I have often told the story of how my Grandfather Dewey, and my Uncle Bobby, 11 years older than I, took me to The Columbia Speedway one Thursday evening in late August or early September 1952. I would turn six in October of that year. I have a very distinct memory of the sounds of the first race I watched. I had heard race cars, or a race car before, as the Pure Oil Station about a mile from my house had a race car and Uncle Bobby would put me on his Cushman scooter and take me around there in the evenings as the car was being worked on. Truth be known, looking back, there was more race TALK than the engine being tuned, but every time that one engine fired up, so did my little 5-year-old heart. The one engine made beautiful music to my ears, but I was not really prepared for the full orchestra that would play for me that night of my first race.
My memory of that first race was the discussion between Bobby and my Grandfather in the front seat as we headed for the speedway. They always went in the infield to watch the race, but my grandfather was insistent that it would be the grandstands on this night because he anticipated that I would be scared by the noise, and they would probably have to leave by the end of the first race. My Grandfather was a wise man, but he sure missed it on that one.
We took our seats in the wooden grandstands, maybe 10 rows up and just before the flag stand. We have a really good view of the half-mile clay track and looked right down into the pits where there were oh so many race cars being unloaded or were already unloaded and awaiting practice time. I recall watching the old water truck chug its way around the track in the opposite direction from which the cars would run as the water sprinkled from the back of the truck. I couldn’t quite understand why they were wetting the track, so I asked my Uncle Bobby. One thing about old Bobby, he loved to toy with me about everything. His answer was something like they were watering the corn that was planted. As hard as my eyes searched, I never found even one corn stalk on that track.
The sun was behind our backs and the shadow of the grandstands was shading the front straight of the track as the cars fired up for practice. Was I scared? Sorry, Granddaddy, but fear never entered the mind of this kid. The sound was so awesome I never wanted it to stop. Although I didn’t know it at the time, most of the engines were the flat head Fords that had been the bane of stock car racing before it was ever organized. Even so, the sound was magnificent to my young ears. I watched intently as car after car left the pits and entered the very wet and very slick red clay track. Slowly they circled in an effort to dry out the track and work in the racing grooves. I would learn, in later years that this was known as ironing out the track.
What I remember about that race was the wonderful sound of the cars, the smell of combined gasoline fumes and tire rubber drifting up into the stands. There was a purple car, one my uncle called a “Coach”, with yellow 37s on the doors. I have no idea who was driving it but I pulled for him because the car was unique. I seem to recall Dink Widenhouse being in that race and there were two brothers with the last name of Dangerfield in the race. Now those names caught my attention. Maybe one of them drove that purple car but I don’t know. After all, I was only five years old.
By the time the feature race rolled around even my five-year-old mind had figured out that the water truck was NOT watering the corn but had been out there to wet the track to keep down the dust. That may have worked for a while, but by feature time the red dust had enveloped everything, a fact my mother would bring to my attention when I got home and shed my clothes. She shook her head in amazement as I undressed on the back porch and red dust was still permeating the air. But that is a story for another time.
After the races were over, we walked down into the pits. For me that was likened to being in Oz without the Wicked Witch, in Wonderland without the wicked Queen, or in Neverland without Captain Hook. I touched the cars. I felt the heat from the engines. One tall driver mussed my hair as he laughed at the look on my face. Another driver offered me the chance to sit in his car which was an offer I accepted without a thought. It was quite the adventure for me and even as I sit here more than 70 years later, I can feel that “tingle” of excitement from all that happened that night.
The dew was heavy on the grass of the parking area as we made our way back to the black ’41 Plymouth that would carry us home. As I climbed in the back seat and closed the door, Granddad got behind the wheel and started the car. He asked me if I enjoyed the race. Although I don’t remember the exact words in response to that query, I do know it ended with “can we come back next week?”
My uncle Bobby, once more tormenting me with his joking, which I would come to love in later life, asked me “why?” I don’t remember if I answered him or not and if I did I don’t remember what the answer was. As it was, there was only one race left in the season and we didn’t get to go back because my Granddad wasn’t able to take us.
I don’t know how long I pondered the “why” question but I knew deep within me that I had found the one thing in my life that would occupy my interest from that night on. And it has. I have, since that night so long ago, attended thousands upon thousands of races. I have enjoyed every one, whether my driver won or not. I was at the Columbia Speedway in July, 1958, when the tall and lanky kid from NC ran his first race. I met him after the race and got his autograph. He is on record as saying I got the first autograph he ever signed as a driver and with his memory I can’t argue that point, but since that night I have obtained so many of his autographs that they line the walls of my studio/office.
But the point of this story is the “WHY.” What was it about this sport that so entangled me into a world where I could experience the excitement of the sport, the joy of the victory of my favorite and the disappointment when my favorite lost? Why did this sport have such a hold on me? To be honest, I can’t even today, give a totally definitive answer but I will try:
First, the sounds and the smells of the sport seemed to touch my soul in such a way that nothing else could. Those were the sensory measures of the sport which had me hooked like an addictive drug.
Secondly, having those drivers, on my very first visit to the pits, treat me in such a special way left an impression on me that has not been matched by any other participant in any other sport. That first car I sat in that night had a steering wheel bigger than I was but I was sitting in a race car!!! In those early years it seemed every driver I met and interacted with went out of their way to see that I was given a minute or two of special attention. I didn’t demand it; I was just there and I guess it was pretty obvious that I loved the sport.
Thirdly, racing was exciting, whether on the dirt tracks or, in the later year on all the tracks. Because of that excitement, the other sports have absolutely no appeal to me whatsoever. I don’t care to discuss The Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Championships or even the National Championship Tiddlywinks playoffs.
Fourthly, it connected my Uncle Bobby and me in a very special way. The Sunday before he passed away, I was sitting in his hospital room watching the big race, although I don’t remember which one. Being only 11 years apart gave us a close friendship and I would accompany him to every race he attended and that was EVERY race within a 200-mile radius of our house in the early days.
But, as for the overall “Why”, I still can’t pin it down. I do know that through racing I’ve had an incredibly exciting life, met incredible people and have more friends through racing connections than any other source. I believe in the sport and in spite of the on-going problems within NASCAR these days, I will not abandon the sport that hooked me as a toddler, nurtured me as a teenager, and matured me as an adult. In the overall, I guess the “Why” doesn’t matter; it’s just the fact that I have those memories and am still making more!
(Editor’s note: This story is published with the permission from the author! This story was originally published a few years ago on Race Fans Forever and. If you missed any of Tim Leeming’s articles, here at PTR; they can be found Here )
Photo Credit (cover): Getty Images.