I was recently reminded of one of the fondest memories of my career by a special birthday wish from a friend who sent me a message accompanied by a photo.
It was that photo that sparked my memory. It was shot of Darrell Waltrip, his wife Stevie and I cutting up during a photo shoot at Martinsville Speedway.
It wasn’t an ordinary session. Hardly. It was arranged to provide Martinsville with a cover photo for its Sept. 24, 1978, NASCAR Cup Series race program.
That program cover remains one of the most original and unique ever produced by any speedway.
Not because I’m part of it, you understand. Rather, it’s because, as unlikely as it may seem, I am dressed up as arguably the dastardliest — and most popular — movie villain of all time.
It all began with the late Dick Thompson, Martinsville’s able and imaginative public relations director.
A longtime newspaperman, Thompson was well aware of what the media needed at each race. Pages and pages of event history, information, records, schedules and statistics were readily available from the first day the media arrived at his track.
However, Thompson wasn’t just efficient. He was imaginative. The Martinsville programs he produced contained everything such publications should have — driver photos and information, speedway records, feature stories and the like.
But Thompson took it all a bit further. While he admitted that programs should be informational, they should also be entertaining. That’s why his feature stories came with original, sometimes humorous, photos — like Richard Petty dressed as a western gunslinger.
He also incorporated pages of gag photos, which were often the most popular content of any of his programs.
But Thompson’s most singular achievements were his program covers. He disdained the routine headshots and sometimes amateurish artwork.
“I’ve always said that if a fan doesn’t like the program cover, odds are he’s not going to buy it,” Thompson said more than once.
Given that, it wasn’t unusual that early in 1978, Thompson came to me and said he had an idea for the program cover for Martinsville’s fall race.
A motion picture phenomenon swept the country in 1977. It was unlike anything ever before seen. It was a science fiction film that featured everything from humans to robots to creatures of every size and shape.
It was an epic tale of good versus evil on an intergalactic scale. It was called Star Wars.
“You remember the movie’s poster?” Thompson asked. “You know, the one with that guy Luke Skywalker holding up his lightsaber with Princess Leia by his side?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Then there’s that guy behind them dressed in black and wearing a black full-faced helmet,” Thompson said.
Of course, I knew who that was. So did almost everybody else. Thompson was talking about Darth Vader, a cinematic villain who ranks right up there with the most insidious Hollywood had to offer.
“I’m going to make the next program cover just like that Star Wars poster. I think it will be a big hit,” Thompson said with a smile.
The star of Thompson’s cover was going to be the winner of Martinsville’s spring race in 1978. It turned out to be D.W., who would be Luke Skywalker. His wife Stevie would be Princess Leia.
“And you’re going to be that Darth guy,” Thompson told me.
Hold on, now. First off, there was no access to a Darth Vader uniform, which came complete with flashing lights and a helmet that wasn’t available at the local sporting goods store.
And I was about half Vader’s size. I would be more suited to pose as his toddler son.
Thompson assured me all obstacles would be overcome. But I had to help.
I wasn’t worried too much about what I would wear. A black turtleneck and pants would be suitable. And a pair of shoulder pads would add some girth.
A close friend of mine came up with the cape. His father had been an officer in the U.S. Navy and for some reason he had been issued one.
The problem was Vader’s one-of-a-kind helmet. After all, it wasn’t routinely available at JCPenney or Sears.
But I got lucky. I found one — a good one — at a store known nationwide for goods such as adult table games, T-shirts with bawdy sayings and movie posters.
When I got home, I placed the helmet atop my dresser. My daughter Celeste, four years old at the time, walked in and asked, “What’s that?”
It didn’t take her long to find out. And ever since, she’s been a huge fan of the Star Wars franchise and pretty much anything else with superheroes and dragons.
I put the helmet on and stood in front of Margaret.
“How do I look?” I asked.
“You look like an idiot,” she answered. That wasn’t the only time she’s said that.
Once properly equipped, I went to the speedway to hook up with Waltrip, Stevie, Thompson and the photographer, T. Taylor Warren.
Waltrip was attired in his DiGard/Gatorade uniform and Stevie in a white gown. I went to a separate room to put on my Vader regalia. I then made my grand entrance.
There was silence.
Finally, Waltrip said: “Who are you supposed to be?”
“Hey man, Darth Vader!” I said.
“Oh, yeah,” Waltrip said. “Ol’ Darth. I saw him in the pits today.”
Waltrip might have been the only person in the country not to have seen Star Wars – or even heard about it.
We started posing. Thompson found a wooden box on which I stood to appear tall and menacing in the background.
We went through several takes and Waltrip grew weary of hoisting the trophy which served as Luke’s lightsaber.
“Ooof,” he grunted. “How much longer am I going to have to lift this thing?”
Once finished, it was time to have some fun. Waltrip, Stevie and I started mugging for the camera. Waltrip put on the top half of the Vader helmet, which looked somewhat like a samurai’s headgear, turned to Stevie, bowed and said, “Ah So.”
Then he did the same to me.
For several weeks afterward, whenever Waltrip and I would meet we’d bow to each other and say, “Ah So.”
For years afterward, when I think about that Martinsville photo shoot, I don’t recall a motorsports writer interviewing a well-known driver to get the latest news.
I remember a guy, his wife and one other, all in motorsports, simply doing a favor for a friend and having a darn good time at it.
And I think the Waltrips have as fond memories of it as I do.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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