Somehow I ran across an out-of-print book called “The Last Lap.” It is 15 years old but tells an intriguing, timeless tale of the early days of America’s first stock car racers.
These colorful characters ruled the sport 30 years before I ever set foot at a track. The legend of many of those men outlived their years on earth, so I sometimes heard tales of their wild, renegade ways. Whenever we raced at Riverside International Raceway in California, someone was likely to mention Joe Weatherly.
Riverside — which was ripped up years ago to build a shopping mall — was a dusty, old road course between brown, barren hills when I first made its acquaintance. This was in the days before all NASCAR tracks had to glisten, shine and cost a lot of money to build. Folks sat in wooden, pitiful looking bleachers; the garage was nothing more than a shabby, tin-roof cover; and everyone from drivers to fans to young PR girls like me were covered in dry, brown dust when the day ended.
The press box never had more than eight or nine reporters in it and only two of them came from Southern California. The others were full-time writers who chased the circuit that was chasing glory.
It was where Bill Elliott won his first race and where Tim Richmond won his first race and, four years later, his last race before quitting to live out his final year of life. It was where timid Stevie Waltrip approached me in the press box while her dust-covered husband, Darrell, sat in the middle of the room, swigging Gatorade and answering questions from three reporters about that day’s win. She struck up a conversation with me that started a thick-as-thieves friendship that sticks strong today.
But Riverside — as I was reminded while reading the deliciously entertaining “The Last Lap,” — was always haunted by the ghost of Weatherly. Those who knew him spoke of him when we ran Riverside and told hard-to-believe stories.
The talented Weatherly was the running buddy and hard-partying comrade of the irrepressible Curtis Turner. The two were known for their antics off the track as well as their charging, all-out efforts to win every race. They once drove a rental car into a swimming pool, climbed out and left it there. Those two were so hard on rental cars Hertz finally put out an all-points bulletin to its locations saying, “Do not rent to either of these men under any circumstances.”
During our last race in Riverside in 1988, I was working with the equally legendary Bud Moore, a car owner since the 1950s. A big, formidable, no-nonsense man, Mr. Bud, as I respectfully called him, had hired and managed some of the most unmanageable personalities in the sport. Like Dale Earnhardt.
“When I got him, he took some tamin’,” Mr. Bud told me, not bragging but stating the facts. “When he came to drive for me, he was used to doing as he darn well pleased. If he had an appointment with a sponsor but if it was a good day for fishin’, he went fishin’. I had to learn him different.”
The day before the final race in Riverside, I found Mr. Bud sitting by himself on the pit wall so I sat down. Quietly, he pointed to a wall. “That’s where it happened.”
Weatherly, driving for Moore in 1964, lost control of the car coming out of the esses, spun and hit the wall on the driver’s side. His head came out the window and smacked the wall, killing him. Mr. Bud’s craggy, leathery face was covered in sadness, his blue eyes darkened by the memory.
Now that track is long gone and with it the memory of a racing warrior. Today, someone is buying coffee on the same ground where once a man’s life ended. His last lap.
How unpoetic is that?
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “There’s A Better Day A-Comin’.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com/ronda.