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Higgins' Scuffs: A case of tunnel vision

By Tom Higgins
ThatsRacin.com Contributor

A reliable, well-placed official at a top NASCAR track tells me that he is being badgered by a few star drivers.

They want his speedway to construct either a tunnel or skywalk between the area where they park their motorhomes during race weekends and the garage area.

The purpose?

So that they won’t have to mix with those pesky fans that are hoping for an autograph or to snap a photo.

Excuse me. Have you glanced into the grandstands lately?

Some times more than half the seats don’t have fannies in them! You ought to be doting on the paying customers, not dodging them.

Just as it did a couple weeks ago to address a “fixing” scandal, NASCAR needs to convene another mandatory meeting among the competitors and put Richard Petty in charge.

The subject: Being sweet to the people who pay the purses that enable the swanky motor coaches, private planes and other perks many drivers command.

Petty has reigned as the sport’s King for more than 50 years, and not just because of his record 200 victories and seven championships, a mark he shares with the late Dale Earnhardt. The ever-smiling Petty has a vast following of loyal subjects because he’s nice to them.

Some examples:

In the early 1990s I coincidentally was booked with Richard on a commuter flight from Baltimore to Salisbury, Md. We were heading to a race in Dover, Del.

As we waited to board the plane a pack of about 25 Cub Scouts came through on a tour of the airport. They spotted Petty and with squeals of delight a rush was on for autographs.

As a gate attendant repeatedly ordered him to board “or else the door is gonna close” Petty kept signing, elaborately and deliberately penning that distinctive autograph with all its swirls. Only when every kid had been accommodated did The King stride to the plane, which could have been no more than five minutes late in leaving.

Other passengers who had seen what was happening applauded him in appreciation.

When NASCAR went to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994 for the inaugural Brickyard 400, I needed to talk with Petty for a story I had been asked to ghost write in his name. He was taking a break in his modest-by-comparison motorhome behind the garage area.

Petty’s personal manager, Jimmy Martin, accompanied me to see him. It was a mob scene around that coach. Hundreds awaited an “audience” with The King. Jimmy had to beg fans who thought we were pushing to the front of the line to let us through.

After about 15 minutes I had the necessary notes. Richard stretched and said, “Well, Tom, if you have what you need, I’m going out and sign some more autographs.”

With that he voluntarily waded into a crowd that went wild at the sight of him.

Years ago I asked Petty’s wife, Lynda, if she ever had seen him “really mad.”

She laughed and related this tale:

“Back when electric windows first became available on cars we were at Martinsville Speedway. Richard won the race and, as always, sat on the pit road wall afterward and signed autographs.

“Me and the kids waited for him in the car, which was parked in the infield. Kyle and his sisters were very young then and they were fascinated by those windows. Up and down the windows went, over and over.

“At about dark, Richard finally finished signing autographs and posing for pictures and came to the car.

“It wouldn’t start! The kids had run down the battery by playing with those windows.

“He was not happy.”

The experience never deterred Petty for a second from his practice of being pleasant to the fans.

“We’ve got to think where we would be without them,” he says.

I realize that there are occasions when drivers are in a hurry to get to the garage and haven’t the time to stop and scribble or “say cheese” for fans. I know the car might not be running well and frustration has set in. Further, I know that some autograph or photograph seekers might be inebriated and obnoxious. I know that within hours some of them will be selling the autographs and/or pictures on the internet.

But to demand, as if you are lords, a tunnel or skywalk to avoid all of them altogether at a time when attendance is down and the sport’s popularity appears to be plummeting?

It’s way past time to reconsider and instead do some courting.

I am not holding my breath.

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