Jeff Gilder has seen the light.
It dances in the eyes of men who cut their racing teeth on the half-mile of dirt that was Columbia Speedway.
“Every driver we talk to has stories,” Gilder says. “It just was a critical track back in the day. If you won at Columbia, you were something.”
Amen, Buddy Baker says.
“If you won a race at Columbia, you know that you had done something,” says Baker, whose first career start in what is now known as NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series came at Columbia on April 4, 1959.
Ever since he heard details about the racers’ reunion schedule at the site of a track where engines roared for more than 40 years before shutting down in the early 1970s, Baker knew he had to be there.
Baker, the Charlotte native who also saw his father, Buck, make hundreds of competitive laps at Columbia, is not the only one who has special memories of that track.
Not only did Richard Petty get seven his 200 wins in NASCAR’s top series there, it’s also where he raced for the very first time in a Convertible Division race on July 12, 1958. NASCAR’s top series ran at Columbia 43 times with names like Tim Flock, Buck Baker, Curtis Turner, Jack Smith, Junior Johnson, Speedy Thompson, Lee Petty, Ned Jarrett, Rex White, Cotton Owens, David Pearson and Bobby Isaac all getting victories.
But the records of stock-car racing’s major league series are only a small part of the story of a track where drivers from all over the Southeast learned and honed their craft.
“What made it for Columbia is that they decided to race on Thursday nights,” said longtime Lowe’s Motor Speedway president and general manager H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, who started going to races there while he was a student at South Carolina. “Nobody had anything else to do.”
Because Thursday was payday for soldiers stationed in Columbia, and if the track had waited until Saturday most of those potential paying customers would have been out of money.
Gilder, who says he has been a race fan for as long as he can remember, created a site, www.racersreunion.com, to bring attention to drivers who competed in stock-car racing’s early years.
“The whole thing is about putting fans back in touch with retired drivers,” Gilder said. “The thing about a lot of race fans is that they’re fans of a driver for life, even after that driver drops out of the spotlight. But the sad thing is some of the drivers are sitting at home thinking that nobody remembers them or cares where they are.”
Fond memories of Columbia Speedway kept popping up on the web site, Gilder said. So he rode to the site of the track in Cayce, S.C., and the light came on in his eyes, too.
“That,” Gilder says, “is hallowed ground.”
The idea of next week’s reunion, which will be held on the actual pavement left over from after the clay surface was paved in 1971, didn’t take long to take off.
“I have never in my life been involved in something where so many passionate people want to see something happen,” Gilder said. “We’ve had more than 80 volunteer to work on the track. We had one guy who said he wanted to come down to rebuild the old flag stand. He got there and saw we could use some help, so he left and, two hours later, he was there with two tractor-trailer loads of heavy equipment.”
The workers have cut down trees and cleared the weeds so that vintage cars will be displayed – three-wide – on the old racing surface. Tents for autograph sessions and food vendors will be set up on what was pit road.
Things will kick off Friday night at Maurice’s Barbecue just down the road. After food and music there, vintage cars will have a “cruise-in” to the track site behind a flatbed truck that on Saturday will be a centerpiece of the reunion.
In Columbia’s heyday, a flatbed was always parked between turns 1 and 2. It was one part media center and one part hangout.
“If you wrecked out of a race there, most of the time you wouldn’t even go back to the garage,” Buddy Baker says. “You’d just go down and climb up on the flatbed. You knew that’s where everything was going to be happening.”
Jim Hunter, now NASCAR’s director of corporate communications, started going to Columbia with his teammates on the South Carolina’s football team. Like Wheeler, Hunter also did a stint as a reporter at Columbia’s afternoon newspaper, the Record, and found himself watching the action from the back of that truck.
“When I was going there they had a bounty on Ralph Earnahrdt – they called him “Last Lap Ralph” because he would wait until the last lap and win,” Hunter says. “He had Dale down there with him, and Dale must have been 12 or 13, just hanging around.”
Hunter and Wheeler both said they saw a race where Turner showed up late wearing a business suit. Turner took off his coat, jumped in the car wearing his dress shirt with a loosened tie still around his neck and won the race.
“Joe Weatherly tapped Buck Baker coming off the fourth turn on the last lap and won there one night,” Wheeler says. “Buck said, ‘I didn’t know Joe was that hungry.’ ”
Buddy Baker remembers a post-race fracas between Tiny Lund and LeeRoy Yarbrough.
“LeeRoy kept getting mad at Tiny, who was just a mountain, and we would tell him, ‘You cannot mess with that man,’ ” Baker says. “But after one race LeeRoy got so mad that he went running at Tiny and tried to knock him down. LeeRoy just bounced off. Tiny reared back to take a swing at LeeRoy and a police officer saw what was going to happen. The officer threw his leg out to block Tiny’s punch and Tiny broke his ankle.”
Hunter chuckles when he hears that story.
“It could be rough,” Hunter says. “But it was some great racing.”