NASCAR & Auto Racing

Higgins' Scuffs: NASCAR and poker

Earlier this week a friend who lives nearby phoned and invited me to a friendly, low-stakes card game.

Regrettably, I had to decline due to an earlier commitment.

At that moment, the thought of “dealing a few” brought a wave of nostalgia rushing back. My thoughts raced to the many nights during the 1960s-90s that I sat at tables with some of the NASCAR Cup Series’ most famous, colorful characters and played poker.

The regular cast included Hall-of-Famers Bud Moore, the team owner, and Barney Hall, who in my estimation ranks as the most knowledgeable, best motorsports radio anchor of all time.

Other regulars were driver/crew chief G.C. Spencer, super mechanic/strategist Jake Elder and transporter driver/pit gasman Henry Benfield.

Journalist/track manager Hal Hamrick sometimes joined the fun, as did Cup champions Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett, champion team owner Nord Krauskopf, Darlington Raceway official Bill Kiser and NASCAR executives Jim Hunter and Les Richter, a pro football Hall-of-Famer. Fellow press and PR guy Bob Moore liked to take part, too. Driver J.D. McDuffie was dealt in a few times.

Early on, I was in games with three-time champion Lee Petty. Lee was a commanding presence. When he sat down Lee always loudly proclaimed, “No wild cards. Stud only!”

And that’s the way it was. No one dared protest and raise Lee’s well-known wrath.

High among the things I miss most about not covering the NASCAR beat regularly is playing poker with this bunch.

It was exhilarating, even though I often lost money. Not much, since the ante was only 25 cents per man -- and betting was limited to a quarter until someone showed a pair; then it could go to 50 cents. A half-dollar bet also was allowed after the last card had been dealt.

Mostly, we played high-low, split-the-pot games in order to increase the amount of chips piled up on the tables.

My losses easily were worth taking part in the endless repartee that marked the games played in motel rooms along the Cup Series tour.

The most amusing, earthy comments came from Elder, Moore and Spencer. G.C. would compare his cards to such things as the worthlessness of a “flop-eared, one-eyed, constipated mule.”

Elder seemed to have an X-rated analogy to everything that developed on the table. Jake was hilarious.

Moore, a tough World War II hero who earned three Bronze Stars and five Purple Hearts as an Army sergeant in Europe, taunted his rivals with good-natured gibes.

It was Moore and Spencer who jointly nicknamed me “And Two” for my often ill-advised inclination to raise every bet. They still call me that.

At first, the NASCAR competitors were reluctant to let me play. Their over-the-cards conversation often included talk and gossip about situations, incidents and individuals at the tracks. They were concerned I would publish what they said.

It took only a little while for them to learn that my “off-the-record promise” held firm and I could be trusted completely. I feel this confidence later helped me receive insider information that I could print.

Hall, Jarrett and Parsons were the best players.

The most reckless was the millionaire Krauskopf, he of the flashy sport coats, who used his wealth to try and run opponents out of games by making the stakes too high. Richter was a close second, raising wildly “on-the-come,” betting a lousy hand would improve.

The unluckiest?

No contest.

It was McDuffie, a likable, soft-spoken fellow who gamely raced as an “independent” with minimal sponsorship and worn equipment. J.D., destined to tragically lose his life in a 1991 crash at Watkins Glen, had about as little good fortune at the card table as he did in his race car.

But one night at Darlington it seemed he could not lose, and almost every pot was a big one. When the game broke up around midnight, J.D. walked from the room with bills protruding from every pocket, including his shirt.

With the stub of a cigar clinched in his teeth, J.D. couldn’t have grinned any wider if he had just won the Daytona 500.