News & Media


No way out: Drivers trapped in infield by unruly fans in '61

April 13, 2011, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Drivers able to laugh when looking back at violent post-race in 1961

A race weekend at Talladega Superspeedway is the world's largest sporting event tailgate party. It's Times Square on New Year's Eve. It's Mardi Gras. It's Rio Carnival. The revelry begins when the sun goes down and slows only when it comes back out again -- but only a little. That's just for starters. On Saturday night before the next day's Sprint Cup event, things really get cranked up.

Once in a while, the celebration can get the slightest bit out of hand. Perhaps the most infamous instance took place in 1986, when Darren Charles Crowder hopped in the track's red Pontiac pace car for a quick joyride. He made it most of the way around the track and stopped only when law enforcement blocked the track coming off Turn 4.

Talladega, of course, is not the only track where such craziness has taken place. During a 1993 race at Pocono, Chad Blaine Kohl staggered across the track coming off Turn 2, right in front of leaders Kyle Petty and Davey Allison. At Watkins Glen in 2007, another fan somehow managed to get to Matt Kenseth's car during a red-flag period, evidently to ask for an autograph.

Appropriate? Not in any shape, form or fashion, but it could be a lot worse. At least none of these folks took anyone hostage. That's exactly what happened following an Aug. 13, 1961, Grand National event at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Hostage? Oh, yeah. Big time.

The heat of a blistering August summer sun combined with the constant wear and tear of 38 heavy stock cars turned portions the track surface into a gravelly, chunky mush. Scheduled for 500 laps around the half-mile, nearly perfect oval facility, the call was made to end the race just past the halfway point.

It was on from there. Talladega may be Talladega, but it had nothing on Asheville-Weaverville Speedway on this particular afternoon.

Off the beaten path

Asheville-Weaverville Speedway was deep in the mountains of western North Carolina, in the tiny blink-and-you-miss-it community of Flat Creek. The track was perched on top of one of those hills about a half mile off Highway 19. It had been built on a farm owned by Gene Sluder.

The only way in was an old dirt road that offered, maybe, enough room for two cars to pass one another. Just off the main road at the foot of the hill was a beer joint that Sluder also operated, and it became fairly notorious in its own right. The surrounding counties were dry -- Buncombe County was not. Coined was the phrase, "I'm going to Flat Creek," a sort of code around those parts for buying beer on the sly.

Junior Johnson tried to keep his face away from the hole in his windshield because he was afraid more pieces of the track would come through and hit him. (smylemedia.com)

What served as restrooms were military-type latrines, located out in the woods surrounding the track. A path leading to them forked, one way for men, the other for women.

"It was rustic, to say the least," said Tom Higgins, the legendary motorsports writer who covered the 1961 Western North Carolina 500 for the Winston-Salem Journal. "It was a pretty wild place, to tell you the truth."

Some 10,000 fans shoehorned themselves into the place, expecting to see fireworks between NASCAR and the Teamster's Union, which was trying to organize competitors with the help of famed drivers Curtis Turner and Tim Flock. As the defending 1960 Grand National champion, Rex White had been invited to attend a meeting intended to rally support for the organization the night before the race at a nearby motel.

That was one war White was not going to fight.

"I was supposed to be involved in the meeting, but I didn't go to it," White said. "Tim Flock almost got me suckered into that thing. I was the previous year's champion, and they wanted me involved in it. I almost signed this paper that they had, where you'd sign up and belong to the club so they could fight [NASCAR Founder Bill] France [Sr.], but I didn't go."

None of them -- the Teamsters Union, Turner or Flock -- showed up at the track, but there were fireworks still. Jim Paschal sat on the pole with a speed of 80.43 mph, but on the very first lap, Johnson made his way into the lead and kept it. The rest of the day became not so much a competitive race as it was a battle for survival. Tires chewed the devil out of the racing surface, sending chunks of asphalt rocketing indiscriminately into other cars and even the grandstands.

Higgins covered the first race of his long and distinguished motorsports career at the track in 1957. Having grown up in Burnsville, N.C., just 20 miles or so away, he had family in the area and attended the race with his new bride, Caroline.

They sat together in the grandstands, braving the vicious heat. "It was hot as hell," he would later remember. Right in front of them was a beautiful young woman that Higgins had grown up with, Louetta Randolph.

"The asphalt was flying over the fence and into the grandstand," Higgins said. "Louetta got hit in the temple with a piece of asphalt the size of a softball. It knocked her out, and they took her to the hospital in Asheville. She was OK, but concern for the fans as well as the drivers led them to make this decision to stop it just a little bit beyond halfway."

Fifty years later, Johnson sits in a shop on his Hamptonville, N.C., farm and holds both hands up. They're about as far apart as his entire head, to describe the hole that got knocked in his windshield that day.

"I had a hole right in front of my face, where a chunk of asphalt had come up," Johnson said. "I was driving, leaning all the way away from that hole, because I was afraid a rock or something would come through there and knock my head off. It knocked the durndest hole in that windshield, right in front of my face."

"The track conditions were horrible," Ned Jarrett said. "It was not a raceable race track. You couldn't be concerned about racing anybody. You just had to try to survive it. That was a chore, because small pieces of the asphalt would come up. You had no traction. It was not a good situation."

The tires ripped up the Asheville-Weaverville Speedway track, sending chunks into the grandstands. (smylemedia.com)

The battle begins

While the race was red-flagged on Lap 208 following a crash, NASCAR executive manager Pat Purcell told competitors that the race would be stopped for good in another 50 laps. That would put the race at just past the halfway point, thereby making it "official."

According to historian Greg Fielden's Forty Years of Stock Car Racing, Purcell not-so-helpfully added, "I hope you can make it."

Johnson was flagged the winner. Joe Weatherly was credited with second place, three laps back. White was third, Jarrett fourth and Emanuel Zervakis fifth, all four laps down to Johnson. Those are the facts that have remained through the years, although a few details concerning what happened next have become a little hazy.

A truck of some variety -- some remember it as a pickup, others as a two-ton, flat-bed logging machine -- was placed on the pathway out of the infield, blocking anyone from leaving. Just how big was Pop Eargle, the man who almost single handedly broke everything up? Various estimates from those there put his size at about six feet, six inches to seven feet tall and weighing anywhere from 285-300 pounds all the way up to 350-400.

How long did the confrontation last? Twenty minutes to as long as an hour or more, until darkness was beginning fall, depending on the source.

Fielden wrote that NASCAR officials removed their black-and-white uniforms to beat a hasty and unnoticed retreat. Others remember NASCAR official Johnny Bruner sticking around and trying to negotiate some sort of peace. There are those who claim Sluder was nowhere to be found, either. Johnson, though, says that he was around for a bit, but once the law starting poking around, Sluder split due to his side business as a moonshiner.

No one remembers much, if any, public announcement being made of the decision to end the race early. Regardless of such minor details being lost to history, trouble was in fact brewing near the infield's only exit in the first turn. Fielden's estimate put the remaining crowd at some 4,000.

"They called it a race and man, them spectators just went damn wild," Bud Moore recalled, eyes bright with the memory. "Three or four of them had a pickup truck, and they backed it up across the road at the entrance going into the infield. We couldn't get out.

"They said, 'We come here to see 'em run [500] laps, and we're gonna see 'em run. They was about half lit. Aww, man ... they got into it hot and heavy. All the people standing around ... you just wouldn't believe how bad it was."

Local law enforcement was all but helpless in the growing riot, leaving those in the infield to fend for themselves. A security guard of some variety -- Higgins called him a "Barney Fife type" -- ran toward the crowd, blowing a whistle and trying to restore order. The poor guy was promptly pitched into a nearby pond. At some point during the confrontation, Richard Petty got whacked in the head with a thrown bottle.

Petty, Moore says, immediately exacted no small amount of frontier justice.

"This guy threw a Coca-Cola bottle and hit Petty right upside the head," Moore said. "I seen him when he threw it. I told Richard, 'You know who that guy was? See that guy standing right over there?' Richard went over there and nailed the daylights out of him."

Petty remembers the impact of the bottle all too well, although he's a little fuzzy on the payback. Selective memory, maybe?

"I think I went over and had my mother check my head to see if I was bleeding," Petty laughed. "I was right out in the middle of that, where I didn't have no business, either. I was eggin' 'em on from the infield.

"It was a big, big deal. If you had 10 people there, you'd have 10 different stories --` which you're finding out."

Jarrett was accompanied to the race by his wife, Martha, and their three children -- Dale, Glenn and Patti. Parked in the infield, Jarrett stayed with his family and they tried to wait out the sparring over in Turn 1 by eating leftovers from lunch. Sooner or later, surely it would take care of itself and be over. Yet the longer it went, the more concerned Jarrett became over the safety of his family.

"You can't blame fans for being upset, but that was a little bit ridiculous," Jarrett said. "There was a lot of shouting and scuffling going on up there. I didn't get too close to it. It wasn't that I was necessarily scared, but I was concerned for my family. I just didn't want to stir up anything that could possibly cause harm to them."

Once the race was called, Higgins left Caroline in the stands and made his way to the infield to talk to Johnson for his story in the next day's paper. Like Jarrett watching over his brood, the uglier the situation grew, the more apprehensive Higgins grew over his wife because "she was a very good-looking woman," he says, almost a double for Jill St. John. He shouldn't have worried. Caroline was a grand time.

"I looked up there, and she was standing on the top row of the grandstands laughing like hell," Higgins recalled. "She was enjoying the hell out of that. She later said that was the best show she'd ever seen."

Richard Petty has always been one of the most friendliest at the track, yet he still got a Coke bottle to the head in 1961. (smylemedia.com)

Leave it be

Finally, Moore and three others -- Eargle, a member of Moore's pit crew; driver Jack Smith, who'd finished ninth; and a fellow by the name of Coker, who worked for Cotton Owens -- formed a posse to get things straightened out. As it turns out, Eargle, Smith and Coker were not to be trifled with. Johnson recalls seeing Smith about to wade into the fracas with a chain wrapped around and swinging from his hand.

And then there was Eargle. The dude was big, Goliath big. The riot's ringleaders didn't stand a chance.

If and when Eargle's name is remembered, it's usually in connection with the Asheville-Weaverville brawl. He made at least one other contribution to the sport, this one a very important one in the field of safety. According to White, Eargle designed the first check valve for fuel tanks, which prevented gas from spilling out in the event of a turnover. He made and sold the very first ones out of White's shop in Spartanburg, S.C.

"We got over there and they had two-by-fours in their hands, gonna knock us out of the way," Moore recalled. "Pop sorta laid his arm up on the side of the truck bed. When he did, this guy swung at him with this two-by-four. When he did, Pop caught that two-by-four and jerked him off the truck. He popped him right in the back of the head. When he come off the truck, he caught my shirt and tore my shirt about halfway off."

Then, it was Coker's turn.

"This one big guy, he just started swinging," Moore said, warming to the tale with a chuckle. "He turned around, and Coker had his knife and he just went choo, choo right across his rump. Blood started flying, and the guy went down through the field just a running."

"Pop Eargle, he said, 'I'm tired of this crap,'" White continued. "He found him a two-by-four about four feet long, maybe five. He started up in that crowd and he started cleaning them out, I mean, knocking the heck out of people. There was another guy, Coker. He was working for Cotton Owens. He was jabbing this one guy in the butt with his knife, and the guy was going up through there just yelping every time he'd stick him."

Moore and a few others very helpfully cleared the infield exit of its debris -- truck, wounded bodies, whatever.

"We picked the truck up, turned it around sideways and pushed it off to the side of the road," Moore said. "This guy that Pop knocked out with a two-by-four, we just threw him up in the back of the truck."

Just then, more law enforcement showed up. By this time, Moore is in full humor and fully enjoying telling the tale from days gone by. He recalls distinctly Weatherly standing on the back of the truck, waving his arms and yelling for folks to clear out -- but still safely out of the line of fire.

"It wasn't but a little bit, but here come the sheriff from up there," Moore said. "He says, "Where's that big guy and all the ones that beat them boys up like they did? I want to see that guy!' Johnny Bruner said, 'I don't think you want to see him ... he'll probably just tear your head up as bad as he tore him up.' The sheriff said, 'Well, we'd better leave it be then.' "

The riot was over, a colorful chapter in NASCAR history closed.

Johnson won the next two races on the 1961 Grand National schedule, while Jarrett would go on to capture the first of his two NASCAR championships that season. White wound up victorious in the circuit's next trip to Asheville-Weaverville in November of 1961. The track hosted Grand National races through 1969, and ultimately ceased operations in the 1970s.

It is now the site of North Bumcombe High School.