ENCORE: A FATHER'S DAY TRIBUTE
Originally published Father's Day 2007
There isn't a day that passes when I don't think about my father. I miss him that much.
My dad inspired me into being what I am today, even though he never drag raced.
I was the only son of three children. My father was my hero.
We were never rich. Dad’s education was no different than most young men growing up poor in South Carolina. He quit school in the eighth grade to help support his grandparents working in the Carolina textile mills.
That’s all he knew to do – work. When he got married, he worked hard, yet he made time for his only son, me.
I can remember as a four year old the times Mom would take me to Dad's work to spend the evening with him. I can remember falling asleep on a makeshift cardboard bed at his job many nights. He was only able to do this because he was the only person left working. He was first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night, many time hours after the rest of the workers.
“If you want to get anywhere in life – you work,” he would tell me. “You give a man an honest day’s effort and the end result is that you can look him in the eye.”
Dad had a love for cars but wasn’t a Corvette or Camaro man. He loved those classic Galaxies and the Ford Falcon. He loved the working man's hot rods.
Working, supporting his family, and tinkering with cars fueled his passion. He was a self-made auto mechanic and body repairman on the side. In fact, when I think of it, there wasn’t much he couldn’t do.
Detailing a car? He could make a dirt track car shine like a show car.
He was a man who lived by the convictions of God’s word. Dad taught me the Lord’s Prayer and every night our regimen included reciting that prayer as I knelt in my parent’s room.
Senior’s work week spanned from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. at night, Monday through Friday. Saturdays were reserved for taking care of household business and helping his elderly grandparents. He was big on taking care of his elders. His grandparents were his parents because he was given away as a child.
Sundays were for church and family time, no exceptions.
That’s the way he showed his love -- he provided. He ensured that we never did without. He didn’t want us to hurt like he did growing up.
That foundation of faith I got from my father paved the way for my involvement in drag racing. We lived barely a mile from Spartanburg Dragway and every Saturday night I could hear the cars into the wee hours of the morning. I gravitated towards that harmony of horsepower. But when I asked if we could go to a race, he told me that $5, by 1979 standards, was too much to spend on a ticket.
Mom chimed in that she didn’t want me around that fighting and beer drinking.
Those of you who know me know exactly how I handled that situation.
I jumped on my trusty “drag racing” bicycle and pedaled to the track and found a way in. I’m not going to say this was a spur-of-the-moment action. It was premeditated all the way. I had done enough research to know what it took to get in the gate.
The plan was – go there and stay an hour or so -- and pedal back home before anyone missed me.
The ride there was quick because it was virtually a downhill trek.
I rode up to the gate and the man at the gate asked me for $5. I knew that children 11 and under got in free, so I offered that I was only 11 years old. He gave me the pass through.
My eyes were so fixated on the handful of Modified Production cars testing that day. Their high winding Gene Fulton small blocks and Doug Nash 4-speed transmissions hooked me like a fish. I was mesmerized and couldn’t move. Following a gear-jamming run by Bob Earnhart’s Formula 2/E Modified Production Stingray (for those Modified eliminator diehards), I pumped my fist in approval. That elation was shattered within moments.
Dad was standing right beside me and I knew at that moment, the party was over.
“It’s time to go home,” he said, as he started walking towards the gate.
I think I discovered the feeling of “dead man walking” at that point.
“How did you get the money to get in here?” he asked.
My eyes welled with tears as I confessed my transgression. I had told the man working the gate that I was 11 years old because I knew that age and younger got in free.
“You’re going to make this right,” he said.
Sniffling, then outright crying . . . I told the man I was really 12 years old. The man at the gate, Paul Johnson, smiled and asked my dad if I could stay there for the rest of the day.
“No, I have to teach the boy a lesson,” he said. “He’s not going through life cheating and stealing from people and while you may have forgiven him, it’s not doing him any favors in life.”
Dad then instructed me to ride home and he’d deal with me when I got there. Little did I know that as I pedaled home (uphill all the way) that dad had brokered a deal where I could help clean up the track after the races and in return I would earn $5 and free admission.
He wouldn’t even give me a ride home. We had the talk once I got home. I think something clicked in his heart. Dad knew destiny was knocking.
“You really want to go?” he asked.
“I really want to be there so bad,” I responded.
I got the lecture on dishonesty. I still remember that talk. I am still ashamed.
“We’ll go next week,” he said. “You and I will go and make a day of it.”
Dad was big on making Saturdays “our time.” I can remember that day, sitting in the stands with a clipboard and a pencil writing down the numbers of every car, driver’s name and car make that ran. He was my auto advisor, revealing the make and model of every car I couldn’t.
He told me of the job opportunity later that night. That man, Mr. Johnson, the one who made it all possible, would return later in my adult life to prove destiny was in my favor.
Dad watched my endeavors at the track and supported them. He made sure I got to the track every Saturday. He even gave up his Saturdays, working at the drag strip as well (with no pay), just to ensure that I was able to keep my job.
When I decided to start a little magazine (crude, handwritten on notebook paper, photocopied with Polaroid pictures), he provided the funds to run the copy machine. His only request is that he got the first issue each month.
As I grew older, we drifted apart because I did my tour of duty as a rebellious teenager. But, the older I got, we came back together as friends.
Dad helped me through a tough divorce and became the driving force behind my pursuit of a career in drag racing. I’ll be honest, he was nervous when I quit my job of 13 years in a textile factory to pursue drag racing full-time. He had a right to be. I was nervous, too.
He knew I was fighting an uphill battle as a single dad of two young children. He never wrote an article, nor did he take a picture, but he provided the comfort of a secure presence, babysitting my two oldest as I pursued drag racing. I was blessed to learn from the best the sport had to offer.
When I told him of the plan to start what would later become CompetitionPlus.com, he smiled because somehow he knew we’d make it.
Dad took pride in being my ride to and from the airport. That was a job he took seriously. He always took comfort in knowing that Roger Richards was traveling with me because he knew that I would be safe with him.
When I would come home from a race, I'd spot him sitting on the bench at the airport, he’d smile knowing I made it home safely.
He always told me, “If something ever happened to you. I think my heart would break beyond repair.”
After he told me that, I changed my lifestyle. I stopped living life on the edge so much and even began to wear a helmet while riding the Harley-Davidson. He always made it a point to tell me how proud he was of me, for the man I had become.
Christmas of 2002 would be the last one for us. The next day he was diagnosed with incurable lymph node cancer. That was the result of his years working as a welder in those textile mills – exchanging his health for food on our table. He sacrificed his life so that we would have a better life.
I always went off to the races in the time after that praying that God would not let me be on the road when he passed. The last month of his life, I had planned to stay at home and take a break from racing. When he heard of that, he summoned me to his bedside and counseled me that I had a duty to provide. He made it a point to let me know that he was in God’s hands and that he’s be taken care of.
“Go do the right thing,” he told me.
Dad passed on the one weekend I was home.
The cancer was brutal on him and it got to the point that I prayed that God would take him on home. I couldn’t bear to see him hurt any more. He didn’t deserve it. I finally told him it was okay to let go.
Dad knew my life was coming together with stability. I had met my wife, Christy, and together we were headed in a good direction. He really liked her. God granted him the strength to attend our wedding.
That was the last time he’d go out before becoming bed-ridden for two months.
Two days before he died, with barely enough strength to speak, he made it a point to put his arm around my neck (with help) and say, “I love you and I’m proud of …”
And those were the last words he ever spoke to me.
As I sat at his funeral, following my delivery of his eulogy, I remembered a moment he and I had shared just days following the diagnosis of death.
The memories returned in a flurry, especially when, I discovered the same Mr. Johnson just happened to be the funeral director. That was the first time I had seen him in over 20 years. I knew it was destiny.
I recalled that day in December when Dad and I were in the garage, sorting through boxes of years gone by, when I noticed a tattered and torn copy of that old magazine I published as a kid. It was a magazine that he encouraged and made the initial investment into. The magazine became self-sufficient under his guidance.
“I guess we all have a destiny in life,” I told him as I presented the magazine.
He nodded in agreement.
Yeah, we all have a destiny. His destiny was to be my Dad.
Most importantly, I was destined to be his son.
Happy Father’s Day. I sure do miss you.