What's going on here is that a garageful of good ol' boys from around the moonshine capital of the U.S.A. are building a race car for Buddy Arrington, the last of the convicted 'shine runners still racing alongside Richard Petty and the slick kids such as Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt.
We're in Martinsville, Va., 3 1/2 hours southwest of Richmond. This is the county seat of Henry County, which along with neighboring Patrick County and Franklin County is what the American Temperance Union used to call "the wettest place in the United States." The beautiful little race track just outside Martinsville is owned by Clay Earles, who won't say he ever ran 'shine but will point proudly to a picture on his office wall.
He says, "That's 1947, the first racing ever at this track. The cars look like passenger cars, but they ain't. They're whiskey runners. 'Shine runners just took 'em off the road and put 'em on my track."
Buddy Arrington fixed up a 429 cubic inch Torino to haul moonshine in 1971.He put in 11-leaf springs and air lifts because the stuff is heavy. When you get 240 gallons of it in the trunk, it weighs one pound less than a ton. The police weighed it after they stopped Buddy on Dec. 5, 1971. The day before, Buddy had been the grand marshal in the Martinsville Christmas parade.
"Wasn't no high-speed chase," says the arresting deputy, Melvin Brown, who also says today that he keeps a picture of Buddy's 'shine-running car and would like to be friends with Martinsville's big celebrity. "I blocked the road, and Buddy was real polite in stopping. Buddy's a likeable fella, and I got nothing against him. 'Shine was a way of life back then. Heck before he died my dad made the stuff."
"Way he blocked the road, weren't but one thing to do and that was to hit him and probably kill him," Buddy Arrington says. "I had too much invested to be doing that. Anyway, he had his little kid with him, 7 years old. If he's gonna catch me for running 'shine, he shouldn't have no kid with him, I ain't never hurt nobody."
"If I hadn't been with Buddy that day," says his wife, Patsy, "that deputy never would have caught him. He wouldn't have known which way Buddy went."
It's night time, a Thursday night in Martinsville, and fog has settled in the valleys of the hills, and it's raining. You can hear the rain hitting the tin roof of Buddy Arrington's garage. The boys are working on Buddy's short-track race car, which he'll drive at Richmond three days from now. If you're a stranger coming in from out of the rain, you look at that thing they call a car and you say, Whaaaaaaat is that thing?"
It's three days before the race, but 36 hours before qualifying, and what these good 'ol boys have is a bare skeleton of a car. It kind of looks like a car, except it has no windows, no tires and no streering wheel. Where the engine goes, that's empty, too, and there's no driveshaft or driver's seat.
What they have, 36 hours before this thing is supposed to go 100 miles an hour alongside Richard Petty, is a sheet-metal shell. And 36 hours ago, they didn't even have that. The car didn't exist then. The racers call them "stock cars," because the cars used to be practicallly like the ones you drove out of the showroom. Today the "stock cars' are precisely engineered, handcrafted machines with only the vaguest similarity to your family car.
So it's a big deal what is going on here in Buddy's garage along Rte. 174 outside Martinsville. From nothing two days ago, nine guys right now are finishing a $30,000 race car. This is two weeks' work usually. Because Buddy runs a low-budget deal -- "a lickety-split, bottom-end operation," he calls it -- his buddies are putting together a Dodge in two days for the NASCAR Grand National Race at Richmond on Sunday.
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing runs 30 races a year at 16 places, 11 of them in the Southeast. They run in only one city, Atlanta, that has any of the ordinary big-league team sports. They run eight times in North Carolina alone. This is the Bible Belt's sport, a Southern art form. Picasso couldn't have happened in the poor, rural, uneducated South. By the same token, Picasso couldn't turn a wrench the way these good 'ol boys do.
The game was born on mountain roads when men made cars go fast to carry moonshine and outrun the law. The cars gave these hill-locked men freedon. A guy could get out of here. He could go someplace. They ran 'shine through the fog and night of the hills, and on Sundays they took their whiskey runners to little tracks like Clay Earle's place at Martinsville. With their wrenches and their brains, they turned cranky cars into flying machines.
Today more than $1.5 million people pay to see the $6.1 million NASCAR circuit's races. No other racing league matches those numbers. Richard Petty has a lifetime deal with STP worth, they say $1 million a year. When Richard and his son, Kyle go racing, 24 men wear STP uniforms and work on those cars. A big crew needs $750,000 to run all 30 races.
But even with the $6.1 million there, big-time stock racing is still so expensive it offers small lure to anyone who didn't grow up arond racing. So, unlike baseball, basketball and football -- simple games that offer big money and appeal to all parts of society -- stock car racing remains largely a regional, insulated game. Some fans still haven't forgiven Cale Yarborough for the two years he spent driving Indianapolis cars, which was seen as at attempt, as they say here, to "get above his raisin's." This is a family game, all brothers under the sheet metal, and what moves Richard Petty also moves Buddy Arrington. Just not as fast.
pagoda Motel, Daytona Beach" is not your basic million-dollar sponsor. It gives Buddy and Patsy a break on two rooms, a single and a double, during 500 Week every February. So Buddy paints Pagoda on the side of his car, right behind the side windows. On the hood he paints "Reid's Trailers, Pleasant Garden, N.C." and on the side "Hill's Racing, Kalamazoo, Mi." They help him out some.
"No big deal," he says. "If I need $200 or $300, I can call 'em."
Buddy is a lanky guy, 42, with a sharp nose and chin. When he's excited, his voice goes from a low drawl to a high-pitched whine. Not that he ever says much. He doesn't. His wife says you best pay attention when he does, though.
Arrington has been racing with the Pettys and Yarboroughs for 16 seasons. In 368 races, in 95,467 miles around in cirlces, Arrington never has won a race. The record book shows he has earned $698,177; more than $100,000 each of the last three years. That sounds all right until you think of what it costs.
Arrington's car for the superspeedways -- such as Daytona, where he needs to go 200 miles per hour -- costs $65,000. Then throw in all this: the $30,000 short-tracker that the guys are working on now. . . the expense of hauling cars on a circuit from Florida to California with stops in Texas, Pennsylvania and Delaware. . . the cost of keeping the cars running at top speed. . . and, every once in a while, you have to eat and sleep.
The big boys like Petty go in style. They fly. Their cars go in a tractor-trailer rig worth $115,000. A good crew chief, being a coach-engineer-mechanic, is worth over $75,000 a year to a top team. The guys in the crew might get $500 a week plus expenses. Petty, in 23 seasons, has won over $4 million.
Buddy Arrington doesn't pay his pals a dime. They are here in the fog of midnight in a garage behind Buddy's Used Car Lot (all Volkeswagons). Their names are Barefoot Goad, Tomcat LaMaster, Junior Wright, glenn Hairfield, Eddie Dickerson, Roger West and Feeman Treadway. Along with Joey Arrington, Buddy's son and crew chief, they have worked the last 36 hours with only three hours sleep. If they don't get the car done, Buddy can't race at Richmond; if he doesn't race, he misses out on points for simply starting; if he loses points, it costs him money.
Maybe Petty doesn't need the few dollars Richmond gives you for showing up. Arrington does. He sells a VW occasionally. Up in the trailer by the car lot, Patsy does hair in her beauty shop two or three days a week. To keep on racing cars that cost you almost $100,000, you need every buck that's out there.
And more than the bucks, Buddy Arrington needs the racing.
Needs it bad.
Needs it so much the cops arrested him for running moonshine.
Needs it so much his wife says he needs it more than he needs to breathe.