There’s nothing about growing up in Southwest Texas that would naturally lead someone to become a die-hard fan of stock car racing.
As a matter of fact, I was probably more interested in open-wheel race cars like those at the Indianapolis 500 when I first became aware of auto racing.
But that all changed for me in the summer of 1984, the summer between my junior and senior years of high school.
A good friend of mine in high school, Chalmers Rankin Carr III, asked if I was interested in a summer job.
One catch — it was in North Carolina.
You see, Chal’s dad was the base commander at Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, and his mother’s family operated a commercial farm in Ellerbe, N.C.
Chal had worked on the farm the previous couple of summers and asked if I’d be interested in traveling with him and working on the farm for the summer.
It sounded pretty exciting to me, so I decided to ask my parents. My mother was a teacher at Del Rio High School and taught Chal in one of her classes, so she knew he was a good kid with a good head on his shoulders. And, his dad was a colonel in the U. S. Air Force, so he had to be pretty disciplined. My folks said yes.
I still tell people to this day it was those summers working on the farm when I learned what real work was and developed my work ethic.
It was also when I learned about NASCAR.
You see, Chal’s uncle, Edward DeWitt, who was our boss on the farm, had been a member of the pit crew for Benny Parsons, who won the 1975 Daytona 500 and the 1973 NASCAR points championship. Parsons was born in Wilkes County, N.C., but lived in Ellerbe when he started driving for L.G. DeWitt (who owned all of the land that we farmed) and DeWitt Racing.
The way we in Texas sit around talking football or baseball, folks in North Carolina sat around talking stock car racing.
Once I started paying attention to NASCAR, I quickly became hooked.
It just seemed amazing to me that cars could go three-wide around a banked corner, door handle to door handle, at 200 miles per hour.
And I quickly learned you can’t be a real race fan until you pick your driver — and I settled immediately on the late Dale Earnhardt. But that’s a topic for a later column.
Today’s column is about the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race, held annually at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., which I attended in 1987.
Truth be told, I was lucky to even be able to attend the race.
Uncle Edward was a driven man who it seemed never thought about anything except the farm. He was at work before the sun came up and never went to bed until well after the sun went down — and he pretty much expected those of us who worked for him to do the same.
We had to be at the farm shop at 6:30 a.m. seven days a week.
By the summer of 1987 — the last of three summers I spent working in Ellerbe — our job was primarily irrigation. We had a schedule that allowed us to completely water several thousand acres of produce in a seven-day time frame, which amounted to about 90 hours a week.
Obviously, there wasn’t much time left for anything other than work.
The only way we could get off work at a reasonable hour of the evening was if there had been measurable rainfall that helped get us ahead of our irrigation schedule.
Chal’s cousins had tickets to the Coca-Cola 600 and invited us to go with them — if we were caught up.
That had been a particularly dry summer, but lucky for me, we got a good, solid rain the Friday before the race, and Uncle Edward — knowing all along about the tickets to the race and my desire to attend my first race — gave us Sunday off.
To make a long story seem endless, I had been talking up Earnhardt’s chances of winning the race — he was the defending champ, having won in 1986 — so much my friends were tired of hearing about it since they all seemed to like either Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace or Darrell Waltrip.
Sure enough, as the white flag dropped and the race got underway, everyone started giving me the business — Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevrolet had developed some kind of engine trouble and he was forced into the pit on the first lap.
Kyle Petty ended up winning that day and I had several hours of memories that I still recall fondly today.