WALTZ: How Reagan Went To Daytona

Sitting U.S. President Ronald Reagan (foreground) joins Motor Racing Network (MRN) announcer Ned Jarrett in the booth during the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona. (NASCAR Photo)
Keith Waltz
Keith Waltz

HARRISBURG, N.C. — Earlier this year we let longtime car owner, motor­­sports aficionado, politician and record company owner Mike Curb tell you how he became Dale Earnhardt’s sponsor for his first NASCAR championship season in 1980.

This month, Curb shares the tale of how he became Richard Petty’s car owner and how President Ronald Reagan ended up at Daytona Int’l Speedway on July 4, 1984, for what turned out to be Petty’s milestone 200th NASCAR Cup Series victory.

“A couple of years passed and Ronald Reagan went to Wash­ington and he asked me to come to Washington to be chairman of the national finance committee and chairman of the presidential trust,” Curb explained. “So my family and I moved to Washing­ton, D.C., in early 1983. Everything is going fine and all of a sudden I get a call from Bill France Jr. in late ’83.

“Do you remember when Richard Petty had the oversized engine at Charlotte in October of ’83? So Bill France called and asked if I’d heard about that. I said, ‘Yes, Bill, what are you planning to do?’ He said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ And I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ He said, ‘Let me tell you what I have in mind. We’re not going to suspend Richard Petty for the engine infraction, but he is going to leave the family team. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the family team, but Richard needs a new team around him.’
“I said, ‘What do you have in mind?’ He said, ‘You still have your race shop in Kannapolis?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I have in mind you being the car owner.’ I said, ‘OK, who’s going to be the crew chief?’ He said, ‘I have in mind Buddy Parrott. He’s not happy at DiGard.’ I said, ‘Who’s going to build the engines.’ He said, ‘Well, Robert Yates has the capacity to build engines. He’s building engines for Bobby Allison.’ I said, ‘But Bobby’s in a Ford and we have a Pontiac, what are we going to do?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it; Robert Yates will build the motors, I’ve already talked to him.’ I said, ‘What about STP?’ and he said, ‘They are coming along with him.’

“I just listened and did what he said,” Curb continued. “Next year was 1984 and we won Dover, which was Richard’s 199th victory. And then the final part of the story is after we won Dover, I was at a meeting in Washington with about six or seven people, including President Reagan, and he was running for re-election for the final time in 1984.

“So here I am in Washington and one of Reagan’s campaign people said the president doesn’t want to campaign on the Fourth of July. He wants to lay a wreath at Arlington and he wants to be visual, maybe in one of the swing states,” Curb recalled. “I said, ‘The president used to love to announce sprint car races back in Des Moines, Iowa, what about going to the Fourth of July race at Daytona?’ Everybody in the room turned and looked at me like I was crazy. It was like scene in a movie.

“Then, all of sudden, the president said, ‘Oh, I like that. I was watching when those guys were fighting.’ I guess he was referring to the Bobby and Donnie Alli­son/Cale Yarborough fight in 1979. I said, ‘Why don’t you go to the Fourth of July race in Daytona? You could announce the race; you could have a lot of fun.’ The president seemed interested, so I asked, ‘Are you interested enough that I can call Bill France Jr.?’

“When Reagan showed interest in it, all of the people that thought I was crazy turned around and agreed. All of the sudden everyone changed their mind when they saw the president was open to going to Daytona,” Curb added. “They authorized me to call Bill France Jr., so I called Bill and this time I said, ‘Bill, are you sitting down?’”