Hickory: Ned Jarrett's ol' stomping grounds

May, 21, 2011
05/21/11
4:01
PM ET

HICKORY, N.C. -- Ned Jarrett sat on the concrete grandstand of Hickory Motor Speedway on Friday afternoon, peering through the rusty catch-fence that separated us from the lone locally based late-model racer running test laps around the .363-mile oval.

We had just finished taping our interview for Saturday morning's "NASCAR Now" and I had assumed that Gentleman Ned, dressed in a blue golf shirt that was adorned with a sparkling new NASCAR Hall of Fame lapel pin, would bolt for home or perhaps the golf course.

Instead, he said, "Let's have a seat here and talk for a little while."

He told me about the first race he ran on his hometown track. "The first race I ran here was the first race they ever ran here, in 1952."

He told me about his emotional first and only Grand National (now Cup series) win on his home track, coming on May 16, 1964. "It was as big of a win as I had in my career. There were about 10,000 people here that day and I like to think they were rooting for me. I was 0-for-6 before that and I had to beat David Pearson and Richard Petty to get it."

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Hickory Cemetery
Ryan McGee/ESPN Ned Jarrett signed over two of his family's plots at Catawba Memorial Park so good friend Bobby Isaac could have a final resting place. The sprawling cemetery overlooks Hickory Motor Speedway.

And he told me about his career as the manager of the facility, beginning in 1967, the year after he retired from driving. "The first year that I was manager was the last year this track was dirt. The plans were already in place to pave it. The morning after that last dirt race in '67 we had the pavers out here working."

By the mid-1970s Jarrett was part-owner of the bullring when Hickory's other living legend came back home to race full time. Bobby Isaac had fallen in love with racing the first time he came to Hickory Motor Speedway. It was to watch that same inaugural '52 race. He watched the local heroes hammer through the dirt, including Ned.

As we sat there in the same stands where Isaac had watched Jarrett that day, Ned explained that he and Isaac had known each other since they were kids. Jarrett's father had conducted some business with Isaac's family, who owned a saw mill. As young men, Jarrett and Isaac became friendly racing rivals. Though Ned got the early jump on a driving career, Isaac soon joined him in NASCAR and made his Grand National debut in 1961. The pair ran in 58 races together at stock car racing's highest level. It was during the peak of Jarrett's career -- he won the '61 and '65 championships. In 1970, four years after Ned's retirement, Isaac won a title of his own.

"There was a real friendship there," Jarrett told me. "It's amazing to think about him watching me race, us racing together, then me covering some of his career as a broadcaster, and then him coming back here to Hickory to race when I was working at the track."

In '73 Isaac was involved in one of the most mysterious moments in NASCAR history. During a race at Talladega he suddenly radioed in to car owner (and Jarrett's fellow '11 Hall of Fame inductee) Bud Moore and announced he was pitting. He climbed from the car and essentially retired from Cup series racing on the spot. He explained to Charlotte Observer writer Tom Higgins that a voice had told him to get out of the car.

Isaac was done with NASCAR's top series (he did make a handful of starts, but nothing substantial or regular), and instead returned to the short tracks, particularly Hickory. During a sweltering night in '77, he said he wasn't feeling well. He was taken from the Hickory Motor Speedway pits to the local hospital, where he died of a heart attack.

"Bobby had only been married a couple of weeks at that point," Jarrett recalled, looking out onto the pit road where Isaac was last seen by the public. "His wife came to me and explained that he didn't have anywhere to be buried."

So, Gentleman Ned stepped in to help his old friend, signing over two of the Jarrett family's burial plots in Catawba Memorial Park. The beautiful, sprawling hillside cemetery overlooks Hickory Motor Speedway, so close that the track operators -- including Jarrett -- have always had to work with local funeral homes to schedule "funeral delays."

"It was always quite a challenge," Ned said with a laugh. "When a funeral procession arrived, we would red-flag any race that was going on to allow the service to be conducted without being disturbed by the noise from the racetrack. Usually 30 to 45 minutes. At first fans didn't understand what was going on, but eventually it became part of the charm of the Hickory Motor Speedway."

In mid-August 1977, Bobby Isaac was laid to rest on that hillside, in a spot that provides a very nice view of the speedway grandstands, as well as Turns 3 and 4. The cemetery administrators said that at least once a week a NASCAR fan stops by the office to ask where they can find Isaac's final resting place, particularly on Hickory race days. I myself went looking for it Friday afternoon and ended up sitting on a stone bench and listening to the sounds of that late-model racer down below echoing off the hillside and its headstones.

One day, hopefully not anytime soon, his childhood friend and racing rival will join him there.

"When my time comes I'll be buried right next to Bobby," Jarrett said as he pointed through the Turn 1 trees and up toward Catawba Memorial Park.

On Monday night, Jarrett becomes a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. One day Isaac will take his place beside Ned there as well.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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