I stood at the start-finish line of the North Wilkesboro Speedway on Thursday afternoon, microphone in hand. "NASCAR Now" host Michelle Bonner was about to toss to me from our Bristol, Conn., studios and I was about to begin my live interview with Alton McBride Jr., the president of Speedway Associates Inc. and the man credited with saving the crusty old bullring that racers call, simply, Wilkesboro.
Seconds before we hit the air, McBride leaned over and said, "Man, that's a cool jacket."
Ever since we started our NASCAR Now Classic Track Tour, the majority of the comments that I've received from fans and friends via email and Twitter haven't been about the tracks themselves, but the jacket that I've been wearing during my reports. Everyone from Regan Smith to old college buddies to my producers said I had to wear it all week, so I have.
It's a white vintage-style Petty Enterprises jacket with Richard's name on one side of my chest and vertical racing stripes with STP and Dodge patches down the other. It looks old, but actually isn't at all. It was made by Puma a few years ago and gifted to me by a friend who knew I was a lifelong Richard Petty fan.
I decided to wear the jacket during our first Classic Track Tour stop at Bowman-Gray Stadium. The primary reason was because it was about 50 degrees and pouring down rain. But there also was a historical reason. And when I started researching each stop on the tour I quickly realized that it held true at every track we'd picked for the series.
Richard Petty was good. And his stories about each track are even better.
Take North Wilkesboro, for example. He's the track's all-time leader in wins with ... 15! The first victory came in 1962, the last in '81. He won three in a row there twice and during one six-year stretch he won eight of 12. He also the track's leader in starts (66), top-5s (33), top-10s (42) and laps led (5,315). He made his first North Wilkesboro start during the Eisenhower administration and his last just four weeks before Bill Clinton was elected.
Petty is also the all-time wins leader at Rockingham, where we stopped on Wednesday. He won at The Rock 11 times, the first two on the track's original flat configuration. He won four times at our first stop, Bowman-Gray, trailing only Rex White's six victories. He won five times at Hickory, second all time behind Junior Johnson's seven wins. And he's the career wins leader at our final stop, Greenville-Pickens, with six.
His Royal Fastness is also the all-time leader in top-5s and top-10s at all five of our Classic Track Tour stops. And at all but one he put together at least one three-race winning streak. The only stop where he didn't grab a three-peat was Bowman-Gray, but he did win three of four in 1967-70 and finished second in the one he didn't win.
"Yeah, we had a little success on those tracks your picked out, didn't we?" he said to me via phone Wednesday morning. "Back then the money you made was whatever you won. So running for points wasn't really a realistic deal, you know? So we figured we'd run up front as much as could."
When I told The King about the jacket, he laughed and said he wanted one. When I told him we were headed to North Wilkesboro on Thursday, he laughed and said he wished he could "ride up there with y'all."
"We had a deal up there one day that still makes me laugh. Every time I came through one of the turns, I can't remember which one, I started seeing these two boys fighting. They were just beating on each other. I went by one lap and they were up in the stands fighting. I came by one lap later and they were down on the ground next to the fence. The third time I came around the one guy had the other guy's head struck through the fence out over the racetrack."
So, I asked, what did you do then?
"Nothing. I kept racing. At that point I figured they were going to get it worked out between them, you know?"
Then I asked Petty if he could remember when the track made the change from dirt to asphalt and when the old guard rail was replaced with the white concrete retaining wall. He said yes. Then I asked him to verify a story I had always heard about that wall. Years ago I was told that when the bricks were laid and the concrete was poured, the family that owned the track, the Staleys, had reinforced that wall by throwing piles of steel car parts into the mix, taken from the garage and junkyards and even pulled from old moonshine-running cars that were so common in Wilkes County.
"Yeah, I heard that too. And I always assumed it was true."
He paused, chuckled and coined a phrase that I immediately stole and used on Thursday's "NASCAR Now."
"I guess you'd call that Redneck Rebar."