MONTE DUTTON - ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS HAVE SOME FUN
I love Charlotte Motor Speedway. Seriously, I do. I loved it when it was Lowe’s Motor Speedway. I loved it when the race to be run Saturday night was The Winston. And The Winston Select. And the Nextel All-Star Race. And the Sprint All-Star Race.
Why didn’t they call it The Sprint? That’s what it was. Why don’t they call it The Monster now?
Why? Why, why, why, why, whyyyy it went away. My little runaway, run, run, run, run, runawayyyyyy!
Since that brisk but sunshiny Fourth of January when the Gaston Gazette informed me I wouldn’t be needed on the Fifth, the only major NASCAR track I’ve visited is Charlotte Motor Speedway. Three times someone hired me to write about the races there: an All-Star Race, a Coca-Cola 600 and a whatever the 500-miler in the fall was. I tried to bear down. Apparently I didn’t. I haven’t been asked back.
There really wasn’t much racing to see. The “roval race” was fun. I wasn’t there for that one. It’s probably too modern a concept for me to pick up. I only said they should have run two segments on the oval and one through the infield in The Winston about 10 years earlier. In fairness, the proposal may not have been completely serious.
For some reason, when I was a boy, my old man always took me to Darlington but never to Charlotte, even though they are about the same distance away. I don’t regret that.
I love Darlington more than some blood relatives, but I always looked forward to the day I would get to go Bruton Smith’s gaudy palace with its condos, its luxury suites, its Speedway Club, and, at about the time I arrived on the writing beat, its lighting. Smith and Humpy Wheeler took racing where it had never been, and I wanted to be there on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, too. Since it was deemed a local race in Gastonia, the workload was about twice as great.
I always had these special features to write. One year I was working on the tale of a young race driver who was pursuing an education at Belmont Abbey while trying to make it to the NASCAR big leagues. The story was written, and I made a call to the young phenom’s media representative to make sure everything was set up for the photo assignment.
“Uh, I’ve got some bad news for you,” the rep said.
“How’s that?” asked I.
“Uh, Buddy (he may have been named Bill or George, anything but Sue), uh, well, he dropped out of school this morning.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “Full-time Busch ride?”
The full-time Busch ride was thus for a couple of months. I think I’d recognize that kid’s name if I heard it, but it’s well into the mists of history now.
No telling what we fell back on. “Cramerton bricklayer crewing an ARCA car,” most likely.
My first award-winning NASCAR story was about Jeff Gordon’s first win. On the other hand, a dozen of my colleagues and I were threatened with arrest late one night after the 600. Cooler heads prevailed, and my record remains clean.
What happened was this. After night races, some of us were then fond of throwing parties in the media parking lot. It seemed only natural since large crowds of people then attended the race, and the gridlock spread for miles around. Newspapers were then important and had these oddities known as deadlines, and we had to write our stories rapidly, sometimes sacrificing profundity for speed, and after the marathon race ended and the drag-race story was filed, there wasn’t really anything left to do but tell stories, play guitars and enjoyed adult beverages while thousands upon thousands of vehicles slowly cleared out. I’ve always thought time in traffic was time wasted.
The TV crews, who own NASCAR only slightly less than the Frances, were ready to leave and we were in their way. Had they asked, “Hey, fellas, could you move your party over to the next lot?” we would have, but instead, they called the cops.
One of the gendarmes said we had to leave, and instinctively assuming a position of leadership, I pointed out that passes in our windshields did not list time limits on how long we could park there, and one sentence from one of the track’s rent-a-cops made the whole sordid experience worth it. The policeman, one of Concord’s Finest, as I recall, said this woman was in charge.
I said, no, sir, Humpy Wheeler is in charge. He said, no, this woman’s in charge right now, and so I pulled out my notepad and began interviewing her. I asked how long she had worked at the speedway, and she said she only worked the races, so I asked, “So, then, you would not be considered a full-time employee, is that right, Mrs., uh, Metcalfe?”
That’s when she said one of my favorite sentences ever.
“We all seasonal.”
He probably should have arrested me and at least one of my colleagues, but I had enough sense left to drop Humpy’s name, and the next day, he did call to apologize. To borrow Bill Elliott’s term, “some odd years later” that seems like fun. Races at Charlotte Motor Speedway were fun. Watching them. Writing about them.
They don’t put up with that kind of nonsense nowadays. I probably just don’t get to see today’s young lions of journalism when they’re kicking up their heels, but the newshounds and newshens of today seem like such sober and sensitive types.