INDIANAPOLIS — The map of Michigan quickly displayed on the screen and my eyes scanned across the material as I looked for a particular place.
But each time my eyes fell on a familiar city name, my brain did a quick word association.
Coopersville? Butch Miller.
Union City? Marv Carman.
Bangor? Jeff Bloom.
Midland? Mike Eddy.
That’s when I realized that people’s hometowns are hard-wired in my memory, apparently without my even being aware of it.
Of all the memorable data, all the statistics, all the great runs, the element that has proven most enduring is a driver’s hometown. And it isn’t just a driver; for certain car owners the linkage is equally strong. The famed “Deuce” owned by Hector Honore, for example: Pana, Ill.
My fascination with hometowns is understandable. While growing up on the farm in Indiana, I looked upon my surroundings as a whole lot of nowhere. When I was old enough to listen carefully to driver introductions at the track, their hometown — ANY town — sounded interesting.
Cliff Cockrum, Benton, Ill.; Denny Nyari, South Bend, Ind.; Doc Dawson, Lima, Ohio; Bernie Graybeal, Shelbyville, Ky.; Dick Gaines, Floyds Knobs, Ind.; Don Gregory, Columbus, Ohio.
What was especially fascinating was a town from far away. Herman Wise, Toccoa, Ga.; Jerry Richert, Forest Lake, Minn.; Mark Martin, Batesville, Ark.; Bob Luscomb, Tampa, Fla. Wow!
When Bobby Allison came to Anderson Speedway, it wasn’t just that it was Bobby Allison; it was a guy coming all the way from Hueytown, Ala., to race on our local quarter-mile oval.
When you’re sitting out by the barn with a bunch of hogs staring at you through the fence, Hueytown, Ala., sounds downright exciting.
For many racers, their hometown became as iconic as the racers themselves. Track announcers — good ones, that is — knew how to say a driver’s hometown as part of the introduction to make it sound as though the guy was from another side of the planet, even when he might be from just down the road.
Terry Baltes of Eldora Speedway perfected the cadence:
“From Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he’s a full-time racer, Doug Wolfgang!”
“He’s from Troy, Ohio …Jack Hewitt!”
“All the way from the desert of Mesa, Arizona, it’s Ron Shuman!”
“He hails from Dallas, Texas … Bobby Marshall!”
“It’s the man from Mifflintown, Pennsylvania …Keith Kauffman!”
During the 1980s, a horde of Florida racers descended on my hometown to run the Little 500. Their appearance was like a geography lesson of the Sunshine State, particularly the Tampa Bay area. When we heard names like Lutz, Tarpon Springs, Gibsonton, Zephyrhills, Bushnell, Palmetto, Plant City, Thonotosassa and, of course, Tampa itself, it was fascinating.
The phenomenon isn’t just recent history. I first became aware of the hometown association from a previous generation of names and faces. For countless former racers, their hometown is still deeply — and apparently forever — etched in the recesses of the mind.
Larry Dickson, Marietta, Ohio; Bob Senneker, Dorr, Mich.; Jerry Blundy, Galesburg, Ill.; Greg Weld, Kansas City, Mo.; Parnelli Jones, Torrance, Calif.; Rick Ferkel, Tiffin, Ohio; Tim Gee, Whitehorse, Yukon; Pete Allen, Dayton, Ohio; Gordon Woolley, Waco, Texas; Earl Wagner, Pleasantville, Iowa; Roger McCluskey, Tucson, Ariz.; Don Mack, East Grand Forks, Minn.; Mario Andretti, Nazareth, Pa.; Dick Trickle, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.; Hooker Hood, Memphis, Tenn.; Jim Hurtubise, North Tonawanda, N.Y.; Lealand McSpadden, Tempe, Ariz.; Steve Smith, New Oxford, Pa.; David Pearson, Spartanburg, S.C.; Benny Rapp, Toledo, Ohio; Chuck Amati, Freeman Spur, Ill.; Kenny Jacobs, Holmesville, Ohio; Jimmy Bryan, Phoenix, Ariz.; Jay Woodside, Topeka, Kan.
Every one of these I’ve mentioned here, I didn’t have to look them up. The hometown came just as easily as saying their name.
As drivers move around — often for professional reasons — I’ve always felt that PR folks should maintain the driver’s original hometown. For example, Chase Briscoe is from Mitchell, Ind. — regardless where he gets his mail.
Our hometown is more than just a location, because in some ways it defines who we are. Some larger-than-life people have a hometown that is epic in every way. Consider our late friend Roman Comer, who hosted thousands of racers through the years at his Roman’s Oasis just a few miles from Phoenix Raceway. Roman claimed to be from Slick Lizard, Ala.
Now that’s a hometown.