Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Moment in the Sun


Before the 51st running of the Daytona 500, eighty-two year old Jack Hege was led into the “driver’s meeting” – a mandatory gathering of drivers and crew chiefs, attended by dignitaries as well.

This fascinating pre-race meeting before NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races is unique in sports. Before battling on the track, the competitors file into a room and sit next to one another like fidgety students in the auditorium poised to bust out on the last day of school. Military heroes and the rich and famous attending the race are first recognized. The NASCAR race director then recites the rules of the road for the particular track – pit road RPMs, yellow line regulations, double-file restart pointers, and the like. The meeting that started off like the Academy Awards finishes like a local city council zoning meeting. Chapel follows.

The rookies generally sit in the front. One notable exception was when Pamela Anderson was Grand Marshal and strutted in wearing a white leather micro skirt that was a violation in the garage area, and probably the entire county. That was the first known driver’s meeting in which veteran drivers Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrived 15 minutes early and were spotted in the front row.

Here at the Daytona 500 pre-race meeting, a wide-eyed Jack Hege was led to the V.I.P row of folding chairs facing the drivers and crew chiefs. He was next to NASCAR Champion Bobby Allison. A few seats away, a grinning Tom Cruise caught the eye of his buddy Jeff Gordon and nodded in conspiratorial assent as if his Days of Thunder character Cole Trickle was getting ready to rumble this afternoon. Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was to Jack’s right. Singer Gavin DeGraw shook Jack’s hand. For the son of a chicken farmer who worked 46 years in textile factory, this sure was an unusual place to be on a Sunday morning.

While Jack Hege had attended every single Daytona 500 – an astounding 51 in a row – about this time, he’d usually be seated in the grandstands off turn four. Jack wasn’t even sure a driver’s meeting was held prior to the inaugural “Great American Race” on February 22, 1959.

If there was, it surely lacked the pomp, circumstance and boldface celebrity presence infusing with a palpable buzz the hanger we was in. Yes, it’s a good bet Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were not introduced alongside Lee Petty and Red Byron at that race in ‘59.

Jack took his V.I.P. seat after chatting with Raymond Parks, the first NASCAR championship owner from the sport’s inaugural 1948 season. Parks sat stiff and upright in his seat, patiently listening and saying little. He is 94 years old; his wife Violet now does most of the talking. Parks was the best-dressed man in the room, in a dapper suit and snazzy fedora, reminiscent of how a half-century ago the once-prominent Atlanta liquor-store merchant who sold his spirits on both sides of the law brought formality to a rag-tag sport in financing many of its early drivers, including Byron, who raced in the 1940’s and ‘50’s and won the first NASCAR championship. Jack Hege attended many of those races. Sixty years later, looking around the packed room, he thought, I’m one of the few original fans left. Everyone else is gone.

Sandwiched between big-name athletes and A-list celebrities who jetted in to Daytona, Hege’s hang-dog face alternated between wondrous disbelief of his role in this unexpected scene and the blunt satisfaction of being recognized for a well-deserved lifelong achievement.

Adhering to Daytona 500 tradition, Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, began the meeting by announcing the dignitaries on hand. After recognizing actor Gene Hackman, he thanked one of the sport’s most loyal fans, Mr. Jack Hege, for attending every single season opener. The drivers and crew chiefs, NASCAR executives, captains of industry, Grammy-nominated singers, Heisman trophy winners and NFL coaches exploded in applause.

Hege froze for an instant – as if the room’s boisterous decibel surge had shorted his hearing aide – then smiled and nodded. Despite his outward embarrassment, Jack believed there was no more devoted NASCAR fan than he. Were any other men or women present at the birth of NASCAR still showing up and rooting for whoever was running up on the leader’s tail? And now the competitors he admired were saluting one humble fan’s contribution the sport. Hearing the applause, Jack was an old man living a little boy’s dream. Moments later, Tom Cruise would get an equally boisterous reception. But Jack Hege had arrived in NASCAR.

Walking slowly on sore knees towards his seat across from pit road, the same section through the years (“because that’s where the action is”), Jack recalled the infield at the new Daytona International Speedway as a no man’s land. There were no media centers, speedway clubs or mini grocery stores. The grandstands were a mere 15 rows high. Even row three, where he sat in 1959, offered a clear view across the track. The infield was nothing but dirt and a large rectangular lake running parallel to the long backstretch. The lake within the track was formed after millions of pounds of soil were dug out and piled high to create the track’s formidable banking. The three-story banks tilted 31 degrees, as steep as dirt can be stacked before running downhill.

Jack opened his eyes wide and said, “The cars running on them banks would shoot down the backstretch, come apart and go crashing off the track. They had boats on standby in case a car went in that lake!”

Before starting his incredible Daytona 500 streak, Hege watched NASCAR races on nearby Daytona Beach. The cars ran south for two miles on A1A and took a sharp left turn through rutted sand onto the wide, level beach. They ran north on the smooth, hard-packed sand before taking another quick left onto paved A1A where the cars reached speeds of 150 mph.

“There were no grandstands at the first beach races. You’d stand five or six deep and had to watch for cars coming and then run,” Hege said. “There were no loudspeakers. We’d listen to the race on the radio.”

In 1958, Jack’s friend Jimmy Meyers drove down to Daytona in his new two-door Chevy hard top. Fans parked their cars on the beach, in the center of the race course, and watched from the grass-covered sand dunes. Before the race was over, Jimmy wanted to return to the motel. He pulled his car onto the course and gunned it ahead of the field. Instead of turning left onto A1A, Jimmy kept driving up the beach. Two drivers followed. They drove behind Jimmy for a half mile before realizing they were off the course and turning back.

“NASCAR raced stock cars right from the dealer’s lot. Jimmy had a white car and there were no logos on the back anyway. It was easy to mistake him for a racer,” Hege said.

Jack and friends from Lexington would pile into a half dozen cars and drive down to Daytona Beach in one shot. Jack always had a Chevy – a ’55 Bel Air that could do 110 mph, a ‘58 Impala, a ‘62 Impala two-door hardtop.

Hege was in relatively good health, but he didn’t want to drive to the 2009 Daytona 500, which would have been his 51ststraight season opener. Though he had five race tickets, the streak appeared to be coming to an end, and it made the local newspaper. Greensboro resident Ron Collier was among dozens of fans who saw the story and contacted the paper, offering to accompany Hege. Collier met Hege at a Krispy Kreme donut shop. The two men hit it off, and Collier agreed to chauffer Jack to the race, bringing his son and friends, and keeping the streak alive.

When Jack was behind the wheel, the Daytona trip took nine hours. “You could do it in eight, but you’d get caught,” he says. There was no interstate system; the caravan from Lexington took two-lane highways all the way to Central Florida.
At those beach races, just about anyone who wanted to cheat Bill France and his merry band of speed demons out of eight bucks could duck onto the beach for free.

Hege knew part of his ticket money went to the beloved daredevils fishtailing in front of the breaking surf. He always paid, but when his Chevy passed through the opening in a line of men Bill France paid to stand watch on the beach, two or three friends were hidden in the car’s trunk. “Racing was a poor man’s sport,” Hege said. “Bootleggers got together and ran. People wanted to see it, but about a quarter of them didn’t want to pay. And they didn’t.”

Up until the 1980’s, Hege – and all fans – paid for the tickets with cash. NASCAR founder Bill France’s wife, Annie B., who handled the track’s financial matters, wouldn’t accept credit. If a family couldn’t pay for the tickets with cash or a money order, she reasoned, they couldn’t afford it. Instead of a day at the races, the money was better meant for food and clothes. Everyone who knew Annie B. says the Speedway wouldn’t exist if not for her dedication to the fans and diligently caring for the finances of a growing family business.

Each year, Hege’s ticket order was taken by Juanita Epton, known to everyone as “Lightning.” Juanita’s husband gave her that nickname. He said he never knew when she’d strike. “Betty Jane France {wife of Bill France Jr., the second president of NASCAR} warned me if anyone came to the window and asked for ‘Juanita,’ be extra nice because they’re from church,” Lightning said. She knew Jack as “Thomas J. Hege,” the name she’d enter into her ledger when he called, one of the track’s first ticket renewals each year.

Jack, who never married, had extra money and time to follow NASCAR throughout the southeast. He was a regular at tracks like North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and Martinsville. Once, on the way to the North Wilkesboro race, Jack discovered he was carrying the wrong envelope containing tickets to the Martinsville event. There was no time to turn around to retrieve the proper tickets. He proceeded ahead to the track. “The ticket manager saw I was in reservations, and got me four new tickets,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I enjoy going to the races. People appreciate you and treat you right.”

Over the years, Hege has crossed paths with individuals of interest and note. He shook the hand of George Wallace when the Alabama Governor attended the 1972 Daytona 500. Three months later, Wallace, who was running for president was paralyzed in an assassination attempt. He had lunch at the Red Lobster with L. G. DeWitt, owner of Rockingham Raceway. The night driver Tim Richmond moved his sponsorship from Folger’s to Old Milwaukee, he found himself having a can of beer with the sensational driver with the perpetual tan outside the motel of the press conference.

“Tim was a charger, the kind of driver I liked. He reminded me of Curtis Turner and Fireball Roberts. He had too many girlfriends and died of AIDS not too long after that.”

With a career and life taken away too early, Richmond never won at Daytona. Even if he did, for Hege, it probably wouldn’t have topped the first Daytona 500, still fresh in his mind for its three-way photo finish.

“We came from the beach to this giant new track,” he explained. “Everything was so new. And then after five hundred miles, there was nothing like that finish. It was so close, no one knew who won for three days. They had to look at photos to see it was Lee Petty.”

Prior to each race, Jack spends a week in Daytona Beach, always at a beachfront motel. He drives up and down the coast highway, keeping an eye on the world going by his window, noting developments large and small, new palm trees planted, a burger joint he hadn’t seen, motels built and destroyed. Taking all that time off, he worked the Monday after the race. By parking a mile away from the track, he could avoid the worst traffic. He did the driving while friends slept hunched against the doors. Back in Lexington, he grabbed two hours of sleep, and went to work.

No one slept the night of the 2001 race. As Michael Waltrip surged to the checkered flag, Hege watched a last-lap wreck putting Dale Earnhardt Sr. into the wall. After the smoke cleared, Jack walked to his car. He’d seen worse crashes, like when Lee Petty went airborne over the wall, landed in a ditch outside the track, and lived to tell the tale.

On the car radio, he heard the news. Over and over again were replays of Mike Helton’s heartbreaking announcement: “NASCAR has lost Dale Earnhardt.” Jack’s favorite driver was gone. “We listened to the AM radio all night long. They were going without commercials. Every station had fans calling in, paying tribute. It was like the loss of a president.”

Hege is reminded of “Senior” in today’s hard chargers like Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart, all cut in the up-on-the-wheel, no-holds-barred mold of the sport’s earliest competitors. As Hege slowly moved through the wall-to-wall crowds in Daytona’s Fan Zone, he said he missed small-town feel of the sport and the reckless flamboyance of yesteryear. He chuckled in the memory of driver antics that were downright crazy.

“Curtis Turner had engine trouble at Rockingham, smoke pouring out. Did he slow down? No. He drove the car until it exploded. He then got in his airplane and took off from the speedway. He flew that plane under the power line going from the infield to the press box. The FAA grounded him for that.”

Flamboyant wheelmen with a devil-may-care attitude weren’t the only risk takers. In the early 1960’s, a group from Wisconsin spent the night on Daytona Beach. Four fans slept on quilts on the sand next to their Oldsmobile convertible. When morning came, only three were left. The tide had carried one person away. “When I left the beach the night before, they had their guitars out. They were singing and dancing and drinking,” Hege said.

The Daytona 500 is such a monumental event in sports, and I felt truly fortunate to spend its 51st edition with Jack Hege, the man who’d seen them all, and this time was duly honored for his devotion. If Jack stays healthy, I hope he will continue to come back and share with others his personal slice of the colorful history of a sport that’s come so far.

Before we said goodbye, I had one final question for Jack. I wanted to pinpoint the one particular thing that drew him to Daytona every February like a migratory bird.
Hege didn’t pause at all. “Everyone wants to see and do something different, I reckon. And racing has been that. You want to see and do it all.”

No one can say they’ve seen everything. But from experiencing first hand the pioneering races on the beaches of Daytona, where fans popped from the trunks of cars, to today’s events drawing 200,000 fans in person and a TV audience of millions more around the world, it’s safe to say no NASCAR fan comes closer to seeing it all than Jack Hege. The smart money says, come mid February next year, he’ll be headed toward Daytona, like a migratory bird, pointed through a hard-wired instinct to where it feels right.

For more stories like Jack’s, THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans (by Andrew Giangola, Motorbooks) is available on the, the NASCAR.COM Superstore and anywhere fine books are sold.