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Fearless Men, Fast Cars and Whiskey
By Orlena Miller     
August 8, 2002    Insider Racing News

Though he held a tight rein, Bill France Sr. could not completely control the shenanigans of NASCAR’s early stars. Like most pioneers they worked hard and played with abandon. When fearless men, fast cars and whiskey are in close proximity, expect the unexpected.

NASCAR’s "wild bunch" could teach Dale Jr. and the "Dirty Mo’ Posse" a thing or two. No sissy malt beverages for these guys, no sir; they consumed whiskey and plenty of it. These fellows were even known to imbibe while they raced. During a race at Darlington Buck Baker was caught up in a wreck at the exact moment he was turning up a Mason jar full of Bloody Marys. His car went over the wall and landed in the parking lot. The first rescue worker to arrive at the scene returned to the ambulance ashen faced and told the other medics, "Ain't no use hurrying, boys. Buck's done cut his head clear off!" Baker and the interior of the car were awash with red; Buck was fine but the Mason jar had not survived the crash.

To Curtis Turner good times and hell raising were like water and oxygen to most people. Life wasn’t worth a damn without them. One of the sports greatest drivers, Turner was a dedicated party animal. He was equally as dedicated to winning races. He was dubbed him Pops by the other drivers in reference to the "pop" sound his car made when he "moved" another car out of his way. Pops threw parties that were the stuff of legends. These were not dusk to dawn affairs but were truly bacchanalian and lasted for days. Always, an excellent host, Turner would think nothing of inviting a hundred or more guests. One of his favorite lines was, ‘If you don't like this party, just hang around. Another will start in 15 minutes."

Joe Weatherly was known as the "clown prince of stock car racing", alone he was a terror. When he was partnered with Curtis Turner the two would get completely out of control, they were the Butch and Sundance of NASCAR. One year at Daytona Little Joe and Pops raced their rental cars down Highway A1A for a bottle for Canadian Club; the finish line was their hotel. A bottle of whiskey being a great incentive for both men, they raced like it was the last lap of the 500. They were side by side banging doors and fenders; leaving behind a wake of glass, bent chrome and car parts. As the two neared their destination Turner slowed but Weatherly did not, he drove the rental car through a fence and into the deep end of the swimming pool. The rental car company was not amused. They distributed the outlaws’ pictures in every city that hosted a NASCAR event along with explicit instructions not to rent a vehicle to either man.

Practical jokes have always been rampant in NASCAR. Joe Weatherly would stroll down pit road prior to a race and take the key from every car. When the command to start engines was given Little Joe’s was the only engine fired. I wonder if this prank had anything to do with the change to ignition switches? Tomfoolery is a long-standing tradition and has continued into the modern era. Dale Earnhardt was a first class prankster; he once scattered an entire tin of sardines in Rusty Wallace’s car. The #2 car was lined up on pit road in front of Dale; with the first sniff Rusty looked in his mirror and saw Earnhardt enjoying a hearty laugh. Of course, as the day wore on the smell of rotting sardines permeated the racecar. After the race Earnhardt walked up to Wallace and said, "Thought about me all day, didn’t you?" The following week, Wallace took The Intimidator’s steering wheel from the car before the race. Once again Wallace was lined up in front of the #3 only this time he was the one laughing as he watched Big E look frantically for his steering wheel. By the time Rusty broke down and returned the wheel there was a Goodwrench crewmember running back to the truck for another one.

However, some pranks were a bit more frightening than missing parts and rotten fish. While Cale Yarborough’s car sat on pit road prior to a race Tiny Lund put a rubber rattlesnake in the cockpit. Thinking the snake was real Yarborough reacted as you would expect. Lund sat strapped in his car laughing as he watched Cale panic over the fake reptile. Not one to take that kind of thing lying down Yarborough exacted his revenge the following week. In addition to his other talents Yarborough was also accomplished at wrangling rattlesnakes, he found a prize specimen and de-fanged it. Tiny Lund was not tiny; he was 6’5" and barely fit through the car’s window opening. It took several people several minutes to secure his safety harness. After Lund was strapped in tight, Cale threw the live snake into the car. When the frightened creature landed in his lap with its rattle going full out, Tiny came out of his car like it was on fire. The first thing he saw when he was safe was Cale Yarborough laughing hysterically. The second thing he saw was a ball peen hammer. Grabbing the hammer Lund chased Yarborough through the garage. By the time bystanders had restrained Lund and Cale had escaped with his life it was time to go racing. The two returned to their cars and by the time the checkers fell both men were laughing about the incident.

Tiny Lund and fellow hell-raiser Larry Frank frequently combated boredom by finding the nearest drinking establishment and instigating a good old-fashioned barroom brawl. They would be as obnoxious as possible until someone took the bait. And if one of the local scamps took on one of them he had to take on both of them. Other drivers would go along to sit back, enjoy malt beverages and watch the show. One spectator described the action as resembling a fight scene in a "B" Western. Fistfights were not limited to pubs; they were a common occurrence in the garage as well. Bobby Isaac let his fists do his talking frequently, it was said NASCAR fined him for fighting so often Isaac only raced to pay his fines.

NASCAR has always been a family sport and no family is more NASCAR that the Petty’s. After one race, Tiny Lund and Lee Petty had words over an on-track incident. Feeling talk was accomplishing nothing Lund took a swing at Petty and the fight was on. Richard Petty grabbed a tire iron. His teenaged brother Maurice headed into the fray and in case they needed help Richard’s mother began beating Lund with her huge purse. Tiny had had enough and beat a quick retreat. Later Lund commented, "When you take on a Petty, you take on the whole darned family."

If a knuckle sandwich didn’t settle the issue, firearms could enter the picture. After beating and banging for many laps Curtis Turner finally put Billy Meyer into the wall. When the race was over Meyer went looking for Turner armed with a tire iron. He found his prey leaning into a car, as the irate driver approached Turner stood up and turned around. Aiming a .38 at Meyer’s mid-section he asked, "Where you going with that tire iron, Billy?" A quick thinking Meyer said, "Why I'm just looking for a place to lay it down" and set the tool on the ground.

Hell raising did not always end with the driving career. According to Tim Flock’s son when his father was in public relations at the Charlotte Motor Speedway he and his sons would sneak in and run the track after hours. What’s so bad about that you might be thinking? They did it in the dead of night, the track was not lit and they were "in their cups". In the family sedan, with his equally inebriated adult sons as passengers Tim would go flying down the front stretch declaring he "knew where turn one was". I’m sure he did, too.

The founding fathers of our sport were hard driving, hard drinking, hard fighting men. They did not hesitate to take on each other or the world to stand up for a principle, right a perceived wrong or simply for the hell of it. However, there was an esprit’ de corps that superseded all else. Quite literally, these men were willing to die for each other. When Fireball Robert’s had his fatal accident, Ned Jarrett and several others received severe burns pulling him from his burning racecar. In 1963 DeWayne "Tiny" Lund won the prestigious Carnegie Medal of Honor that is given for heroism. At the risk of his own life Tiny pulled his friend and fellow driver, Marvin Panch from a burning sports car. After saving his friend’s life, Lund drove Panch’s Wood Brothers owned Ford to victory in that year’s Daytona 500. These were very special men and we are truly blessed to have had them as the foundation of our sport.

Indeed, the founding fathers of NASCAR were a special breed of men. Like Washington and Jefferson they would probably be very pleased and somewhat surprised that the fruit of their labor thrives and prospers still.

You can contact Orlena at: Insider Racing News
 


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