One of the most memorable events in NASCAR history certainly happened on July 4, 1984.
The Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway ended in one of the most exciting finishes of all time as Richard Petty beat Cale Yarborough by a bumper length.
It was Petty’s 200th and final career win.
As significant as this is, what made the race even more memorable was that it was seen by President Ronald Reagan, who had flown to Daytona on Air Force One.
American presidents didn’t have much to do with NASCAR… well, only when it served them politically, so actually racing was unique.
And in Reagan’s case, it was more than just being there. Reagan ordered the engines to fire at 10 a.m. by telephone from Air Force One.
The plane landed at 11:36 am, and Reagan arrived in a VIP suite in time to watch the final 30 minutes of the race and be interviewed by MRN’s Ned Jarrett.
After the race, winner Petty joined Reagan in the VIP suite for congratulations, and later the President joined all competitors for a fried chicken dinner in the garage area.
As special as that day was, it wasn’t the first time a president had interacted with NASCAR for anything other than a campaign visit.
And that president didn’t come to any NASCAR facility. He invited NASCAR to the White House.
Before winning the presidency in 1976, Jimmy Carter was known as a peanut farmer with keen political knowledge and savvy.
By the time he became governor of Georgia, everyone in the state – and beyond – knew he was a fan of stock car racing.
He knew his NASCAR, its competitors, events and history. He showed up at several races, mostly in a campaign mode, but he rarely missed spending time with individuals, many of whom were invited to meetings at the governor’s mansion.
Before the 1976 election, which pitted Democrat Carter against Republican Gerald Ford, Carter made a campaign promise: If he won the election, he would invite NASCAR to dinner—not just some of its members, but as many as he did could squeeze into the White House.
Let’s be honest: All politicians make promises. Not all are fulfilled.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that two years after his election, no one at NASCAR had heard of a dinner party and had pretty much written Carter off.
That changed in the summer of 1978.
I worked at the Roanoke times back then. I and several of my fellow sports writers were members of a bowling league that held games every Tuesday.
Sounds mundane, I know. Typically, the image of sportswriters at their own social gathering is a game of poker in a smoky room with plenty of alcohol on hand (that was true back then).
I was bowling one Tuesday when a voice boomed over the PA system, “Phone for Steve Waid at the front desk!”
What the hell? Who calls me at the bowling alley?
I admit that I got a little nervous when I went to reception. Of course, Margaret knew I was here, and maybe it was an emergency.
So I was almost breathless when I answered the phone.
“Hi?” I almost gasped.
“Is that Mr. Steve Waid?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Mr. Waid, this is the White House.”
I didn’t answer right away. White House? Who the hell tried to pull off this prank?
“Can you repeat that?” I asked.
“Yes. This is the White House and President Carter would like to know if you would be going to dinner in two weeks?”
If that was a prank, then a masterful one. But what if it wasn’t? If this was The White House, it was in fact proof that Big Brother had watched me
“So, Mr. Waid, will you attend?”
“Er… yes, yes of course.”
That means I couldn’t resist.
“May I ask how come you guys found me in a bowling alley?”
“Goodbye, Mr. Waid.”
I told my friends at the bowling alley what had happened; that I would be a dinner guest at the White House.
“Yes, and I’m going to Buckingham Palace for the weekend.”
“You mean the White Castle and not the White House, right?”
“What? You need an assistant?”
On the evening of dinner, a large crowd of NASCAR people — consisting of drivers, owners, crew chiefs, a few media people, and NASCAR officials including President Bill France Jr. — came onto the White House lawn.
They were greeted by a huge buffet consisting of country ham, turkey, beans, other hot vegetables, and cornbread. These were all the good things grandma used to do.
The Marine Band played from the porch and show cars from Petty Enterprises, the Wood Brothers and Junior Johnson, among others, lined the grand oval driveway.
“You know,” David Pearson said to me, “we have a nice 4/8 mile track here. We should start the cars and see what we can do.”
After dinner we were treated to music by Willie Nelson and his band. It was kind of fun hearing “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” at the White House.
Carter couldn’t attend because he was with Israeli Menachim Begin and Egyptian Anwar Sadat to bring peace to the Middle East.
It was up to Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, to make sure everything went well and everyone was having a good time. She did a good job and even got Nelson to perform beyond his time.
Now I’m sure White House security wasn’t nearly as tight back then as it is now. As such, we were allowed to roam. Nobody stopped us from going from room to room.
what we did I have never seen a more opulent setting.
Petty and I entered the most elegant bathroom we have ever seen. What stood out the most, however, was a bright red phone just an arm’s reach from the toilet.
“Now what do you think this is for?” I asked Petty.
“It’s probably a hotline to Moscow,” he replied.
“Let’s pick up the phone and see.”
“No no!” said a wide-eyed Petty.
When it was all over, we all realized that we were part of something special. At no other time had NASCAR been recognized and celebrated by a higher authority than the President of the United States.
I was definitely glad to have been there.
In hindsight, however, I was more pleased that I hadn’t touched that red telephone receiver.
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