CHARLOTTE, NC, May 26, 2016 – Some movie lovers might say Elizabeth Taylor was the “Queen of the Silver Screen.” Many NASCAR fans, on the other hand, still refer to Richard Petty as “The King.”
This Sunday, the green flag drops, as it has every Memorial Day weekend for past 56 years, for the running of the Coca Cola 600 (originally called the World 600), the longest stock car race in the world.
“The King” didn’t take home his first 600 mile checkered flag in Charlotte until 1975. He nabbed the trophy again in 1977, but when you ask Richard Petty what he remembers about his 1975 victory, Petty says with his familiar toothy grin, “I remember Elizabeth Taylor was in the Winner’s Circle.”
Indeed “Cleopatra” was in Victory Lane, only not in 1975. And “The King” and “Queen” did hug, but it was 1977 instead. Given the magnitude of the event and the fact that Elizabeth Taylor was the Grand Marshal that year, Petty can be forgiven for getting his dates mixed up when reflecting upon stock car racing’s “Game of Thrones.”
Considering the impact each of them had on their respective industries, it just wouldn’t have been proper for anyone else in racing to have the first audience with Dame Elizabeth other than King Richard himself.
The mile and a half tri-oval in Charlotte was the inspiration of Bruton Smith and former driver Curtis Turner in 1959. The unknown factor for the first World 600 in 1960 was the extra hundred miles of racing. Until that time, 500 had more or less been the magic number for stock car racing whether it translated into miles or laps.
But questions loomed. It was a matter of stamina for the drivers and whether the cars could continue to operate at a highly competitive rate for the added distance.
Though Turner was quickly out of the picture, Smith also ran into troubles, running the speedway in red numbers for the first few years of operation.
After a lengthy absence, Smith eventually returned to the sport and the track he had built. In the process, he hired a local boxing promoter named H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler. Together, with Smith’s vision and Wheeler’s creativity the track prospered like never before, but there was still something missing.
Stock car racing is the only truly American sport born in the South. Its roots go back to the days of prohibition when moonshiners needed souped up high speed cars to outrun the law.
Being in the Bible Belt, Sunday’s were a day of rest however, and that’s when the good ole boys would go to a cow pasture somewhere and challenge each other to a race.
For years NASCAR racing was viewed as a “redneck” sport, but when Smith returned to Charlotte Motor Speedway, it was his intention to elevate its image.
Over the years, Bruton and Humpy created larger purses, put on spectacular pre-race shows, started a golf tournament for the media and held formal banquets at area country clubs.
Today Smith has parlayed his automotive ventures into an empire that has made him a billionaire.
The real turning for Bruton Smith, came in 1977 when he got Elizabeth Taylor to commit to being Grand Marshal for his Memorial Day 600. Taylor had married Senator John Warner of Virginia in 1976, shortly after her second divorce from actor Richard Burton.
Knowing that a third of their fans came from Virginia for the 600, Smith and Wheeler took advantage of the political clout for Warner by getting Taylor to appear at the Charlotte race.
Taylor, who was only 45 then, had already been married six times and the years of being in the spotlight, controversies, health issues and the demands on her time had taken their toll. Still like a Michelangelo sculpture emerging from the stone, there remained an aura about Liz Taylor that could not be erased.
And so nearly five hours after the green flag dropped in 1977, the King of racing and the Queen of filmdom stood together in Victory Lane.
As for me, I was there too. Among the peasants, but with an assignment that allowed me to interview both Taylor and Petty for our local television news that night.
Elizabeth Taylor died in 2011 at the age of 79. Richard Petty is now team owner of Richard Petty Motorsports.
When asked what it would be like for his team to win a race, Petty replied, “It would be a big deal if we can get RPM to win any race. It would be even bigger for us to win here (Charlotte).”
“Even if Elizabeth Taylor won’t be in Victory Lane?” asked a reporter.
To which King Richard replied, “If we win, we don’t need Elizabeth Taylor.”
How quickly we forget.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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