Today is your 58th birthday and I want to take this opportunity to tell you how much I appreciate everything you have done for me. I was thinking of you this weekend, and I wanted to share with you one of my most treasured memories from my childhood.
It’s been more than 20 years, but I remember the details like they happened yesterday. The years that I was 9 and 10 years old, I was allowed to miss one day of school in May and one in October. I would help you pack up your full-size work van and we would hit the open road for the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, NC. It might only be 2 hours from Greenville to Charlotte, but it seemed like a very long drive to me.
Back then, I didn’t know a thing about Nascar racing, except that you loved to watch the races on Sunday afternoons and Colin and I had to be very quiet or we wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the living room. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world when I was invited to go with you to the big race, the Coca Cola 600. We were going to be camping in the infield, right in the center of the race track. How exciting!
I remember that you had built a wooden platform on top of your van. It was painted the same color burgundy as the van. Once at the races, you would climb up the handmade wooden ladder to the top, where your friend would hand up the railings you had made to fit down into the platform, creating a deck where we could all sit and see the racing action.
We would set up the tent, and your friends Richard and Cindy would set up their tent by ours. We cooked out on a camp stove at night and would hike up to the porta-johns to use the bathroom. All day long, the adults would sit up on the platform in camp chairs, smoking cigarettes and watching the races. I remember that I’d stay up there until I couldn’t anymore, until I was too hot and bored to stand it anymore. The qualifying races weren’t that interesting to me. I’d climb down the ladder and curl up in the tent to read a book or write in my journal. I might have complained (I’m sure I did, honestly) but I was grateful to be there, to be included.
On Friday, there would be a qualifying race, and again all day Saturday. In between qualifiers, we could walk across the race track to the mass of trailers set up to hock Nascar merchandise. It was fun, walking through that crowd, holding your hand. In hindsight, I’m sure it was chock full of rednecks and trashy women, but I didn’t see that as a child. I was just loving the time alone with you.
I remember the excitement of the big Sunday race. We’d wake up early and I’d eat cereal in a blue and white speckled camp bowl while you would boil water for coffee on the camp stove. We’d all climb up the ladder to the platform and wait for the race to start. My favorite part was always the start of the race, or just after the cars had been under the caution flag, when the pace car would come out and then speed into the pits, like a mouse being chased by frantic cats.
I’d watch the numbers on the center scoreboard, cheering when your favorite (and thus, mine), Bill Elliott, would pull ahead, grumbling with the adults when the least liked drivers would take the lead. There was so much positive energy at the end of the 600 laps, when the winner would finally cross the finish line and declare his victory.
On the drive home, it was always dark. I’d watch the headlights of the oncoming traffic, listening to Dire Straits and Van Halen on the radio, talking with you about school or my siblings or the weekend we’d just shared. I remember these moments so fondly… the only times I ever remember being alone with you for any length of time. They meant the world to me.
I went three times in two years to the races in Charlotte with you, and then your friend’s wife Cindy was killed in a car accident. I went with you to the funeral, the first time I’d ever been so close to death. We went once more to the races, but the friend brought his new girlfriend and you didn’t like her much. It wasn’t the same, and we never went back.
I’m not sure if I ever told you, but I loved those race weekends with you. It wasn’t about the races, or the camping. It was about the time spent with you, the conversations and the wonderful feeling of being your only child, just for that weekend.
Thank you for those weekends, Papa. I love you incredibly and I apologize for every time I’ve had a chance to say so, and didn’t. You are an excellent father, and I hope you have a wonderful 58th birthday.
Love from your oldest daughter,