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WAID’S WORLD: Lessons Learned From The Wild 1976 Daytona 500 Finish

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DAYTONA BEACH, FL – By the time the year 1976 rolled around I had been on the sports staff of the Roanoke World-News for four years. I spent a lot of time covering local games and such, but I did get to dabble in more prominent events.

For example, I was the beat man for the local hockey team, the Roanoke Valley Rebels, of the Eastern Hockey League.

By the way, if you’ve seen the movie “Slap Shot,” then you’ve seen the Eastern Hockey League.

I also covered NASCAR. I had gotten some experience and knowledge while I was at the Martinsville Bulletin. The Roanoke folks knew this and counted on me to be their point man when it came to racing – well, that’s what they told me anyway.

But what experiences I had. I covered races in Martinsville, Bristol, Darlington, Atlanta, North Wilkesboro and Richmond.

But something was missing. In my first three years at Roanoke, I never made it to Daytona.

That changed in ’76. Budget constraints meant I would be in Daytona only long enough to cover the 125-mile qualifying races and the Daytona 500. I didn’t care.

I readily admit I have told the tale of the first Daytona 500 I ever covered more than once.

It’s a good example of how someone who is attempting to establish a career might have bitten off more than he could chew – and wonder if that career would be finished before it hardly got started.

My trip did not start off well. A big snowstorm hit the Southeast and many roads were impassable. I found that out the hard way after the company car I was driving, a big red Ford Galaxy, spun out at the bottom of the hill down from my house.

I recovered and told myself conditions would be better the farther South I went.

Wrong. When I finally picked up I-95 outside Florence, S.C., only one lane was open. I could manage about 30 mph.

I was a nervous wreck. If I came up on a slower car or truck, I’d have to pass and that meant shifting to a snow-covered lane. And could I make it up and down the exit ramp to get gas? And what if traffic was stopped?

I-95 wasn’t completed to Daytona so I had to traverse two-lane highways through most of Georgia.

Finally snow gave way to rain at Savannah and traveling was much easier. By the time I got to Daytona and found my motel I had been on the road for 14 hours.

It took me some time to get accustomed to the massive 2.5-mile speedway, its seemingly acres of garage area and huge pit road.

I had no problem composing what I thought was interesting copy. I had become familiar with several of the drivers and they didn’t hesitate to talk to me.

I thought, “This is fun. This is going to be a cinch.”

Wrong again. The bottom fell out.

As you know, the 1976 Daytona was arguably the most exciting in the track’s history.

The final 22 laps became a trophy dash between Richard Petty and David Pearson, the top stars of the day.

Pearson took the lead on the backstretch on the final lap but he drifted high and Petty moved under him.

They rode side-by-side out of the fourth turn when suddenly their cars bobbled. Pearson whacked the wall nose first and clipped Petty in the process.

Their two cars spun out of control. Petty ended up in the grass about 100 feel from the finish line. Pearson came to a halt at the entrance to pit road.

Pearson managed to keep his foot in the clutch and was able to limp across the finish line at 20 mph to win. Petty’s engine had died.

I had never seen the likes of it. To be honest, no one in the press box – or anywhere else – had either.

After the completion of Pearson’s press conference my mind went blank. I sat there unable to come up even the first words of the piece I had to write. I was overwhelmed.

No one else seemed to have that problem. Typewriters were clicking rapidly throughout the press box.

I wrote, “They wrecked.” Naw, no good. I wrote, “It was one for the ages.” Cliché. I wrote, “You had to see it to believe it.” Terrible.

I started to panic. After time, I was among the last in the press box and I had not even started.

Finally I just started writing. And I kept writing. When I was finished I hardly knew what I had written- heck, I don’t know to this day.

But I made my deadline and didn’t get a midnight phone call from my editor telling me I was fired.

In time I realized why it took me so long to do my job. Those around me were experienced. They were veterans who long ago learned how to do the job competently and quickly – no matter the circumstances.

I told myself that someday, if I learned my lessons, I would be like them.

But if nothing else I am glad I was there to see a part of NASCAR history.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

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Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, MotorsportsUnplugged.com and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.