By Brian M. Howle
Glowing ribbons of magenta and azure run along the skin of night’s last gasp, illuminating billowing, cumulus clouds and wispy puffs of breakers on an undiscernable horizon. Fingers of radiant rapture entwine themselves into everything they envelope, kissing the warm trade wind breezes that caress the north Florida coastline. Ever-present seagulls glide silently upon the kind breeze, climbing effortlessly across the beaches and dunes, over the rows of motels, condos and homes, spanning the marshes and waterways of the natural coastline, then diving out of the lifting currents across a great expanse of smooth concrete and asphalt. They hover motionless, calculating the next wave of wind.
Suddenly, a wall of air pressure and gravity violently slam the seagulls upward, then downward and outward, only to disappear as quickly as it arrived. Nanoseconds later, an explosion of sound sends shock waves reverberating thru their disheveled bodies, igniting the birds “fight or flight” response as they flee in sheer terror towards the protective bosom of a rising February sun.
Welcome to Daytona Speedweeks.
Yes, dear hearts, it’s true. Despite advantages in social standing, upper middle class stature and the opportunity to experience higher education, I am a victim of my environment. Call me simple, call me common, call me redneck at heart – just don’t call me during a Nextel Cup race.
Singer Barbara Mandrell capitalized on the crossover of country music to mainstream with her song, “I Was Country Before Country Was Cool.” In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the woeful opuses devoted to heartache, alcohol and pickup trucks were embraced by the nation; nay, the world. Steel guitars, cowboy boots and cheatin’ hearts were as abundant as spandex, disco balls and cocaine. America had come to understand.
The acceptance, popularity and growth of stock car racing under the auspices of NASCAR was inevitable as far as I’m concerned. Then again, I do have some vestiges of predicating influences that may color my opinion.
Anyone who has been following this column should know by now that I was raised in a small town not far from the beach, the quiet little community of Andrews, SC. Approximately 20 miles west of Georgetown, Andrews is a relatively peaceful collection of nice, unassuming folks. Like anywhere else, it has its infrequent brush with notoriety or celebrity, the most notable example of the celebrity moniker being it is the home of the Intergalactic Ambassador of The Twist, Chubby Checker. Perched on the edge of Georgetown County, most residents work in the paper or steel mills of Georgetown, in the textile mill in town, in some scattered light industry or town businesses, or agricultural endeavors. And like anywhere else, today it boasts of all the franchised accoutrements – fast-food, strip malls, convenience stores and a Food Lion complex replete with a restaurant featuring Oriental cuisine.
That’s the Andrews of today. Back when I was a kid, if you didn’t have your groceries in the kitchen, gas in the take of your car or notebook paper for your kid’s homework by 5:00pm, on weekdays, it was like an elliptical orbit around the moon’s dark side in low gear, ‘cause it was a good 14 hours before you could do any of those things again. And if it was Wednesday, tack on another 5 hours, as all the businesses turned the “Closed” signs on their doors at noon. Most of the mills paid their employees on Thursdays: This meant for the three grocery stores – The Piggly Wiggly (which my father owned), the Red & White and the IGA (which we P.W. folk sorta looked down on) – it was time to break out the new case of cash register receipts, as well as for the dry goods stores in town. Saturdays offered a more leisurely shopping experience in most instances, as closing time was usually extended an hour.
For a child growing up at the time, it was light years removed from the current fare of adolescent amusement. No computers, no video games, no video stores, no Walkmans, no cable TV, no color TV, No MTV. No mopeds, no ATVs, no cell phones, no faxes, no waterparks, no multi-screened movie complexes. No digital cameras (although the advent of the Polaroid brought about a reaction akin to the discovery of the tapir’s jawbone by the primates of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) no CDs (although 8-tracks did make an appearance towards the end of high school), No strip bars (although one of my friends’ dad had a subscription to Playboy from day one), and NO Mickey D’s (although we did have Sam’s Restaurant, the salt lick for prepubescent teens and hormonal wildlings, where you pulled into the parking lot, flashed your lights and had child labor law violations take your order for dime tips).
I’m telling you, it was rough. Why, the metal container from someone’s supper of soup the night before was scarfed up and sacrificed to harm’s way as the all-consuming item of interest in a game of “Kick The Can”. Magnolia seed pods made excellent grenades in all-day games of “Soldier”, each of us determinedly placing the stem in our mouths, teeth clinching tightly as we pulled our hands away, releasing the “pin” and tossing high, arching lobs over banks of azaleas and camellias to annihilate our foes.
Hours were spent in wading safaris encompassing all the major ditches known to harbor legendary crustaceans- crawfish (known to you enlightened as “crayfish” or “prawn”) – each of us armed only with our knowledge of submerged rocks and bottles, and always with the latest contestant of the previous day’s “Kick The Can” affair. Because if you happened across that “grandaddy” with the 8-foot clawspan that the owner of the gas station had sworn to encounter as a child, well, you wanted some metal between you and that rascal. Amateurs quickly abandoned their grandmother’s hairnets for dredging during their initial hunts. Mistakes were repaired at the doctor’s office, tears were kissed away, ice cream was consumed and the subscription to Playboy was ensured.
About five miles north of town, just across the Black River, Highway 41 junctions Highway 521. On the northwest corner of the intersection sat a small, wooden gas station. And about 30 yards behind the station was Black River Speedway, a dirt track of less than half a mile in length: Hard, splinter infested stands for spectators, and a P.A. and scoring tower that consisted of four telephone poles pursuing four different versions of verticality, topped off with a glorified clubhouse that exceeded those constructed by my friends and me only by virtue of having electrical wiring. The mosquitoes were voracious (look at a topographic map of Andrews sometime – the town is virtually a small raised hump of land surrounded by swamp and rivers), dust was inescapable and permeated everything, and the noise was excruciatingly ear-splitting.
In other words, I experienced an epiphany.
My dad took me as often as he could, but when he couldn’t, I quickly found someone who was going. The smell of fresh cut grass, cotton candy, insect repellent, Old Spice, oil and gasoline, Lucky Strikes, burning rubber and the occasional whiff of ‘shine combined to burrow deep, entrenched folds in the halls of memories in my brain. Pepsi Colas with peanuts poured in, t-shirts with packs of smokes rolled up in the sleeves, ducktails and big, sweaty men with softball-sized chaws of chewing tobacco bulging out their cheeks. All these things flood through my mind at the speed of light whenever someone flips a starter switch and a big ol’ V-8 braps itself to life, the fuel flooding thru the ravenously thirsty four-barrel carburetor in parallel to my memories.
My dad has always had Fords. Always will. And as the good Lord intended, so have I (except for that meaningless indiscretion with a Grand Prix in ‘89). He eventually sold the Piggly Wiggly, only to become general manager of the local Ford dealership, Hemingway Motors – which is confusing as hell to outsiders since the town of Hemingway is 25 miles on up the road. I even worked there part-time during high school, deftly dispersing auto component’s to the mechanics after consulting the encrypted code book from hell in the parts department. So it was only natural and right that when the green flag dropped, whoever was driving a Ford – any Ford – was my guy.
And I wasn’t shy about it, either. Engine decibels were periodically challenged by my shredding vocal chords. Once, a man sitting down the row from me reached over an tugged my arm. “Next time that #94 (the only Ford in this particular race) comes by, let’s all stand up and holler ‘GO 94 FORD!’, alright?” Ever the gullible foil, next time by I rocketed up in the air screaming “GO 94 FORD!” for all the world to hear.
Which they did, quite easily, since I was the only one of the 150 or so in the crowd to do so.
As the crowd’s laughter subsided in my ears, I fought off the tears of humiliation and avoided all eye contact. But then that thing I mentioned earlier – as the Lord intended – came into play as my guy, #94, beat fenders and traded paint with every Chevy and Olds and Pontiac on the track, muscling his way past the leader coming out of the fourth turn on the last lap.
As he came back around, slowing to take the checkered flag from the flagman for his victory lap, I was startled by a loud chorus of “GO 94 FORD!” from the crowd around me. I turned to find my supposed antagonist with a conciliatory smile on his face, and extending his hand in friendship. As I shook his hand, he leaned over and winked at me. “Loyalty,” he drawled, “is what this sport is all about, son.”
From the season’s final race in Atlanta (now Homestead, Fla.) in November until Speedweeks at Daytona in early February, those who share my avocation for the sport find themselves in an uncomfortable state of limbo. Saturday and Sunday afternoons contain black holes of time where 200 mph billboards and the soothing wail of 750 horsepower behemoths running at full song should exist. But come next Sunday, right after noon, the green flag will drop and 40 or so of the best drivers in the world will give 150,00 at the track – and millions more on TV – the best show going. Most fans are latecomers to the sport, drawn in by masterful promotion, unmatched excitement and the glitz of corporate sponsorship.
And the newest generation of kids in Andrews should concern themselves with only one thing – visiting the local McDonald’s. Because the #94 McDonald’s Winston Cup car, driven by Bill Elliott – and, coincidentally, a FORD – will need fresh tires on each pit stop.
Go ahead, kids … that Big Mac will put on a right front, and a Combo meal will put new rubber on all around.
With apologies to Barbara, “I Was NASCAR Before NASCAR Was Cool.”
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, February 22, 1999.