On Oct. 1, Jerry Earl Hatcher stood in the wooden flag stand at the Occoneechee Orange Speedway in Hillsborough while about 150 restored stock cars raced by on the dirt track underneath.
The experience was far from the Mount Airy resident’s first crack at waving the checkered flag.
Hatcher, son of NASCAR pioneer Hayden “Earl” Hatcher, made a living as a NASCAR official from 1970 to 1985.
“I’ve been up there with 100,000 people behind me, and it never bothered me,” he said. “There was two of us on the race stand, and it was just us and the cars on the track that we had to take care of.”
He returned to the stand having been asked to serve as honorary flagman at the 10th-Annual Celebration of the Automobile Racers Reunion & Car Show held at the historic racetrack the first weekend in October.
After all those years, “It was just like I never got down,” Hatcher said. “It felt the same.”
On the second day of the celebration, Hatcher was selected from a group of 26 nominees and named “Old Timer of the 1970s.”
Hatcher’s recent honors reflect the significance of his witnessing and participation in the emergence of NASCAR, from the ground up, literally, from dirt tracks such as the Mount Airy speedway, into the $3 billion industry it is today.
“Mount Airy really started all this. It was one of the first tracks,” he said of the Lowgap speedway which was popular in the 1940s.
“It was quite a deal,” he said, hatching his father’s career as well as many others.
“There’s a lot of racing history in Mount Airy and people just don’t realize it,” he said, which continues to this day with those who race at tracks at Bowman Gray Stadium.
“You can stand on Main Street, throw a rock and hit a race car,” he said. “They’re all around here.”
Despite the prevalent interest in stock car racing, it was still considered by some an unusual pastime, Hatcher recalled, who was born and raised on the sport.
“Other boys were playing football while I was cleaning parts and helping Daddy,” he said.
Dangerous, and with its roots steeped in moonshine, “back then it was kind of frowned on,” Hatcher said, even after NASCAR gained some momentum in the 1970s.
His involvement in racing led to his wife Peggy’s family disapproving of their relationship before they were married. That is, until they saw Hatcher on television officiating a NASCAR event.
“From then on they were a little bit different,” he said.
The step between small-time tracks like in Mount Airy and big-time televised events such as the Daytona 500 was exemplified by Occoneechee/Orange Speedway, one of the first two NASCAR tracks built in the country.
For about 20 years, well-known racers such as Richard Petty and Junior Johnson competed on the 9/10 mile track, as stock car racing rose in popularity.
Track owner Bill France closed the speedway in 1968 (won by Petty) and opened the Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega, Alabama.
The late 1960s and early 1970s would be a pivotal transition not only for NASCAR as a sport but for Hatcher personally.
He served in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force from 1967 to 1968, where he was in the middle of the Tet Offensive.
When he returned to the U.S., “I was just kind of lost there for a while,” he said.
His father had quit racing and was working as a NASCAR official.
France asked Hatcher if he would be be an official at performance trials held in Daytona in December 1969, and he was hired to stay on as an inspector, pace car driver and flagman on the NASCAR circuit.
“That’s the way I made my living for 15 years,” Hatcher said.
It wasn’t an easy life, constantly driving across the country from racetrack to racetrack, then working non-stop.
“At first you enjoy it,” he recalled. “Then after about three months you realize it’s work, and that’s why they pay you for it.”
Gentlemen, start your engines
But racing was a way of life, and the grit behind the glamour yielded its benefits, such as hanging out with the greats, such as Richard Petty.
“Every race was just like coming to work every day,” he said, and while he had never met Petty previously, soon the legend became just another co-worker.
“We’d just talk shop all over the pits.”
Racers and the inspectors who occasionally penalized them didn’t always have an easy relationship, but it was different with Hatcher.
“I think it was a whole lot that my Daddy raced a lot, and a lot of it was I knew so much about the cars,” he said.
Hatcher also enjoyed seeing the real men behind the famous drivers. Again, Petty stood out, waiting long after each race to sign autographs until every fan was satisfied.
Life on the circuit took it’s toll, and Hatcher eventually cut back to weekend races, a brutal schedule juggled with working full time at home, and eventually retired for good.
In 1997 a group of preservationists acquired the Occoneechee Orange Speedway property, restored it, and 10 years ago, the inaugural celebration was held.
The Historic Speedway Group is focused on the preservation of the last remaining dirt track from NASCAR’s inaugural 1948 season and to preserve the history that surrounds it.
“They kept the old wooden flag stand,” Hatcher noted.
Those involved with or fascinated by the history return to the site year after year to relive the glory days.
Hatcher said he’s been attending the celebration for about five years.
“It’s a gathering place for all of us. The majority of the people, they’ve raced down there before,” many of whom are Hall of Fame inductees, he said.
“There’s a lot of older race fans that remember us. It tickles them to death if you just sign a card for them.”
To be honored at the event, especially as an official as opposed to a racer, meant a lot.
“That really surprised me,” he said. “I’ve been doing this as long as I can remember. I’ll be 70 next month and I’m still doing it. It’s hard to really get your mind wrapped around it. To be recognized and honored with all those other people, that’s overwhelming.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.