The Car Guy of Benchfield
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In 1956, my parents were living in my mother's hometown of South Boston, Virginia about two miles from the South Boston Raceway. Thus began my younger brother's life long passion for NASCAR.
Fred was about eight years old when he and my older brother Ron used to jump on their bicycles and ride to the local race track when they heard the sounds of roaring engines. Some of the drivers during that time were Rex White, Ned Jarrett, Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts and David Pearson. Fred did not care if the cars were racing, qualifying or just practicing, he loved to watch the cars and their drivers, and if given the chance would pepper the mechanics with questions when he could get close enough. One afternoon, Fred could hear a motor revving at the racetrack, and took off on his bike to see who was there, and found Rex White was working on his car and getting it ready for Saturday night's race. White gave the eight year old little boy the thrill of a lifetime by riding around the track with Fred kneeling beside him in the front of the car. Fred was hooked from that day forward.
My parents moved frequently over the next several years, but that didn't stop Fred from following racing. Fred would sit by the radio every weekend to listen to the races. His favorite drivers were Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly and in later years "Fearless Freddie" Lorenzen. When my parents landed in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Fred was pleased to learn there was a dirt track in town. Both local drivers and national drivers would come through to race, and Fred's love for racing continued to grow. He filled scrapbooks with articles of Roberts, Lorenzen, Jarrett, Junior Johnson and Lee Petty. Soon, Petty's son, Richard, came along and his articles joined the others in Fred's scrapbooks.
Living in the heart of the "racin' belt", Fred took advantage of seeing as many races as he could at Charlotte, Darlington, and of course, "The Rock". In 1964 Fred was present at the race in Charlotte when his hero, Fireball Roberts, wrecked for the final time as he came in contact with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson. Roberts, severely burned, died 37 days later from pneumonia. Fred had another article for his scrapbook.
In 1961, Fred saw an advertisement in the Charlotte Observer newspaper about a race called the Soap Box Derby. The race would be run with home made go carts designed and fashioned by the contestants themselves. Fred wrote the organization for more information and was deluged with diagrams and specifications of the go carts, how to get sponsors, how to get the car inspected and how to enter the race. Armed with all the details, Fred went to my father to beg for permission to enter the Soap Box Derby. Dad promised his support, but Fred had to do the work himself. Undeterred, Fred got busy and found sponsors to help pay for materials to build his car. Studying the diagrams and aerodynamics, he designed and built his car. The race in 1961 was a learning experience for Fred, but when 1962 rolled around, he was ready for a win. The races were held in Charlotte, NC and in 1962 he won a race and placed third overall for the year. By this time, Fred was almost 16 and ready for a real car.
There are many stories I could tell you about my brother and his need for speed and thrills, because no matter what he was involved in, he was always fast. Whether it was being on the swim and diving team and diving from the high dive, to running cross country, he was always testing his endurance and speed. He would holler to Mom that he would be back later, and before Mom could get to the front door to find out where Fred was headed, he would be blocks away on foot. Mom would return inside muttering something about "how quick that boy could get away".
In 1968, Fred started working with James Thrift, a local who drove modified dirt track car, and stayed with him until Thrift retired in the 80s. In 1970, Fred graduated from York Technical School with an associate's degree in Automotives. He was beginning to live his dream of working on cars.
Fred married in 1970, and in his wife Karen, found another NASCAR partner. Karen's love for racing runs a close second to her love for Fred. They were at the race tracks every chance they got. In 1975 another new NASCAR driver was starting to emerge-- Dale Earnhardt. Fred started following Dale's career the year he made his first start and never looked back. Like many race fans, Fred came to believe that Dale Earnhardt was the "Man in Black", "The Intimidator", the man to beat, the epitome of NASCAR. For the next 26 years, Dale Earnhardt was the only driver Fred would support. When they had a son, Kevin, several years later...well, that boy never stood a chance. You might as well say another Earnhardt fan was born.
Fred had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when he was in his early 20's. This meant his pancreas stopped producing any insulin and he would have to take daily injections of insulin to keep his blood glucose in control. For a kid that could always eat anything and never gain weight, this was a hard road to travel. Over the years Fred always had trouble keeping his diabetes under control. Karen would come home from work to find him passed out on the front porch from an insulin reaction. Once he broke his foot when his sugar got low and he fell at the kitchen table. But the ultimate insulin reaction occurred in 1995.
The summer heat had been unbearable in 1995 and Fred's work truck did not have air conditioning; few state owned trucks did. August 18, Fred got up early, took his insulin, grabbed breakfast and headed for work. He and another co-worker were headed down the highway, when Fred must have realized his blood glucose was dropping, because he stopped at a convenience store and picked up a pack of crackers and a soda.
He never opened them.
His co-worker, following behind Fred in her own truck, noticed Fred's truck starting to weave. She tried to raise him on the radio, but he failed to respond. She continued to try, however, begging him to pull off the road. As Fred's blood glucose level continued to drop, his foot became heavy on the gas pedal, pushing the truck to approximately 70 mph. Suddenly, his truck veered to the right and off the road, hitting a mail box then flipping over 6 or 7 times before landing in a dirt field and throwing Fred through the back of the truck.
I received a phone call from my brother Ron right after lunch on August 18. I was a newlywed of less than a year, with three step-children and working as a registered nurse on the night shift at a local hospital. My blood ran cold as Ron began to describe Fred's injuries and the more he told me, the harder I sobbed. Fred had broken his neck in three areas and his back in two places, his left leg was broken, and broken ribs had punctured both of his lungs. In addition, he had a frontal closed head injury, and was in a coma with a ventilator helping him breathe. He had been taken to a trauma intensive care unit in Charlotte, NC and I was urged to hurry home as they were not sure how long he would live.
Sometimes being a nurse is a curse, and this was one of those times. I quickly threw some clothes in a bag, including a black dress, as my new husband made arrangements for the care of the children and my job. My imagination fused with my education to form a very dismal picture; but no picture in my imagination could prepare me for the first time I saw Fred in the trauma unit some six hours later.
His head was swollen to twice its normal size and he had screws on each side of the temporal area and traction to stabilize his head and neck. There must have been 6 bags of IV fluids, chest tubes to keep his lungs inflated, a foley catheter to drain his bladder and the breathing tube down his throat, hooked to the ventilator. It was an awful site. I tried to be professional and quickly check him over myself, constantly shooting questions at his nurse, trying to gleam every grim detail that I could think to ask. But my brain was numb and even though she patiently answered all my questions, nothing seemed to compute except my brother lay in front of me, possibly dying.
For the next 2 ½ months, my brother lay in that coma and every possible complication that could happen, occurred. He developed pneumonia, gangrene, he threw a blood clot to his lungs, he would run extremely high fevers and yet he never stopped fighting. I stayed two weeks after the accident but eventually had to return home to work. My husband would take me back on that six hour drive every time I had a few days off.
After the first two months, although Fred was still in a coma, his health began to stabilize. The tube had been removed from his mouth and a tracheotomy had been performed to keep him breathing with the ventilator. We still did not know how bad the brain was injured, but we began to try and wake him up.
One weekend, I stood for hours over him performing a sternal rub...this is when you rub hard on someone's sternum to elicit a response. I kept threatening to put a Rusty Wallace shirt on him if he didn't wake up, and the family members present all laughed. But I was crying inside, because I knew if that didn't wake him up nothing would.
I was horrified the next weekend to see a large bruise and scabbed area on his chest where I had rubbed so hard the week before. It was around this time that the doctors told us Fred was in God's hands; they had done all they could do to help him, now time would have to be the healer. Several weeks later he began to open his eyes and he was moved out of trauma and into a regular room. He began to breathe on his own and he was weaned from the ventilator. Fred had a long hard road ahead of him but the healing had finally begun, God worked His healing power and the doctors began to call my brother the miracle boy.
Eventually, the trach was removed and allowed to heal. Fred was very confused at first and would get disoriented and frightened while in the hospital, but slowly his mind began to heal also. He worked his way from bed to wheelchair and eventually to a walker. Christmas 1995, Fred spent the day at home with all of his family in attendance. And every gift he opened that year was....you guessed it....something to do with Dale Earnhardt. Fred received blankets, flags, cross stitches, plaques, cars, pillows, clocks...the house started to look like an Earnhardt shrine! A lot of tears were shared that day, but they were tears of joy that God had spared my brother's life.
Today, Fred walks without a cane or a walker. He no longer drives or works on cars, but that doesn't stop him from following NASCAR. He had several opportunities over the years to meet his hero, Dale Earnhardt. I only wish I had been a NASCAR fan back when Fred had his wreck, for I would have found a way for Fred to meet Dale one more time before Dale left us. Fred was crushed by Dale's death, as all of his fans were. Now Fred pulls for who else, but Junior. Whenever I want to get my brother's blood boiling (just for the fun of it and being the pesky little sister that I am) I wear my Jeff Gordon shirt in front of him. When Fred starts his hollering, I just remind him that everything about NASCAR, I learned from him.
Thanks, big brother!
Jan is an RN who lives on the North Carolina coast with her husband, three children and her dog. When not watching or reading about Nascar, she enjoys fishing...any kind of fishing. She enjoys gardening and reading. Although Jan is new to the sport of Nascar, she was exposed to Nascar from the early, tender age of 5 by her older brother, Fred, who has always been a diehard Nascar fan. Jan welcomes any comments or opposing views. You can contact her by clicking on the North Carolina tag above.
2002 Car Guy of Benchfield