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Tom Higgins: A prankster par excellence

TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFS

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011

The aroma of blooming azaleas filled the air at Florence Country Club that soft, warm spring evening in South Carolina in 1990. NASCAR’s TranSouth 500 loomed a couple days later at nearby Darlington Raceway.

The night was so nice that upon leaving the UNOCAL Record Club Dinner, an annual event at the club honoring the speedway’s fastest qualifiers through the years, I decided to put down the top on my little Pontiac Sunbird convertible.

Unknowingly, pushing the button to lower that canvas roof was to provide a memory of Dale Earnhardt that will linger for my lifetime.

The incident returned vividly to mind this week. It rolled back all over again when a friend in Mooresville, N.C., where we both live, asked me to recount a favorite “away-from-the-track” recollection of Earnhardt.

The NASCAR hall of famer, a seven-time Cup Series champion who also made his home in Mooresville, lost his life 10 years ago on Feb. 18 in a last-lap Daytona 500 crash.

The driver that some rate stock car racing’s best is being memorialized in many ways this week, including a tribute planned during the 500’s running on Sunday.

Now, picking up the tale of that fine evening in Florence…

I left the country club and headed down South Cashua Drive toward the Swamp Fox Inn. For years during the 1970s and into the ‘90s many of the racing teams and practically the whole motorsports press corps stayed at the rural motel when the schedule took the Cup Series to Darlington.

I slipped a CD into the convertible’s player and Artie Shaw’s version of “Begin The Beguine” flowed from the speakers. I’d begun to sing along when…

HORROR!

Something grabbed the left side of my neck and clamped down hard!

I was doing 45 to 50 mph on the four-lane road and suddenly, without warning, I’d been attacked.

For several seconds I was too shocked and scared to look and see what had so forcefully taken hold of me.

My mind whirled.

What could it be?!

Had some critter dropped into my car from an overhanging tree? Or maybe I’d been targeted by a confused great horned owl.

One of those owls had swooped down to claw at a fisherman one night a few months earlier at Lake Wylie, near Charlotte.

It flashed through my mind that maybe my considerable sins were being punished. Was it Satan?

Finally, I gathered the courage to glance to my left.

It was a “devil,” all right.

I looked right into the face of Dale Earnhardt. He was grinning widely with mischievous glee as he gripped my throat in a painful vise.

Earnhardt was stretching from the passenger-side window of a big Cadillac driven by his NASCAR team owner, Richard Childress. Earnhardt appeared to be out of the car to his waist, a very risky thing to do.

He and Childress had left the country club dinner right behind me. They spontaneously decided to try and scare me.

Once clear of heavy traffic, Childress turned off the Caddy’s lights and drove alongside just inches from my car, positioning Earnhardt to within “grabbing range.”

I could hear Childress bellow with laughter when he saw the fright and astonishment on my face.

Finally, Earnhardt, who loved outrageous “stunts” of this nature, let go of my neck.

“Damn you Dale!” I screamed as he slipped back into the Cadillac and Childress sped away.

I slowed and pulled off the highway for a couple minutes to regain my composure.

When I arrived at the motel I found Earnhardt and Childress awaiting, exulting in how badly they’d shaken me.

They demanded to see if I had wet my pants.

I hadn’t, but it was close.

For the rest of his life, Earnhardt, destined to win that '90 TranSouth 500, teasingly reminded me of his audacious prank.

As if I could forget...

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