The story ends with a 1977 Trans Am with a 455 Pontiac, 400 heads, pop-up pistons and a tank full of airplane gas pinned under a trailer in some old lady’s front yard. The trailer, which was carrying the 1977 Trans Am race car with a 455 Pontiac, 400 heads, pop-up pistons and a tank full of airplane gas, became unhitched from the truck that was pulling it, rolled down an embankment and overturned.
Whether a handle of vodka was involved in the ending of the story is irrelevant. Whether some of the things presented as fact in that above paragraph are true, or just the way I remember them, is also irrelevant. What’s important is that it is the ending to a great story.
Well, a great story to me anyway.
You see, the 1977 Trans Am with a 455 Pontiac, 400 heads, pop-up pistons and a tank full of airplane gas was to be driven that night by my uncle Tracy at either Caraway Speedway or Florence Motor Speedway (more than 30 years later, I can’t remember). My other two uncles, Phil and Jack, had been building race cars for a while; Phil was – and still is – an ace mechanic and Jack was a body guy and welder. They had fielded cars for other drivers but when Tracy got old enough, he raced. The Trans Am was the last of three cars that I remember.
Before it there was a Pontiac Catalina and some manner of Buick. There were two distinctive things about those cars: one had a hand with an outstretched middle finger painted on the deck lid and the other was the No. 53A. The 53A was run in 1983-84 because, at the time, my grandmother was 53 years old, and her name was Adeline.
But the Trans Am was always everyone’s favorite. Probably because Tracy would let us get in the back of it and go tearing off with us sitting on five-gallon buckets and holding on to the roll cage for dear life. It was also the car that he raced when we would sneak into the infield of racetracks in the trunks of cars. I now have three kids, so those two previous sentences terrify me.
Tracy was one of these guys behind the wheel who knew what his car would do, but was too crazy to care about those limits. They were always competitive when they went to the racetrack. At Caraway, they were leading in a 200-lap race they called the Turkey 200 – in the rain – when the visibility got so bad, he had to come to clean off his windshield. With the “scoring” system used at the track at the time, he didn’t know he was leading.
According to Tracy, the car that ended up under the trailer was probably the best one they had ever taken to the track. He never got to find out. When they righted the trailer, they dragged the 1977 Trans Am with a 455 Pontiac, 400 heads, pop-up pistons and a tank full of airplane gas back to Ledbetter and parked it at the edge of the woods. Tired of spending thousands of dollars to win hundreds and with a son on the way, so ended Tracy’s racing career. I think he was 21.
That was 32 years ago.
Life hasn’t exactly been easy for him since. He has lost a wife and that son and has wrestled with a lot of demons and made some bad choices, but someone posed the question on Twitter earlier this week: who is your favorite race car driver?
Of course you got the cavalcade of Dale Earnhardts and Richard Pettys and Jeff Gordons and Bill Elliotts. But my answer was the same as it would have been 35 years ago: Tracy McDonald.
People ask me all the time why I like racing. In my real life, I work in marketing for a large – nay, huge – technology company and get to travel to a bunch of cool places (probably no column next week because I will be in the UK) and it shocks them that I love old dirt tracks and that my kid loves Ryan Blaney and is able to name nearly every driver by looking at a car. I’m proud of it.
Sure, I grew up near the North Carolina Speedway, but I owe a lot of my love for cars and racing to Tracy, Phil and Jack (and my dad) and that old 1977 Trans Am with a 455 Pontiac, 400 heads, pop-up pistons and a tank full of airplane gas that ended up pinned under a trailer in some old lady’s front yard .
Andy Cagle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.