Rockingham 1973: When The King Ruled The Rock
It is not the perfect beginning to a fantasy, but then it is. In "it" I am standing in the hot morning sun, suffering from a hangover. My head is a fog, my mouth an ashtray, my stomach an anchor; each symptom a miserable consequence which naturally follows overindulgence lest we all end up happily drowned in whiskey… and all of these symptoms despite the “hair of the dog” I’d drunk for breakfast. I am watching a woman make her way over to where I am leaned against my Mercury. I do not know the woman, but I know who she is. Hell, everybody does. She is at least somewhat locally famous. She is Tippy Topp, the sports reporter at Channel Five News in Charlotte. I am inwardly thrilled as I watch her dog trotting across pit road to interview me, a woman on a mission with her cameraman in tow, but I am also disappointed that she is crossing over not because she wants to, but because she must. I am her story, or soon will be; no matter whether I end the day dead or alive. Tippy Topp is perky, clear-eyed, clever, and freckled. On this particular morning she is also particularly annoying.
Her approach ends suddenly, a step or two before she intends it to. The sudden stop causes her unobservant cameraman to climb up her back, knocking her that extra step closer, furthering her already obvious irritation. My greeting from her, a complete stranger, is “Jesus, what bus ran over your ass?” Horror and disgust cling as vividly to her smirking lips as the bright pink lipstick she has slathered upon them. My initial impression is that she does not care for me, so I run with that.
The microphone in her hand is not live, nor even raised. My eyes are locked on the ground when she arrives, down where her feet happen to be, feigning shyness as a country boy will. The first thing after the smirk to catch my attention is the fact that she is not wearing any panty hose, which seems unusual for her kind. My eyes take their time digesting this tidbit. They take in her hose-less toes, primly painted in the same gaudy shade as her lips. They then move on to admire the nice shape her stiletto heels give to her feet and ankles, and to the muscular swells of her calves. The eyes stop altogether just above her knee, where both her bare thigh and skirt hem begin their ascents. My imagination wonders if hose are the only things that are missing under there? I clear my throat, a diversion which allows my eyes time to linger even longer as they continue upward, over her curved hips, flattened stomach, and down into the silky v-necked blouse which cuts low, almost rudely between a pair of seductively supported breasts. The breasts prove that she did not forget everything that goes underneath. By now she is aware that I am playing her. My shit eating grin has given me away once again, but she is not so different from me as she would like to think. I see the traces of a smile hedge it's way through the smirk before my seduction attempt wanes.
”We’re on in two,” she says, gathering herself, and rallying the cameraman. “Really though, tell me what happened to your face? Off the record? Are you going to try to drive with your eyes swollen like that? How will you see? You really look like shit.” There is nothing so painful as brutal honesty from a beautiful woman.
The pool cue to the face had been a surprise, sort of. When you are drinking in the kind of place where that sort of thing happens regularly then nothing should ever be totally unexpected, should it? And I had been drinking in that sort of place. What the hell else was there to do on a Saturday night in this shit-hole town; a town that quadruples in size on it’s biannual race days? But rather than give vent to her curiosity I reach into my pocket for a Marlboro and make a show of lighting up, which proves not so simple. The act lacks the intended savior faire, what with my split upper lip and all. But not to worry, I remind myself. It is only a fantasy.
The initial influx of smoke and nicotine eases my misery somewhat, magically clearing my head of it’s fog. Who knows, perhaps there is some magic hidden in a tobacco leaf; the good sort of magic, to off-set the bad. The camera clicks on, whirring to life, and so does the woman. “We are here trackside with pole sitter Huckleberry Hoo. ’Huck, yours is a fresh, new, if somewhat battered face in the racing world. Do you think you can pull off an upset in today’s 500 miler?”
“Yep.” I end the interview there.
She waits, her microphone outstretched, expecting more. I take another soothing drag before reaching inside the glass-less window of the car for my helmet. There is no sense in talking when it is time to show out, and I am ready. She has made me ready.
Hell, I was born ready. My daddy was a racer too, a damned good one. Raised me in a tool shed, he did. I have a half-a-life behind me of busted knuckles, greasy t-shirts, AM radios, and long-eyed hounds lounging in the corner shade. There was no room in my Old Man’s world for fishing, football, or even women. In his mind there was only so much time until Saturday Night, and what little time there was, was not to be wasted.
Folks would never know it, but he was a talker, my Old Man. With our feet sticking out from under that dented up Mercury I heard, and re-heard, every detail about every corner of every lap of every race that his old Mercury ever slid a turn through. I knew more about driving at eleven years old than most folks will ever learn. I understood how to steer into turns, how to turn with the accelerator, how to accelerate while braking, and how to brake for more speed, all before I ever sat behind a wheel. Once I did finally get into the driver’s seat I burned up every dirt and asphalt road in Albemarle and the surrounding counties with a determined need to go ever faster.
And now I am here, a cocky twenty year old starting on the pole at North Carolina Motor Speedway. There are 33,000 rednecks in the stands and fifty times that number tuned in from all points south to hear Eli Gold and Tippy Topp describe the action on the syndicated "Motor Racing Network". As I gaze across the colorful Fruit Loop bowl of humanity that is a race track I wonder that it is real, and that my time is finally come. The crowd is humbling, the moment frightening, the responsibility unnerving, but there is not a damned thing to lose while there is everything to gain, so I climb through the window and strap myself to a rocket.
It is not the perfect midpoint for a fantasy story, but then it is. Tippy Topp is still standing beside my sponsor-less Mercury when it fires up, her forgotten microphone still in hand, and still hot. She has never before been so close when the monster is unleashed. The low, deep-throat rumble that never fails to thrill a country boy stands the hairs of her body on end, tickling her senses deeper still when the other forty-two cars follow suit, loosing an electric, almost sexual current that courses up from the ground and through her body as though she was some lightening rod for thrill. The burnt odors of intoxicating, high octane vapors emitted from the unmuffled engines whisks her lightened head up with them high into the atmosphere where she swirls along, sucking in behind the train of cars, looking down as the twin lines of racers snake onto the track, and through turn one. She never asked the big shots at the station for this racing gig. She had not even wanted it when they offered it to her. "Who cares about a bunch of rednecks driving around in circles," she had thought at the time? But in this moment there is no place she would rather be as the train of cars weaves it's way down the backstretch, their echoes bouncing off the grandstands sounding for all the world like some giant child hidden behind them is warbling a great piece of sheet metal and laughing at the fun.
“Shit-fuck,“ she whispers, forgetting that her microphone is live, and not understanding the happy roar that erupts from the front stretch grandstands as her words echo through the cheap carnival speakers dangling from the catch-fence poles.
The day is perfect for racing. High above the infield sponsor’s flags pop brightly against a Petty blue sky… Purolator, Goodyear, Budweiser, but it is mostly STP flags dancing on the August breeze, long live "The King". Below the flags a predominantly male crowd waits and watches in their short sleeved, plaid button-ups and their faded ball caps. They eat from buckets of fried chicken, tossing the gnawed bones onto the track once the meat is sucked clean, and then mindlessly wipe their greasy fingers onto their Levi's. They drink Pabst Blue Ribbon’s, plug the engine noise from their ears with cigarette butts, and wave their caps at their favorite driver as he passes them by during their warm-up laps. Our reporter finds the hillbilly scene amusing until the green flag falls.
There is a new roar now, not like a playing child, but an angry roar, like an innumerable swarm of hornets seeking a target. The cars are off in earnest now, testing each other's speed, and seeking out early advantages. Her eyes go to the front of the line, to the white car with the red #10. She watches as the car sweeps through turns three and four. It enters the front stretch in the lead, but is chased by a pack of lean, equally hungry, and more experienced racers. The lines of cars part around the youngster as they yip at his heels, attacking him high and low through the steeply banked turns. He somehow holds his line through the dog-leg, then pushes back to the front as they enter turn one, though not without contact, and not without his car ice skating shakily high-up towards the concrete barrier before brushing lightly off of it, allowing room for Bobby Allison in the #11 car and Richard Petty in the #43 to clear the rookie via a lower line through the turns.
The reporter finds her body tense, every muscle tightened. Her free hand covers her mouth as the white car slides back down the race track, seems to find it’s footing, and then screams above the roars of the other cars to a spot beneath the #43 car, the famous blue and red car driven by Richard Petty, the undisputed “King” of NASCAR. Unintimidated by his reputation, the youngster pulls inside of Petty. When his bumper draws even with Petty’s driver side door the kid lets his car ease up the track until Petty has to either give way, or crash. It is a gutsy move, but it is also early in the race. Petty withdraws, knowing there is time, knowing it is a rookie to his inside. He is “The King” for a reason. Richard Petty has been here before. He has done that. He is not willing to race the kid hard… not yet. Bobby Allison though? Now he is another matter.
It is the most thrilling afternoon in Tippy's memory. She is utterly exhausted with 25 laps to go, and can not imagine what the men in the cars must be feeling after four hours of non-stop, high speed danger. The kid, Huckleberry Hoo, has more than held his own with the greatest racers in the world. For the last 30 laps he and Allison swap the lead through nearly every turn, with Allison having the straightaway speed, and Huckleberry enjoying the advantage through the corners. Tippy Topp has unintentionally transformed from reporter to fan. She cheers the youngster on so enthusiastically that her radio audience picks up on her excitement, making the rookie driver with one race under his belt an instant fan favorite. He had made a mockery of her interview, had made her look foolish even, but the way he looked at her had captured her like a fly in a web, and she could resist her curiosity no more than a fly could have. Four hours and an entire race after the fact the memory of his eyes was still with her, they still lingering on her, right where she wanted them to be. Swollen from some untold accident and blue with bruising, those eyes had still smoldered with a fire that admittedly could have been eagerness for the upcoming race, but she did not think so. She thought she had seen something more in them, something personal, something that made her skin crave his hands, and her hands crave his skin... but I hope the reader will please allow her these desires. It is a fantasy after all, even if it is not hers.
It is not the perfect ending for a fantasy, but then it is. Victory Lane awaits the fortunate. It requires more than skill to win a grueling 500 mile race. It requires the speed to get to the front, the team to keep the car running, the luck to avoid wrecks, it requires all of those and the money to pay for them. Richard Petty has the money. Huckleberry Hoo does not, but sometimes money is not the end all, do all. Sometimes good things happen to good people.. errr... to regular people, anyway. This fantasy is one of those times. It is, after all, my fantasy.
For while Bobby Allison and Huckleberry Hoo battled the afternoon away, Petty had lurked in third place, allowing the two doing battle to wear down their brakes and trade their paint. A wiser, older King Richard held back awaiting a mistake, knowing the likelihood of it, and biding his time 'til it came. Bobby Allison was a tough cookie, Petty figured. Bobby would find a way to knock the kid out, and then the two old pro’s would battle it out with each other for the win.
But that never happened. Petty waited too long, and Bobby finally slowed. Worn tires were the reason. The kid was faster through the turns all day, and the last 50 miles were too much for Allison’s Chevrolet. By the time Richard Petty saw what was happening it was too late for him, too.
Oh, he made a run all right. They don’t call him “The King” for nothing. That familiar blue and red Dodge came like a bat out of hell during those last five laps. There were several moments when Tippy Topp thought Petty had the lead, moments when Petty’s car got up under Huckleberry’s, pushing the youngster for all he was worth, nipping at his heels and bumping at his fenders, but somehow the kid hung on. Somehow he wrestled that Mercury from off of the wall, and from out of the pits until the checkered flag finally flew for him and for him alone. Somehow, Tippy was sure, it was her prayers that kept that Mercury in the lead when nothing else could have. Somehow, she was sure, she was the reason for Huckleberry’s success, and he was hers now to love forever. She was a fan. Huckleberry was hers; her driver, her man, and no other would ever do. And so, it was with the understanding that love works in strange and mysterious ways that Tippy Topp made her way to the Winner’s Circle, and to her newly “self-anointed” man.
Huckleberry Hoo was already on the podium when she arrived, basking in the thrill of victory. The flying confetti, popping flashbulbs, spraying champagne, and the pretty girls in skimpy Winston cigarette outfits clinging to either of his arms gave Tippy Topp pause. What, after all, had Huckleberry Hoo said or done to make her think he cared about her? Was she some love struck teenager lost in her own excitement? He had blown her off during her interview. Who was to say he wouldn’t do so again. She hesitated, not wanting to risk another rejection. She turned to sneak away, mumbling under her breath as she did so, “I’d still like to know what happened to his face.”
"Shoot. I can tell you that."
Eli Gold, her radio partner, had come up beside her while she was lost in her thoughts, catching her off guard. “Oh, Eli! I'm sorry. I was just thinking aloud.”
"Yes, I heard. It's a bad habit, but I can tell you what happened to his face. Huckleberry got it smashed in by a cue stick at The Palomino Club last night.”
"What? How could you know that?"
“Why, I was there!”
"You were there? You’re a married man, Eli! What were you doing out drinking all night?"
"Yes, I’m a married man, and happily married too, but I’m also a sports radio guy. If I want to talk about the racing scene, then I have to be a part of it, don’t I? But no worries Tippy, I was drinking soda." Eli winks, and smiles at her like a guilty school boy.
"So tell me already. What happened?" She did not try to hide her curiosity.
"Some drunks playing pool started talking bad about this woman, see. Huckleberry Hoo put his drink down and went in to ’em swinging. He laid two of them out stone cold before a third one clocked him with a pool stick."
"Really?" Tippy seemed lost in thought. "Was the woman his girlfriend?"
"Nah… that's the funny part. She was just some woman on the TV above the bar." Eli’s devilish smile told her that the woman in question was more than just some unknown person on the television. Tippy felt her cheeks start to burn with a very comfortable fever.
"What woman, Eli? Tell me, dammit!" She could not help but ask the question, even though she already suspected the answer.
It was surprising to no one when the beautiful female reporter climbed the steps to join in the victory celebration. It shocked no one when she approached the race winner, who was still toting around a lovely and talented Winston Girl on either arm. What was surprising to all who were there was how the reporter dropped her mike as she approached him, took his battered face roughly in her hands, and pulled his lips to her own. What was shocking to all who saw was how those two young Winston lovelies tumbled so quickly from the vast heights of celebrity vain-glory down into instant has-been dismay. What impressed the men in the crowd was how the young racer seemed overmatched by the aggressive reporter at first, and seemed about to slam into the outside wall before recovering his lost nerve. But it did not take him very long to catch on to her notion. It is true that her initial forwardness blindsided the youngster, setting him back on his heels, but just like with the earlier challenge from Richard Petty, Huckleberry Hoo quickly recovered his footing. Like the true competitor and champion that he was, the youngster quickly assessed the situation and managed to give as good as he got. In fact, it was not long before Miss Tippy Topp found herself on the defensive, although no one could have called her surrender unwilling.
As the crowd began to disperse the happy ending became more HBO, and less Hallmark Channel. Mothers began pulling their children away from the stage, covering their eyes while the older southern gentlemen who regularly tithed before the Sunday races found themselves unwilling, if not unable, to look away.
When the couple finally did pull themselves apart, Tippy‘s hunger was obvious. Her perfect coif askew, her breasts heaving in great gasps beneath her low, v-necked blouse, she grasped Huckleberry by the hand and led him down the Victory Lane steps and away from those five thousand prying eyes, hurrying him off toward the safety and privacy of her hot pink, '55, Coup de Ville. (Come on now, what fantasy is complete without a hot pink Cadillac convertible? The perfect ride for the perfect woman?)
”Eli told me what you did at The Palomino last night,“ Tippy said, her bedroom eyes aglow. “How you defended your lady.”
There followed an uncomfortable silence as Huckleberry took in what she said before finally responding. “Son of a bitch! Let a woman gussy herself up all nice and she sure does begin to think highly of herself, doesn’t she? The hell you say, Woman? I just went in there lookin’ for a fight!”
Tippy grabbed him by the belt buckle then, using it to pull Huckleberry onto the rear, white leather seat of the Barbie pink car.
“Well, Huckleberry Hoo,” she whispers as she unfastens the buckle. “If it’s a fight you like, you are in for one.”
And that is all you get to know about my fantasy, as there are some things that even a fantasy woman doesn't want told...