At 92 years old, one of racing's oldest living drivers has tales to tell

Credit: Jeff Siner

Credit: Jeff Siner

Sure, the old trophies are cool. Same for those worn-down, rusted-away cars with metal peeling back like flaky post-sunburn skin.

But no artifact can compare to the living. You can read the stories in old newspapers, see the wear and tear of time on any number of objects — but there's nothing that compares to a human being with a life's worth of stories.

And boy does Bill Huskins have tales to tell.

Wednesday, the NASCAR Hall of Fame officially opened its newest Great Hall Exhibit: '1948: Proving Grounds.' The exhibit hearkens back 70 years to NASCAR's inaugural season, when no-name drivers and legends-to-be met on the sand of Daytona Beach for the first sanctioned race in the sport's history. The exhibit will remain open through January 2019.

In the subsequent seven decades, NASCAR has transformed and evolved to the point where you can hardly recognize those cars from back in the day. That's why people such as Huskins, 92, are so important.

"It was a real experience for me," Huskins said Wednesday at the exhibit's grand opening. "We operated on a shoestring, money-wise. In fact, me and a cousin of mine put up most all the money, and there were a lot of people who did just as important a thing by helping with different things.

"The head mechanic was allowed to work on the cars at nighttime, and he put in an awful amount of time building it from scratch, from a car we got from a junkyard. And he put a new motor in the thing and worked on it between races, so it's a tremendous difference between what we had then and what they've got now."

Huskins got his start in racing when he left the Navy in 1946. At that time, though, there was no regulated series.

Instead, races came together organically ... and randomly.

"When I first got out of the Navy, they had what was referred to as outlaw races, where it wasn't organized," Huskins said. "Drivers who heard about a race would just show up and run the race, and I started doing some of those."

In 1948, though, Bill France Sr. was able to standardize some of the rules for these races, and he put together an actual schedule of events for the rest of the year. And the sanctioning body that oversaw all the races, cars and drivers, NASCAR, was born.

"Bill France was a real go-getter and put in a lot of time," Huskins said. "Nobody did as much as Bill France. He had a wife who was a big help, doing all the paperwork. ... I'd see her just about every race, since she worked in the office they had at the track. But Bill France did a little bit of everything — some of the announcing even."

Huskins' own NASCAR career was relatively short-lived and inconspicuous. He left the sport after three years to become an officer with the North Carolina Highway Patrol.

But during his era and the years to come, he still met many of the sport's pioneers.

In addition to France, Huskins said he knows Bruton Smith — founder of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and father to current SMI president Marcus Smith — as well as notable drivers such as Buck Baker (2013 Hall of Fame inductee) and Junior Johnson (2010 Hall of Fame inductee).

"Old Junior Johnson, the moonshiner — he was something else for a driver, though," Huskins said. "I understand he used to drive liquor for his daddy, go on liquor runs.

"That's one good way to get your experience, though: driving a car where you had to make it faster than what the law was if you wanted to stay out of jail."

As part of the exhibit, Huskins donated his original 1948 NASCAR driver's license to the Hall of Fame. The licenses were one of the ways France created stability during NASCAR's inception and discouraged the outlaw races of Huskins' past. Most were signed by France himself, but Huskins' was actually signed by France's wife, Anne Bledsoe.

That license may be a small relic from the past, but it's one of many that commemorate NASCAR's long history and humble beginnings. And while much has changed since Huskins' days in a race car, he's still as much a fan today as he ever was.

"It brings back a lot of memories," Huskins said of the exhibit opening. "I was glad to give that license I had and some of the newspaper articles, they were even from The Charlotte Observer about the upcoming races. NASCAR has come a long way since then, though.

"Just out of curiosity, it's always good to know what took place."

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