(Editor’s Note: We are pleased to repost Tom Higgins’ review of Mike Hembree’s book, “100 Things NASCAR Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.”)
There are now 101 things NASCAR fans should know and do before they die.
Number 101 is to obtain and read a new book by the veteran, award-winning motorsports writer Mike Hembree entitled “100 Things NASCAR Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.”
It is a work that every journalist with a connection to NASCAR will wish that he or she had written. There undoubtedly is going to be an epidemic of “Why-Didn’t-I-Think-Of-This-First-Itis” going around. I’m already afflicted.
The paperback, published by Triumph Books of Chicago, is priced at $14.95.
The 258-page book contains a collection of NASCAR-related anecdotes, profiles and details of incidents that largely have not been presented in such detail previously — nor written so well.
For example, there are chapters in which five-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time titlist Jeff Gordon chillingly describe what they thought and did in the mini-seconds before experiencing the scariest crashes of their spectacular careers.
There are background stories concerning how Darlington Raceway, Daytona International Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway came into being. Why, one whole chapter is devoted, deservedly, to Martinsville’s famous hotdogs, the best and tastiest buy on the Cup Series tour.
Expectedly, stories about the sport’s greatest stars are featured — including seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, plus Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson and Mark Martin.
The highly respected Hembree, with whom I share a deep love of NASCAR’s early years, hasn’t forgotten stock car racing’s pioneers. He writes of Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Red Byron, Junior Johnson, Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, the Wood Brothers, Wendell Scott, Fireball Roberts, Smokey Yunick, Jake “Suitcase” Elder, Cotton Owens and others.
In fact, Hembree’s book is dedicated to Owens, his friend and fellow South Carolinian.
For me, the most compelling chapter in “100 Things” is entitled “A Ghostly Track.” It’s about Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, where NASCAR founder Big Bill France took his tour for five races at the top level from 1954-57.
Hembree writes that “few former NASCAR tracks have a story as riveting” as the track located at LeHi, Ark. “The track was a strange animal – a 1.5-mile, high-banked dirt oval, 14 miles from the Mississippi River in what once was, and now is again, fertile farmland.
“…Because of its length and severe banking (it) was one of NASCAR’s earliest examples of high-speed, high-risk racing. It was too fast and too dangerous for the technology of the ‘50s, and drivers showing up to compete at the track realized the difficulties immediately. It was one of the few tracks that shot a sense of fear through drivers in those barnstorming early days of NASCAR.”
Hembree relates that Cotton Owens said, “It was rough, and you got through the turns the best way you could. It had so many holes. It was so dusty you couldn’t see …”
Remembers Richard Petty, “It was really, really fast for dirt. We had never run a mile and a half on dirt and never anything close to that fast.” (Qualifying speeds at LeHi were in the 100 mph range).
Four drivers and two crewmen were hospitalized with injuries in LeHi’s first race on Oct. 10, 1954. A local newspaper described the race as full of “wrecks, gasoline explosions and flaming cars.”
Notes Hembree, “A sad trend had been established … On Oct. 9, 1955, driver Tiny Lund, making his first start in the Cup Series (then Grand National) was involved in a brutal accident … Lund was thrown from his Chevrolet when the car flipped several times. He landed on the track surface and drivers behind him swerved to avoid him. Ralph Liguori hit Lund’s helmet as he drove through the wreckage … ‘I thought I had killed him,’ said Liguori.
“Said Richard Petty, ‘I was there when Tiny got thrown out of the car and was laying in the middle of the track. He was big as a car. He was laying there with his T-shirt and white pants on in that dark gumbo (soil).’”
Hembree reasons that Lund’s all-white clothing probably saved his life in the horrifying accident, allowing following drivers to see him more easily in the dust that flew around the track.
Lund sustained only a broken arm and a few bruises.
Tragically, 20 years later in 1975 the popular Lund was destined to die in a crash at Talladega.
Continues Hembree, ” In June of 1956 two drivers were killed (at LeHi) when their cars hurtled out of the track.”
The danger, the excessive dust and financial problems led to the demise of the track in 1957.
Hembree, incidentally, was far, far away from the site of any racing activity when he finished his book. He relatively was in a world foreign to rumbling engines and swirling action and cheering crowds.
Mike, who has covered NASCAR for 30 years, was on the porch of cabin No. 6 at Lamar Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone National Park. A nature lover and avid hiker, he had been on a two-week trek that partly took him and two companions through the remote wilds inhabited by grizzly bears.
In his publication’s introduction Hembree typed this (and I paraphrase): “To complete the writing of a book about stock car racing here is a strange feeling, indeed. The only noise at the moment is produced by a strong wind whipping up the Lamar Valley, which has been described as home to one of the world’s richest collections of wildlife … The quiet here on Yellowstone’s northern range is something magical …”
Most readers, I feel sure, will find Mike Hembree’s writing is magic as well.