There’s a NASCAR race in Richmond Saturday night. But there’s no more Winston Cup — it’s the Nextel Cup, which still takes some getting used to. And my dad has retired — he turns 71 in December. Yet his vintage pictures from Richmond International Raceway show some of the intensity of stock car racing in the ’70s and ’80s, when the South still owned the sport.
How intense was it? Other kids in my suburban Atlanta neighborhood played house. Tracey Bay from down the street and I played Richard and Linda Petty. I’d get on my bike and go off to a race, then come home to the backyard swing set and tell Tracey-Linda I’d won. I always won, because it seemed the No. 43 car did every time.
As a teenager I was still sort of a fan. I wore more than my share of NASCAR gear to school — Winston Cup jackets, Ethyl hats. In my white-bread suburban public school, this was not cool, which is why I smile every time I see city kids wearing Jeff Gordon’s colors. Time changes everything.
The drill was the same every week during the racing season. Dad would leave Wednesday or Thursday to shoot qualifying and whatever promotional stuff Winston had set up. Late Sunday night or sometime Monday he’d come home, bone tired, and begin the process of developing film. He’d then pick out six or eight images and make dozens of copies of each to be provided free to racing publications, courtesy of Winston.
So every Monday I’d come home from school and see stacks of 24 smiling Cale Yarboroughs, two dozen David Pearsons, multiple Bobby Allisons, countless Pettys. Dad would write a caption for each image, copy it and tape a strip on the back of each photo.
Racing photography is a crapshoot. It’s like a cross between a rock concert and a war. A concert because it’s the loudest thing you have ever heard — unless you’re a jet mechanic — and there’s the paparazzi aspect to it, with the posing personalities and swarms of lenses. A war because you can’t be everywhere at once over a two-mile track, so a novice photographer is as likely as a veteran to catch a wreck.
In these pages you’ll see samples from my father’s work at Richmond International Raceway and its predecessor, Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway. These are reminders of when races in Richmond were in the daytime and some parts of the track were enclosed by wooden plank fences.
The stock cars back then actually looked like the ones on the street. And in those days brand loyalty among fans was especially fierce. For years my godfather, Jim Reamer, in Columbia, S.C., drove only Plymouths in the ’60s because that’s what Richard Petty drove on Sunday.
One of the quirks of the NASCAR season is that it ends, of all places, in Manhattan. Each year’s Cup banquet is in a Waldorf-Astoria Hotel ballroom. I visited my Dad there once in the ’80s. The other ballroom was occupied by a Congressional summit on debt and trade, so you had drivers passing senators in the Waldorf lobby — a “West Wing” premise if ever I heard one.
My mother is so uncomfortable in New York that she’d go only occasionally. One year, she was watching the banquet at home in Mooresville, N.C., the stock-car town they moved to after my sister and I left home. She was alarmed to see the camera panning across NASCAR dignitaries in black tie. … and then my dad at a front table, head back, eyes closed, sacked out. As usual, yelling at the TV did no good.
The 1992 banquet is featured in one of my favorite videos, a promotional tape sent out by the then relatively unknown chicken-wing and breast chain Hooters. It’s hosted by founding CNN Headline News anchor Don Harrison, who calls Hooters girls “America’s Cheerleaders” and intones the virtues of HooCEF, the Hooters Community Endowment Fund, complete with nursing home residents in Hooters T-shirts.
There’s footage of the Cup banquet, at which the Hooters chairman makes a joke about the Hooters girls, and the director cuts to the guy’s wife, who gives a kind of OK sign. She has big frosted hair and looks like she’s trying to be a good sport though she’s really embarrassed. It could be my mom.
A couple of years after that banquet, a friend was looking into doing a book with Bobby Allison, Petty’s most formidable opponent in the classic years. He invited me along to dinner with Bobby, who passed through a Norfolk restaurant unrecognized. He could have been my dad.
I’m not much of a fan anymore, but I do watch a race occasionally, if only to hear Southern accents dominate a show other than “Cops,” “Jerry Springer” or some Bible hour. (Wouldn’t it be great to spend election night with Darrell Waltrip instead of Dan Rather?)
And there’s an interesting crop of young stars now. It’s fascinating to see the new drivers cross over from NASCAR on Fox to “Live with Regis and Kelly” without missing a beat. Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon have each been named one of People Magazine’s most beautiful people. Not only was Gordon born in California, but he won’t have to check into the Waldorf-Astoria for the Cup banquet. He has an apartment in New York.
NASCAR is finally a national pastime. The culture has shifted so much that the Winston Cup girl has, in a sense, given way to the Nextel Cup boy. In the ’70s, King Richard advertised STP and Goody’s Headache Powders. Today you have TV ads in which women dreamily check out drivers’ … attributes.
When I say I grew up in a NASCAR household, I say it with a mixture of amusement and pride, but mostly pride. Amusement because NASCAR has blown up beyond anyone but founder Bill France’s wildest dreams. Pride because in photographing NASCAR, my father actually made a time capsule of the wild, sexy ’70s and ’80s. His weekend work shows us that the antebellum South isn’t the only one gone with the wind, a breeze that smells like asphalt, gasoline, exhaust and Winstons. S
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