NASCAR & Auto Racing

An off weekend led to a great 1980s fishing trip

Just the same as now, an off-weekend was on schedule for the NASCAR Cup Series teams that summer in the mid-1980s.

To further enjoy the welcome break, several of us who traveled the circuit of 30 races had planned a big fishing trip.

Drivers Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough were going. So was team owner M.C. Anderson.

The motorsports press corps, best I recall, was represented by Jimmy McLaurin of the Columbia State, Billy Gilbert of the Florence (S.C) Morning News, my pal Steve Waid of the publication then known as Winston Cup Scene and me. Oh, I was accompanied by Don Sturkey, chief photographer for The Charlotte Observer, my employer at the time.

Our destination was Winyah Bay, a big, beautiful, cypress-lined body of water on the South Carolina coast. We were to fish at the Georgetown Jetties, where the bay empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

The miles-long rock jetties often abound with sheepshead and red drum, our main quarry.

The hosts were Red Tyler, president of Darlington Raceway, and the track's public relations/press officer, Bill Kiser.

We media guys were to spend that Saturday night with the colorful Tyler on his large houseboat, the "MarNan," anchored well out in the bay. The others were staying at homes on shore.

Tyler was to make it my most unforgettable off-weekend in all the 56 years I've been writing about stock car racing.

Red's vessel was being used as a "Mother Ship." We would fish from smaller boats with outboard motors, starting at dawn on Sunday morning.

Saturday afternoon was dedicated to a rollicking bull session, dominated by the drawling Tyler, who especially delighted in telling "Clemson jokes."

Red had attended Presbyterian College years earlier. In that era, Presbyterian and Clemson annually opened the football season. Clemson repeatedly unraveled the Blue Hose, sometimes by seven touchdowns.

Red never forgave the Tigers for running up scores.

"Higgy," he said over drinks during that long-ago outing, "my wife caught me with another woman the other night and she's not even going to do anything about it.

"Know why? The other woman's husband went to Clemson!"

And so it went until Buddy and the others motored away and Red began grilling steaks for those of us staying the night "at sea."

Looking to the angling action the next morning, we mostly decided to turn in early. All except Gilbert, who, on a bet, was trying to consume at least a dozen Old Milwaukee beers, his favorite brew, before midnight.

As I dozed in the darkness in a bunk below deck, I was awakened by the startling sound of rushing water.

"My God, this boat is sinking!" I thought. "I've got to get out of here!"

I hurried outside, creating a racket in the process.

Water was pouring toward the ocean past the MarNan.

I never knew a falling tide cascaded like that.

In my haste and fear I'd left the screen door to the cabin open.

Mosquitoes filled the houseboat, and I heard those on board slapping their faces and arms when bitten.

It was 3 a.m. Now, everyone was awake and had risen. Most decided to join Gilbert for an eye-opening brew since alarm clocks had been set for 4:30.

"I was snoring with my mouth open and a mosquito flew in," said Tyler. "I said, 'Thank you God, for letting that be a mosquito It could have been a cockroach.' "

Preparing to fix breakfast, Tyler discovered that in excitement his aide Kiser had sped away with some of the fixings.

"We've got eggs and grits, but no bread," said Red. "It ain't breakfast without bread."

To my astonishment, Red got on the radio and made a May Day request to the Coast Guard Station at nearby Belle Isle to "have someone jump in a dinghy and bring us some bread and a newspaper."

In a return transmission Red was threatened with all sorts of dire consequences for his "flip" May Day.

Tyler dropped the name of a close friend.

"Boy," he said, "have you ever heard of Sen. Strom Thurmond?"

There were no more threats.

But no one "jumped in a dinghy" and brought bread.

Sturkey solved the problem by finding enough flour to bake biscuits and assuage Red's appetite.

As the sun rose Buddy and the others returned and we set off for the jetties.

But not before Red had parting tongue-in-cheek advice for the rookie anglers on how to bait hooks with sand fleas, or mole crabs, the favorite feast of sheepshead.

"Turn them over on their backs and tickle their stomachs," he said. "When they open their mouths to giggle, jam the hook in."

I was tempted to let Waid try it, but told him better.

The fishing was almost anti-climactic, even though we boated lots of the hard-to-catch sheepshead and a few reds, or spottails.

Red Tyler died of a heart attack in 1994.

Few "old school" characters like him remain in NASCAR any more. And I will wager that in this era of stodgy "appearances" in the sport, there will be no such off-weekend experiences enjoyed during the next few days.

Among we oldtimers who remain, that's sad.

Today's NASCAR cast doesn't know what it missed.