(NOTE: I wrote this in 2008 for The Racing Journal. TRJ, which covered short-track racing in north-central North Carolina and south-central Virginia, ended after four months because of the economy.)
RACE WINNERS, MOONSHINE CHASERS, AND AN OLD FRIENDBy Tom Gillispie
I met Bob Latford in 1990. I had just become the auto-racing writer for a newspaper, and my predecessor suggested I look up Latford, the resident racing historian. I found the tall, older man with a handlebar mustache and a big smile. I'd also found a friend.
I learned that Latford got into racing in the late '40s, when he sold programs on the beach-road course at Daytona. Later, he became the public relations director for a couple of racetracks. When we met, he was doing PR for Junior Johnson. Later, he did a newsletter that was called "The Inside Line"; although it was written in an archaic style, it was big on facts.
Sometimes, he'd run the media center or press box for a racetrack, and he'd moderate press conferences. He'd say that someone missed making the race by six/one-thousandths of a second or that the field qualified less than a half-second from first to last. And we'd dutifully write it down.
He had tons of stories, but his claim to fame was the fact that he helped design the NASCAR points system at an establishment in Daytona Beach. Legend has it that the system was written on a cocktail napkin.
Bob got the final ticks of his 15 minutes of fame just after his death in 2003. NASCAR's points system was being scrutinized for the upteenth time, and we were writing about it. Many said Latford invented the system.
When we first talked about it in the early '90s, Bob said he was one of a handful in attendance at the Boot Hill Saloon in Daytona Beach. Bill Gazaway, then the Winston Cup director, and Bill France Sr. were there. In his later years, Bob would say, "When I developed the point system ...", and I let it go.
He was changeable. One time, he'd say they ought to give five extra points for a win and five points for a pole. Next time, he'd say five more for the win and none for a pole. Later, he'd say they ought to keep it the way it is.
The fact that Bob didn't create the point system is irrelevant. He helped create it. Many people credit him for the long-used system to get information to the media. He was a gold mine of stories and information and opinions.
And he offered a big smile amidst a swirl of cranky reporters, racing noise and cigarette smoke. Bob often provided the smoke, but no matter.
A simple riot
My favorite Latford story happened in 1961. Latford, then the publicist at Charlotte Motor Speedway, was enjoying a busman's holiday at the Asheville-Weaverville track.
Maybe 10,000 fans showed up to see a confrontation between the Teamsters Union and NASCAR. The union, led by drivers Curtis Turner and Tim Flock, didn't show, but the crowd was agitated.
"The winter weather was rough on the track, and the pounding in the race was taking its toll in (turns) three and four,'' Latford told me. "There were car-sized holes in the track by the time they called the race close to the halfway point.''
During a red-flag situation as the track was cleaned on lap 208, the drivers were told that the race would end after another 50 laps. That would pass halfway and make the race official.
The problem, Latford said, was that they couldn't tell the fans that the race would end. When the red flag flew on lap 258, the remaining fans were confused and angry. A stubborn mob blocked the infield exit.
"A lot of old boys had been in the moonshine,'' Latford said wryly, ``and they pulled a pickup in to block the exit from the infield so the competitors couldn't get out. It looked like we had a riot starting.''
The NASCAR officials exited early, and Latford went to his car to swap his official's jacket for a less provocative coat.
By then, the moonshiners/rioters were wielding pieces of wood, so some of the crewmen, Latford said, went back for tire irons. Then big Pop Eargle stepped forward.
"He used to carry two tires and a jack during pit stops for Bud Moore's team," Latford said of Eargle, whose belly took the brunt of a rioter's two-by-four.
Eargle, Latford said, grabbed the board and lifted the man off the ground. Then he popped his assailant on the noggin.
"It looked like King Kong waving the Eiffel Tower over his head,'' Latford said. "That ended it."
For the record, Junior Johnson, the famed moonshine runner and Latford's future employer, led all 258 laps of the Western North Carolina 500.
I wasn't there, but I remember it as though I had been in the 'shine, too.
TRJ Editor Tom Gillispie is the author of three books, including Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Tom's NASCAR books are available for sale online at www.amazon.com.
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