Today's selection is from Mark Bechtel's He Crashed Me So I Crashed Him Back, a romp through NASCAR's pivotal 1979 season. Watch the video below, read the excerpt, and chat with Mark at 1 p.m. in a followup post.
Sunday, February 18, 1979, was a nasty day. A massive blizzard left most of the country snowed in, and — these being pre-cable days — there wasn't much to watch on TV. So hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise never watch a NASCAR race watched a NASCAR race, the Daytona 500. By and large they were mesmerized by what they saw: A thrilling last-lap shootout that left two cars wrecked and ended with Richard Petty, the winningest driver in the sport's history, breaking an 18-month victory drought. To cap it off, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough — who had been involved in the last-lap crash, with Bobby's brother Donnie — got into a fight on the infield. For fans who were seeing the sport for the first time (the '79 500 was the first major NASCAR race shown live from start to finish), the fight was fascinating — because of the televised brawl, the race is considered a seminal moment in NASCAR's history, when it finally began to open eyes outside of the South. But to those within the sport, fighting was nothing new …
Fighting has always been inextricably linked with racing. "It happened all the time on the short tracks, the dirt tracks," says longtime promoter Humpy Wheeler. "On the track after a wreck, in the pits after a wreck, or after the race was over. It was just par for the course. What you would do is try to keep it from becoming a riot, which usually you were successful at. Not all the time."
One of the best fighters ever to drive a car was Tiny Lund. His nickname was ironic — there was nothing little about him. He once got into it with Lee Petty in Greensboro. Back then, drivers were paid on the spot after the race. Most of them put the money to use on the trip home. "So we're in line at the payoff getting our money, and ol' Lee was standing right behind me," said Lund. "We're on a platform, oh, a good fifteen feet in the air."
They had been banging on each other all day on the track, and some words were exchanged. Petty, no small man himself, took a swing at Lund. After he got his money — first things first — Lund took off after Petty, who was at the edge of the platform. "I kicked him in the ass, and I mean he took off of there like a big damned bird," said Lund.
From the ground, Petty looked up at Lund. "Is that the way you fight?"
"Hell no," Lund said. "Stay there. I'm coming down." He jumped off and, he recalled later, "commenced to knocking the shit out of him."
Soon the Petty boys, Richard and Maurice, showed up along with their cousin Dale Inman, brandishing screwdrivers and pop bottles. Lund had some support. Sort of: "Ol' Speedy Thompson, he jumped in there and was gonna help me, but he'd been frog hunting and shot a hole through his toe and he was on a cane. One of them hit him in the goddamned toe and he went hobbling off, holding his foot." Another driver arrived, and just when things were about to get really interesting, Lund felt something hit the back of his head. "I seen butterflies and everything," he said. "It was ol' Liz Petty — Lee's wife. She had a pocketbook. I don't know what she had in it, but she was going Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Just wearing my damned head out. And this broke things up."
So why is brawling a natural by-product of racing? First, consider the obvious answer, courtesy of Richard Petty: "Ever driven a race car?" After three hours of defying death, a man might understandably emerge from his car a little on edge.
But there's more to it than that.
James Webb, U.S. senator from Virginia, wrote a very entertaining and informative book in 2004 called Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, which argues that the inherent feistiness in Appalachian culture can be traced back nineteen centuries to the Roman emperor Hadrian. The Romans had been having trouble subduing the local tribes in northern Britain, and after the Ninth Legion was wiped out trying to quell a minor rebellion, Hadrian decided that it might not be such a good idea to keep fighting them. So he ordered his men to pen them in. In A.D. 122 construction began on a fifteen foot-high wall constructed across the breadth of Great Britain from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, cutting off what is now northern England and Scotland from the rest of the island. In doing so, he made an already clannish people even more isolated.
In the early eighteenth century, the Scots-Irish began immigrating to America in droves. By the time the Declaration of Independence was written, a quarter of a million Scots-Irish had settled in America, primarily in the Carolinas and Virginia, where vestiges of the old country are still evident.
Many of the pejoratives used to demean modern-day inhabitants of the area — and a lot of race fans — have their roots in Scotland and Ireland: redneck (the Presbyterian followers of King William and Queen Mary in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 wore red neckerchiefs), hillbilly (billy being Scottish for friend), and cracker (from craic, a term still used in Ireland and Scotland for conversation, which begat cracker, a term that originally meant someone who boasted or talked too much).
"Because Hadrian's Wall cut them off, the Scots-Irish developed different, socially, than the English did," says Humpy Wheeler. "And then they had to live off a terrible land. Even today in Scotland, there's nothing there. Sheep and rocks and whiskey. And how the Scots-Irish people — and I'm one of them, so I can talk bad about them — just love misery. The worse it is, the better they are.
"I remember Harry Gant won his first race in '82. Harry is from Taylorsville, which is right in the semi-hills of North Carolina. This is a celebration of Harry's first victory. A celebration. They have it at the high school in the gym. The place is packed. Harry's up on the stage, and the country gentlemen are playing bluegrass music, singing a dour, mournful song, "Legend of the Rebel Soldier," which is the saddest song you could possibly sing. It's about a Civil War soldier dying in prison up North. And I'm thinking, Is this Harry's funeral? Is there anybody in here happy? I kept looking around, and I couldn't find anybody. It's just the way it is. It was as typical a Scots-Irish thing as I've ever seen in my life, yet it was in celebration of Harry's victory.
"All that led to people that would literally fight at the drop of a hat. When I was coming up in the '50s, all these mill towns in North and South Carolina, hundreds of them, were populated primarily by Scots-Irish people. In the wintertime, the sport was not basketball. It was boxing. Every little town had a boxing club. They had tournaments galore. These were Scots-Irish kids fighting Scots-Irish kids. That's what it was. Mean group of people."
Of course, etymology is often an inexact science. Alternative theories hold that red-neck comes from the sunburn patterns prevalent on farmers and that cracker comes from the sound made by a slave master's whip.
He's not exaggerating. The first line is, "In a dreary Yankee prison where a rebel soldier lay." The last line is, "Then the rebel soldier died." In between, we learn he left behind a wife and young daughter. It's not the kind of thing you'll hear Up with People singing.