Junior Johnson (R), with NASCAR's Bill France Sr., after winning at North Wilkesboro Speedway 1958 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
I remember the very first big-time NASCAR race I ever saw. Richard Petty at Bowman Gray Stadium, late summer 1967. At the green, those big, long stock cars lined up all the way out to Stadium Drive.
Still regret missing Bobby Allison's first big moment at the Stadium, in that, ah, encounter with Curtis Turner.
But, man, what a ride this has been.
My first big NASCAR story: Leonard Wood and David Pearson, Charlotte Motor Speedway, May 1972. Working with long-time bud and roommate Jeff Byrd, before his NASCAR-Winston days, before his run at Bristol Motor Speedway. Pearson and the Woods, just teamed, and on their way to an historic 1973.
Coon hunting with Junior Johnson that summer, over in the night woods just off US 421, somewhere south of Yadkinville, amongst Japanese hornets and ornery farmers. "Climb that tree, boy, and shake that coon out for us," Johnson ordered. Yessir. Fortunately the coon jump before I reached him 40 feet up. Johnson and his dogs and the posse quickly lit out on the coon's trail. "Hey, how do I get down from here?" I asked the pitch darkness. "Just turn loose. You'll come down."
Ah, the live and times of a NASCAR journalist.
Back when everyone drove to every track. Coast to coast? Did it in 48 hours nonstop once, with a photog as co-driver. First stop, midnight in Little Rock for gas. Tucumcari for lunch. Then a dark, spooky run up US93 to Vegas from Kingman, and the suddenly blinding lights of Hoover Dam and the city just beyond. "Cover three points and take the odds," that was Benny Parsons' rule when at Circus Circus, where PR man Mel Larson would trade rooms for a NASCAR ride. And, man, how Parsons would dance around the craps table.
Benny Parsons....and that night, a North Wilkesboro Speedway Friday, after qualifying, when he invited us up to the old family homestead deep in the Wilkes County woods, for pig in the ground....and a bracing, poignant look at his most early days, before Detroit and L.G. Dewitt.
Benny Parsons and crew chief Travis Carter, then just 23, pulling off that amazing repair job at Rockingham in the final race of '73 to win the championship, on a perfect fall afternoon.
Harry Gant, Travis Carter and legendary stuntman Hal Needham, the Bandits....and who really was this Stroker Ace guy?
Well, Richard, tell us what it was like out there today. Legends Richard Petty and Chris Economaki (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Men in this sport today, some fans too, may have forgotten the dark days of the early 1970s. When Ford and Chrysler pulled out in 1971, tracks went bankrupt, teams folded, and this sport of NASCAR racing almost died.
In 1971 there was only one full-time team running the tour, Richard Petty's.
Out of that hodge-podge of buildings over in Level Cross.
So when you see Richard today, give a salute. He helped save this sport from oblivion.
Along with R. J. Reynolds.
Now Brian France may have chafed for years at the marketing commands and demands from the Winston-Salem tobacco giant, back when Winston handled this sport's marketing and promotions, and NASCAR handled the racing itself.
But without that fortuitous intervention, and some uncanny marketing work deep behind the scenes by RJR men like Jerry Long ( Jerry Long ) and T. Wayne Robertson, this sport might never have survived.
Robertson, in fact, was pegged to become NASCAR president, by Bill France Jr., just before Robertson's untimely death in 1998.
Jake Elder, the man who helped create the legends that are Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
We were there for Dale Earnhardt's almost anonymous 1975 debut at Charlotte. We watched each of Dale Earnhardt's victories.
We were there for Darrell Waltrip's breakthrough win at Nashville, under the Ferris wheel lights. And we watched each of DW's wins. Remember just where I was standing for his famous 'Bombs away' at Bristol that night too. Duck!
We were there for so many of Bobby Allison's classic moments. Remember catching him trying to sneak a new trick Matador bumper into the NASCAR garage that afternoon. Kind of hard to hide a bumper.....
For too many heartbreaking days too....like Richie Evans' crash at Martinsville. And more: NASCAR is not a blood sport, but still so many men died
Bobby Isaac: quiet, fast. (Photo: Dodge)
We've had quiet times with quiet Bobby Isaac, whose hard-scrabble youth in the Blue Ridge foothills made him the man he was, lightning fast, and a champion...who died all too young. Remember talking with him at the Talladega gas pumps just after his friend, Larry Smith, died in that first turn crash. Isaac quit on the spot. "Tired of riding a cannonball....'
Humorous times with crew chief Harry Hyde, whose habit of, when bored or bored with the questions, pulling out his knife and whittling on something was at times disconcerting. Harry Hyde, whose dry wit, much like Matt Kenseth's, sometimes took a bit to catch on to.
Tough-guy journalists who never flinched, no matter who or what was coming at them. Raleigh's Gerald Martin. High Point's Benny Phillips. Richmond's Ben Blake. Winston-Salem's Hank Schoolfield....
And mentors in the garage too:
Legends like Jake Elder, ol' Suitcase Jake, who needed little more than a ball of string and a yardstick to set up a car: Suitcase Jake!
Warhorse Richard Childress, still going strong (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
I remember those cross-country rides with Richard Childress and crew, in that dually-and-chaparral, and sleeping on the race tires in the back. Back before RC became famous and rich enough to hire someone to hold his watch. Back before I-40 went coast to coast, and you'd run the real Route 66 for long, desolate but picturesque stretches.
Sleeping a night on the floorboard in Chillicothe, in a hard thunderstorm, waiting for the junkyard to open in the morning, so we could get a water pump for the 454, which just couldn't make all the way home without some repairs.
And running the Baja with Robby Gordon, truly one of life's great experiences...particularly if you can get Bob Gordon to give you a night-time sprint up to Mike's Sky Ranch (it's probably just as well we did it at night, so I wouldn't notice the drop-offs into oblivion...). You just think Robby is crazy; it's Bob, his father, who you have to worry about. The run from San Diego to Ensenada was straightforward enough, though the Mexican police with those M-16s at night-time check points in the middle of nowhere did catch your attention. Sunrise over the bay at the beach stopover at San Felipe will take your breath away. And then the road stops, and Robby Gordon's Baja begins. I still feel the sting from the hot oil firing out of those huge four-foot shocks next to my head. It's experiences like these that push us into stream-of-consciousness gonzo writing. Sometimes plain English just can't get the job done.
Robby Gordon: legendary wild man (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Henry Benfield's famous race track breakfasts of fried baloney, and the Woods Beanie-Weenie lunches...long before crews got so big each team needed grills and full-time chefs every weekend.
Flossie Johnson's 'y'all come' Saturday morning race weekend feasts at the family race shop just 10 miles from North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Playing poker at Darlington with Nord Krauskopf...and realizing too late I was in way over my head.
Driving over from Sonoma, on roads dug out through 20-foot snow banks, to play poker at Lake Tahoe with Ray Cooper, Wayne Estes and Brian Hoagland.
Getting a whirlwind ride with Rusty Wallace around the 'technical' Sonoma track during the summer of '89...and telling Bill France Jr. that there was no way these NASCAR drivers could make a go of it on a weird track like that. After the race Billy Jr. was happily gloating in my face.
Of course I'd run down to San Jose earlier to check out Bill France's other San Francisco option, that half-mile fairgrounds dirt track in a difficult part of town. And I knew he'd have to make Sonoma work.
Bill France Jr. (R) getting some fatherly advice, circa 1972 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Which reminds me of some of the Bill France versus Bruton Smith moments -- like Bruton sneaking in to buy the Las Vegas track, when France thought it was his. Like Bruton sneaking in to buy Sonoma, before France could get his dollars lined up. Like Bruton sneaking in to buy half of North Wilkesboro -- was it really Christmas Eve? And then battling but losing to France -- well, via Bob Bahre -- over the other half.
I vividly recall the time at Watkins Glen when summer rain forced France to call the race short, after just 49 laps: I told him he was short-changing his paying customers. He told me 'Mulhern, you're pissing in my boot.'
Think that's the equivalent of 'Shut up and race.'
Which reminds me of that classic France versus Bruton battle over Texas Motor Speedway, which dragged on far too long, egos being what they are. And Eddie Gossage revealing that those famous 'Shut up and race' tee-shirts were really a NASCAR marketing project.
Guess I wouldn't have gotten this job if Soapy Castles hadn't taken umbrage at one of Russ Devault's stories back when.
But I still had to win the NASCAR assignment in that 3 a.m. poker game in Devault's living room. Can't remember, though, if I won that hand or lost it....
It was Jeff Byrd who really set this whole deal up. My roomie came home one afternoon with an armful of garish Winston-red clown suits, as one of Ralph Seagraves' first picks when Reynolds decided to jump into this sport wide-open in 1972-1973.
Jeff Byrd, my bud: A melancholy ride through the Blue Ridge
Still remember oh so well that night Byrd drove me around Talladega on the eve of a Winston 500. Other-worldly. NASCAR's Burning Man.
Jeff Byrd, one of NASCAR's great promoters (Photo: Bristol Motor Speedway)
Sometimes this NASCAR life has been downright surreal. Run, Forrest, run.
All this, plus the challenge of having to figure out who's pulling your leg or not. In this sport, you'd better know the answer before you ask the question, or you might be fed a bunch of gobbledy-gook.
The blazing hot Watkins Glen old press box, full-glass facing west...and RJR's Bob Kelly running over to Home Depot to buy half a dozen big fans to cool the media...and NASCAR officials quickly confiscating those fans and taking them upstairs to their room...and Kelly charging up to confront them and bring them back downstairs.
Charlotte, October 1973. Just as the Yom Kipper war was breaking out, and gas shortages loomed, Bobby Allison -- never one to shy away from the good fight -- took on NASCAR and Junior Johnson and Richard Petty after coming in third in that 500. The battle that night went on so long that promoter Richard Howard sent out to the Piggy Park Drive-in for huge sacks of burgers, as we tried to unwind the Allison-NASCAR battle.
The Daytona 450? Not sure if that really made the right statement, but it is part of this historama.
Remember those peach orchard smudge pots at Rockingham....
And the day it was so cold at Richmond that the car covers literally froze to the cars....
The snowstorms at Atlanta and Rockingham....
Neil Bonnett, Ricky Rudd...
Neil Bonnett (L) and Hoosier's Bob Newton. The Goodyear-Hoosier tire wars were great drama, but too many hard crashes (Photo: Hoosier)
OBTW, if you make it to Phoenix, don't get suckered into a daytrip to Tombstone.
But be certain to make it up to Sedona...
I remember at Bristol one morning, coming up to talk with good bud Jimmy Spencer, who was sitting on pit wall talking with his old man. What I heard, Jimmy patiently telling Big Ed: 'Dad, you just can't beat up reporters like you used to.'
Men like Mr. Excitement and Robby Gordon and Ricky 'Rooster' Rudd and Ernie Irvan, man, they helped make this sport fun to cover. You never knew just which way they'd be coming from next.
Remember Ricky versus Dale. First, I think, it was Rockingham in the spring. Then it was North Wilkesboro in the fall. Bada-Bing! Bada-Boom!
Remember Mr. E versus Kurt Busch at Michigan. Outta my way. Coming through. Where's the video?
Benny Parsons: 'Cover three points and take the odds.' (Photo: Daytona)
Petty versus Pearson.
Pearson versus Petty.
Cale Yarborough versus the world.
You don't need 40 cars three-wide to make for great racing.
Two men alone, mano e mano, can do the trick just fine.
"My brakes failed," Yarborough once told Buddy Baker after one of their hard run-ins at Daytona.
Yarborough qualifying first at 200 mph at Daytona...and the sudden silence when his car got airborne in turn three.
How fast is 200 at Daytona? I remember standing near the garage pit wall near turn four once, by the old Goodyear Tower, and watched someone lose it way, way over by the tunnel. I quickly figured the angles and decided I'd better duck. I had only just turned when his car slammed into the wall right behind me, sending shrapnel flying all over the place.
Yes, racing is dangerous, and covering racing is dangerous too. Cannot believe I used to stand next to the old T1 crossover gate at Darlington Raceway and watch drivers sail off into the corner just a few feet away. Slow learner here.
There was that time at Bristol when Benny Parsons hit the fourth turn wall in practice....back when pit road itself was protected by little more than some guard rail. We all had to duck when Parsons' car disintegrated, parts flying every which way. Fortunately.....
Once Rusty Wallace crashed hard in T4 at Bristol too in practice, and flipped several times, landing on his roof. Many of us figured he was a goner. Earnhardt was the first to Rusty's window to check on him.
Remember those great Rusty-versus-Dale moments. The bottle throwing at Bristol. The what-was-it in T3 at Michigan, Earnhardt doing what he liked to do, use practice to intimidate rivals. Think Wallace had to go to a backup that afternoon and he wasn't happy about it.
What was it Jimmy Spencer likes to say: 'Never get in the way of a man on a mission....'
If you see this guy coming at you, better duck and cover. Mr. Excitement, Jimmy Spencer...always a man on a mission (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
We grew up in this sport watching a teenage Kyle Petty playing Frisbee in the infield....and regaling us with some of those high school football tricks, like carrying a big stick pin to use in taking the measure of a recalcitrant opponent.
And now Petty is being pushed to run for U.S. Congress?
You couldn't make this stuff up, lol.
We can still hear Coo Coo Marlin and Eula Faye arguing all the nine hours from the Michigan infield to Nashville, in their distinctive Tennessee twang....a ride I needed after Richard Childress left me stranded at the track. One thing in this sport you'd better learn quick -- when these guys say it's time to leave, you'd better be on board the train.
We still have that Baby Ruth racing cap Jeff Gordon signed for us in late 1992 -- back when he was barely known to anyone, before Chevy's Rick Hendrick made that daring snatch-and-grab from Ford and Bill Davis, in one of this sport's most famous moves.
Any one recognize this Ford driver? (Photo: Bill Davis)
If not for this gig, we'd have never made it to Mexico City, a town that isn't at all what you might think. Think NASCAR's George Silberman helped make all that happen. Great fun.
If not for this gig, we'd have never discovered New Hampshire and Lake Winnipesaukee. (I still remember some of my fellow journalists sitting on the banks jeering my return from one not-so-successful sailing. 'Hey, I'm out here battling these stormy waters, while you're sucking down beers on the sidelines?')
If not for this gig, we'd have never experienced the real Las Vegas.
And we'd have never had as much time as we've had in San Francisco to learn all the nuances. Think I could drive that city blindfolded. Love the Dungeness crab.
And if not for this gig, we wouldn't be in the Keys this weekend, soaking up this Margaritaville sun. And Islamorada would still be just some out of the way marina, and we wouldn't have an opportunity to sit on one of Hemingway's chairs on that Pilar #2 and fiddle with that old typewriter. Thanks, Johnny Morris.
Hey, where's that legendary Martinsville strawberry shortcake these days?
And we'd never have learned some of the tricks to doing a Cajun turkey that Billy Hagan taught us. (First rule, thaw out the bird. Or it might explode.)
Guess times change.
Harry Gant, the real Bandit (Photo: Bristol Motor Speedway)
Not all fun and games, though.
Some painful, still painful to recall, days, like when Ernie Irvan was on the rope after those savage crashes at Michigan...and when Alan Kulwicki died, just after winning the championship...and when Davey Allison died in that freak helicopter crash.
The sudden quiet at Loudon the morning Kenny Irwin was killed....
The death of Adam Petty....
The huge traffic jams: Texas 1997 and Kentucky 2011 and Indianapolis 1994. I made my partners get up at 3 am race day to beat the traffic at Texas and Indianapolis. They ripped me unmercifully...until the horror stories arrived. Kentucky, well, that was going to be a classic disaster no matter how you worked it.
Those first days of stock car testing at the Brickyard in 1993, and the reaction from traditionalists...and Earnhardt's rush to beat Rusty Wallace out on the track to be the first man to turn a lap.
Warner Hodgdon (left, rear) and the Junior Johnson team he sponsored in the 1980s. (Photo: Aaron Hodgdon)
Tony Stewart's many youthful tirades...that day at Watkins Glen when his team had to take a vote....that night at Daytona, when, after losing a $1 million bonus in that first yellow line controversy, he lashed out at journalist while rushing over to the NASCAR hauler to vent his rage on the men who made that call. Think I got a new $57 tape recorder out of that deal. And made a box-frame for the one Smoke smashed. Wonder if there might be a spot for that in the new NASCAR Hall of Fame....
Remember the time Bill France got so exasperated with the men running the race day control tower that he fired them all one Sunday and put his own pilot on the mike to call the race. We were standing on pit road listening to the tower radios trying to figure out just what the heck was going on.
Remember Warner Hodgdon....one of this sport's true geniuses during his all-too-brief run in the late 1970s and early 1980s. If not for Hodgdon stepping into bankroll Earnhardt's first two years on the tour, Dale Earnhardt might never have made it at all, despite his talents. Warner Hodgdon Remembered
Hodgdon's helipad up in Ingle Hollow may be the only monument left to honor him.
Good times for all here, most of the time.
Family good times.
I'm sure there are more to scribe. But right now think I'll just lay out on the hammock on the beach here for a while and chill.
Yes, quite a ride, quite a ride.
Thanks for the memories....
Is this the road to Margaritaville? (Photo: mikemulhern.net)