The persistence of memory

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida -- The kid was standing pretty much in one spot, turning slowly, 360 degrees, time and again, awestruck at his surroundings, trying to figure out where to go, what to ask -- what to do at all. He was, you might say, frozen.

And trying not to get hit by the cars as they rumbled in and out of the garage, during the first practice for the Firecracker 400 of 1974.

Here came Bobby Allison in Roger Penske's red, white and blue AMC Matador. And there went Buddy Baker in Bud Moore's white and blue Ford Torino.

UUM! Lamalama! David Pearson fired the No. 21 Wood Brothers Mercury and backed out of the garage stall. Right behind was Cale Yarborough in Junior Johnson's No. 11 Chevrolet, red and black for the first time, with its new sponsorship from Carling Black Label beer.

As the kid turned another slow 360, he caught from the corner of his eye the blazing blue and red and the number on the side, 43. This was Richard Petty, not yet called the King -- that would come years later. But at this point Petty really was the King and it went without saying. He was in his prime.

How did a kid sports writer approach these guys? What would he ask? This was the first NASCAR race he had ever covered. And it was also the first one he had ever seen in person.

He stood there, turning slowly, empty note pad in one hand, pen poised in the other, ready to write down -- what?

Then he was blindsided. A big, gentle, friendly clap on the back scared the bejesus out of him. The kid turned, and at eye level caught the big STP oval logo on the tall man's chest. Raising his eyes, next thing he saw was an enormous, truly pearly white grin, naturally perfect teeth.

Next the kid saw the sunglasses, next the red and blue STP baseball cap. Richard Petty did not wear cowboy hats in those days. Those would come years later.

"You writin' a book?" the lanky man asked, the grin widening, the sunglasses glancing down at the notebook and pen in the kid's hands.

"N'-no," the kid said. "B'-but I sure would like to do a story on you."

"Well," said the uncrowned emperor of NASCAR. "Go on over yonder to the truck and set down. I'll be over there in a minute."

Just don't get too excited -- don't get hit by a car rumbling in or out of the garage area. Just ease on over to the STP hauler -- actually it was a diesel box truck in those days, not an 18-wheeler; the cars were towed on trailers behind the truck.

The kid sat down on the very back of the truck and glanced around. It was very Spartan. No air-conditioned lounge or anything like that. Just a few metal folding chairs for Petty and engine man and brother, Maurice Petty, and his crew chief and cousin, Dale Inman, to sit on.

Another sports writer was already there, clearly a veteran, long hair down to his shoulders, dirty tennis shoes on, looked a little bit like Benjamin Franklin. The kid would learn later that this guy was only 42-years old and that he was just a hard-drinking party guy out on the road of NASCAR racing. You could see the miles on him.

He introduced himself as George Cunningham of the Atlanta Constitution. He was friendly. He stuttered, not in the usual way, on hard consonants -- no "p-p-p-p-p-Petty or "k-k-k-k-Katy." More on vowels and verbalized pauses. "Ah-ah-ha, Richard." Or "Wa-wa-wa, Cale."

Ed Shearer of The Associated Press had dubbed George "Wah Wah," and it stuck. And Cale Yarborough could do the best George imitation ever, by anyone.

"So, ah ah ah, you gonna do a Petty birthday story?" George asked.

"Is this his birthday?" asked the kid.

"July 2," George said. "He is ah-ah-ah 37 today."

The veteran read the surprise, the unpreparedness, in the kid's face.

"Just stick with me," George said. "Ah-ah-ah-I'll ask most of the questions. You can use the quotes."

There was of course no Internet in those days, so newspaper editors more than 500 miles apart, in Atlanta and Orlando, wouldn't be cross-referencing quotes for duplication. Besides, duplication wasn't even considered unethical in those days.

Two or three other writers walked up and joined George and the kid. Gerald Martin of the Raleigh News and Observer. Randy Laney of The State in Columbia, South Carolina. The kid would learn later that George was a fabulous reporter, and that Martin and Laney were hellaciously good writers, storytellers.

These guys would become the kid's friends and mentors -- but only after a godawful initiation in a poker room at Talladega, Alabama, a month or so later, conning the kid into chugging a plastic cup full of Early Times on the rocks, with them all roaring with laughter as his eyes bulged out.

He would never fall for one of their cons again. But he would weep, down through the decades, as they passed: Cunningham in 1984, Martin in 1999. And be saddened as Laney faded from the NASCAR beat due to weariness of it all. His enormous talent would go silent.

So here came Petty, ready to hold court, and propped his foot on a spare engine in a crate while the writers occupied the chairs.

The kid had his "lead," his opening to his story, in the first two or three minutes:

"DAYTONA BEACH -- Richard Petty nibbled birthday cake frosting off a knife, and ..."

Petty commented on just about every current topic of the day, from politics to baseball, the state of the Atlanta Braves at that point in the season, on and on, in soliloquies of homespun philosophy.

Cunningham and Martin asked a few questions, but it soon became apparent to the kid that Petty didn't need much prompting. He could guess where you were headed with a story and he would just feed it, with relevant remarks.

As for turning 37, "When I woke up this morning, I didn't feel 37, if that's what you mean, George."

It would turn out to be one of those stories that, the kid would say of many in NASCAR over the next 40 years, "wrote itself."

One by one, other drivers drifted by to wish Petty happy birthday. Yarborough, in a straw cowboy hat -- "Hey, Caley," Petty said. Why he called him "Caley" was not clear. Perhaps a subtle psych job?

Buddy Baker, the gentle giant, the master of the one-liners ... seemed like everybody stopped by except David Pearson, Petty's archrival, and Bobby Allison, Petty's bitterest rival. Pearson meant no offense by his absence. He was simply, as he would say decades later, "bashful" in those days.

So the kid got easy introductions to a lot of the drivers right there on the STP truck.

There was no infield media center at Daytona at the time, so the writers all got into their cars and drove back out through the tunnel and climbed up a stairway behind the grandstands, to write from the old upstairs press box. All were smoking the free Winstons laid out on the desks by the series sponsor, except for George, who smoked free Salems, the company's menthol brand.

Next day the kid's job -- writing what was called "the general advance" for the next day's race -- was easy. He understood now how approachable these guys were, and so got brief quotes from several of them for the race preview story. Bobby Allison he already knew from telephone interviews. He didn't get Pearson, but neither did anyone else, in Pearson's bashful era.

The race started at 10 a.m. on the Fourth of July. Big Bill France, who founded NASCAR and built Daytona International Speedway, and was still active as the boss of all of it, factored in the thunderstorms that rose up inevitably on summer afternoons in Florida. The idea was to get the race in before the rains.

The bad news was, a lot of the veteran writers covered the race hung over. The good news was, they could be on the beach, sipping a little hair of the dog that bit them, by mid-afternoon.

Engine after engine blew in the heavy air of the Florida heat and humidity, in what amounted to a 400-mile sprint, no restrictor plates, just all-out, all the time. Every lap was like a kaleidoscope, through the high-banked turns, the colors of the cars changing positions almost constantly in the draft.

By the final laps it was down to Pearson leading, Petty second. In those days the "slingshot" pass was the unstoppable tactic to win at Daytona.

Pearson knew Petty had him set up. Pearson must do something to stop the inevitable. And so, just at the moment they took the white flag, Pearson reaffirmed his nickname, "the Silver Fox."

Suddenly the Purolator Mercury slowed and dropped down to the apron. Petty in the STP Dodge had a split-second choice: Whip around to the right and pass, or wreck them both.

Petty passed, and was both enraged and outraged within the next few seconds, realizing he'd been had.

Pearson had faked a blown engine, and no sooner had Petty whipped by than Pearson floored his throttle, and by the backstretch was right back up in Petty's mirror, ready to pounce.

Coming off Turn 4, Pearson pulled out for the slingshot. He got a nose in front, and coming underneath the checkered flag, he won by a car length.

They brought the winner right to you in those days, right up to the press box. Radio reporters went first -- there was very little TV then; ABC would air some highlights on "Wide World of Sports," but that was about it. And then the print media, the newspapers that still were flourishing, profitable, could have at it with the winner for as long as they liked.

Well into the interview with Pearson, the kid noticed someone climbing up the front stretch grandstands. It was Petty, this time wearing a hat, not a cowboy hat but just some kind of badass-looking floppy black hat, something like a backwoods moonshiner might have worn 100 years ago. Sunglasses were in place, but you could sense the lasers coming through them. As Petty drew nearer, the kid could see that Petty had that cigar clinched hard between his teeth, which were showing, but not in a grin.

"DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Richard Petty was steaming."

That was the opening sentence of the story filed to the English-speaking world by a writer for United Press International, David Langford, that day.

There was a glass front door to the press box, right from the main grandstands. It was unlocked and Petty walked in. He looked up at Pearson, removed the cigar from his mouth and gestured at Pearson with it.

"I'm just here to tell y'all, David usually drives a safer, saner race than that," Petty said.

What ensued was a debate that Petty won, with Pearson mainly just sitting there winking at the writers, smirking, saying little. Pearson as usual let Petty win the arguments, just so long as Pearson won the confrontations on the tracks. That was all that mattered to the bashful Silver Fox.

That night, the kid drove back to Orlando and stopped by the Sentinel's news room.

Steve Vaughan, the executive sports editor, had taken a chance on a kid with little writing experience, just because the kid loved auto racing and asked for a chance.

And so you cannot imagine the kid's relief when Vaughan looked up from editing copy and said, "Good job. All week over there. Good job."

That week, July 2-4, 1974, was the kid's first NASCAR race ever, and first visit to Daytona.

This week, the race on July 5, 2014, 40 years later exactly, will be the last one at Daytona for an old man who will retire at the end of this season, with a lot of joyous memories, that Firecracker 400 of '74 being the first, and still among the best.

Back in May of this year, the old man covered his last Indianapolis 500 and somehow walked out of there with no regrets, maybe because he will be back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400 on July 27. So there'll be one more look at the old place, one last walk on the hallowed ground.

But the last time at Daytona? You'll pardon the old man if this one is going to be tough. Very tough.

Tough not to weep openly with nostalgia among all these kids in the modern, air-conditioned media center they take for granted, the vast majority of whom weren't even born the first time the old man came here as a kid.