Looking back on memorable Monster Mile moments

Racing legend Richard Petty has been an integral part of the 50-year history of the Dover International Speedway. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — The memories just keep racing back.

Dover International Speedway is celebrating its 50th anniversary year and it has many of us in a nostalgic mood.

A few nights ago, this editor thumbed through a stack of his NASCAR stories and came across a favorite.

“Track builder says he has been blessed” was the headline.

It was the first time I got to tell Melvin Joseph’s story.

I spotted him at the track on a Friday afternoon at the 1995 spring race. He was standing in the garage area, looking up at the Winston Cup drivers diving out of Turn 1 and accelerating through the next turn. His new concrete race surface was getting its first big test.

When the practice session ended, I walked up to him, introduced myself and asked him if he minded a few questions.

For years, I had heard people talk about his improbable rise to owner of a construction company and fame in NASCAR racing. Dover fans likely remember his Sussex County dialect from his decades of commanding — “Gentlemen, start your engines.”

I asked him, “Is it true you started out with just a dump truck and a shovel?”

Mr. Joseph, who died at age 84 in 2005, went from gruff to friendly quicker than Rusty Wallace was getting around the track that day.

“A dump truck and a shovel,” he confirmed.

He said he dropped out of school in the sixth grade.

“I’m not proud of that,” he said. “I figure in my head and I try something, and I know I have the Lord’s blessing in creating and engineering things.”

Certainly, his genius worked for Dover International Speedway.

Gov. David Buckson had the idea and John Rollins had the money, but it was Melvin Joseph who had the know-how and determination to get it built.

“They used to call it Melvin’s play toy,” said Mr. Joseph of the track when it was under construction.

In 1994, he again led construction efforts on the track — replacing the asphalt with concrete in a move that was the talk of NASCAR.

Mr. Joseph, who had been listening to the complaints of Mr. Wallace and others about the deteriorating asphalt conditions, came up with the idea of concrete as a means of better protecting the track from Delaware’s harsh winter weather.

At that time, Dover was hosting about 100,000 people on a NASCAR Sunday.

“I said to John (Rollins) that it turned out to be a pretty big play toy,” said Mr. Joseph. “John said, ‘Yeah, for a couple of old boys, we’ve done all right.’ He patted me on the back. It’s satisfaction.”

***

During my first race weekend with the Delaware State News, it came as a big surprise to me how accessible the drivers were in the garage area.

It’s certainly not that way now. But, back in 1990, I spotted Richard Petty relaxing atop a tool box in front of that famous blue No. 43 car.

He welcomed a conversation, sharing some of his earliest memories at Dover and how they had to drive all night from Daytona for that first race on July 6, 1969. He also said the favorite of his seven Dover wins was his 199th career victory in 1984.

A few years later, he agreed to a long interview for a four-day series in our newspaper.

It was his farewell season and he appeared to be tired of the questions. The first few felt like I was just grinding gears, and he seemed more interested in reading the USA Today he had in front of him, than answering questions.

At the time, he was a county commissioner in North Carolina.

Politics got him talking.

“I’m not a socialist by any means,” said Mr. Petty that day. “I figure people need to work for what they get. If that cat’s sitting over there on the fence, then he don’t eat. He needs to do something, too.”

***

Some of the behind-the-scenes moments are unforgettable, too.

One year, I happened upon a church service about to start in the garage. I was standing off to the side when driver Morgan Shepherd motioned me to an open seat next to him.

Engines were still being revved and air guns were interrupting the sermon.

“It’s kind of like being in church and someone’s go a baby crying back there,” Mr. Shepherd said. “You don’t have control over that, and we have no control over this.”

***

Sadly, this race weekend will be without a visit from Bill Fleischman.

Mr. Fleischman, a journalism instructor at the University of Delaware and mentor to many of us in the Delaware State News newsroom, died Wednesday at the age of 80.

Bill Fleischman

As a sports writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, he was a regular in the press box at Dover International Speedway. While in Dover, he liked to catch up with the students he had in his class decades ago.

He taught us copy editing and layout way back when. But he also encouraged us and criticized us in the way that an old-school newspaper editor would.

And he never stopped caring once we graduated and moved on in this newspaper business.

In the past few days, I have heard several stories about his influence.

Of my memories was feedback on a weak Blue Hens football piece I did for The Review, our college newspaper. It was supposed to be a column, but it was just a weak feature. He said that if I had a column, I should say something — use it, have an opinion. It wasn’t long after that he was giving me advice on how to deal with enraged football coach Tubby Raymond.

After I graduated, we swapped phone calls now and then. In 1988, I was stuck in a dull sports job in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and he was pushing me to move on. Days after we had talked, I got a call from him, saying I needed to call the Reading Eagle sports editor. Bill and the Reading editor had been talking in the Indy 500 press box and he learned there was a sports copy editing job opening up there. I took it, of course.

***

We hope you have enjoyed this weekend’s NASCAR coverage in the Delaware State News, especially reporter Mike Finney’s great history piece today.

We’ll have more 50th anniversary features in the coming months.

If any of this material stirs a memory, feel free to share it with us. Email awest@newszap.com.

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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