Thomas Wolfe once wrote a book about his hometown -- making fun of a lot of people and telling some tall tales in a language resembling English, thereby pleasing a bunch of Yankee literary types while pissing off the locals to the point that they ran him out of town.
But time heals all wounds, or so they say: Wolfe's Asheville home is now a museum. We even named an auditorium after the guy.
Banjo Matthews, on the other hand, lived in west Asheville for many years, never went to college, lived hard and drove fast -- and chances are he never read Look Homeward, Angel. Matthews, though, had an uncanny ability to fix cars.
Actually, he could do more than just fix them -- he could take mass-produced "stock" cars and turn them into thundering beasts of speed.
He's been called the Henry Ford of racecars and a maestro mechanic. On the NASCAR circuit, Banjo accomplished the following: From 1974 to 1985, cars he built won 262 of 362 Winston Cup races. In 1978, his cars won all 30 races held by NASCAR that year.
Oh, and he could drive, too.
In fact, after winning 13 consecutive races at one Asheville track back in the 1950s, the track promoter asked him to "back off." It seems attendance was dropping because the outcome of the race was a given if Matthews was running.
Being a man of pride and honor, Matthews refused to throw the race -- but he did agree to be handicapped. So the promoter started him in the back of the pack -- with his car facing backward, no less.
When the green flag dropped, Matthews spun his car around, passed the pack and, yes, won the race.
And that, my friends, is the stuff of legends.
Local racing left to rust
Today, however, your average Asheville resident couldn't tell you a thing about old Banjo (who didn't play his namesake instrument, by the way). There are no museums named in his honor. No auditoriums. Not even a filling station.
Racing, it seems, has been all but erased from Asheville's cultural persona -- except among the surviving older members of the local racing community. Flip open any glossy magazine promoting tourism and you'll see ads touting Asheville's temperate climate, its arts scene, its architecture -- or else a picture of some buff guy kayaking.
But it's pretty doubtful you'll see a grease monkey bent over the hood of a '47 Ford up on blocks -- though the sight was a common one around here, back when a generation of post-World War II Ashevilleans found recreation and empowerment through horsepower.
That cultural amnesia, however, is reversing: Regional racing stories and memories are now being captured for posterity.
And in the process, a posse of pioneering locals is finally getting recognized for being in the vanguard of what's now become a national phenomenon.
This past summer, the west Asheville library hosted a discussion series on the history of stock-car racing in Buncombe County. The first meeting found a handful of former drivers and fans swapping stories about racing -- but the series quickly evolved into a popular oral-history project recorded on 10 CDs. The stories, hopefully now preserved forever, are a free-flowing account of the early days of stock-car racing.
And the tales literally roared in -- from Fairview's Hollywood Road Track to the Asheville-Weaverville Speedway (a near-perfect oval that Gene Sluder carved out of his farmland with a keen eye and a tractor). Old-timers relived the insanity of racing souped-up cars around McCormick Field's baseball diamond, and the rise and painful demise of the New Asheville Speedway (later renamed the Asheville Motor Speedway).
But sweet or bitter, the memories couldn't have surfaced at a better time. Today, NASCAR has surpassed baseball and basketball in popularity -- that is, if TV ratings and memorabilia sales are any indication. And as stock-car racing continues to disperse from its Southern roots and spread across the country, the mighty NFL could be the next to fall.
NASCAR's fan base is now estimated at around 75 million. Between its premier Winston Cup Series and its (for want of a better term) minor leagues -- the Busch Series, the Craftsman Truck Series and the regional circuits -- NASCAR now offers 1,800 sanctioned races a year across 38 states.
Even stock cars' premier sponsorship has recently traded hands: from the R.J. Reynolds Winston cigarette company to the Nextel Corporation (the naming rights cost Nextel a cool $700 million). On top of that, NASCAR is in the middle of a six-year, $2.4-billion broadcast contract with both the Fox and NBC networks.
Tobacco and Tar Heels may have made NASCAR, but in the 21st century, racing has gone high-tech -- and it's eagerly distancing itself from any hint of redneck. There's barely a square inch on a modern stock car that isn't covered with a sponsor's logo -- in some circles, the motto is: "Race on Sunday, sell on Monday."
But whether Madison Avenue likes it or not, stock-car racing owes an enormous debt of gratitude to a generation of men who made their home in the mountains of Western North Carolina and the foothills of the piedmont.
Meeting history head-on
The story of stock-car racing is steeped in oft-told tales of moonshine-running, shade-tree mechanics and men who brawled as hard as they drove. How much of it is truth and how much is lore is hard to discern. But when that history is told in the time-honored tradition of Appalachian storytellers, trivial matters such as veracity take a back seat to the necessity of spinning a good yarn.
One rich tale recounts a spectacular crash at a local speedway.
Banjo Matthews and Ralph Earnhardt (Dale's dad) had been trading paint all night, neither driver wanting to back off in front of the screaming fans. Coming out of the final turn, Matthews gave Earnhardt one last kiss on the bumper and sent him careening off the track -- and straight into the first-base dugout.
Yep, the dugout. And if you think this writer is mixing his metaphors, or simply confusing baseball terminology with racing slang, well, you obviously don't know much Asheville sports lore.
Ralph Earnhardt -- the patriarch of one of NASCAR's most fabled families -- crashed into the dugout, as did many other drivers who dared to run their stock cars on the quarter-mile track that circled the bases at Asheville's storied McCormick Field.
As one of baseball's oldest ballparks, McCormick is, to most locals, synonymous with the Asheville Tourists. Having hosted the Babe, Jackie Robinson, Willie Stargell and a scrawny batboy named Cal Ripken, McCormick Field is part of the fabric of our national pastime. But during a brief three-year period in the 1950s, baseball abandoned Asheville, only to be replaced at McCormick by the upstart sport of auto racing.
The temporary conversion of the diamond into an oval proved a smash hit -- resulting in a whole lot of smashed cars -- much to the squealing delight of the local racing fans who packed the stands. Asheville Citizen-Times writer Bob Terrell recently described the appeal at one of the library's racing roundtables:
"With 25 cars starting on a quarter-mile track inside a baseball park ... well, something just had to give."
But while Terrell's comment hints at the motorized mayhem at McCormick during those years, one could easily interpret the remark as a prescient summation of the decline of baseball's popularity in the region -- and the rise of its four-wheeled, uniquely indigenous replacement.
Something did have to give way, and it ultimately ended up being the Grand Old Game, which outpaced auto racing as the South's supreme sport.
Baseball obviously did return to McCormick -- much to the relief of the park's many neighbors, who vociferously griped about the racket from the downtown racetrack.
"Back then, we didn't have face shields"
Haw Creek resident Ed Cox raced at McCormick and recently shared some of his stories with Xpress.
Asked what it was like to race around the bases on four wheels, he grinned broadly. "Ever heard of a demolition derby?" he queried. "I remember one time I went end over end three times and hit the right-field wall."
Cox, a mechanic by trade, raced at all the local tracks -- and even some places that didn't quite fit that description.
"We used to race in some farmer's cow field," he recalls. "Back then, we didn't have face shields -- you never knew if what was hittin' your face was dirt or a cow pile."
As for the current state of the sport he helped create, Cox readily points out, "There's no resemblance.
"Back then, we built our own cars, and you could build a pretty good one for under $2,000," he explains. "Today, the cars cost millions before they even see a track -- these guys have 15, 20 guys on a crew, a support team with a garage back home, and all sorts of money from sponsors.
"Nobody ever approached me and asked to put their name on my car," comments Cox. "It's become too commercialized, like Christmas and Easter. Everybody's forgotten what they're all about. They've taken the real meaning out of it. Racing used to be just a bunch of country boys having a good time.
"They're racing for real money now," he muses. "Back then, you could win a race, and get a check for winning, and you still lost money. A hundred dollars was a big check, but you'd have more than that [invested] in your car."
Minding the Intimidator
Max Wilson is a retired U.S. marshal with enough stories about chasing crooks to fill a Hollywood screenplay. Locally, though, Wilson is known as one of the founders of the New Asheville Motor Speedway on Amboy Road.
When he was still in his early 20s, he and some partners pooled their funds to buy a privately owned airstrip down by the river. The way Wilson describes it, Asheville's last racetrack was born out of the dreams of young men with few resources and an abundant willingness to take risks.
Avoiding a catastrophe was the last thing on their minds.
"All we had was a paved runway for the planes. We didn't have any money to build the track, so I said, 'Doggone it, let's have us some drag racing on the runway and sell tickets to raise money to build the track.'
"The other guys agreed, and we started the first weekend with drag racing. We did [it] every Sunday. But I was worried we'd get hundreds of people showin' up and gettin' real close to the runway -- and some of those cars were going 80 miles per hour. Someone was gonna get hurt.
"So we took out insurance every weekend," Wilson reveals. "The only insurance company that would touch us was Lloyd's of London. So we'd send them a certified check for $160, postmarked the Friday before each race. It was a standing agreement. Four times we sent that money in. But we were real hard up for money -- and we hadn't had any accidents, no complaints, everything real smooth. So on the fifth weekend, we didn't send the money in.
"That Sunday," he recalls, "I was standing on the back of a truck at the end of the runway announcing the races on a loudspeaker. Suddenly, I heard this roar and looked up and saw this big ol' plane flying across the field. I said to myself, 'Surely he's not thinkin' about landing here with 1,400 people lining the runway. I don't reckon he'd be that stupid.' He disappeared over the trees and I started the next race.
"Then, the next thing I know, the plane is back and he's got his landing gear down -- almost hit me in the head. So I told everyone to get back and I jumped off the truck. Just then, his wheel clipped something -- a speaker wire, I think -- tore the wheel clean off and sent it flying over the concession stand. It didn't hit anyone, thank God.
"But now the plane's landing on one wheel in the middle of all these people -- [it] hits the runway and goes this way and that, carving a trench into the runway the whole time with the side of the plane missing a wheel. It comes to a stop at the end of the runway -- didn't hit a single person and all nine people on the plane were fine. Turns out he'd run out of fuel and had an old map that listed the place as an airport.
"Next damn weekend, we sent that insurance money in."
Wilson also talked at length about his gig as a babysitter at the speedway.
"I told Ralph Earnhardt that I'd give him $80 show money to come up from Kannapolis to race here in Asheville. You know, if we got rained out, Ralph would give the money back. And he needed it, but that was the kind of guy he was. Anyways, Ralph didn't have no crew -- he was everything: mechanic, driver, tire changer -- the only person he'd travel with was his boy.
"Dale was only 6 or 7, but was he fascinated by cars! Ralph was scared he'd get killed roaming around the track while he was racing. So I'd watch him with my wife in the office while the race was on. Dale was real bad about minding me. I'd turn around and he'd be gone -- off wandering around those cars.
"You couldn't tell him nothin'!"
"Mountain Thunder: Stock Car Racing in Buncombe County," the final installment of the five-part discussion series, will be presented in Ferguson Auditorium on the A-B Tech campus (340 Victoria Road) at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 27; admission is free.
The event will include stories, local-racing memorabilia, photos by renowned NASCAR photographer Don Hunter, tales of local tracks by journalists Tom Higgins and Bob Terrell, and a panel discussion featuring legendary drivers Jack Ingram, Boscoe Lowe and Bob Pressley.
A special guest will also be on hand: Haywood County resident Marvin Panch, the final track-record holder at the Asheville-Weaverville Speedway and winner of 17 Winston Cup races, including the 1961 Daytona 500.
[The west Asheville branch of the Asheville-Buncombe Library System will have the 10-CD oral-history project available for both sale and check-out. For purchase price or other information, call the library at 251-4990.]