Posted: Friday, March 15, 2013 12:43 am | Updated: 12:45 am, Fri Mar 15, 2013.
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Tom Higgins is remembered as a long-time auto racing writer for the Charlotte Observer, but he was working for another newspaper when he first went to Hickory Speedway.
“I was at the Winston-Salem Journal, and they had a double points race at Hickory Speedway in the spring of ’59,” said Higgins, now retired and living in Mooresville. “Herman Hickman was covering the race, and Herman asked me to ride up to Hickory with him. I was off that day, so I went as a spectator.
“I don’t remember much about it, except Ned Jarrett won the race. One thing I do remember about Ned that day is that he had a crew-cut on top and ducktails on the side.”
Higgins, who grew up in Burnsville and attended Brevard College when it was a two-year school, was inducted into the National Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2011.
“Hickory was a fun place to go to,” Higgins said. “It was rustic, to say the least. And it was much as it is today, as far the grandstand was concerned. There were a lot of trees behind a wooden fence around the grandstand, and people would climb the trees to watch race. That also happened at North Wilkesboro (Speedway).”
Higgins also remembers the cemetery that overlooks the track. Like most race-goers at HMS, he recalls races being red-flagged for a funeral.
Another vivid memory is of a Modified Sportsman doubleheader in the late 1970s.
“There were a lot of hot Northern drivers down for the race, and it was the first time I met Geoff Bodine,” Higgins said. “And he was as good as advertised in the Modifieds, as he won that race. I guessed that if someone gave him a chance, he’d be a good Cup Series driver, and I was right.”
Bodine went on to win the 1986 Daytona 500 among his 18 Cup victories; in 1998, he was listed among the 50 greatest drivers ever.
Higgins obviously tried to remain objective, but he says he “enjoyed seeing Ned (Jarrett) running there, Junior Johnson, later on Harry Gant and Tommy Houston — Tommy was an immensely popular local guy — Jack Ingram; Jack was tremendous, and he had a tremendous rivalry with Bob Pressley.”
Once, Higgins says, the racing surface had just been repaved, and a bunch of Grand National (now Sprint Cup) drivers were there for a special race.
The track began to break up, forming what they call marbles. There was a lot of complaining. The biggest complainer, Higgins recalls, was Darrell Waltrip. Funny, but he remembers the marbles and the complaining, but he doesn’t remember who won the race.
As for other memories: “Back in the early days, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett had a hell of a rivalry there, and they wrecked each other many times. They beat the hell out of each other.
“They did that one night in the late ’50s or early ’60s. It got so bad that, when they were racing the next night at Richmond (Va.), (NASCAR boss) Bill France Sr. had words with them and told them to cool it.
“Junior once flipped a car in qualifying or practice at Hickory, and he still won the race. I remember that vividly. That was a Grand National race, too. That was during Junior’s Wilkes County Wildman days.”
Driving a patched-up Ford torn up during practice, Johnson finished two laps ahead of Joe Weatherly in May 1959.
Many of Higgins’ memories are of the facility itself, which opened in 1951 and had a dirt track until its first paving in 1967.
“(Hickory) was a little bit smaller then,” Higgins said. “Back in the day when I was going there, Hickory was a lot like (North) Wilkesboro (Speedway), homey, with a country fair feeling to it.”
In many ways, it still has that feel.
Tom Gillispie, the co-author of “Then Junior Said to Jeff…,” writes about racing at Hickory Motor Speedway for HDR Sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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