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Those who don't learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.

So I guess that would explain how NASCAR drivers don't need anymore to take a glass cutter and cut dime-sized holes into their race cars' windshields, so they can see where they are going.

"But you couldn't look into the hole very long," said Marvin Panch, "because the blowing sand would hurt your eyes."

Panch, voted one of the 50 greatest NASCAR drivers in 1998, took a moment Thursday to jog down NASCAR's memory lane, like racing on Daytona's beach. Such nostalgic trips into a sport's history too often yield little charisma for the time and place. Pictures of leather football helmets, woolen baseball uniforms and basketball shoes that rose above the ankle — though all well and good — scream DORKY, hardly evoking the romance of the time. Unless clunky and awkward raises your gooseflesh.

NASCAR, however, ran nearly the same speeds then as they do today, and the eyes widen when one considers how that happened.

You know, like going 200 miles an hour in a tomato can. Comparatively, of course.

The on-board medical supplies consisted of band aids and peroxide.

"The ambulance was a station wagon," said Panch, 86.

Or in some places, the ambulance was a hearse. Yes, a hearse.

I'll pause now, so you can create your own Tim Burton Kodak moment. Johnny Deep, of course, drives the hearse.

Protection from fire? Well, there was a fire extinguisher in the car. And a fire suit? It was more of a fire limb.

"I don't know what the solution was," Panch said, "but it felt like starch."

A driver would dip his arms in that solution, let it harden, then race. That was his fire suit.

"You're looking at my uniform," said Panch, who rubbed his short-sleeved shirt between his thumb and forefinger.

HANS device? Full-body fire suit? Helmet with microphone, noise-suppressant equipment? Can you imagine that, Marvin?

"Huh?" Panch said to that question.

"Huh?" is what he said a few times while on the dais answering questions from the media at a San Francisco restaurant. Panch would be asked a question, turn to fellow trailblazer Donnie Allison, and ask, "What did he say?" Panch is very hard of hearing in both ears and doesn't deny what caused it.

"Racing," he said.

Panch shrugs. Whatever. When you reach 86, you shrug a lot. Why not? If you made it to 86 and spent the wild hair of your youth racing tomato cans at 200 miles an hour with a hearse waiting for you if you screwed up badly, you would shrug, too, because all the heavy lifting is over. What's left are the stories that feel like a newsreel being played in front of you.

Like the worst crash in Panch's life. And it wasn't even in a tomato can. In 1963 he spent two months in the hospital as a result of the accident, the burns so severe.

"It was a Ford experiment," Panch said. "They put a Ford engine into a Maserati. Wanted to see if I could set a track record at Charlotte. I went around a couple times but told them the car didn't feel right, but I decided to go anyway."

The Maserati caught some air going around Turn 2. Went airborne, flipped over, crashed and Panch was trapped as the car caught fire — the Maserati had wing doors, opening skyward except, when upside-down, there was no sky.

"I couldn't get out when the car exploded," he said. "They came through the flames for me."

Panch was pulled from the car by his feet.

He shrugged. Whaddya gonna do?

"They (today's NASCAR's drivers) think we were crazy back then," Panch said, "and we were. But we didn't think so at the time."

Panch, who raced stock cars from 1951-1966, didn't think he was building a sport. He didn't think about his legacy, his 17 NASCAR victories or how he and the boys were guinea pigs for all the safety changes that would occur inside a race car or at a race track. He didn't think that one day he would spend 100 days a year touring the country for NASCAR, as he does now.

The attraction for him then is the same as it is now for a driver, that elemental, primal need to balance aggression and finesse behind a wheel, to push it to the edge, where speed and catastrophe brush against each other. As if he only experienced that feeling on a race track.

"Of course, you would never race on a road, right?" I asked, knowing the answer.

"Would never think of it," said Panch, winking, and for that brief second, Marvin Panch wasn't 86 years old. He was Marvin, a red-hot twentysomething who would give anything to get in a car and find out just how good Dale Junior is. Right now. In the sand at Daytona. With that dime-sized hole in the windshield. With the hearse waiting. Yeah, Marvin would guarantee, there would be nothing dorky about that.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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