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"The high school I attended was tiny—I think I had 24 in my graduating class—so we didn't have football. Basketball is the No. 1 sport down there for small schools. Then in the spring, there was baseball, but generally I didn't play on the baseball team." Later, at Georgia Tech, Carter tried out for the 100-yard dash and the high-jump, but he never made the track team. "When I was a child," Carter says, "I built a pole-vaulting pit in my backyard and we used to high-jump and pole-vault. Obviously, as a child I had dreams of someday being a famous athlete, but that never did happen."
Since he became President, Carter says he has seldom been able to find the time to watch a football game from beginning to end, in person or on television, though he did attend the Washington Redskins Monday night win over Dallas on Oct. 2. Does the President have an opinion about the Mouth of the NFL, Howard Cosell? "Not that I would like to express publicly," Carter said. "The first time I ever met Howard Cosell personally, I went out to San Francisco when the Atlanta Falcons played the 49ers. Rankin Smith owns the Falcons, and I went out with him on his plane and met Howard Cosell. There was a very unpleasant argument. I wasn't involved in it, I was just a spectator."
Carter tends to avoid most spectator sports, finding them too sedentary for his taste, but confesses that he could watch stock-car racing almost endlessly. "I used to go out to the Atlanta Speedway and ride in the pace car and be with the drivers during the preliminary review of the racing rules," he said. "Rosalynn and I have both been stock-car-racing fans since before Jeffrey [Carter's youngest son] was born, 25 years or more."
The President's affection for stock-car racing's interminable progression of lap upon lap may seem curious to a non-Southerner, but there is nothing boring about it to him. "That could be the case unless you had grown up with it and knew the racers and the pit crews and had studied the techniques of racing," Carter said.
"We used to take off from Plains, even when I didn't have much money, and drive to Sebring for the sports-car races. And the first year the Daytona Speedway was in operation , we were there. We went down on a train from Americus, Georgia with two other couples. I remember that Richard Petty's father—I believe his name is Lee—and a guy named Beauchamp tied in the first race at Daytona. That was on a Sunday and we didn't know until Wednesday who had won. I believe Bill France, who owns Daytona—I think he just collected all kinds of photographs that people had taken of the finish with hand-held cameras. They had to get those films developed and analyze them before they could tell who won."
Carter has long been a popular figure among the drivers and crews at races. "They gave me good, friendly political support when I ran for President, whether they were Republicans or Democrats," he said. " Cale Yarborough had been a Republican, you know, when he was a county official in South Carolina. Now he has become a Democrat. And this is not the only progress he has made.
"Recently we had the stock-car racers here at the White House, but unfortunately—we had planned it for months—it happened to fall the last weekend of the Camp David Summit meeting, and I had to miss being with them."
Carter also swims, bowls regularly (he averages about 160) and is planning to take up cross-country skiing this winter at Camp David. But his most publicly indulged sporting passion since he began seeking the Presidency undoubtedly has been Softball.
The games began in the '76 campaign, while the Carter camp and the national press corps were in Plains following the Democratic Convention. As a rule, Carter pitched for a team of unarmed Secret Service agents, against a media team called the News Twisters. Carter's team wore T shirts that proclaimed them NEWS MAKERS, while the media people adopted as their slogan THE GRIN WILL NOT WIN.
"His team was made up of a bunch of bionic Secret Service men," says Rick Kaplan, an associate producer for the CBS Evening News, "while our squad consisted of a bunch of guys who were great athletes in their day, but their day had long since passed. To give you an idea how stacked the deck was in his favor, their shortstop had once played Triple A ball, and all the Secret Service guys were terrified that if they messed up they might end up stationed in Ohio." What does "The Grin" have to say about all this? "That's just propaganda," sniffed Carter.