Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1987, I went down to Deland, Florida with my then-girlfriend-now-wife, Susan, to meet my future father-in-law, Colonel Bill Ceely, for the first time. The man had been a test pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He actually knew and hung out with Chuck "Right Stuff" Yeager. And Col. Ceely himself is in the record books as the man who flew the first ever trans-continental auto-pilot flight.
For the first few years of WWII, he was stationed in Wisconsin, taking prototypes of B-29s up in thunderstorms, flying experimental helicopters for 30 miles out and back that had never been taken up more than 60 feet, stuff like that. I once asked him to tell me about the scariest moment of his career. He said, "I was about 100 feet up and about 100 feet past the runway when all four engines went to sleep on me."
"Oh my God, what happened?!"
He shrugged, "Woke up in the hospital."
In 1944, he went to his superiors and told them that if they didn't send him to the war itself, he was gonna quit. Oh, okay, Bill. He then flew 49 missions over Berlin!
This quiet lanky old man was simply the baddest motherhushyermouth I've ever met. Like a Clint Eastwood character, you could just tell he never had to raise his voice the entire time he was a Colonel. Thank God, he liked me. It probably helped that a few of my soon-to-be wife's ex-boyfriends were so obviously not worthy of her.
Anyway, Deland was/is more or less a 25 mile straight line inland from Daytona Beach. About our fourth day in sleepy Mayberry-esque Deland, Susan and I were getting stir crazy. We decided to take an aimless drive to... anywhere. About 40 minutes later, suddenly, on our right, we were passing the world famous Daytona International Speedway. Oh man, let's go check it out, hon. C'mon, please! Okay, Binky.
Digression: I am a major NASCAR fan. It's my sport. I've been glued to my TV since Jim McKay and Chris Economaki were calling races on Wide World Of Sports on ABC in the early 1960s and the races were actually being run by real Fords, Chevys, Mercurys, Dodges, Buicks, Plymouths, etc. Chris Economaki actually conducted what I feel was the single greatest sports interview of all time. Cale Yarborough, one of the best and most ornery NASCAR drivers of all time, had a two-lap lead in a major race back in the late '60s. About 20 laps from the checkered flag, blue smoke started pouring out of the back of his car. His glorious day was ignobly over.
Minutes later, Economaki accosted Yarborough in the pits and demanded,
"What happened out there, Cale?"
Seething, Cale muttered, "Motor went." and stormed off.
Chris waited a beat and... "Back to you, Jim".
And, a few years ago, I saw current five-in-a-row Champion, Jimmy Johnson on 6th Ave. and 27th St. in Manhattan. He was wearing a t-shirt, khaki shorts, flipflops, and a cell phone. I told him I loved his work and he looked at me like, "You know who I am?!"
As my southern-raised wife ruefully jokes, she moved to New York City and still wound up with a redneck.
Anyway, we pulled off the Florida four-lane at the next exit and found our way into the gargantuan and totally deserted Speedway parking lot. We got out of the car and wandered through the wide open main gate and into the grandstand with absolutely no one there to stop us. I could not believe my eyes. I'd been watching races at this track on TV for at least three decades, but, the size and scope of the place in person was almost beyond comprehension. In my head I'd known for many years that the back straightaway was a mile long, but, my brain didn't have the scale correctly envisioned. The place was simply enormous. Even Susan was impressed.
We had been standing there in a state of awe for about a minute when we suddenly heard a gruff voice call out, "Hey, Hoss..." We turned, and back by the front gate, under the mammoth bleachers, stood an old guy in Dockers, white dress shirt, and a baseball cap next to a white stretch-Econoline van with windows. I doubt he weighed more than 300 lbs. and he was certainly less than 6' 8". The kind of tough old bird with a big fat belly that would break your hand if you punched it.
"You and your lady care to take a spin around the track?"
What?! Are you kidding?!
Barely believing our ears, we walked over and introduced ourselves.
"Howdy, I'm Bob. I work here. Where y'all from?" He just loved that we were from New York City.
"Oh, this'll be fun," said Bob sporting a sly smile.
We climbed into the van, me riding shotgun and Susan on the first bench back. "Now, buckle up, ya hear," said Bob. Uh, yeah!
We turned onto the track through a wide open paddock gate near the start/finish line and we were off. Bob mashed the gas pedal and turned to us and said, "If I don't get this baby up to at least 85 mph, we'll roll off those banked turns. So, hold on."
Now, I hate roller coasters and my wife loves them. But, for once, I was the lunatic thrill-seeker and she was the one green in the gills. We hit turn one and the van was suddenly on it's side. That's really how it felt. The banking was so much more extreme than it seemed on TV. We were simply driving sideways! Down the backstretch we flew, now doing over 90mph in a damn van. We hit turns three and four and I was in Heaven.
Holy Crap! Down the main crooked-straight in front of the grandstand...
"One more lap. Hoss?"
I yelled, "Hell, yeah!"
Susan looked like she was gonna start crying. We were sideways again through the turns and just flying. I noticed that Ol' Bob was steering with one hand. Oh, baby!
He then pulled us onto the infield grass in front of pit lane where race winners sometimes do their victory donuts and asked us if we'd enjoyed ourselves. I was like a five-year-old, just giddy with joy. Susan was dazed but slowly coming back to life. Just then, an pale yellow Cadillac convertible the size of a boat pulled into the raceway and slowly headed towards our van.
Bob turned to me and said, "Oh, man, today is your lucky day, Hoss!"
The Caddy pulled up alongside us and Bob said, "Good afternoon, Mr. France. Got me some New York City folks here today. Took 'em for a spin on the track."
The ancient man in the Caddy, dressed in a powder-blue suit, white cowboy hat and string tie, chuckled, nodded, and said "How'd ya do!"
I leaned forward over Bob's expansive lap and, with all the respect I could muster, said, "Thank you for the many years of pleasure you've given me, sir."
The wizened old man in the Cadillac smiled and waved benignly, said goodbye to Bob, and drove off. Bob, turned to me and said, "So, Hoss, you know who that was, huh?"
"Yes, sir. That was Bill France Sr., the man who founded NASCAR."
"Right you are, Hoss. Right you are."
Thanks again, Bob.
And... No one else has ever called me "Hoss."
Coda: Since this story seems to be about old men, I should briefly mention mine. My father, although he often claimed the internal combustion engine the worst invention of all time, was a big fan of Formula One and Grand Prix racing, but, thought NASCAR was a bore... "What's the thrill in four lefthand turns?"
One day in November of 2000, I arrived at his apartment for lunch. As soon as I walked in, my Dad said to me, "Hey, I actually watched some of last Sunday's NASCAR race and I think I get it now. It's really pure racing, isn't it? LIke chess at 190mph."
I was tickled.
"Dad, the season's over. You just saw the last race of the year. But, next February, I'm coming over and we're gonna watch the Daytona 500 together. It's the best track on the circuit, you'll love it." It was a date.
Two days before the race, at the age of 89, my dad passed away on February 16, 2001
(his last words were, and I kid you not... "I'm busting outta this joint, doc.").
Two days after that, Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in turn four of the last lap of the Daytona 500.
10 years gone.
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