to entwine themselves around portions of the car. Tim’s dreams of racing Richard Petty and David Pearson to the line at Daytona became merely something he was thinking less and less about as he knew the days of driving a race car were over. He was still in shock about what had happened on June 23rd. While he would attend the Grand National races, he didn’t go to a weekly show the rest of that season even though his brother Richard was racing with some success.
Finally, by Christmas, Tim’s resolve had turned to a different direction. If he couldn’t drive them, he could still be around them. Although he was not always one to make New Year’s resolutions, he resolved on the eve of 1974, that he was going to find a way to stay around the weekly shows as more than a spectator. That would happen as Dan asked him about working with him and NASCAR during the 1974 season. Along about April, Tim was approached by a local 100,000 watt radio station that carried the NASCAR races about becoming an on-site correspondent for that station. The gig would last more than 20 years as Tim would cover all races at Daytona, Darlington, Rockingham, Atlanta, Talladega and Charlotte, along with some Martinsville, North Wilkesboro and Bristol races thrown in. This would lead to broadcasting the Columbia Speedway races live on Thursday nights. When the New Columbia Speedway needed a track announcer, Tim got the gig for two years. When the new 24 hour 100,000 watt all-sports station came to Lexington in 1994, Tim got his own 30 minute live show every Friday morning and continued to cover races in person.
These days, Tim is deeply involved in the preservation of racing history through appearances at many events. Tim also does a live radio show on the internet on Thursday evenings which in heard around the world and has the pioneers and legends of the sport tell their stories, live, in their own words. The only steering wheel Tim handles these days is the street vehicle he drives.
(Editor’s note: This story is publish with the permission from the author! It was originally published on Race Fans Forever. )
Photo Credit ( Cover); myrtlebeachonline.com