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Now browsing: Hometown News > News > Volusia County

Growing up a Speedway kid has its good points and bad ones
Rating: 2.5 / 5 (22 votes)  
Posted: 2013 Jul 05 - 06:13

By Richard Mundy

For Hometown News

Most kids wake up in the morning to the sounds of birds singing outside their window or Mom clanging pans as she fries up some breakfast bacon.

Jill Warren woke up to backhoes, earth movers and graders; foremen shouting at construction workers to make that bank a little steeper; and the roar of 700 hp cars being tuned up in garages in the middle of a vast pile of dirt.

Ms. Warren was reared, literally, in the middle of the Daytona International Speedway.

Besides the noise, there were other drawbacks.

This week's Coke Zero 400 will be a treat for Ms. Warren, one she didn't get as a child. It wasn't until the late '80s the race was on days other than the 4th of July, which just happened to be her birthday.

The coincidence was totally unfair in Ms. Warren's view. But since her dad, Chuck Warren, worked on racecars and her mom, Dorothy Warren, was often atop the grandstand spotting for drivers, birthday celebrations took second place to the race. Only after the race was over and everyone had gone home by about 6 p.m. did the family -- her, Dad, Mom and an older brother -- trundle to the nearest KFC, get a big bucket of chicken, go down to the river at Port Orange and watch the fireworks.

"I got some sparklers," she said.

Somewhere between the KFC and the river, a grocery store cake would appear and then it was "Happy Birthday Jill," she said. "But I resented the Firecracker 400 (as it was known then) for a lot of my life because of that. That was supposed to be my day!"

The genesis of it all was Mr. Warren was a paint and body man and a master automobile mechanic. What he didn't know, he learned very quickly. He was much in demand among drivers and crew chiefs. Starting his career in Ashtabula, Ohio, he moved to DeLand in the early '50s, then to Daytona Beach to work in the body shop at Stephens Pontiac, a car dealership that sponsored a racecar in a fledgling circuit to be named NASCAR (win on Sunday, sell on Monday). He worked with the factory-backed Pontiac team of Ray Nichels and driver Cotton Owens. He was involved in their 1957 win on the beach. It was the first NASCAR victory for Pontiac.

Before long he drew the attention of the "Best Damn Garage in Town" and was hired by Smokey Yunick. He worked on the 1962 Paul Goldsmith Pontiac that won the final beach race and Fireball Robert's Pontiac sweep of all Daytona races in 1962. It was later his idea to have a pit crew contest, which is still around.

With Moms and Dads all involved in the day-to-day operations of the developing speedway, the kids were left to fend for themselves. In effect, they became everybody's kids. All the parents always had an eye out for the ever-growing group of kids and thought nothing of stepping in to discipline when it was needed. But by and large the group had plenty of places to play and stay out of danger of big machinery. As the speedway began to take shape (the first race there was in 1959) certain portions of the track were finished first. Most of the kids had go-carts and the budding NASCAR stars of tomorrow honed their skills on the road course after hours.

Of course, there was fishing in Lake Lloyd in the middle of the infield. It took so much dirt to build the high-banked turns, it left a huge hole in the middle of the speedway. The water table is so high in Daytona that the hole just started filling up with water, so it became a lake.

After several years "on the NASCAR weekly racing circuit" the Warrens decided to cut back on traveling to have more of a family life. A deal with Prestolite came along, enabling Mr. Warren to have his garage at the speedway and stay there full time while providing race teams with sparkplugs and other products available from Prestolite, which was run by Autolite, a division of Ford.

The overriding memory Ms. Warren has is the entire NASCAR "family" was a close-knit community. Everyone knew everyone else and everyone helped everyone else. She doesn't remember anything more than petty feuds quickly forgotten, and the camaraderie of the kids, many of whom she could call today and the 40 years would melt away and they'd be talking about the adventures they had.

"Even now," she said, "I remember back then running into the Allison Dads (Bobby and Donnie) and the Pettys (Richard and Lee) at the local restaurants and they all remembered us kids names. My Dad had the greatest respect for Lee Petty ... greatest respect in the world. I grew up with Marvin Panch's kids," she continued. "We had horses together on Marvin's property (now Port Orange) where he kept all his cars."

Has she ever been on the "big oval?"

"I remember the first time," she said. "It was with Nelson Stacy (ARCA champion from 1958-1960, 1961 Southern 500 winner, 1962 World 600 Winner, beat the likeness of Richard Petty, Marvin Panch and Joe Weatherly). He took me up on the track and purposely didn't get me strapped in. The speed builds up so quickly that when we went into the first turn I literally fell on top of him. The 33-degree banking made me slide right down into his lap.

"The first time I remember doing it in my mother's car -- she had an 8-cylinder Ford Maverick -- and somehow we got it up to over 100 just to be able to stay up on the banking, because less than that and you would slide back down to the bottom."

Originally the Prestolite 24 hour Continental race at Daytona (now the Rolex 24 at Daytona) involved Ms. Warren's father as racetrack representative of the Prestolite Co.

Part of the traditional ceremonies involved his assignment to escort Miss Universe to all the events at the track. He claimed it was a "tough job, and I got paid for it too." One Miss Universe in particular is memorable for Ms. Warren as they developed a life-long friendship. She was Aspasra Hongskula, who was nicknamed "Pook" as a child. She was named Miss Universe from Thailand in 1965. As a term of endearment, she called Ms. Warren, Pook. They corresponded over the years and Ms. Warren was elated when she learned that her friend had married a first cousin of her Majesty Queen Sirkrit of the Royal Thai family.

"We wrote back and forth from age 8 'til about 16, sending me wedding pictures and everything," she said.

"During the Rolex 24-hours at Daytona, Mom and I would go in the garage and set out tables and chairs and her and I would serve pancakes," Ms. Warren said. "The drivers between their stints would come over and get free pancakes and eggs. The people we got to meet, not just racers but the stars and other celebrities would come over and chow down: James Garner, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Cliff Robertson just to name a few."

"There are many things I may have missed because of growing up in the shadow of the Daytona Speedway, but there are also many moments that I never would have had were it not for racing -- moments I will treasure my whole life," she said. "The friendships, the concern on a wife's face when the loud speaker announces a crash on the track involving her husband's (or son's) car, the times my dad would come home from being on the road for a month and my mother setting aside the time for the whole family to do nothing except for and with him."

Besides, who else can say, "I grew up in Daytona International Speedway."

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