MARLBORO MUSINGS:  Start Your Engines!

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Ah, February. One of those months where, despite supposedly being in the midst of winter’s grip, down South you’re subject to enjoying all four seasons in one week.

The time of year when gridiron fans have enjoyed the climatic finish to their season: college with the Bowl Playoff Championship – which I understand worked out well for some local folks, and, for the NFL, the Super Bowl, both of which featured unbelievable finishes this year, games guaranteed to go down as among the best in history.

And they cleared out of the way just in time for Cupid to flutter along on Valentine’s Day, his bow loaded and drawn, ready to fling his arrows of love on both the unsuspecting and the dearly committed – as well as the possibly should be committed.

But I digress.

Regardless, this is also the time of year when southern sports fans hit a nasty little lull in their TV sports watching: Pebble Beach is behind us and the PGA is just starting to gain momentum leading up to the first major of 2017, the Masters in early April; National Letter of Intent signing day for new college football recruits has passed; MLB teams are just now breaking in new gear at spring training; NCAA baseball has yet to shout, “Play Ball” and NCAA basketball teams are playing regular season games with March Madness lying ahead and a championship still a dream. Of course, there’s always the National Hockey League – but we haven’t really liked hockey since the Pee Dee Pride up and left us.

In fact, with the exception of the NBA regular season and their All-Star game this Sunday, many sports fans are left with limited and pretty lackluster TV viewing options.

Thank goodness Daytona is back.

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Yep, racing has returned. Live telecasts of on-track action begin tomorrow from Daytona International Speedway, with races this Saturday, then next Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and capped off by the Daytona 500 on Sunday, February 26, a schedule packed full of action just to get everyone back into the spirit of things as NASCAR begins what will be a most interesting season after a radical off-season overhaul of the manner in which they have traditionally conducted their races and awarded points toward determining a season-long champion.

To paraphrase an old commercial, no, this is not your father’s NASCAR. And time alone will tell if the governing body’s decision to basically break each race on the schedule up into two points-paying heat races and a main event will prove to be a hit with fans, or lead to a continuation of the decreases in attendance and TV viewership of recent years.

However, the best news in that circumstance is, either way, you’ve got plenty of options, right here around home.

You see, NASCAR grew up in communities just like Marlboro County all over the Southeast. It may have gotten it’s start in the hills of North Carolina and Georgia as moonshiners outraced revenue agents to get “corn likker” to customers and avoid prison time, but it spread like wildfire once a segment of southern pride began to hinge upon a driver’s daring and his ability to make a car go fast. Then faster.

Just like the rest of the South, we had short tracks all over the Pee Dee and up into North Carolina back in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. And we still have a few putting on great shows.

Growing up in my family, racing was as much a part of life as dawn and dusk. In my youth, I grew up with the “Four R’s”: readin’, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and racin’. We have old family photos of my father’s first race car when I was barely as tall as the tire on the trailer that towed it. We were a two-car family, for sure, then – only one of them had numbers on the side and just one seat. A large part of the weekends of my youth were spent in the rear of a wood-paneled station wagon riding to a racetrack – sometimes maybe four times a week, enjoying the best hot dogs of my life that mom had fixed at home and wrapped in aluminum foil, eating Zero candy bars that cost a nickel, and playing in the dirt along the frontstretch of a racetrack in Dillon or Hartsville or Rockingham, Sanford, Fayetteville, or Myrtle Beach.

I think I still cough up dirt track dust from my youth on occasion.

But Pop was both lucky and good – it takes both – and he was able to establish an affiliation with early NASCAR superteam Holman Moody and become friends with folks like Fred Lorenzen’s former crew chief, Jack Sullivan, and even run his own car at Daytona in 1972, where he started alongside Bobby Allison, a fact which drew some interesting responses when a copy of that starting grid was recently posted by a friend on Facebook.

And he might have missed a couple of my ball games growing up, but that’s a pretty even trade off for when someone asks me, even these days, if I know him, and then have them say, “Boy, he was quite a wheel man.” Plus, I don’t know a whole lot of people who can tell you what it’s like to come off Turn 4 at Daytona and take the green flag. Better yet, I set him up a Facebook page with all his old photos that still gets a couple dozen hits per week, and he was recently surprised by a fan in Georgia who sent him some photos requesting autographs.

Coming forty years after he hung up his helmet, that was pretty cool. For both of us, I think.

Of course, glory is good. And trophies are nice. But that’s not what racing is really all about.

Short track racing, at it’s core, is about doing and being your best and knowing it. And the camaraderie of helping someone else do and be their best, too. It’s about loaning another driver the part he needs if you can, even if he is a competitor. In fact, especially if he is a competitor. It’s about sportsmanship and fair play and fellowship. It’s about sharing in the wins and losses, the highs and lows. It’s about determination and resiliency and a “Refuse To Lose” mindset. It’s about chasing victory – on several levels — and having an upbeat “we’ll get ’em next week” attitude if that victory proves elusive.

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Michael Williamson prays with son Gabriel recently prior to his first race

And to a segment of true Southern men, racing is not just a sport; it’s a bond, a bridge from then to now, a span from where we were, to where we are.

Need proof? Two words: Archie Adams.

Archie Adams of Adamsville raced with my dad back in the 60’s and 70’s, and continues to race today, with the 2017 season marking his 57th year behind the wheel. But Mr. Adams does not embark upon his racing endeavors alone, mind you, but instead has passed the racing bug along to his son, Archie Jr. and his grandson, Anthony, both of whom now compete along with their father and grandfather, respectively, and son, Michael, who assists with car prep and serves as team spotter. And they compete at a high level, too, as Archie Jr. and Archie finished first and second in the Late Model standing at Florence Motor Speedway last season.

And there are a whole flock of hot shoe local drivers ready to turn hot laps and heads this season at the Florence track, as well as at Dillon Motor Speedway and the Myrtle Beach Speedway, including young guns such as late model drivers Ben Stanton, Kevin Ellis, Justin Altman, and Jason Calhoun, in addition to other just-as-exciting drivers in just-as-exciting divisions.

However, the racing thrills available to local residents are not just limited to big, heavy street style or late model speedsters, but can also be found in another form of motor sports that has seen a recent resurgence in popularity: karting.

And some of the finest kart drivers and teams east of the Mississippi – from as far north as Pennsylvania and south as Florida – have been making stops in Marlboro County for big events that the Fastrax USA Kartway on the Old Wire Road has hosted. The facility is being leased and promoted by Clint Mills, a renowned kart driver, and Rickie Bostick, and plans call for more big-name events this year, as well as regularly scheduled races, many of which feature young racers – along with their father, and often their entire family assisting – getting their first seat time behind the wheel and experiencing their first thrill of competition. And all relishing the bonding experience of a lifetime.

So if you’re done with NASCAR’s latest rules changes and are looking for something else to occupy your time, how about packing the family, or just the kids, in the car and doing a little bonding around a racetrack of your own. Trust me: Live racing is addictive. And once that bug bites you, you live with the sting,

And the memories are forever

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The author at age 3, hunting a seat.

 

 

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