It was a big day all-around.
About 10 days before the race, I received an engraved invitation from The White House to join President Reagan …… for an infield Fourth of July barbecue after the race. He came to Daytona because it was an election year and The Firecracker would be the single largest gathering of Americans in one place that day [80,000 in the stands].
From my seat at the far end of the press box, I watched as Air Force One dropped slowly out of the sky and landed at Daytona International Airport which lies immediately south of the speedway. President Reagan climbed into a motorcade of about 20 shiny black vehicles and headed for the track. The crowd was buzzing.
About 20 minutes later, I look to my left and there’s President Reagan in the adjacent radio booth, helping Ned Jarrett with the race call. It was the first time I’d ever seen a president in person so I was buzzing, too.
About 90 minutes after the race ended and the grandstands had emptied, one by one, we media types began making our way through the tunnel that runs under the track to the infield area for the BBQ. President Reagan arrived in a pair of his trademark jeans and climbed onto a flatbed that served as a stage. I was less than 15′ away and thoroughly into the experience. He spoke for about 10 minutes then swayed in time with Tammy Wynette who belted out “Stand By Your Man”. Must’ve worked because President Reagan was re-elected four months later.
The “cherry on top” that day was Richard Petty winning his 200th and final NASCAR race. He never won again.
Doesn’t get much more Americana than Daytona Speedway, President Reagan, Tammy Wynette, Richard Petty and good ol’ BBQ and cold beer.
Fond memories from, wow, nearly 36 years ago … time flies.
One more thing … it just occurred to me that I’d called Richard Petty at home in Randleman, NC a couple of weeks before the race to do an interview.
His wife answered the phone, I identified myself, and she told me “Hang on, he’s out back on the tractor …” She put the phone down and I could hear a squeaky door opening then she called to him in a very heavily accented Southern voice, “Richard! Richard! Phone call!”
A minute or two later, he was on the phone and gave me everything I needed to write what we called an “advance” story for the race. It focused on him chasing No. 200 and, on race day, he came through for me.