With the Daytona 500 still nearly a month away, it’s definitely not NASCAR season — but on Saturday racing was on the minds of many people in Mount Airy nonetheless.
The focus wasn’t so much on what’s upcoming as it was racing’s roots, with legends of the sport such as recent Hall of Fame inductee and longtime Petty Enterprises Crew Chief Dale Inman, Dave Marcis, Rex White and others visiting. They shared colorful memories with about 200 people attending a roundtable discussion at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.
It was the highlight of the third-annual “White Liquor and Dirt Tracks” event sponsored by the museum. Racing’s moonshining heritage and its origins on backwoods tracks were amply highlighted during the discussion, when one almost could hear the roar of engines and smell the exhaust as participants spoke.
“I don’t think a lot of people know what a big deal white liquor played in racing’s economy,” said White, 82, who jokingly introduced himself to the crowd as “the oldest-living champion” of NASCAR “and probably the best-looking.”
Not only did racers such as Junior Johnson hone their skills running moonshine on North Carolina’s and Virginia’s back roads. White said others in the sport’s early days were involved with sugar mills or other enterprises producing ingredients used in the illegal liquor industry.
This was long before today’s multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals with major corporations that have made stock-car racing a more national, and sanitized, sport.
White, a native of Alexander County who won the points championship in 1960, also joked about Johnson’s home county of Wilkes and its storied moonshining tradition. The retired racer said someone once visiting North Wilkesboro asked a man where he could buy some white liquor.
“He said, ‘you see that building over there?’” the man replied, as told by White, with the visitor nodding in the affirmative. “That’s the post office — that’s the only place you can’t.”
Others taking part in Saturday’s panel discussion on the museum’s third floor were Margaret Sue Turner Wright, the daughter of Curtis Turner; Chris Fleming, a local racer who last year finished third in the points championship for the Modified series at Bowman Gray Stadium and was featured in the related “Madhouse” reality-TV show on the History Channel; Jackie May, a local dirt-track racer; Peanut Turman, an old-time competitor and former member of the Wood Brothers Racing Team;
Also, Bill Mangum, another dirt-track racer in the early days; Jerry Earl Hatcher, a longtime NASCAR official who was a flagger for races; Don Johnson, a crew chief for White; and Bill Blair, a longtime racer and engine builder whose late father was one of the sport’s pioneers.
Inman And Petty
Saturday’s session included fielding questions from members of the audience, many of which were directed at Inman, fresh off his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame earlier this month.
Though Inman obviously is a major racing figure in his own right, his long association with “The King” was never far from the conversation Saturday.
Inman, a first cousin of Petty’s who also served crew-chief stints with such drivers as Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond, is best known for helping Petty win seven NASCAR championships and 198 race victories. Inman also captured an eighth points title on a crew-chief basis with Terry Labonte.
While the on-track prowess of Petty is legendary, Inman said Saturday that this is not the whole story.
“I’m probably more proud of what he’s done off the racetrack,” Inman said of Petty’s work in their home community of Randolph County and other efforts benefiting the state and the sport.
“He’s an ambassador for NASCAR,” Inman said of the man who won a record 200 races.
The mention of Petty also came up from time to time when those on the panel were asked for their views on the greatest drivers of all time.
“Richard Petty was always my idol,” said Marcis, who was described Saturday as “one of the true independents” of racing who fielded his own team for many years before retiring in 2002 with five career NASCAR victories.
“He was the guy I looked up to when I came down here,” added Marcus, who had raced in Midwestern circuits before joining what would become the Sprint Cup series in 1968.
“I was just a farm boy up in Wisconsin, and just came down here to see if I could race.”
Marcis, 70, was known for wearing wingtip dress shoes during races to absorb the heat in his cars, one of which was on display Saturday outside the museum. The racing veteran was a surprise addition to Saturday’s panel, according to museum Executive Director Matt Edwards, who said he only learned Thursday that Marcis would be attending.
Petty’s exploits further were lauded by Inman Saturday when he told a story about driver Buddy Baker, who admired Petty though he competed against him.
Baker was asked by someone, “Was Richard really that good?” Inman related. “And Buddy said, ‘hell no, he just got lucky 200 times.’”
That remark about Petty’s victory total drew laughter from the audience, as did another from Inman:
“Richard always told me he would’ve won 400 races if it wasn’t for me, and I can’t argue with him.”
While Inman said that for him, picking the best driver of all time is really something that should be broken down into “categories,” he added, “that 200 number is still pretty big in my book, if that answers your question.”
Others suggested for greatest-ever consideration Saturday included David Pearson, a performer for the Wood Brothers. “That feller beat anything that I’ve ever seen driving a race car,” said Turman.
May, the local racer, said he was always a big fan of the “Alabama Gang” of Bobby and Donnie Allison and Bobby’s late son Davey, who died in an off-track incident. “Davey Allison probably would have been SOMETHING today if he hadn’t lost his life in that helicopter crash,” May said.
Fleming’s choice was the late Modified driver Richie Evans, a 2011 Hall of Fame inductee, but he gave props to modern racer Kyle Busch, especially his ability to win races in all three series on the NASCAR circuit. “He’s controversial, but there’s no doubt he’s going to go down as one of the greatest drivers of all time.”
Curtis Turner also drew mention from Hatcher. “He was some driver,” said the longtime NASCAR flagger, who recalled seeing Turner race at an old half-mile dirt track then located in Ararat, Va. Turner was one of the few drivers who piloted his own plane, and Hatcher recalled that Turner scraped the trees at the Mount Airy airport both upon arriving and leaving due to the shortness of the facility’s runway at that time.
Wright, the late racer’s daughter, said she is trying to preserve Turner’s memory through an online museum and by recently writing a book about her father, who once was banned from the sport for trying to unionize drivers. “I’m just trying to keep the information about him alive.”
Inman and others also told Saturday’s audience that the racers of early years faced hardships that few drivers today would have been able to endure, if any.
Among the items listed were no power steering, disc brakes, fancy heat-resistant suits, modern safety features or air-conditioning.
Hatcher recalled seeing Petty’s car in a “barrel roll” at one track with the star racer hanging halfway out of the vehicle. That led the Petty team to devise a safety net, an innovation subsequently copied by other drivers which is still in use today.
Inman also said he had witnessed Petty emerge from difficult tracks such as that at Martinsville and be overcome by pain due to the lack of comfort features that later became standard equipment. “I’ve seen Richard cramp up so bad in his legs that he had to lay down in the dressing room.”
The longtime crew chief added, “It’s just a different world out there now.”
Those who came to see some of the figures who helped make racing the major sport it is today and hear them swap stories were delighted by the occasion, which also included an autograph session.
“Thoroughly enjoyed it,” was the review from Mark Ray of Pilot Mountain, a Petty fan who came wearing a blue and red STP jacket with the familiar No. 43 and sat on the front row facing the roundtable panelists.
Ray said he also enjoyed himself at the “White Liquor and Dirt Tracks” event last year and bought a good book written by Rex White.
“I’ve been a Petty fan and a Dale Inman fan for as long as I’ve been watching racing,” Ray added. “I’ve met Dale Inman before, but I think it’s real nice for him to come up here after he’s been inducted into the Hall of Fame.”
Some fans stood in line for about 30 minutes to get autographs from Inman and the others, including some who got him to sign model cars of Petty’s No. 43 racer.
One was Wayne Snow, who held up a car freshly adorned by Inman’s signature and previously by Petty’s. Saying he enjoyed Saturday’s opportunity “very much,” Snow added, “I can’t even put it into words.”
Yet Snow had a definite goal for the autographed car: “This is going in my collection!”
Another racing fan who was thrilled by Saturday’s event was Edwards, the museum official, who pointed out that it coincided with the opening of a display in a changing-exhibits section of the facility containing photos and biographies of racing figures. They include some who were here Saturday, including Inman.
“I’m very pleased with the turnout today, and the exhibit turned out great,” Edwards said.
Other museum activities Saturday included programs on moonshining in western North Carolina, early racing and tracks in Southwest Virginia and the roots of NASCAR. Wright, Turner’s daughter, also held a book-signing session and there were demonstrations of pin striping.
Outside the building, fans looked at race cars and other classic vehicles on display along the street, including ones that had been piloted by Marcis as well as Fireball Roberts.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.