MAMA TOLD ME NOT TO COME; OF UNRULY GRANDSTANDS AND CAMPGROUNDS
There were no cell phones, and for that, some count their blessings.
There was no social media to add to the shame -- as if any of the willing participants had any.
Many have labeled Brainerd International Raceway's Zoo as the wildest experience in drag racing. However, back in the 1970s, a pair of national-event campground venues would have made the Zoo look like a yacht club gathering.
If you attended a race at Rockingham Dragway or its cousin drag strip, Thunder Valley Dragway, which is now Bristol Dragway, back in the IHRA days, then you know what we are saying.
Many of the accounts get better with each telling, making these venues bona fide legends.
Rockingham Dragway's General Admission side of the grandstands and the campgrounds made for tales that didn't require a lot of embellishment.
"Rockingham, part of the show, if you were a spectator coming in, was the campground, which was out front," said Ted Jones, who was the Vice President of the IHRA at the time. "It was free. It was all primitive camping, and those people would get crazy and everything."
But it wasn't primitive camping that made for a volatile melting pot. Three aspects made the eastern North Carolina drag racing facility a powder keg ready to explode at any time.
The track played host to three vastly different ethnic groups The demographic was one-third aggressive rednecks, one-third black, and one-third American Indian.
Then, when you added in alcohol and betting, the explosive action began.
One of the neatest things to watch at Rockingham was "the little Las Vegas, the betting that went on," Jones recalled.
When the sportsman action started, the trouble revved up.
"They didn't understand a breakout," Jones said. "It's who got to the finish line first, and we didn't have a computer back then. They would turn on a true-win light. The win light was controlled by who got to the finish line first. So you might have a win light, but you lost because you broke out if you're a sportsman. Well, they would start fighting like crazy because a guy that understood it would say, 'Well, the announcer said he lost.'
"Then the other guy would argue, 'I don't care what the announcer says, the win light's on.'
"And then the fight would break out. They'd just get crazy."
Crazy might be too tame a term when you consider that on one occasion a one-legged man got in a fight and -- by all accounts -- won. But for every story such as this account, there were 10 others just as odd.
Roy Hill, who lived an hour away in Sophia, N.C., proudly called Rockingham Dragway his home track.
Hill, who had a wild streak of his own during this era, could relate to those in the stands and campground, making him the unofficial mayor of the pop-up communities. He clearly understood his constituents better than any in the sport.
"I can remember the times that some of these high-up racers wanted me to take them out in the campground," Hill recalled. "You had a lot of Indians, you had a lot of black people, you had a lot -- a lot -- of rednecks. Back then, there were a lot of cuttings and fights, and then it got into shootings. Who wants to take a knife to a gunfight?
"I could go in there anytime with anybody and go through it because...let's see how to say this: You don't forget the Angels. You don't forget the motorcycle gangs that were down there. I had their back. I had respect, and I gave respect.
"There were some drinking too much (liquor) and wanting to do things. I would be the one that had to go straighten them out in the stands. And good God, people have no idea how tough a job it was to walk into the middle of something like that!
"The (sheriff deputies) were back there, and more of them are coming, but I didn't want the sheriff to get them upset. Now, I had two or three good right arms back then, and they were around me. But I didn't have a problem walking in the campgrounds. I didn't have a problem walking in the stands when there was a mix-up."
Eventually, Hill and Steve Earwood, purchased Rockingham Dragway. To their dismay, the wild nature of the stands and campgrounds waned very little.
"Me and Steve brought a metal detector in for the first race in '92 because I knew what was going to happen," Hill said. "As certain people came through, and we took knives or guns, the people behind seen that, and said, 'Well, has Johnny got a gun?' I said, 'No, and you are going to leave yours here or a knife, you understand?"
Even as late as the 2000s, with IHRA under Bill Bader's leadership, a delay in the night-time Top Fuel session created by a swarm of sand gnats getting into the track prep (yes, sand gnats). That hold-up led to a pummeling of race officials and the racing surface with chicken bones and beer cans.
The chicken bones might have happened in the 1970s, but the beer cans wouldn't.
Larry Carrier, IHRA's founder and promoter, banned canned and bottled beer from being brought into his races. This regulation forced the attendees to get creative in their consumption, especially at Thunder Valley.
"So what they did is they took milk jugs -- one-gallon milk jugs -- and filled them with beer. And so here they would come through the gates with three and four milk jugs hanging on their belts, full of beer," Jones said.
"And we had the insurance guy (who) came down to inspect and watch us run an event and everything. John Gaskell was his name. And he commented to me that it's really cool these mountain people bringing in their cider. 'Yeah, John, that's their cider.' "
Years after the beer bottle and can ban was lifted came proof why it was there in the first place.
When a disgruntled racer came to the starting line to confront a starter, and the situation turned violent, the Bristol crowd wanted in on the action as well.
"Junior Robbins came out on the starting looking to kill Jim Blakely, and Ken Bowles (who did some pro wrestling) put him down on the ground in one move, and the crowd was yelling and cheering and everything else," said-then IHRA announcer and noted drag racing historian Bret Kepner. "Ted sends Speedo (the Clown) out to (entertain) while the crowd was screaming about the fight, and they were throwing beer cans at everything, even Speedo."
Sometimes Carrier used the local police as security, whether it was the Richmond County deputies in Rockingham or Sullivan County in Bristol. Or, on at least one occasion, Carrier reportedly employed a well-known group.
"You had to have at least a minimum of four sheriff's deputies, armed sheriff deputies, on the spectator side at both Rockingham and Bristol because those people get falling-down drunk," Jones explained. "They would get crazy. They would fight over nothing. It was just wild and crazy. And so you had to have four of them, and they stayed in pairs because no one guy would want to wade into that.
"The biggest problem was with the campgrounds. It was wild and crazy at night, and so it got to where the deputies didn't even want to go down in there because they'd get shot. It was just crazy."
"So the Hell's Angels showed up for one race, and they're all having a fit. The Hell's Angels! Larry goes driving right down into the middle of them. 'Hey, guys, how are you doing? I'm Larry Carrier. I own the track. Welcome to Bristol. Glad to see you come. Are you coming to the drag race tomorrow?' "
"Yes, sir. We sure are."
While we told the story of the Rockingham Dragway grandstands and campground, the Indy campgrounds weren't so innocent either. - - https://t.co/FpIpe82u2X pic.twitter.com/gxPn4ddrg1— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) December 19, 2020
Carrier said, "Tell you what, how would you like to have about 12 free tickets?"
"Yeah. How can we do that?"
Carrier offered, "I need you to be my security force this evening. Any crap breaks out, any fighting goes on, anybody gets crazy, you guys handle it. You make sure everything remains cool."
"Yes, sir. No problem."
Carrier, with a smile, said, "I'll have your tickets for you first thing in the morning."
"And it worked. Nobody caused any trouble. They didn't want to mess with the Hell's Angels."
Jones said the IHRA fans of the day marched to the beat of their own drum.
"The crowd was right there at the edge of the drag strip," Jones said. "The concrete wall had the chain link fence mounted right to it. So when the Funny Cars or Top Fuelers would burn out, they would all run and grab hold of the fence, and just go wild. Just breathe in the nitro, just eating it up, loving it, and tears just pouring out of their eyes, and they would go crazy, just eating it up."
Kepner recalls the fence-jumpers, as he called them, from back in the day.
"I always liked the people climbing over the back of the mountain to get in for free," Kepner said. "Ted always used to have me announce, 'Welcome to the people that climbed over the hill.'
"He said, 'If those bastards made it this far, they deserve to be left alone.' "
Jones added, "The grandstands would get full, and you had that mountain going on up behind it there. They would actually get in the trees and sit up in the trees and hang out of the trees. I guess the biggest thing was a bunch -- there were four or five of them -- just got falling-down drunk, and they went to kabloop, kabloop, kabloop, kabloop, falling down through the bleachers, drunk as a cooter."
Hill didn't have to govern the Bristol crowd as much as the Rockingham bunch. He knew his role all too well.
"I'm the one that had to face the music out there in the Rockingham stands and campgrounds and not somebody up there locked in a tower, you know what I mean?" Hill said.
"We tried to get (then NHRA security chief) Topper to go in there a few times. He went. They were going to cut his throat. They made sure he understood that 'you better not come over there in the campgrounds.' "
And while NHRA's then-Indianapolis Raceway Park campground also had a reputation of rioting in the 1960s, it could barely hold a candle to Rockingham, as far as Kepner's concerned.
"Absolutely no contest, the Rockingham crowd because they were already drunk," Kepner explained. "The Indy crowd was just bad. It's not a joke. You put any kind of gang warfare together and if they're drunk to the point that they can still stand up, you're not going to be able to hurt them. I'm serious."
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