60 And Counting For Darlington Fan
May 7, 2010 | 7:18 A.M. EST
Hoenstine, then 17, had read in a racing magazine about a big stock car race in Darlington. He bought four tickets, and drove 540 miles from his home in Queen, Pa. to the track. Hoenstine was smitten by the racing action, but even better, the chance to meet drivers such as Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and Lee Roy Yarbrough after the race. Since his first visit to Darlington Raceway, Hoenstine, a retired truck driver, has not missed a single NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”
“I just immediately got into it, and loved it right away,” the 78-year old retired truck driver said.
Hoenstine still attends about a dozen NASCAR Sprint Cup races a year, adding to attendance streaks nearly as impressive as Darlington. Since attending Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 1964 spring race (known as the World 600), Hoenstine has been to the Coca-Cola 600 every year. He hasn’t missed a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover since 1969.
The sport is taking notice of this iron fan’s incredible devotion. Hoenstine is featured in the new NASCAR Library Collection book, The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans by Andrew Giangola, and will be the subject of a special fan profile on ESPN’s “NASCAR Now” airing on Saturday, May 8.
“I’ve been to hundreds of NASCAR races over the years, too many to even count,” Hoenstine said. “My sister-in-law asked me, ‘My goodness, Jack, what if you saved all that money instead?’ Well, I wouldn’t have seen all them races, met the drivers, fans I’ve come to know, and had such a good time. I’ve always wanted to enjoy life, and NASCAR’s been a big part of that.”
As described in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday, “The rough-around-the edges sport that grabbed Hoenstine’s attention has evolved into a polished multi-billion dollar enterprise fans follow on their mobile phones. Back in the days of rotary phones and cracking AM radio race broadcasts, Hoenstine stayed in a room at a boarding house in nearby Florence. Darlington Raceway’s grandstands were uncomfortable concrete slabs. The drivers had scant protection – maybe an open-face helmet with a seat belt across their lap. Fonte Flock drove in Bermuda shorts and a t shirt. The closest thing to a pre-race flyover was NASCAR’s resident wild man Curtis Turner buzzing the crowd with his propeller airplane. Drivers would enjoy a cigarette during tire changes, which were usually performed by a friends volunteering for pit duty. A few drivers would keep a thermos under the seat. The best part was any fan could meet these colorful characters. After the Darlington races, the gate under the flag stand would open, and fans dashed down to meet the hard-charging, hard-living drivers.”
“Nothing was fenced in,” Hoenstine said. “Lee Roy Yarbrough, Marvin Panch and Coo Coo Marlin, Sterling’s dad, would be leaning against their cars. Anyone could go strike up a conversation.”
On the way home to Pennsylvania, Hoenstine would stop at Richard Petty’s race shop in Randleman, N.C., which was an inauspicious two-car garage. Like many other NASCAR fans, he posed for photos with The King, who would always thank Jack for taking time to visit and came to know him by name.
As the Darlington races grew in popularity, local motels sprouted up, drawing drivers and team owners as well as fans. In the late 1960’s, Hoenstine befriended Ronnie Thomas, who wanted to enter the race but was short of money. Jack and his friends pooled the cash to buy tires, and got their names on Thomas’ No. 25 Chevrolet.
For a time, Hoenstine did his own racing on short tracks in Pennsylvania. But his career was short-lived, ending in the early 1950’s when his cousin sold the race car.
But Jack still found a way to get onto the track. Following a Darlington race in 1964, he and a friend stopped in Rockingham, N.C. to see the new raceway.
“We were in my buddy’s new Pontiac and noticed the gates were open. We started running laps, but a man in a suit came out and flagged us down. He turned out to be a nice gentleman. Asked us how we liked the track Gave us his business card, and said to call him if we ever needed tickets. He told us, ‘Go ahead and run a few more laps, but don’t wreck!’”
Hoenstine took the wheel and stood on the gas of his powerful Bonneville.
“Coming off turn three, my friend reached across and grabbed onto my thigh so hard, I had black-and-blue bruises for three weeks,” he remembered.
Fifteen years later, on the way to Daytona, Hoenstine would take a detour through Charlotte and spot an open gate at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He ran a few laps in his Chevy Suburban, this time undetected by track management.
In addition to Hoenstine, more than 30 remarkable NASCAR fans are profiled in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday – from a Lexington, NC, man who’s been to every single Daytona 500 to a male nurse with a fear of heights who braved the elements to bring the Sprint Cup flag to the top of Mt. Everest. A critically acclaimed work of wit and feeling, the NASCAR Library Collection book The Weekend Starts on Wednesday is a vivid commentary on the love affair millions of fans have for a great American sport.
The Weekend Starts on Wednesday is available online and wherever fine books are sold.