Fans enjoy 500 tales

DEAN MCNULTY

, Last Updated: 7:06 AM ET

DAYTONA, Fla. -- Yesterday they honoured past Daytona 500 champions as part of the NASCAR's move to regain some of its core fans who have stopped coming to races and stopped watching them on television.

It's not a disaster on the scope of the National Hockey League's slide into oblivion from the American consciousness, but it's telling just the same that there are no longer automatic sellouts at the likes of Lowe's Motor Speedway in the heart of North Carolina's NASCAR country.

And while television ratings are still second only to the National Football League among professional sports, a two percentage point slip over the past two seasons is still worrisome for the folks that own and operate the Daytona International Speedway .

So what better way to re-connect to its fans than have some of its greatest drivers sit among the unwashed and tell stories -- and there were some good ones.

Darrell Waltrip, who is almost better known now as the FOX-TV motor mouth than he is for his 84 Cup wins, related a story about a run-in he had with Buddy Baker in his rookie season.

"I was young and A.J. Foyt was the old veteran," he said. "I went to A.J. and told him that every time I got behind Buddy Baker, he would shake his fist at me. I wasn't sure what he was trying to tell me or what I should do about it.

"A.J. said: 'At the same time he's shaking his fist at you he has to take one hand off of the steering wheel, so the next time he does it knock the hell out of him. I guarantee he won't ever shake his fist at you again."

The next time he was on the track with Baker, Waltrip did exactly as Foyt had told him to do.

"I tried it and it worked," Waltrip said. "He never shook his fist at me again."

Richard Petty, one of the champions who raced in the first Daytona 500 back in 1959 and who would go on to win seven times said yesterday that he'll never forget the first time he experienced the 2.5-mile oval.

"When I came through the tunnel I was a 21-year-old kid who had only run 10-12 races in my lifetime," he said. "To come down here to run the biggest race there was, was awesome. For me the track looked like it went on forever down into the first and second corner."

Petty said that there was one first he notched at Daytona that he still considers special, and a little humorous, considering his status as one of NASCAR's true gentlemen.

"Johnny Bruner was the flag man and as we were the first guys to get on the new track he said: 'Okay, everybody go out and run on the flat part of the track for four or five laps before you ever go up on the banking.' "

Petty said that after just one lap he figured he would try to take his car up the 33 degree banking.

"I ran through the third and fourth corner and said to myself: 'Okay, so let's go up on the banking,' " he said. "When I came around again Johnny's got the black flag out. So officially I became the first guy to be kicked off the track at this place."

Of course, not all the stories the Daytona 500 winners spun yesterday, were of the feel-good variety.

Cale Yarborough, still the only man to win three consecutive Cup crowns, talked about being a dirt-poor kid growing up in South Carolina, just a few miles from where Darlington Raceway now sits.

"My dad used to take me to the races when I was a little boy," he said. "Before I could go I had to milk our cow in the morning before I went to school and do some plowing behind our mule after school."

Shortly after taking him to a race on one particular night, his dad was killed.

"But I never forgot going to races with my dad when I was a little boy, hanging on the fence at the old dirt tracks, and it never got out of my blood," he said. "As I got older, instead of doing a lot of socializing and a lot of dating, I went to the race track on Saturday night."

Judging from the long line-up of fans waiting to get the 67-year-old Yarborough's autograph yesterday, it was a wise decision, for him and for NASCAR.


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