I grew up 100 miles east of Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway. Thirty-something years ago it was a rough, flat, half mile hunk of asphalt. The retaining wall was two strips of metal guard rail, and pit wall was an inch and a half diameter steel pipe, painted red and white, about two feet high. There was no garage area. Prep and repairs were done right there in the crowded pits. After the race they would open the grandstand gate, and a wide eyed kid could actually meet his hot rod heroes.
The Winston Cup Series showed up in the cold of late February every year, one week after the Daytona 500. The sparse infield grass was brown, and the trees lining the backstretch were bare. After the two hour drive, my brother and I were happy to get some of that, too scalding to drink, hot chocolate. The splintery, wooden bleachers were unreserved, so we sat in the fourth turn section, as they were always the least crowded.
I never thought about it then, but I suppose there were only 20 to 25 thousand fans at Richmond back then. And, they were straight out of central casting. Hard working, hard living, hard drinking Southerners....just like the drivers out on the track. There were no suites, or club seats, or condos at trackside in those days. However, there was a bar behind the frontstretch grandstands...and it was packed all race long.
Ray Melton was the track announcer at Richmond at that time, and he was unique, to say the least. He had several colorful catch phrases that he would use all the time. He always described the lineup of cars as having, "all the colors of the rainbow". When introducing the lone black driver, Wendell Scott, Melton always called him, "the unofficial Mayor of Danville, Virginia". Scott was from up the road in Danville, but was far from being the Mayor. All the good old boys in the stands used to yuck it up over that, and one of them would always remark that he'd like to see ol' Wendell win one.
Of course, he never came close at Richmond. That track back in the 1970s was Richard Petty's personal play pen. Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, and Darrell Waltrip had a few wins there, but The King had the keys to the place.
My dad would always wait around after the race so we boys could go down into the pits and gawk at the only stars we could get close to way back then. All the drivers were covered in tire grit, except for the white, goggle rings around their eyes. They would patiently sign autographs for us kids and answer questions from the drunken rednecks. Unlike today, the drivers couldn't go hide in their hauler or motorcoach. Not even Petty had anything like that yet. Some of the lesser lights would even have to get a couple of fans to help load up their race car after a long day.
Every year, as I watch that rainbow of cars racing "door handle to door handle" at Richmond, I always think back to those carefree innocent days when I fell in love with the most exciting sport in the world. Thanks, Dad.
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