So many of the “newbie” race fans don’t know much about the rich and colorful history of this sport. Long time race fans love to read as much as they can about it. This article is for all of us with hope it will enlighten some and/or spark memories of “The Way it Was”. I spoke with Travis Carter recently. Travis began working in this sport in the early 70’s and had the amazing fortune to work with drivers like Benny Parsons, Cale Yarborough, Jimmy Spencer and Darrell Waltrip to mention a few. His hard work as a jack of all trades eventually led to ownership of his own Winston Cup team. I gave him the opportunity to speak about absolutely anything he wanted to during his 35 plus years in racing.
“One of the questions you had,” began Carter, “was regarding things back in the day. For me, and I know this might sound strange, but, nothing really jumps out like a big, good story. I think more than anything to me, in my racing experience in the earlier days versus today, is the huge difference in attitudes. I talking about everybody…the mechanics, the drivers, the whole array of people. Bear in mind that things have changed dramatically. There’s more pressure, there’s more commerce involved, more money from the sponsors and more people. In the old days it was a true fraternity.”
“What stands out so much is that back then people would spend time together. They would visit and talk to each other. The winningest driver was friends with the guy who, basically, showed up to make the race and run a little bit. Everybody was the same. Everyone was viewed the same. It was the same for mechanics, team owners and even the series sponsors. When R.J. Reynolds became the series sponsor so many people who worked for R.J. Reynolds knew everybody in the business. That was allowed to happen and it was just a different, more family oriented or fraternal environment. Change came about when some of these new guys, better educated engineering groups, came who had an air about them.”
“(Some) people just don’t spend a lot of time around (much of) what is happening. Of course, in their defense, part of their time is demanded for other activities and part of it is that they are financially secure enough that they can do what they like. It’s not all bad, it’s just changed so much, but from somebody who’s older like me who started in the 70’s the environment is so different.”
“Right now I’m involved with helping my son (Matt Carter) with his ARCA car and that environment is a lot more like it was 20 years ago in NASCAR. There are a few good stories, but, I don’t know that anything really stands out like a great story to tell. You know, you can remember the old Harry Hyde stories, and he was a tremendous story teller and one of those would never let the truth get in the way of a good story. You could spend countless hours hearing him tell stories and on rainy days I remember they would find the deck lid of a car and shoot craps. Harry was a big gambler…loved to gamble and he liked people. In a good way he wanted to play that role and be around people. He liked the attention and he found a way to get it. Of course people respected that. People today complain about spending too much time at the race track, but, in those days we actually spent more days involved with the race than they do now, so, there was a lot of down time. That’s one of the reasons people could visit a little more because they weren’t as pushed to meet schedules and they had a little more free time. Of course (in those days) there wasn’t as many people involved either. You know, where you have, perhaps 10 people per team today or per car, in those days you had maybe 3 or 4.”
“I remember in 1971 when Bobby Allison was driving that car for Holman and Moody, that Coca Cola car that people will probably remember, to my recollection they only had 2 people working on that car. It was Dan Ford and a guy by the name of Bill Hohman. It was just the 2 of them and they did it all. And in 6 months they won 5 or 6 races. So that’s the kind of things that went on in those days. And the teams would help each other a lot. They were always helping each other if they needed something, either the set up of the car, or parts issues and there was a tremendous amount of loyalty.”
“I remember, and this is a good story, it was probably 1972 and Darrell Waltrip came to Talladega. He had that Terminal Transport car, a Mercury. I think it was his first time at Talladega for a Cup race, and he had engine trouble. J.C. Elder was the guy that was looking after him. Jake probably didn’t have but one or 2 people working for him and they had to change the engine Sunday morning before the race. I was involved helping Benny Parsons with L. G. Dewitt’s team. Our car was ready and actually through the inspection process and already on the line. It didn’t take 2 days to inspect one like it does today. I go by and Jake’s got to change this engine and there was nobody helping him, so, I jump in there and help him get it done and finally get it ready to start up. It’s not long before the race. I mean like 20 minutes or so and we’ve got to check the ignition timing on it, so, Jake gives me a timing light and I’m looking at this thing and they marked the harmonic balance with little marks to line up with a particular point that reads how many degrees of timing. The spark advances from dead center.”
“This thing must have 10 different marks so I guessed at the one I think is the closest to where it should be and we get it set down. I think they actually drove it out to pit road. They were playing the National Anthem, that’s how close we were. Well, Darrell had to shut it off during the National Anthem and when they indicated a refire to start the race the engine wouldn’t turn over. It had so much ignition timing it wouldn’t turn over. So, Leonard Wood was coming by, I guess Darrell got his attention or something and told him what was wrong, so, Leonard raised the hood and reduced the timing enough to start the car. (Carter is laughing here) I think the guy (Darrell) was leading the race with that car when something happened to the engine.”
“I don’t want to tell everybody this story, but, I’ll tell it anyway. In 1971 I had only worked for a few months and we went to Richmond. And they said I was going to change tires that day, so, I said OK. So, you don’t (get to) practice, you practice when the car comes in to pit the first time. So, I changed the tires and it goes really smooth for me. Well, about the third or fourth stop, it raveled a lug nut off and I could not get that durn lug nut off, so, I just tightened it back up. So, we were driving home and Benny Parsons was driving and he just does not understand why this car drove so bad. And finally I had to admit to him that he had run 2 stops on the same tire on the right rear. Of course we didn’t have the communication they have today, so, he didn’t know we didn’t get that tire changed, so, ( again laughing) he didn’t understand why that thing was so bad.”
“We had a lot of fun with him (Benny) and it was hard, hard work. People (today) don’t know what hard work is. If they had to do what people of our era did, even before us but I’m speaking just about people from my era in the early 70’s when we started, it was never less than an 18 hour a day job. We drove and traveled and get home Monday morning. You would leave the shop at midnight and have to be back early the next morning. It was a grueling, grueling task. When you’re physically exhausted you’ll just collapse and go to sleep. And that happened a lot, but, I grew up on a farm, so, long hours and hard work was nothing new to me. It’s different for people who aren’t used to physical work and there was a lot of hard, physical work. You weren’t just sitting down, thinking things out and planning because you didn’t have a staff of 50 people doing it. Of course, you didn’t have that many cars either. You only had 2 or 3 cars to maintain and not a fleet of 15 or 20 like today.”
“The transformation of racing has been overwhelming, but, nothing ever seems to survives unless it can somehow grow and improve. It couldn’t stay status quo forever. One of the things we see today, and this bears mentioning from my perspective anyway, is that a team owner would never dream of pursuing a sponsor that is associated with someone else. That just did not happen. Of course, there weren’t that many commercial sponsors out there, but, nobody went knocking on the door of the ones that were paired to whomever to try to entice them to change.”
“We had a good run. We came through the system when it was at it’s most critical time and I think it’s truly the greatest evolution from the early 70’s up through the turn of the century. I think too many people lose sight of the players who actually kept this business going and took it to another level. That would be, obviously, R.J. Reynolds and the Junior Johnsons, the Richard Pettys and the Wood Brothers…the stalwart teams who were there through thick and thin who would always have a star driver who would attract fans. You saw that in Bud Moore and other teams started to develop and bring stars like Richard Childress with Earnhardt and things of that nature, but, I think too many times those things are taken for granted and the wrong people say, ‘hey, we made this thing successful.” I think certain people need to look back over the years and realize there were a lot of hands in the success of this thing helping to bring it where it is today. Too much of that is lost. A lot of people who made tremendous investments of their own money, themselves and blood, sweat and tears never got the just rewards for what they contributed.”
Additionally, just before we hung up, I asked Travis to comment on Cale Yarborough.
“Well, that man had the most heart and determination of any man I ever worked with…just shear guts and determination to be successful. Of course anybody who is a champion has that, but, I’m telling you he could just somehow dig a little deeper than most and find a little something extra. That was always amazing to us, who had the good fortune to be associated with him. He was a good man and when I think back and I’m making a reference to someone who was a winner or champion and was friends with a guy that was struggling the most…Cale is that guy. He didn’t see himself as different or better than anybody in that garage. I’m telling you, you don’t see that in these whipper snappers today. I think someone else was that way…Dale Earnhardt. He was the same way. He was just a guy who was fortunate to have the opportunity he had and to be blessed to have the fans love and support him. He didn’t see himself as any better than anybody else. He was just one of the group and they just don’t come by like that any more,” Carter concluded.
You’ll find many thousands of people who will agree with you on all points you covered, Travis. I love hearing the facts and stories that these knowledgeable “old schoolers” have to offer. I believe Travis is right. Much of that is lost or in danger of being discarded as non-current or unimportant. For what it’s worth I don’t think you can move forward if you don’t know where you’ve been and how you have benefited rom it.
So, “That’s The Way It Was” with Travis Carter.
Thank you for your time and consideration and good luck to that amazingly talented son, Matt. He is going to be big and a young gun who is already benefiting from a father who has taught him respect and the value of experience and hard work.