I considered, only for a moment, entitling this story “The King and I”. Unfortunately, that title had already been taken so, proper English grammar aside, the title has become “Richard Petty and Me”. My Grandfather and Uncle Bobby took me to my first race at The Historic Columbia Speedway in August,1952. I was just a couple months short of my sixth birthday. Uncle Bobby was 11 years older than I and he was the real race fan. Grandfather was the one needed to driver us to the track.
Grandfather and Bobby always parked in the infield but this night thought it better to sit in the grandstands in case the noise scared me, and we needed to leave early. What really happened was quite the opposite. When the first engine fired, I was hooked; I loved that sound. Although my memory of that race has mostly faded, I do remember a purple number 37 although I don’t know who drove it. After the racing was finished, we walked into the pits, and I got my first close up look at race cars. Most were the 39 and 40 Ford modifieds, each being unique to the particular driver. I was already absolutely hooked on racing.
The previous Labor Day we had sat in rocking chairs on Grandfathers front porch and listened to a race from Darlington, The Southern 500. On the way home from Columbia Speedway that first race, Bobby explained the difference in the cars and the track although he had never seen Darlington. Bobby went on to explain the Grand National that ran at Darlington were newer cars and he had a favorite who was the greatest, Lee Petty. Lee was to drive in a race somewhere in Georgia a couple of weeks after my Columbia Speedway adventure and Bobby was determined to go. We loaded up the 1941 Plymouth four door and were westward bound. There were no interstate highways in those days so it was a long trip, I thought we would never get there. At long last my anticipation was satisfied as we pulled into the track, parked, and I jumped out to see what I could see. Bobby reined me in sight, and we walked slowly around the area we were allowed to, and we finally came to Lee Petty’s car! We looked through the fence at the car as the crew hurried to get it race ready. We saw Lee, but he was not the kind to come over to the fence and talk to us.
The race started with all the stars of the day battling lap after lap for position. Names I would come to know as well as my own name, Tim Flock, Herb Thomas and so many others. I don’t recall what happened to Thomas but with five laps to go I heard the term “blew an engine” for the first time. I would have a quite entertaining discussion on the way home as Bobby would explain it to me in his clever way of telling what happened but embellishing it with vivid details of what it happened. We went over for the victory celebration. I was standing next to a tall, lanky boy as they were cleaning the dirt from the car. I had no idea that I was standing within three feet of the boy who would become King and contribute so much to my life. I couldn’t even dream that one night in 1958 I would officially meet that young man as he drove his first race in the Convertible Division of NASCAR at Columbia Speedway
Later in September we traveled to Wilson, NC to see Herb Thomas take the win over Lee Petty. Bobby was NOT a happy camper after that race. When we tried to find Lee after the race, we learned he was not very happy either. The ’41 Plymouth headed back to Columbia with relative silence inside. Even I wasn’t talking and if you know me you would know that was odd.
The Grand Nationals were running in North Wilkesboro two days before my 6th Birthday so Bobby thought it would make a nice gift to take me to that race. Lee had a really bad day at that race so the talk on the way home was centered on this bond between Bobby and me and how now that he had a driver’s license, we could make more races. That was all we talked about on the way home.
Between that North Wilkesboro race and a July night in 1958 Bobby and I attended countless races all around the Carolinas and Georgia. We got to meet so many drivers, mainly because I was not the shy guy Bobby was but if I saw a driver I went after him. Those were the days. To try to recap or summarize would require many hundreds of pages. It would delay the story I want to get to, the story of Richard Petty and me. I hope you will consider coming back for Chapter Two. We will begin a ride that even I have a difficult time believing I have been as fortunate as I have. For me, it was quite a ride and I hope you readers will enjoy it.
(Editor’s note: If you missed any of Tim Leeming’s articles, here at PTR; they can all be found Here )
Photo Credit (cover): Pinterest