I was stunned by the enormity of the place.
True, I had been to Asheville Speedway with my uncle to see Ned Setzer race on the short track, but that experience in no way prepared me for the magnitude of Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1976.
At that point, I was prep editor and general assignment sports writer for the Charlotte Observer, and the special circumstances of the 1976 World 600 thrust me into an assignment to work the pits and garage. Never before had I seen a national-level NASCAR race in person.
NASCAR 75: Relive the 1976 NASCAR Cup Series season
Always searching for innovative ways to promote their races, Charlotte Motor Speedway chairman Bruton Smith and general manager Humpy Wheeler had arranged a ride for Janet Guthrie, who had failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, also scheduled for May 30 that year.
Wheeler convinced First Union Bank executive Lynda Ferreri to participate as the owner of record of the dark red No. 68 NAPA/Regal Ride Shocks Chevrolet Laguna Guthrie would try to qualify for the race.
My assignment in the days leading up to the race? To ask every male driver in the NASCAR Cup Series garage what they thought of a female driver competing in NASCAR‘s longest race.
Many of the responses I got would have blown up the sport had social media been active 47 years ago. Some were misogynistic. Some were downright vulgar. Only about a third of the responses were fit to print in a family-friendly newspaper.
But the consensus was that Guthrie would have stamina problems in a 600-mile race run on a brutally hot day in May. Remember, this was before cool suits and air conditioners existed to mitigate the intense heat inside the cockpits.
Defying the conventional wisdom, Guthrie made the field and was running at the finish. Driving primarily in the track‘s bottom lane, she came home 15th, 21 laps down.
David Pearson won the race from the pole in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Purolator Mercury, leading 230 laps and conducting a clinic on saving his equipment for the end of the marathon event, which ended under the seventh caution of the afternoon.
Richard Petty started and finished second, the only other driver on the lead lap. Cale Yarborough ran third, one lap down, after leading 108 laps. Bobby Allison was fourth, three laps down, completing a contemporaneous NASCAR version of Mt. Rushmore.
Much farther down the finishing order was Dale Earnhardt, racing for owner Walter Ballard. Earnhardt fell out because of engine failure and was 31st in the second Cup start of his career.
In fact, I met Earnhardt for the first time that week, courtesy of Observer beat writer Tom Higgins, who took the time to introduce me to all the major and minor players in the garage. Tom‘s stamp of approval made my first NASCAR assignment exponentially less difficult, and for that, I‘m forever grateful.
In his fourth Cup start that Sunday, Bill Elliott suffered his fourth straight DNF driving for his family team, finishing 23rd after an engine failure.
From a personal perspective, my first visit to massive Charlotte Motor Speedway changed the direction of my career. I was captivated by the sights, sounds and smells of a big-time stock car race. Over the next three years, before I took a job with the American Society of Newspaper Editors, I requested assignment as a garage reporter to NASCAR races within driving distance of Charlotte.
In those days, there was no infield media center. I typically watched the start of the race from the top of a team hauler. After that—at Charlotte, for example—I sat in a small room with three chairs behind the gas pumps, listening to the radio broadcast of the race, waiting for the next wreck.
My first duty was to interview the race runner-up as soon as he parked on pit road. Other competitors showered in a cinderblock building in Turn 4 and conducted interviews at their lockers.
Visiting the “locker room” after the National 500 in 1977, I saw the words “1976 Winston Cup Champion” clearly imprinted into the skin of Cale Yarborough‘s back by the embroidery on his firesuit after 334 grueling laps at Charlotte.
At the same time, I saw the burn scars on Tom Sneva‘s back, a stark reminder of his spectacular crash in the 1975 Indy 500.
Those up-close looks at the hard realities of the sport, along with the camaraderie I found among writers and competitors alike, kindled the affinity and respect I have for a sport I still write about today.