Every year when winter's chill sweeps across the Western North Carolina mountains and brings with it bear season, I recall a particular hunting story and laugh.
Never mind that no bear skin rug was bagged during that long-ago trip in the early 1970s to the Great Smokies.
The incident, and a later one it inspired, forever will remain amusing to me. I have written of them before. I'm inclined to repeat them, probably for the last time.
What is a "bear tale" doing on a website devoted to motorsports?
The story involves three of the most colorful characters connected to NASCAR racing I've met since I started covering the sport in 1957--Buddy Baker, Buck Brigance and Crash Grant.
Buddy, of course, is a former star driver who excelled on the superspeedways from the 1960s through the '80s. He is one of the few to win all four of NASCAR's marquee events, the Daytona 500, Talladega's Winston 500, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and Darlington's Southern 500. Baker posted 19 victories overall and is in several racing halls of fame. He now hosts a talk show devoted to motorsports on Sirius Radio.
For many seasons Brigance served as the gasman on Baker's pit crews. As a motorcycle racer in the 1950s, he won multiple AMA Southeastern championships.
Grant was a supervisor for Goodyear on the big-time NASCAR tour, now called the Sprint Cup Series. He oversaw the crews that readied tires for the teams.
Both Brigance and Grant are deceased.
That trio was joined by two friends from Charlotte, brothers Jim and Jack Hefner, for the hunting adventure four decades ago.
The Hefners, bear-sized men who were built like grizzlies, loved pulling practical jokes. And the two, now also gone, planned to victimize the excitable Brigance.
Upon reaching the cottage that had been rented, the group began readying it for a four-day stay, getting the groceries in and so forth.
All except Grant. Rifle in hand, he went up a trail to try and find a bear.
Brigance was given the chore of going to a well and drawing up a pail of water.
As Buck pumped the handle, a monster "bear" rose up from behind the well, growling menacingly and with paws outstretched.
Horrified, Brigance threw the bucket at the beast and took off running toward the cottage about 50 yards away with the "bear" right behind him.
"Buck had become about as big around as he was tall," Baker recalled, eyes sparkling at the memory. "Normally, he couldn't run very fast, but in those moments his stubby legs probably were doing a thousand RPMs."
The cottage was built to the contour of the land, so its front porch was approximately 7 or 8 feet above the ground.
"I swear Buck made it onto the porch in a single bound," continued Baker. "He probably set a world record for the high jump for a man of his age and size."
The "bear," of course, wasn't an animal at all. It was Jim Hefner. He had rented the most realistic-looking bruin suit he could find from a costume dealer in Charlotte.
Amidst his companions' gales of laughter, Brigance swore all kinds of revenge.
Buck then admitted that during his sprint he thought of a lyrick from "The Preacher And The Bear," a classic old mountain folk song:
"Hey lord, you delivered Daniel from the lion's den
You delivered Jonah from the belly of the whale and then,
The Hebrew children from the fiery furnace so the good book do declare
Hey lord, if you can't help me, please don't help that bear."
"We stopped laughing when Crash Grant came rushing into the house," said Baker. "He had been sitting on a ridge above the cottage and watched the whole thing.
"Crash thought it was a real bear chasing Buck. He took aim with his rifle to save his pal, but something told him not to shoot.
"It was pretty sobering to think of what might have happened."
Nevertheless, Brigance and Jack Hefner decided to pull the prank on someone else--their wives!
Returning to the same cottage two weeks later, the ladies were set up to go fetch water.
This time it was Buck in a bear suit.
Expectedly, the women were initially terrified when the growling began, then quickly realized what was going on.
"Back at the cottage, the wives fetched a broom and took turns pounding pump knots on the heads of Buck and Jack," said Baker. "The women were really mad.
"Best I recall, they made the guys take them home right then. It was a short trip."
Would any of today's Cup Series competitors pull such pranks? Quite unlikely.
Oh, for some characters like those that seemed to abound in stock car racing's old days...
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