Earl's 51 Years at Daytona
Earl Springs has been hawking racing programs in Daytona for 51 years. I reminded him that this will be the 48th running of the Daytona 500. He reminded me that from 1956 to 1958, they were still running races on the beach. I'd say Earl's seen just about as much racing as anyone on the planet.
Each year, Earl makes the annual pilgrimage from Charlotte, N.C., where he owns three automotive businesses that his children now run for him. He's joined by two retired car dealers from Charlotte: Bill Hunter, who's been on board with Earl since 1961, and Robert Cannon, the oldest member of the team at 78, who's been coming so long that he can't recall when he started. Robert knows this much: Earl came first.
You might think that Earl's 51 years of selling souvenir programs at Daytona is a long time. But Earl got his start in the business at the old Charlotte Motor Speedway, a three-quarter mile dirt track, several years before hitting Daytona.
The Charlotte track was right across the road from the farm where Earl grew up. And he says he sold programs there in 1949 at the first "new car, strictly stock" race ever held, sponsored by none other than Nascar's Bill France.
A driver named Jim Roper won that race in a '47 Ford, according to Earl, but was disqualified when they found he'd welded the body onto a Lincoln chassis. (Makes your realize that this whole rules infraction thing's been going on for a while.) The programs were a quarter, Earl made a nickel apiece.
Earl's association with the Charlotte speedway makes him the longest-term employee at Lowe's Motor Speedway. He might also hold the title for Daytona, but he can't say for sure, so he won't. But he was featured in last year's program.
These days, the program business is brisk. The cost is $15, a relative bargain since included in the deal are free coupons to get the race lineup each day.
And these three gents - all working for the fun of it - know a thing or two about working a sale and closing a deal.
When I first walked up to their booth outside Daytona USA, I asked Robert how he was doing. "Just as happy as if I had good sense," he replied with a chuckle. I watched him move about 20 programs in five minutes. He said business was a little slow.
Bill's approach is a more proactive, but just as smooth: He gets outside the booth and asks ladies if he can see what's in their bags, then says with a smile: "I don't see a program in there, but I do see room for one."
They're charmers, these three, but they're no angels. They told me a couple of the best dirty jokes I'd ever heard. Sorry we can't go there in this blog.
"We have a big time doing it. It's always fun," says Earl. "We're still doing it as a hobby. Thank God we don't need to."
Earl says there are fans who come looking for them year after year who won't buy programs from anyone else. "They'll always ask, 'where's Red?' Because I used to have red hair," he says running his hands through his now-white hair.
So what would be the best race memories for a man who's been to every Daytona 500 ever run, and then some?
Earl says that in '61, or somewhere around there, Lee Petty's car came over Turn 4 and nearly landed on the trailer they were working in.
As for the best finish, Earl goes with the 1976 classic, when David Pearson and Richard Petty got together on the last lap and spun into the infield grass. Petty stalled, Pearson kept his engine running and took the checkered flag. Now that's a finish.
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