The 2018 National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame is made up of four worthy individuals who have established themselves as among NASCAR’s greatest competitors.
They include drivers Donnie Allison and Terry Labonte and crew chiefs Jake Elder and Buddy Parrott.
The achievements of each have been widely reported and will again be the subjects of media offerings when they are inducted Jan. 21 in Charlotte.
That said, I am pleased to say that during their competitive heyday I knew each of them well enough to learn something of their personal side – which meant they were comfortable enough with me to allow me to do so.
And they were characters; real down-home, “good ol’ boy” NASCAR characters that could make you laugh with a single sentence.
—- In the mid 1980’s Grand National Scene, later to become NASCAR Scene, was a growing trade paper. It was quickly becoming touted as the “Bible of Winston Cup Racing.”
By that time, Allison, the younger brother of Bobby Allison, had already established himself as a top-flight competitor whose skills were equal in stock cars and Indy cars.
He was the subject of a GNS “Spotlight” feature, which was composed of a one-page, large photo of an individual or lighthearted incident.
For one issue I selected a photo of Allison and the late T. Wayne Robertson, the head of Sports Marketing Group, an arm of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The two faced each other, smiling. They had pushed out their stomachs to the limit and looked like two jolly fat men smiling at each other.
About a week later Allison came up to me. For a competitor to do so is not always a good thing.
“Know what happened?” he said. “My mama (Kitty) came up to me and said, ‘Did you see your picture in the Grand National Scene?’
“After all these years and she talks about that photo.”
“Well,” I said, relieved that he was not angry. “You and Wayne made it funny, for sure.
“Yeah,” Allison said with a smile. “We did do that.”
—- By the time he joined Rod Osterlund’s team with rookie driver Dale Earnhardt, J.C. “Jake” Elder was a widely successful and respected crew chief.
The union was perfect as it paired Elder’s experience and knowledge with Earnhardt’s raw talent.
Earnhardt won at Bristol in the spring of 1979, a victory that heralded a future superstar.
The irrepressible Elder came up with a classic quote, paraphrased here:
“Stick with me kid and we will be rolling in diamonds as big as horse turds!”
At a dinner with Elder, also at Bristol, he ordered a filet mignon. He didn’t realize that his piece of steak came wrapped in bacon, which, of course, was held to the meat with toothpicks.
Bite after bite Elder kept pulling shreds toothpicks out of his mouth.
“Durn,” he said, “I don’t believe this but I have already eaten a cord of wood!”
We don’t know how great Elder and Earnhardt could have become because Elder move on after just one season.
He moved on often – so often that he earned the nickname “Suitcase Jake.”
“Suitcase” remained respected until his passing in 2010.
—- Parrott loved jokes and loved to laugh. He smiled a lot. He still does.
He had already established himself by the time he joined DiGard Racing Co. and driver Darrell Waltrip in 1978. The two would win 22 races in a four-year span.
His fun-loving persona was best displayed to me at motel pool on a hot July day at Daytona.
He was on the diving board – but not for long. He performed a series of twisting, turning dives, coupled with outlandish spins and flops.
He was a one-man show. Everyone at the pool was watching in awe.
“Hey Steve!” yelled. “Get on up here with me!”
I wasn’t going anywhere near that diving board.
Later the story was that Parrott once been a serious diving competitor – and a champion.
As much as he loved to laugh, he was fiercely loyal to his friends, whom he would protect if needed.
It was seldom needed, by the way. Parrott was not a man with whom anyone would want to tangle.
—- Labonte hit NASCAR like a cyclone. By his second year of competition, 1980, he had already won the Southern 500. As you know there was much more to come.
Labonte drew media attention quickly. It was new to him. He was quiet and somewhat reticent. If a one-word answer could suffice, that’s what a media individual got.
Once I asked his wife Kim why her husband was so quiet.
“He just doesn’t have anything to say,” was her answer.
He earned the nickname “Iceman” because of his cool, calculating driving style.
I said he earned the name because when it came to interviews, he was frozen.
I was part of a Labonte video presentation offered during his induction in the Unocal-Darlington Record club’s ceremony on Southern 500 weekend.
Understand, it was supposed to be funny.
So I tried. I portrayed Labonte as the silent type. In the video he was being interviewed.
As Labonte, I shuffled, scratched my head, rolled my eyes and finally said, “I don’t know what to say.”
When the affair was over I stood in a hallway, ready to leave. Labonte came walking by.
He passed me then turned around. He walked up to me.
“Ass—-!” he said. Then he smiled and strode away.
Suffice it to say as the years passed Labonte, who became a two-time champion, grew more comfortable with the media.
There were times when it appeared he wouldn’t shut up.
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