I know the title of this article is probably what many would consider to be a ‘southernism,’ which is to say that if you grew up in the south, the phrasing would make perfect sense. If you grew up, say, in Omaha, Nebraska, or New Jersey, or Los Angeles, you might consider the title to be the words of a southern red neck that just doesn’t know any better.
And you would be right.
Long time readers of this column know that I am proud to be southerner. For those of you who didn’t grow up in a place like Georgia, or Alabama, or North Carolina, our language can be tough to decipher. Those of you reading this article are likely fans of NASCAR, however. If you’ve followed NASCAR for more than the last year, you are used to southern accents that still somehow permeate the sport. If you’ve heard Darrell Waltrip, or Larry McReynolds speak, you’ve heard southern accents. There are even a few drivers around with real southern accents, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Elliot Sadler, Mark Martin, Bill Eliot, and a few others. Owners, such as Rick Hendrick, Teresa Earnhardt, and others speak with a southern accent. We rarely hear Teresa speak, but when you do, you know she’s not from Upstate New York.
I was born in the early 1960’s, 1963, to be exact. I was born and grew up in the Carolinas, South Carolina to be specific. These days, we don’t really have many NASCAR drivers from my home state, but we have legends who call South Carolina home. There’s David Pearson, and Cale Yarborough,. If you’ve never heard of them, turn in your NASCAR fan badge right now, please.
South Carolina is also home the of Darlington Speedway, which is one of the oldest tracks still gracing the NASCAR circuit. In the old days, they actually used to hold NASCAR sanctioned races at places like Columbia, Greenville-Pickens, Myrtle Beach, and other tracks around the Palmetto State.
NASCAR has never been an exclusively southern sport though. Even in the early 1950’s, it was common for the NASCAR guys to run races in California, Pennsylvania, New York, and even in Canada. The drivers were never always from the south either. They came from practically every state in the union, In the early days, many were veterans of World War II, and though most had had their share of excitement in the war, many tried their hand in stock car racing. Some were successful, some were not.
Though I have read much of the history of NASCAR, I was not personally aware of the sport until I was about 9 years old. On a Saturday afternoon, I was lying on the floor in the den, watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports. There had been a race somewhere, and ABC covered the high lights of the race. They showed all these souped up cars running around a race track somewhere at what seemed to me impossible speeds. I was fascinated. At the end of the race, the ABC crew interviewed the race winner, a guy named Petty. He climbed out of his car, took his goggles off, and his face was stained almost black from the smoke and oil that made it somehow inside the cockpit of his race car. This guy Petty had a huge smile, and thanked his fans for showing up and making the day special for him. I immediately liked the guy, and just like that, another young Richard Petty fan was born.
I was a fan of Richard Petty for quite a few years, and tried to catch the high lights on local news or Wide World of Sports whenever I could. I’d never been to a real race, but wanted to go to one really bad. In somewhere around 1977 or so, I got my chance, and went with another family to the Greenville-Pickens Speedway, between, strangely enough, Greenville, SC, and Easley, SC. Easley is in Pickens County, SC, so in that way, it all makes sense.
I didn’t get to see Richard Petty ‘s famous 43 that night, but I did get to see another car tearing around the track, and he was passing cars left and right, sometimes wrecking them in the attempt to pass them. This car finished second that night, if I remember correctly. The driver of the car was some guy named Earnhardt, and he was from Kannapolis, North Carolina. I’d never heard of him, but I soon would hear a lot more about him.
Racing was, of course, not the only sport around where I grew up. We had, just like any other place in the US, football, basketball, baseball, and sometimes even soccer. I went to a lot of high school football games, basketball games, and even some baseball games. In high school, I ran cross country. In those days, I could run for miles. These days, it’s a hardship to drive for miles!
But, as usual, I digress. In those days, NASCAR wasn’t the most important part of my life. There were girls, after all. I loved several girls with all my heart and soul. From afar, of course, because, they were, after all, girls! I didn’t know how to talk to them, and to be honest, I can talk to them now, but I still don’t really know what to say. Whether I just try to be myself or try to make women think I am a man of the world, they usually end up thinking “This guy is an idiot.” Unfortunately, they’re all probably right. That’s why I live with cats.
And still further, I digress. I was born in Columbia, South Carolina at the tender age of, well, nothing. You may have already figured that out. I’m glad. I spent my first six years in the rather warm and humid climate of Columbia, and when I was six, exactly six, my family moved to Taylors, South Carolina. Taylors is now considered a suburb of Greenville, and probably was even then. We then moved to the house that I really grew up in, in Greenville County, SC. It was then out in the country, but probably couldn’t be considered that now. I watched NASCAR on TV whenever it was on, but never considered it my favorite. Sure, I liked watching the guys named Petty, Waltrip, Yarborough, Pearson, and others win, but I only paid little attention.
In around 1979, however, that dude I’d once seen at Greenville-Pickens burst onto the scene, and turned NASCAR upside down. Earnhardt won rookie of the year, and in 1980, he won his first Cup championship. That had never been done before, and not even Richard Petty had done that.
To be honest with you, at first, I never really liked Dale Earnhardt. He wrecked people. He bumped people in order to win races. I appreciated his aura as a blue collar driver, who grew up as many of my friends did, but which I didn’t. My father was an engineer, and made a good salary, and I’d never lived in a mill hill home growing up like Dale Earnhardt did. Yeah, maybe I was a little arrogant. Maybe even a lot.
As time went by, especially in the 1980’s, I was growing up, and Dale Earnhardt was winning darn near everything. Eventually I became an Earnhardt fan, though gingerly. I still didn’t like his tactics, but I had to admire his drive and determination. The man had a ton of talent, and he wasn’t afraid to add in a little grit and ruthlessness to get the job done. Dale Earnhardt soon replaced Darrell Waltrip as the bad boy of stock car racing.
At a race in Darlington, in the mid 1980’s, I think I was introduced to the truth by a Waltrip fan sitting next to me. Earnhardt won the race, but the guy next to me said “At least Earnhardt came up right. He used to starve to go racing.” It wasn’t until many years later that I came to find how true that was.
Earnhardt, of course, became a legend, perhaps before his time. On February 18, 2001, he was taken away from us forever. I cried that day, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The last time I’d cried was when Davey Allison’s life was snuffed out forever in a helicopter crash at Talladega.
If you’re a NASCAR fan, these guy’s lives become an important part of our own lives. Uniquely, NASCAR fans have probably more access to their heroes than does any fan of any other sport. NASCAR fans, treasure the days that you have cheering your driver on to win. Those days may by numbered, and only God can tell you for sure.
As for me, I’m glad I live in the state of South Carolina. It’s my home. I never want to leave here. I’ve got Charlotte to the north of me, Atlanta to the south of me. The south is not now or ever really the true home of NASCAR, but I’ve been blessed to live not so far from my heroes when it comes to NASCAR.
Living on hallowed ground, maybe? Probably not. But even the most jaded fan of NASCAR must admit that some of the best times we’ve ever had here were at tracks like Daytona, Talladega, Darlington, Rockingham, Richmond, Bristol, and Martinsville. Home is where it is. In NASCAR, Home for me is in the south.
South Carolina isn’t much, but it’s home. What could be better than to be at home?