Forty years ago when my sports editor told me to go to Daytona and cover the race, my reaction was, “Go where and do what?”
I had absolutely no interest in spending a week with a bunch of sun-burned beach Bubbas.
Then I glanced out the widow of my Nashville newspaper office, saw the snow piling up, and decided it wouldn’t hurt to migrate South for a few days.
Over the next four decades I fell in love with Daytona. I came to like everything about it – the mild February weather, carousing with my sportswriter cronies, the excitement and drama of a fresh new season.
I took early retirement a couple of years ago to escape 7-day workweeks, pressure-cooker deadlines, incessant travel, dreary motel rooms, grumpy editors and new-fangled computers that made me long for my old manual Underwood. (Once when my PC quit working a technician told me to boot it – it landed in the back yard.)
Back to Daytona: I get antsy this time of year. I miss the 11-hour drive down with my buddy Don Christopher (aka Road Hog), a February road ritual for 30 some-odd years (some odder than others.)
A few flashbacks:
• Getting snowbound in Valdosta returning home the year of the Big Infield Brawl.
• Richard Petty strolling over to our table at a restaurant one night to chat and shaking hands with Don. Don hasn’t washed his hands since.
• Making our annual pilgrimage to the Boot Hill Saloon where we were impressed by the fact that the toilet paper is chained to the wall.
• Going to some other places I promised my wife we’d never go to again.
• Visiting Fireball Roberts’ gravesite, the silence of the cemetery eerily interrupted by the hum of racing engines off in the distance.
• Don eating a bad clam or oyster or burger one night and getting food poisoning. For awhile I was afraid he would die. For awhile Don was afraid he wouldn’t.
• Seeing Darrell Waltrip, whom I’d covered since his early days at Nashville, finally breaking his Daytona jinx and doing the Icky Shuffle.
• Seeing Bobby Allison and son Davey in their glory.
• Bidding a sad farewell to nice guy Neil Bonnett.
• Watching a kid named Gordon turn some hot laps amid speculation that he might have a future in the sport.
• Thanking Bill Broadrick, the Victory Circle “Hat Man,” for picking up yet another phonebook-sized tab in the Boar’s Head Lounge.
• Savoring the simple pleasure of unfolding the Daytona Beach News-Journal over a steaming stack of blueberry pancakes.
• Chuckling during Bill France Sr.’s address to the traditional STP media/drivers breakfast as he quipped that, at his age, he finally understood what STP stands for: “Sex Takes Patience.” Yes, Bloody Mary’s were served.
• Searching out Smokey Yunick’s famous “Best Damn Garage.”
• Holding our breath in the tomb-silent press box as rescue workers extracted Dale Earnhardt from his crushed car – broken by gasps when Mike Helton told us he was gone.
Those, and a million more …
Daytona is like life itself – good times, bad times, fun times, sad times.
As Don and I watch Sunday’s race on TV we’ll swap stories about our Daytona Days, re-live adventures and shenanigans, recall legendary racers and colorful companions.
We’ll raise a toast to the old gang and to old times not forgotten.
Daytona. What a ride it was.
– Larry Woody can be reached at