Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The King and I

Mike Wright considers Richard Petty his absolute hero in life.  Aside from his dad, no one comes close. “What’s great is, Richard is a hero you can literally touch,” Wright says.  He has asked for Petty’s autograph more than one hundred times.  The King has never once said no. 
“If you want Richard Petty’s autograph, and he is physically in the area, you will get it.  I don’t even ask for the signature any more.  I’ll shake his hand and take a photo.  It’s kind of neat that your hero knows who you are.” 
Wright has met the seven-time NASCAR champion countless times – at the track as a boy then as man structuring his trucking runs to include a pit stop at Petty’s race shop in Randleman, N.C.  Wright stopped off most Mondays to say hello and grab an autograph.  “I have a gazillion of them, too many to even count, but the piece of paper is less important than a reason to ask the King about Sunday’s race.  Richard doesn’t hear so well, and sometimes you’re not having the same conversation.  But that’s okay.  I mean, you’re with the King!  You’re talking to history! You just learn to let him go on.”
Before Wright married his wife Karen in 1997, he made sure to have a clear agreement on one crucial matter: he would continue to go the races – more than a dozen per year.  “That was definite, everything else was negotiable,” he explained. 
Karen understood, and would be awed by, Mike’s extraordinary passion. She became a NASCAR fan after discovering the cars weren’t just numbers but driven by real personalities. She got in touch with the Petty shop and asked if the King could call his biggest fan who was about to get married.  Richard couldn’t do that, she was told; he had difficulty hearing.  The King couldn’t speak with anyone on the phone, not even the president, if he were to call.  Karen didn’t tell Mike.  Her fiancĂ© would understand, and he probably knew about the King’s aversion to phones, but what was the point of admitting to a failed plan? 
When the Wrights checked into the hotel in Daytona Beach for their honeymoon, however, the phone in the room was blinking.  An envelope was waiting at reception.  It was a beautiful wedding card, signed by none other than Richard Petty.
“Richard Petty is the nicest man I’ve ever met,” Wright says.  “He’s been my hero since I’ve been a little kid, and he’s never let me down once. When I see Richard, it is literally like the rays of heaven shine down on him.”
Wright was delighted to discover he and Petty share a passion for collecting Civil War memorabilia.  Using a metal detector, he’s found many Union and Confederate uniform medals, buttons, bullets, and shells from the battles fought in southern Virginia, most from the Siege of Petersburg, where his great grandfather served in the Confederate army.  He’s presented medals dug up from that bloody 10-month battle to Petty, who displays them in the Richard Petty Museum.
Wright has made his own mini-museum a display most noteworthy for well over 100 Petty autographs garnered over the years.  It’s clear none of the signatures were rushed.  Each was carefully signed in elegant, looping Palmer-method cursive script school kids were taught when penmanship counted before computers invaded the classroom.  The autographs are showcased in three distinct styles.  “There’s ‘Richard Petty #43’ at the beginning of autograph sessions, then ‘R. Petty #43,’ and finally ‘RP #43’ when he gets really tired,” Wright explained.  “The King considers it his privilege to sign.  He says every autograph is his way to say ‘thank you’ to each fan for letting him do what he loves.”
The room has sheet metal from the famous No. 43 car, ticket stubs, programs and other NASCAR memorabilia collected over the years, sometimes with the help of Wright’s dad, who passed on a fascination with the Petty’s.  Jerry Wright was a fan of Lee Petty, who bought a street car for $900 and won the first Daytona 500 in 1959.  At the same race two years later, Lee’s car jumped the flimsy guardrail at Daytona, and literally flew from the track, corkscrewing over the high-banked turn and beyond the reach of the cameras filming the race.  Lee survived the incredible crash, but he traded places with his son, who’d been serving on his dad’s crew.  Richard became the bread winner for the family business as NASCAR’s first “second generation” driver and the first to follow in a champion’s footsteps.  Winning 101 races and two championships in the 1960’s, he’d also become the head of racing’s royal family, and known to all fans as simply, “The King.”
When little Mike came along, father and son enthusiastically rooted on Richard Petty for the second phase of his 200 career wins.  Before each race, Jerry would compile a ledger of statistics – how many laps the King had led at that track, prior races he’d won.  On weekends, Mike would lay on his dad’s bed for hours discussing the numbers.
Wright attended his first NASCAR race in September, 1968.  Jerry had bought good seats, right near the flag stand at Richmond Fairgrounds Speedway.  But Mike didn’t see a thing from the wooden grandstands.  He was in his mother’s belly.  “I’ve always been old school,” Wright proudly stated. 
On weekends, other families would go to the beach or the mountains.  The Wrights, who lived about a half hour south of the track, went to the races, even with mom bountifully expectant.
                The tracks, the cars, the people, the whole NASCAR fan experience was different in the late 1960’s.  The world beyond the sport’s dusty race tracks was bursting into color.  NASCAR was a few steps behind, still locked in the old black-and-white traditions.  The sport was then called the NASCAR Grand National Series. (Winston would later come on the scene as NASCAR’s title sponsor after cigarette ads were banned from television and racing provided the perfect marketing outlet.)  If fans didn’t watch a race live at the track, they likely didn’t see the sport at all; a NASCAR season on network TV was still 30 years away.  Many drivers got behind the wheel in short-sleeve dress shirts.  “You took your shirt and a pair of britches, dumped it in starch, and that was supposed to make it fireproof,” Richard Petty said.  “You put on a seat belt and a helmet, but you didn’t look at the safety of it.”  Flimsy metal guardrails rather than today’s flexible barriers ringed the tracks, which were mostly dirty, grimy places with barely edible concession food and dank, pungent bathrooms.   At the track, no one was ever tempted to call the ladies facility the “powder room.” 
A tough expectant mom could get by, but the track was no place for an infant.  The Wrights waited until Mike was three years old to bring him to the races. The abundant sights and sounds infused the lad to the core.  Since that day, Mike has been to more than 250 NASCAR races.  He has yet to celebrate his 40th birthday. 
Wright’s voice carries a pitch of wonder and delight when summoning the sights and sounds absorbed at the race track as a young boy, like hanging out on the backstretch of Richmond Fairgrounds Speedway, outside the ticket gates, where enterprising fans with little money and less fear would climb trees to watch the races. “I remember one gentleman had a cooler tied to a rope.  He’d pull the rope, and up the tree came the cooler.  He’d reach in for a beer, close the lid and expertly lower the cooler halfway to the ground.  It hung there in the air, until the next refill. As a kid, I thought, man, that’s ingenious.” 
Track president Paul Sawyer could have sent the police to shake the freeloaders from those oak trees.  But he didn’t, and the sight of fans perched in the leafy branches like big exotic birds nipping canned beer was one more thing little Mike Wright filed in his mind about this marvelous sport beginning to cover him like a second skin. 
Wright would later meet Sawyer after a Hurricane Fran blew through in 1996.  “Our camper rocked back and forth all night long.  There were tents hanging in the trees the next morning.  Mr. Sawyer came through the camp grounds checking to see if everyone was OK.  That was some unforgettable gesture showing he cared about us.”
The track, now known as Richmond International Raceway, with 80,000 seats and no more trees to offer a free, unobstructed view, was where Wright fell in love with NASCAR.  He has also been ritualistically attending the Memorial Day race in Charlotte for more than 30 years.  But his personal racing Mecca, where memories are the fondest, and his gratitude the deepest, is Darlington Raceway.  Since 1980, Wright hasn’t missed a race at the unforgiving, egg-shaped course, known as “The Lady in Black.” 
Darlington Raceway is NASCAR’s Lambeau Field, a storied venue loaded with history and charm in a small market that many believe will always have a place on the schedule even if it’s difficult to get to and lacks the big-city attractions of newer stops on the circuit like Las Vegas, Kansas City and Miami.  The track, built on a cotton and peanut field, took on a curious egg shape to protect a minnow farm the land owner had refused to relocate.   Wright enjoys the history and lore of Darlington and will explain how the track’s retaining walls, white before the race, turn black by the day’s end due to a multitude of tire contact. 
“This is a track you have to battle all day long; there’s no riding around by anyone on any lap,” he says.  Because of its unique configuration – with one turn, tighter, narrow and more steeply banked, shooting cars down the straightaway like an amusement park carnival ride, Darlington is also known as “The Lady in Black,” giving drivers coming off that wicked turn and scraping up against the wall their inevitable “Darlington stripe.”
Wright won’t be denied in attending races at Darlington.  One rare year when he and Karen weren’t camping or RVing at the race, they stayed at the Diplomat Motel in Myrtle Beach.  A bad storm came and lightning struck the hotel.  All the building’s emergency sirens were blaring. People were screaming to get out as the building filled with gas.  Wright ran from the hotel in his underwear, holding his race tickets and scanner.  “I could go to Wal-Mart and get clothes; I couldn’t get another race ticket,” he explained. 
                Jerry, who worked with the Virginia Dept. of Corrections, would buy his race tickets at automobile dealerships or right at the box office.  A signature family outing trumpeting the arrival of summer was waking up at 3 a.m., and heading to Charlotte for the World 600 race on Memorial Day weekend.  “We weren’t poor, but driving to Charlotte was a big deal,” Wright said.  “Six of us would pile into a Pontiac big as the Titanic, four hours to Charlotte, then back home after the race.” He still carries the ticket stub to one of those World 600 races, now called the Coca-Cola 600 – a $40 ticket on the start-finish line, 40th row.
As NASCAR barnstormed the south east, the boat-like Bonneville took Jerry and Anne Wright, Mike, his sister Susan, and their grandparents to stops in Atlanta, Bristol, Tenn., Martinsville, Va., Rockingham, N.C., and North Wilkesboro, N.C.  To newer NASCAR fans, places like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro are romantic-sounding names and fading images on grainy highlight reels.  For Wright, the memories are clear as yesterday.  After one particular race at North Wilkesboro, a frustrating traffic jam leaving the North Carolina track kept the family car hemmed in going nowhere.  Jerry had to work the next day.  He wasn’t going to patiently sit in a seemingly endless line of immobilized cars.  Jerry jerked the wheel and pulled the Pontiac onto the grass.  He drove through a creek leading into someone’s back yard.   He tore through the unkempt grass and blew past the house, down the gravel driveway with a cloud of dust.  “Chickens were scrambling, dogs were barking, it was just a mad scene,” Wright said.  “I peeked out the back window and saw a shot gun pointed at the car.  But before you knew it we were back on the highway, sailing home.”
The races were held on Sunday, but fans didn’t wear their Sunday best. “The bottom five rows in Rockingham, you had to wear a helmet with all the chicken bones and beer cans raining down,” Wright recalls.  “By the end of the race, you’d be covered in red mud.”
He was still a wide-eyed kid in 1978 at Richmond when Darrell Waltrip used his “chrome horn” to move Neil Bonnett out of the way for the win.  On pit road, an incensed Bonnett, acting as proxy for thousands in the grandstands, then smashed into Waltrip, who had a reputation for being a quite a loudmouth.  In fact, when Steven Spielberg had made a summer blockbuster film about a large man-eating shark, the motor mouth driver was dubbed “Jaws.”  Waltrip was brash, but backed up the entertaining bravado with a pedal-to-the-floor “out of my way” driving style that won many races like this one. The Richmond crowd was still buzzing about his use of the chrome horn and Bonnett showing enough is enough by knocking into DW’s DiGuard Chevy near Victory Lane.  The race winner had to climb the steps of the grandstand and walk through the crowd to get to the press box for post-race interviews. 
“Waltrip was heading up there and fans were throwing anything not bolted down at him.  Next to me, a woman who must have been 80 years old gets up and shouts, ‘I hate you Darrell Waltrip!’  She hurls a hand biscuit at him – hits DW right in the shoulder!  The roll came apart as it hit him.  You could see the ham fly out.  I was about 10 years old watching this, and my eyes must have been half as big as my head.”
Another time, a woman too well dressed to be walking through the gate at Martinsville was accompanied by a man in a Rusty Wallace t-shirt with big sunglasses and his cap pulled over his eyes. “I recognized Bobby Labonte right away,” Wright says.  “When Bobby passed me, I whispered in his ear, ‘nice disguise.’”
NASCAR was a smaller, more personal sport when drivers walked among the fans in disguise and elderly ladies pelted drivers with dinner rolls.  The campgrounds were more intimate.  The RVs and campers weren’t quite so lavish.  The chasm between rich and poor, the haves and the have nots, wasn’t quite as large.  It was easier to meet new people and look back 15 years later to realize you’re still sending friends met at the track Virginia country hams for Christmas.  The pace was slower.  Fans weren’t quite as busy, seemed to have fewer worries.  There were no cell phones and blackberries to chirp strange electronic tunes that interrupted warm conversations over cold beers in front of crackling wood fires.  Access to the sport and its drivers was loose and informal in innocent, less guarded times.  NASCAR today is bigger, faster, safer, higher stakes, more competitive, and higher-profile.  The “small fraternity” to which Wright proudly belongs has progressively grown into a larger and therefore more impersonal NASCAR Nation.  The sport is no longer an undiscovered secret except to those in the South lacking big city baseball and football teams. 
NASCAR is now for all Americans.  Wright realizes giving the sport to everyone, meant taking part of it away from some.  Westward expansion meant Rockingham and North Wilkesboro would lose their race dates.  What used to be two Darlington races a year for Mike Wright, especially the marquee Labor Day race, an important end-of-summer ritual for tens of thousands of NASCAR fans, is now the lone spring event – the storied track’s remaining single date on the Sprint Cup schedule.  After NASCAR moved its Labor Day race date to Auto Club Speedway near Los Angeles, Wright attended the last Southern 500 with a heavy heart.  Following the race, when others had left for the parking lots, he sat in the stands and cried. 
The sport has changed.  The world has changed.  Wright accepts all of that.  He understands change is part of life – not a part he necessarily fully understands or always wants to embrace, but a constant force any American who appreciates progress learns to deal with.
“I’m a southerner.  It’s no secret we’re not much for new things.  Yeah, I’d like to have the way it used to be with fans up in the trees and the garages open to everyone.  Back in the day, after the race, they’d open the gates, and you go could right into the pits.”   Wright often found himself standing next to legends like to Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, and most importantly, Richard Petty.  “I realize it’s all gotten too big to allow that now.  There’d be a riot down there. But heck, today you can be a driver’s friend on Facebook or listen to their crew conversations on your Sprint phone.  NASCAR has figured out how to keep the fans close to the drivers.”
If the world was to end tomorrow, Mike Wright wouldn’t miss the race today.  He still finds himself reminiscing of the “old days,” like the first race he and his dad saw on TV, the 1979 Daytona 500, the first flag-to-flag NASCAR race carried live.  The heat had gone out in the Wright’s house on that snowy Sunday in February, forcing his mother and sister to flee to warmer confines at their grandparents’ place.  The men stayed behind glued to the TV, bundled in hats and blankets, not wanting to miss a lap.  “When the King won, we were hugging one another, because we were happy and because it was so darn cold.”
In those days, NASCAR was rarely on TV.  Long car trips were planned to listen to the races on the radio. Thanks to the radio broadcast, the young lad was able to see just about every major attraction in the Southeast. When Petty won at Daytona in 1977, the Wrights were on the way to Virginia Beach. When he won at Michigan in 1981, they were listening in the parking lot at historic Colonial Williamsburg.  When Petty won his final race, the Wrights had the radio up loud at an I-95 truck stop on the way to Gettysburg.  “My dad turned around, gripped my knee and announced, ‘That’s 200!”
Wright’s mom enjoyed listening on the radio and going to the track mostly because it was something the family could do together every week.  Sometimes, there were surprises. At one Bristol race, she found an abandoned kitten by the dumpster of their hotel.  “Mom took that cat home, and we had it 17 years,” Wright said.
Jerry stopped attending races in the mid 1980’s.  The crowds had gotten too big as he was physically slowing down.  Mike began going on his own.  During college, he and a buddy drove ten hours in a Ford Thunderbird from North Carolina to Daytona Beach, to see the annual Independence Day race.   They had just enough money to cover the tickets, gas, beer, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter.  After the race, they drove ten more hours, straight home.  Like the NASCAR commercial says, this is a sport where the fans drive 700 miles to watch their heroes drive 500 miles.  How many do all that driving on the same day?
“There’s people who have more money and can buy more souvenirs than me, go to more races than me, but no one loves this sport more than me,” Wright says.
In 1999, he took his dad back to the track at Richmond.  It had been 15 years since Jerry had been to a race. Mike was walking toward the seats and noticed dad was missing.  “I looked around, and he was 50 yards back, stopped in his tracks, standing with his mouth wide open, looking at all those souvenir trailers like he was gonna pass out.  The last race he’d been to, the drivers had set up card tables to sell a t-shirt, a hat, maybe a bumper sticker.  You’d get one shirt, and that would be the driver’s design for the whole season.  Dad said, ‘Is there something special going on?’  He’d never seen these huge merchandise trailers for every driver with different shirts and jackets and all the mementoes available now.”
One of my fondest memories in researching this book was to sit with Wright on a clear and chilly night in the Blue Ox campground on a hill behind Bristol Motor Speedway in front of a snapping wood fire he’d built.  He spoke seriously about how NASCAR has defined him as a person.  He admitted to the sport’s undeniably large and forceful role in his life, discussing the life-shaping aspects of the sport thoughtfully, in a tone ranging from solemn to joyful.  Serious words came from the heart, a timber of revelatory conversation that wouldn’t be out of place in a church confessional.
“Racing has given me a lot in life, taught me valuable lessons about friendship and being a good person,” Wright said. “I think I’ve experienced everything racing has had to offer over the years. Anyone who knows me knows racing is such a big part of my life.  Me and racing are the same.  I love the fires and the steaks and the cans of beer and the people.  This is my lazy boy chair.  I’m home here. When I sit and hear the ‘Gentlemen, start your engines’ I forget everything.  Nothing else matters.  I’m a kid again.  My heart starts pounding and I can’t sit still. By the second pace lap, when you can smell the fumes of the gas and the rubber coming off the tires, oh man, it is instant adrenaline.  If that smell could go into my alarm clock, I’d always wake up happy.”
“What if you could wake to Richard Petty’s voice?” I asked.
“The King?  Oh, Heaven.  Yeah, that’s waking up in heaven.”

Reprinted with permission from The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans by Andrew Giangola (Motorbooks, 2010)