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As the trucks began their race at Rockingham on Sunday, one remark by Speed TV analyst Michael Waltrip -- that fans were right up by the fence -- triggered a whole, delightful set of memories about one man.
And it added to my list of somewhat forgotten characters who might deserve consideration for NASCAR Hall of Fame nomination.
That would be the late Ray Melton, the longtime track announcer at both Rockingham and Darlington, who had such a deep, gravelly voice and prolonged Southern drawl that he always sounded sort of like he was choking on the smoke rising from a charcoal fire.
|The late Ray Melton was the longtime voice of racing at both Rockingham and Darlington.|
Anyway, speaking of fans close to the fence at the Rock: One pole day there in the 1970s, Ray noticed from his booth that some kids were not only close to, but clinging to, the catch fence down in the first turn, during practice.
Politely, deeply, Ray intoned: "You folks standin' down theyah bah thah fence in Toin One: we would remahnd y'all that it's very dayne-ger-ous to be theyah. We ask that you move back."
Indeed, drivers often would dust the wall with the right sides of their cars going into Turn 1. It was part of the quickest line around the track.
The kids didn't move.
"Again," Ray boomed over the public address system, "we ask you young people down by the fence to take a seat, fo' yo' own safety."
Still they stood, oblivious.
Ray asked once more, and then again, and that was enough.
"Will SOMEBODY please get those idiot children away from that fence!" Ray bellowed, in a sheer thunder rising over the Sand Hills region of North Carolina. "We are NOT gonna conduct any moh practice laps until somebody removes those idiot children!"
Still the kids paid no heed, but security guards did, and removed the thrill seekers.
In 1976, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was on hand to give the command to start engines at Darlington for the Southern 500, which was still run literally on Labor Day.
The future president gave the command, and the cars roared and began to roll off the grid.
Ray then boomed that "EVERYBODY knows that it's MY job to give that command here at the famed Dahlin'ton Raceway, so I'm gonna give it anyway, for you fans:
"Gen-tel-mehhhn, STAHT yo' EN-juns!"
The engines were well into full song by then, but Ray made himself heard above the noise.
So when you talk about the deep traditions at Darlington and Rockingham, just know they'll never be close to the same without the charcoal-smoked voice of the late Ray Melton.