The Daytona 500 rolls off in a couple of weeks, and with it rolls out the memories.
I covered my first Daytona 500 in 1975 for The Tennessean and didn’t miss one for the next 37 years.
The first one I covered I almost didn’t. I’d just been assigned the racing beat and one raw, snowy February morning my sports editor, John Bibb, strolled into the office, noticed me at my desk, and asked why I wasn’t in Daytona – where it was a sunny 75 degrees.
I told Bibb to give me 10 minutes.
I made some calls, got a press pass and a motel room lined up, and phoned my buddy Don Christopher in Murfreesboro to see if he’d like to accompany me as technical assistant and spiritual advisor.
Don looked at the snow piling up outside and said to give him 10 minutes.
Over the next three decades Don and I made an annual pilgrimage to Daytona’s Speed Weeks – referred to by one snooty Yankee writer as the “Redneck High Holy Days.”
We were there in ’79 when the Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby, engaged in an infield smack-down with Cale Yarborough after they wrecked, while Richard Petty sailed away to victory. That night on the way home we got snowed in in Valdosta, Ga.
In 1989 we watched local hero Darrell Waltrip break into his “Icky Shuffle” in Victory Lane after winning his first Daytona. The Fairgrounds graduate had finally made the Big Time.
Columbia’s Sterling Marlin snapped a 17-year, 284-race losing streak at Daytona in 1995, then came back the next year and pulled off a Daytona Double. As Sterling basked in the glow of national TV lights he was a long way from the tobacco fields of Maury County.
In 1998 Dale Earnhardt captured his first Daytona 500. The sport’s toughest racer finally won the sport’s biggest race.
In 2001 Earnhardt perished in a last-lap Daytona 500 crash, forever changing the face of the sport. The press box was hushed as NASCAR president made the announcement: “Boys, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
I was at Daytona in 1998 when my best buddy and Nashville Banner rival Joe Caldwell got a call from his wife back in Nashville: “Joe, I hope the paper gave you a round-trip ticket.” Cathy said it had just been announced on TV that The Banner was folding.
For over 30 years Caldwell and I had traveled the country together covering auto races, football, basketball, golf and other events. (The stories that could be told about our adventures with MTSU coaches Jimmy Earle and Boots Donnelly.)
Joe before his marriage danced at a Daytona Media Party with Miss Winston, Brooke Sealy, later to become Mrs. Jeff Gordon. Brooke’s marriage to Jeff didn’t last; we figured Caldwell had set too high a standard for her.
Joe briefly joined The Tennessean as a copy editor but suffered a fatal heart attack a few months later.
There are other Daytona vignettes, snippets from the scrapbook of time: visits to the world-famous Boot Hill Saloon, a joint so rough that Don noted that the toilet paper was kept chained to the wall … seeing the face of Birmingham sports writer Clyde Bolton when he stomped into the press box after being dive-bombed by a sea gull … sharing the pool-side sun with Linda Vaughn, Miss Everything … seeing the uproar created when David Pearson strolled into The Barn nite club one evening … watching Bobby Allison hug son Davy after beating him to the finish line … introducing Don to his idol, Richard Petty, when The King dropped by our table one night … seeing who could down the most oysters at an all-you-can-eat oyster bar and paying for it later in the evening … watching a tow-headed kid named Dale Earnhardt Jr. tagging after his pop … following the adventures of colorful Coo Coo Marlin, who never won a race but never lost a party.
Now most of those old pals and personalities are gone or retired, and I don’t miss not going to Daytona these days – it wouldn’t be the same without then.
But the memories? Those I’ll hang on to.
Larry Woody can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.