THE LEFT TURN

All eyes will be on NASCAR’s return to Darlington

Photo byJerry Markland/Getty Images.

Finally, after months of waiting the NASCAR Cup Series returns to the historic Darlington Raceway for the Real Heroes 400. This comes as a huge relief for fans not just of NASCAR but fans of sports in general. Come Sunday, there will be a lot of eyes on NASCAR that weren't there before so this could be huge for the sport. While it will be great to get cars back on the racetrack, the routine that we are used to seeing will be fairly different.

On Sunday, the drivers will drive into Darlington Speedway and be given a coronavirus test at the motorhome lot before the race. The spotters will not be where they are usually as well as they will all be spread out around the frontstretch bleachers. The biggest change of note will be the omission of practice and qualifying. The way that field will be set is by a draw of the top 12 in NASCAR's owner points.

The drawing was held live on Thursday and Brad Keselowski will lead the field to the green flag with Alex Bowman starting alongside him. There will also be a race on Wednesday as well with the field being set with how the first race finished including an inversion moving the 20th place finisher of the race on Sunday to the top of the grid. This will probably bring more attention to the 20th place finisher than ever before and I look forward to seeing how guys strategize to be the driver who is inverted.

In a time when everything is fluid, the world of NASCAR is no exception to this as they have completely revamped their 2020 schedule. Over the course of the next two months, the teams will be going to the tracks that are in the closest proximity to their shops in North Carolina. We will be seeing races at Darlington, Charlotte, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega, and Homestead-Miami (Dale Earnhardt Jr will be making an appearance in the Xfinity race here). All without fans of course.

While this will be vastly different from what we are accustomed to, just watching a race will be a breath of fresh air and a good escape for the fans. One thing that will be awesome to watch is how tracks like Talladega or Homestead will react to the heat of the summer. It should be extremely slick and difficult for drivers to manage their tires, not to mention the fact that all of these drivers haven't been behind the wheel of a racecar in two months. It will be a lot of fun to see where this goes.

This week at Darlington, the driver to watch out for will have to be Matt Kenseth. After the suspension of Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi and his crew stunned the NASCAR world by tapping 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion Matt Kenseth to take his place. Kenseth had been away from racing since 2018 but because of his expertise and close relationship with former and now current teammate Kurt Busch, the team decided that the Wisconsin native would be the perfect fit.

Overall, there aren't many other drivers that could bring the amount of experience and feedback that he can, so I think this is a great decision to bring him on board. He is coming to a track that hasn't been so kind to him. In his twenty-five races here, his average finish is 15.80. He does have a win here though back in 2013 when he drove for Joe Gibbs. It will be interesting to watch and see how he rebounds.

The driver that I have going to victory lane this week is Martin Truex Jr. Before all of this hit back in March, MTJ was the driver that I predicted would win at Atlanta and while this is a much different race track, I still believe that Truex will be the driver to beat. Over the last two races here, the 2017 champion has hit a bit of a rough patch as both finishes have been outside the top ten but this week, I think he will return to the success we were used to seeing back from 2016 to 2018. Look for the New Jersey native to take the checkered flag.

While sports are scarce right now, I understand that there is a possibility of new fans coming to the sport. There maybe some people that are reading this article that aren't too familiar with the sport and for all of those people, I say thank you for giving this a chance in such tough times. At a track like Darlington, you won't be disappointed. If you are interested in what goes on behind the scenes, NASCAR's website will be giving free scanner access all throughout the next two months that allow fans to listen to what the drivers are saying to their crew-chiefs. When it is all said and done, I believe that this race will go down as one of the most important races in sports history. You won't want to miss this one.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com the best website for all NASCAR stats)

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I met James Arthur Harris a pretty long time ago, it had to be before 2001, because I was at the gate waiting for his flight from New Orleans to land. I was supposed to pick him up, drive him to the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza on Loop 610, wait for him to change into his work clothes, and get him to the George R. Brown before 3 p.m.

I had never met him, but it would be easy to pick him out in the line of passengers filing off the plane. He'd be the big guy, 6 ft. 7 and weighing more than 400 pounds. Because our schedule was tight, I was hoping he wasn't already in his work clothes. You'll understand why.

When Harris worked, he wore a leopard loin cloth, bare feet, bright painted stars and moons on his huge pot belly, and white face paint under his scary witch doctor mask. He also carried a spear and shield.

James Harris, who died this week at age 70 from COVID-19 complications, performed in wrestling rings around the world as Kamala the Ugandan Giant. Or Kamala the Ugandan Head Hunter. This day, he came to Houston to sign autographs at TriStar Sports memorabilia shows.

"Kamala was a huge draw to our shows in the '90s. His character was mysterious and intriguing. Fans lined up to get his autograph and pose for photos with him. He was one of our biggest draws," said Tristar senior vice president Bobby Mintz.

I checked Harris into the Crowne Plaza and waited in the lobby while he went upstairs to take off his shoes and socks, paint stars and moons on his belly … and become Kamala the uncivilized cannibal from the jungles of deepest Africa.

You couldn't get away with this stereotyped character today. But this was then, and Kamala was one of the hottest performers in the wrestling world.

You should have seen the looks on people's faces when the elevator door opened, and out came Kamala, in full ring regalia. We got into my car and made it to the George R. Brown in time for his autograph session. The line already was 100 wrestling fans deep. I sat next to Kamala for three hours, muttering grunts and nonsense sounds because, of course, Kamala did not speak English.

James Harris was born and died in Mississippi. He broke into pro wrestling in 1978 under the name Sugar Bear Harris. He also wrestled as Ugly Bear Harris, The Mississippi Mauler and Bad News Harris.

It was Jerry Lawler, owner of Memphis independent wrestling scene in the early '80s, who gave Harris his new gimmick and name Kamala. He would be billed as Kamala the Ugandan Giant, former bodyguard to the brutal dictator Idi Amin. Lawler picked the name Kamala after the capital of Uganda. Actually, the capital of Uganda is Kampala. It doesn't matter.

Kamala was money, as they say, he put butts in seats. He used a devastating karate chop to opponents' heads and pinned them, 1-2-3. Soon he was hired by Mid-South Wrestling, where the circuit included the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston. In 1986, he became a main event wrestler for the WWE and headlined shows against Hulk Hogan coast-to-coast.

As we sat at the autograph show, one of my jobs was to assure young fans that Kamala was really a nice person, so don't be scared.

That night, I threw my one and only dinner party. I invited about 20 people to meet Kamala. I prepared a casual buffet, the main course was lasagna. I had two large trays, one with vegetable lasagna, one with sausage and ground beef.

The guests showed up, and Kamala posed for photos and signed autographs. He let my friends wear his witch doctor mask. He hoisted some of the guests and pretended he was body slamming them for their photos. He was the most gracious and gentle giant you could imagine. Until …

I was taking the lasagna trays out of the oven. I brought Kamala into the kitchen so he could eat first, and return to mingle with the guests. I asked him, which would you like, vegetable or meat lasagna? He said meat, and picked up the entire tray, sat at the kitchen table and ate the whole thing. I told the other guests, eat lots of garlic bread.

Kamala retired from wrestling full-time around 2000. He bought a truck and hauled gravel, asphalt and dirt from Mississippi across the southern U.S. If he knew a town had an independent wrestling show, he'd re-route his route so he could pick up extra money dusting off his Kamala persona for one night. That's how he made an appearance at the Texas All-Star Wrestling show in Humble in 2003.

Kamala fell into bad health with diabetes and high blood pressure. He had both legs amputated. Despite headlining wrestling shows around the world, Kamala never earned much money. In his later years, he made wood chairs near his home in Oxford, Mississippi. He also recorded an album, Kamala's Greatest Hits: Vol. 1, and wrote his autobiography, Kamala Speaks.

After the dinner party, which did not make Maxine Mesinger's society column in the Chronicle, something I'm still bitter about, I drove Kamala back to the Crowne Plaza. I told him, be in the lobby at 9 a.m., we'll get breakfast on our way to the airport. I asked him, what would you like for breakfast. Pancakes? Bacon and eggs? Fruit?

He said, and I'll never forget this, "When it comes to food, I isn't choicy."

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