Commentary

When the going gets weird, Lowe's is often the place

When the going gets weird in NASCAR, Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., is often the site. Ryan McGee runs down the five strangest moments at the storied track.

Originally Published: September 27, 2007
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Ah, yes. Race week at Lowe's Motor Speedway. That can mean only one thing to you and me -- total mind-bending "Twilight Zone" weirdness. After all, this is the track where president/promoter Humpy Wheeler has recreated the invasion of Grenada in the infield grass, unleashed a car-eating robot named Robosaurus, and once predicted the winner of the All-Star Challenge by having a guy named The Regurgitator swallow a bowl of die-cast race cars and then vomit them up in the order of finish.

This year we're getting a bowl full of bizarre from Wheeler's boss, billionaire track owner O. Bruton Smith, who has spent the past week threatening to pack up his 1.5-mile speedway and move it to another town. Why? Because the 80-year-old wants to build an NHRA-ready drag strip on the northwest corner of the Lowe's Motor Speedway grounds, but the local government of Concord, N.C., has put a stop to the construction over noise concerns.

Eventually this will all get worked out (the city began backing down Tuesday night) and Smith likely will get to finish his drag strip and make more money. So, why the stink? Why raise such a ruckus in the national and local media?

Have we mentioned that it's race week in Charlotte and tickets are still available?

Whatever Smith's motives, this fall's edition of As The Speedway Turns got us to thinking … what have been the five most bizarro moments in Lowe's Motor Speedway's nearly six-decade history? Grab your favorite copy of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" and read on.

5. We Have You Surrounded -- October 2001
When NASCAR's new billion-dollar television package with FOX and NBC was unveiled in 2001, so were some new guidelines for race and track sponsorship. Unless the sponsors added a fee to the networks in addition to their racetrack obligations, the networks weren't going to mention their names on the air. When the time came for the fall event at Charlotte, NBC applied that rule to Lowe's and its naming rights deal with what was formerly the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Angered by the network's unwillingness to budge, Wheeler summoned a fleet of tow trucks and rolled them into the NBC television compound outside Turn 4. The trucks were parked directly behind the television production trucks, the drivers awaiting the command to hook up and pull. Meanwhile, track security officers were standing by to cut the transmission cables.

Eventually, a compromise was reached. Good thing, because one of the tow-truck operators later admitted that there was no way his truck was going to be able to budge NBC's massive 18-wheelers.

4. Levigation Devastation -- May 2005
Lowe's Motor Speedway
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesWeird stuff happens all over NASCAR, but more weird stuff seems to happen at Lowe's Motor Speedway than anywhere else.
Wheeler and Smith had nothing but good intentions during the winter of 2004 when they brought in a multi-bazillion dollar laser cutting machine to smooth out the legendarily bumpy Lowe's Motor Speedway racing surface, in particular the series of undulations in Turn 4 known as "Humpy's Bumps."

However, when the cars hit the newly "levigated" track for the All-Star Challenge and Coca-Cola 600, the result was a scene of car carnage straight out of "The Road Warrior." The race lasted a near-record 5 hours, 14 minutes and set an all-time Cup mark for cautions with 22 (18 for wrecks). Afterward, two more records were set -- complaining and finger-pointing. One year later the track was repaved and everyone was happy. Well, as happy as they ever are.

3. Willy T. and Big E -- May 1978

Always looking to make history (not to mention sell tickets), still-new track president Wheeler liked to put together rides for potential big-draw drivers looking for a NASCAR opportunity. Just two years earlier he'd made that very move for female racer Janet Guthrie. No sooner than she'd failed to qualify for the Indy 500, Wheeler had a plane in the air and a race car waiting to give her a shot to race in Charlotte.

In 1978, an African-American racer named Willy T. Ribbs caught Wheeler's attention, and the P.T. Barnum of motorsports convinced engine builder Will Cronkite to construct a car for the sports-car racers. Wheeler and Cronkite took their Ford to the track for a test session with Ribbs … but the driver never showed.

What happened next depends on who you ask. Most contend that Ribbs never showed because he was in a dispute with police in downtown Charlotte for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Ribbs says it was all a misunderstanding and he was on his way to the track and simply got lost.

What was he doing downtown when he was supposed to be at the track? Disgusted, Cronkite was ready to walk, but Wheeler had promised him a driver, and Wheeler would deliver. For a long time, he'd had his eye on a roughneck named Dale Earnhardt, a local racer and son of a short-track legend. At the very least, Wheeler thought, he'll show up.

He did, finishing 17th in the '78 World 600. The finish got him a serious look from other car owners, and the following season he'd landed his first full-time Cup ride … thanks in no small part to an alleged traffic ticket issued to a man he'd never met.

2. We Have You Surrounded, Part 2 -- Spring 1960
When Smith and business partner/driving legend Curtis Turner began construction on the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1959, they knew they were in trouble within the first few days. Beneath a thin layer of dirt lay a surprise -- half a million yards of solid granite. Construction became dynamite-powered excavation and the project soared past both its original budget and schedule. The project cut it so close that the inaugural World 600 was postponed three weeks and those weeks were filled with 24-hour shifts worked beneath temporary light towers that neither warmed the cold spring nights nor kept away fleets of mosquitoes.

A contractor named Owen Flowe, unhappy with how things were going and how he's wasn't being paid on time, came to the site to get his 20 bulldozers and take them home. As he climbed atop one of his rigs, a car pulled up and five men climbed out, including Turner and, depending on who tells the story, Smith. With the help of some firearms (allegedly) they convinced Flowe to leave his machines so they could finish their track in time for its first practice session, now less than a day away.

He did, they did and the inaugural World 600 was ready to run … well, sort of.

1. Six Hours, No Teeth -- May 1960
When the World 600 was finally run, the 54 machines that took to the track looked more like cow movers than race cars. Fearful of damage from the just-poured asphalt, drivers rigged up the noses of their vehicles with sheets of chicken wire mounted on A-frames bolted to the hood and front bumper. Additional wire blankets were bolted over the windshield and driver's side window to repel glass-cracking chunks of blacktop, and some thoughtful racers even bolted truck mud flaps behind their rear tires to try to slow down potential projectiles before they hit the car behind them.

"The holes were everywhere," recalls Ned Jarrett, who crashed out in 30th. "For five-and-half hours cars were spinning and wrecking, and those holes had everyone's jaws chattering nonstop."

Jack Smith was cruising in his No. 47 Pontiac with 50 laps to go when "it sounded like a grenade went off underneath my car." A clod of asphalt had clobbered Smith's car, blowing a fist-sized hole into the fuel cell. Car owner Bud Moore tried to seal it up with a bar of soap, but the leak was too large and Smith finished 12th, 48 laps behind winner Joe Lee Johnson, who earned the second and final win of his career.

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."

Ryan McGee | email

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