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ThatsRacin.com


Higgin's Scuffs: My favorite memories of our new Hall of Famers

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Thursday, May. 23, 2013

Astonishingly, although approximately 200 feet of steel guard rail was down in the first turn, the Southern 500 rolled on at Darlington Raceway on on Sept. 1, 1958.

Rolling fastest and smoothest was Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, driving a sleek, white No. 22 Chevrolet. His lap times never varied despite the dangers so obvious due to the missing barrier.

Three cars—driven by Eddie Pagan, Eddie Gray and Jack Smith—went out of the track in the first turn. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries to the trio.

Crazy as it has seemed through succeeding years, officials did not red-flag the race. Drivers were told to “go low and slow” through Turn 1. Most complied. Except Fireball.

Roberts’ lead grew and grew, especially after the engine in the strong Ford of Junior Johnson failed. The flying Fireball won by five laps over runnerup Buck Baker.

Afterward, Roberts said he was “very concerned” about a six-inch piece of sharp railing jutting almost into his groove entering the turn.

The concern definitely didn’t show to me, a 20-year-old rookie reporter. The memory of that Labor Day 55 years ago vividly flashed back Wednesday when Roberts and four others -- drivers Tim Flock, Jack Ingram, Dale Jarrett and engine-builder Maurice Petty -- were elected for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.

Heck, I am reminded of it daily. A magnificent framed print of Roberts and that beautiful ’57 Chevy, sailing through what was then Darlington’s first turn with the guardrail gone, hangs in the little office of my home. The artist? Buz McKim, now the curator at the Hall of Fame.

After joining the sports staff at The Charlotte Observer in 1964, I covered every race at Charlotte Motor Speedway through 1996 except one—the 1964 World 600. It wasn’t until Monday after the race that I learned of the grave burns suffered by Fireball in a crash. The injuries took his life 30 days later in a Charlotte hospital.

I have been forever thankful that I wasn’t at the speedway that sorrowful Sabbath so long ago. I prefer to remember Fireball Roberts as McKim painted him, flying through the first turn at Darlington.

Some special memories of the others to be inducted:

Trudging up the hill toward the press box at Bristol International Speedway to cover a Volunteer 500 I saw a crowd gathered behind the main grandstand.

"A fight already," I thought to myself.

Gales of laughter quickly indicated it was something else indeed. Tim Flock was holding court.

The personable NASCAR pioneer was at Bristol to sell tickets to upcoming races as a representative of Charlotte Motor Speedway. His wife Frances stood at his side, listening in amusement. Flock was regaling perhaps 100 people with tales of stock car racing’s early days.

His most uproarious story concerned racing through a flock of sea gulls on the old Beach Course at Daytona in the 1950s. “As I came back around the next lap, those gulls were a half-mile out to sea!” said Tim a two-time champion in what is now the Cup Series.

I was standing at the rail near the finish line of a small trotter track in Delaware, hoping to make a dollar or two on the horses when I saw a familiar face.

It was that of Dale Jarrett, a second-generation competitor seeking to get a career going in NASCAR’s Busch Series. He was accompanied by his crew chief, John Irvin. Neither of us had cashed a winning ticket.

Hoping to get even, we pooled $15 on an exacta.

One of our horses probably is still trotting, trying to get around the track.

“We can’t afford this,” said Dale.

Now, the son of Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett, probably could readily buy that track and have lots of money left over.

He was destined to win the 1999 series title, three Daytona 500s, two Brickyard 400s and become a popular analyst on racing telecasts.

For years Jack Ingram drove perhaps the drabbest car in racing. His No. 11, was painted brown.

Contrasted to the machines of competitors, that Chevrolet was, well, ugly.

The car regularly was the butt of jokes in the press box. I often instigated them. “Baby doo-doo brown,” I called it.

When Ingram finally got his first national sponsor, Skoal, along with its green-and-white scheme, the first question asked of him at Atlanta Motor Speedway was, “Jack, what are you going to do with all that old brown paint?”

“Save it as a memory of the championships I have won in it,” Jack shot back.

Now he can relish it helping him ride into the Hall of Fame. He is the first member who raced almost exclusively in what became the Nationwide Series, where he won five titles.

On Sept. 8, 1957 I covered the first race I ever saw, a 100-miler at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway.

I arrived at the rustic track well before race time and, although nervous, decided to walk along the “garage area” behind the pit wall to introduce myself.

Among the first I met were Lee Petty and his sons, Richard and Maurice. Their cousin, Dale Inman, also was helping them work on Lee’s No. 42 blue Olds, which was to win the race.

Although busy, they took a minute or so to welcome me to the sport, destined to become our lives. I was struck by the friendliness of the Pettys, and others that day, including Rex White and Marvin Panch.

Who would have imagined back then that someday there would be a NASCAR Hall of Fame? And that with the election of Maurice, the first engine builder to be chosen, all four in the Petty quartet would be in it?