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The day that racing took a back seat

- Special Correspondent
Sunday, Jul. 19, 2009

Everyone gathered at Bristol International Raceway wanted the Volunteer 500 to finish quickly.

The drivers, their crews, the NASCAR officials, the fans and members of the media.

Everyone.

This is because the date was July 20, 1969.

Later that afternoon, two American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, were scheduled to become the first human beings to land and set foot on THE MOON!

In fact, many among the estimated 32,000 spectators at the Tennessee track 40 years ago left early so they could follow the historic lunar landing on TV.

And they departed prematurely only in part because the No. 17 Holman-Moody Ford started by David Pearson had been driven to a three-lap lead in the crash-filled race.

Stunningly, in the cockpit for the final 146 laps of 500, running in relief of Pearson, was his arch-rival, Richard Petty. Petty’s Ford had blown an engine on Lap 60.

Pearson was stricken with the flu. A soaring thermometer that reached 104 degrees, with accompanying high humidity, had further weakened him. Although leading, he had to get out of his blue and gold car.

The desire of everyone to depart the speedway in the Blue Ridge Mountains was dampened by a rash of wrecks. Owner/promoter Larry Carrier had redesigned the half-mile layout to feature bankings of 33 degrees in the turns. Carrier wanted to have the fastest track of that length in the world. He got it. Pole winner Cale Yarborough, driving a Wood Brothers Mercury, qualified at 103.432 mph, beating the former Bristol time trial mark by approximately 15 mph.

The drivers had a tough time adjusting to Carrier’s changes.

“They’ve ruined a good race track,” said Petty.

The combination of wrecks and high heat, which caused engines to fail, left only 10 of 32 starters running at the finish. And the 10th place driver, the late Roy Tyner, was a whopping 97 laps behind at the checkered flag.

It took 3 hours, 8 minutes to run the 250-mile race.

Upon its completion word came from NASA that Armstrong and Aldrin were going in a bit earlier than planned. This heightened the urge to get home—or SOMEWHERE—to watch the telecast of what was happening on the moon.

The astronauts were scheduled to emerge from the Lunar Lander about 6 hours after touchdown.

“No way we’re going to make it home in time,” I told pals in the press and others from the Charlotte area.

“Don’t worry, we’re going to see it,” said genial, generous Richard Howard, who at that time was running Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I’ll take care of that.”

Howard planned to rent a suite at a Holiday Inn in Boone, only about 90 minutes away from Bristol and en route back to the N.C. Piedmont. “A bunch of us will stop in Boone to tune in to what NASA’s achieving. We won’t miss it.”

Looking ahead, Howard, now deceased, had dispatched a part-time aide, Eddie Proctor of Charlotte, about halfway through the race to make arrangements in Boone.

“Get some champagne and other beverages,” Howard told Proctor.

How this was going to be accomplished mystified me. It was a Sunday, and there strictly were no alcohol sales on The Sabbath in either Tennessee or North Carolina.

But when those of us invited by Howard arrived in Boone about 9 p.m. during a heavy rainstorm, we found Proctor waiting with the refreshments.

Armstrong and Aldrin already were on the moon, having descended at 4:17 p.m. “Houston, Tranquility Base here,” we learned Armstrong had radioed NASA headquarters in Texas. “The Eagle has landed.”

At 10:17 Armstrong came down the lander’s ladder.

As his feet touched the desolate, dusty moonscape, Armstrong stated memorably for all time, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin shortly joined Armstrong outside the lander while Michael Collins awaited in the trio’s space capsule, orbiting the moon.

There was tremendous cheering in the Boone hotel room as Armstrong spoke. People hugged and thumped each other on the back. Tears were in most all eyes.

Suddenly, there was loud pounding on the door of the room where about 20 people were celebrating.

We found a guy standing there in his underwear.

“How about holding it down in here!” he shouted angrily. “We’re trying to sleep next door. We’re going to Tweetsie Railroad tomorrow!” Tweetsie is an amusement park at Blowing Rock, N.C., mainly an attraction to kids.

“Man,” someone said, “Americans have landed on the moon!”

“I don’t give a damn who has landed where,” the guy said. “Shut up the noise.”

One fellow in the room was mightily offended.

“You unpatriotic S.O.B!” he yelled, lunging toward the door. “You’re going to see Tweetsie through black eyes, ‘cause I’m going to give you the whipping of your life!”

The man in his skivvies took off running through the rain across the inn’s expansive yard. Howard’s friend was right behind him. The friend’s wife at the time followed, loudly demanding that her husband give up the chase.

In the distance, a siren wailed.

Someone had called the cops.

Common sense prevailed, and the chap intent on punishing the Tweetsie fan returned to Howard’s suite.

Howard, who could have been a U.N. diplomat, patiently explained to two policemen what had happened.

They understood, and left laughing about the incident.

In 2003 I took my then 8-year-old grandson, Jeffrey McCarter of Mooresville, to Kitty Hawk for the centennial celebration of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.

Among the honored guests on Dec. 17 were Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

We saw them, but never met them.

If we had, I’d have told Armstrong the tale about a guy I know chasing a stranger in his underwear through the rain around an inn in Boone.

It would have been a first-person story.

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