Story and photo by Rhonda Beck
Pat Piazza of Inman, SC has been around racing and motorsports for a lot of her lifetime. She met her husband, Chuck Piazza, in high school in Jamestown, NY and he started his racing career up North as they were also starting a family in the 1960s. Their children include Clark Piazza, Randy Piazza, Kelly Simon and Robin Ladouceur. While the kids were still quite young, they made the choice to move down South to work and go racing.
Piazza has certain memories of those times, including having a family at the races, people she met along the way and some of the ‘rules’ regarding women at the track. She also has spent time working outside the home, enjoying some hobbies and traveling, including trips to Europe in 1998 and 1999.
When Piazza first got involved with racing, she said she wasn’t prepared for it.
“We started having children, so I couldn’t always go. We had four children. The boys would go when they got to be three and four years old, but the girls I never took much. But it was a good crowd that we raced with. And all those girls were in our position, you know, young families,” said Piazza.
The Piazzas decided to move to South Carolina after a trip to Florida, having made some connections with racers in the industry.
“He bought some tires from Rex White. We came down to Daytona for a race. And then on the way back we stopped and they offered Chuck a job, and he took it,” said Piazza.
The warmer weather may have also been a contributing factor to the move, but a few things about the changes were challenging for Piazza.
“When we got back home to three feet of snow–and he hated the cold anyway–it didn’t take him long to make his mind up. It took me a little longer; I wasn’t used to being away from family. It was hard,” Piazza said.
Piazza slowly got to meet people in the racing community and did some work at the track, like in the refreshment stand at Concord Speedway on Saturday nights.
“That really helped me ‘cause the boys went, but they were in the pits where they could stay,” Piazza said. “We met a lot of nice folks, I’m tellin’ you. Billy Scott and Barbara were absolutely wonderful. They helped a lot. And she’d always been around racing, so she knew a little more—a lot more than I did, so that helped. And then we finally met the Earnhardts and went to their house.”
They spent some time with Ralph and Martha Earnhardt and Piazza recalled buying a cookbook that Martha Earnhardt had been involved with.
“Chuck did some work there and then Ralph helped him with something one time. And had a pretty good relationship with them. They came to one of the bookstores here in Spartanburg and we went down and met them and got her cookbook (Pit Stop in a Southern Kitchen: Two Moms of Racing Legends Serve up Stories and Recipes by Carole Gordon-Bickford and Martha Earnhardt.) But she always was crazy about Chuck. They both liked Chuck. And he spent a lot of time with them when he could,” said Piazza.
They raced at places like Concord, Metrolina and Cherokee Speedways. But back in the day there used to be different rules for men and women regarding access. Some races even had advertisements saying that the lady would get in free if her husband or a man paid. So would a single woman have to pay her own way? The late Barbara Scott said that the wives weren’t allowed down in the pits during the race either, not to their liking.
“It was that way for a long time. Used to irritate us,” Piazza said.
But Piazza appreciated being around other wives also involved in racing, including Barbara Scott and Naomi Smith, wife of Freddy Smith.
“That’s probably the only two that I knew personally. Chuck knew ‘em all, but I didn’t,” said Piazza.
Piazza recalled a few of the cultural differences or customs that she and her family adjusted to when coming to the South—including food choices.
“That took me a while. Like I always had used Hellmann’s Mayonnaise and learned to buy Duke’s; that was a big change for me. We laugh over that a lot. My kids love Duke’s,” Piazza said.
And there were some new foods to try.
“Cornbread–Chuck doesn’t like that. And we all liked that. I always had vegetable soup or chicken or something. But with vegetable soup we always had cornbread. But he did learn to eat grits. And my kids love those. We learned a lot of things, especially when they started school,” Piazza said.
Sometimes they’d go out to eat when they had company or after races.
“There’s a steakhouse at the circle,” said Piazza. “That’s a long time ago. Longhorn. And they always had good hot dog stands here. That was a big thing for a long time.”
Lingo and other differences in Southern and Northern ways were something Piazza said they got used to. Later on, they started saying ‘Y’all’ and the Piazza children learned how to properly greet adults.
“When the kids started school, they fell right into it, so it worked out well. The thing that our children had to get used to was saying ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, ma’am’–we didn’t do that up North,” Piazza said.
Throughout the years, Piazza traveled to some races but had to balance family life as well. Her husband raced everything from late models at the local dirt tracks, to a Porsche, to sportscars at the 24 Hours at Daytona.
“I went to a few of those with him and I knew a few of the drivers, like John Finger; he’s from Greenville. You meet a lot of folks. But I didn’t go to a lot. It was too much at the time with the kids growing up. I had to get a sitter all the time,” Piazza said.
When the kids were there, they would have fun playing on the hills or in the infield. But sometimes that could take a toll as well.
Piazza said, “The last race we went to in Charlotte, the kids were out in the sun all day long. And when we come home Clark’s head was sunburned; his ears were sunburned. Randy is light-skinned; he was even worse. So we just didn’t go as much with the kids anymore. We just went by ourselves. But they liked it when they did go.”
Away from the racetrack, Piazza also worked 20 years at W.R. Grace (Cryovac), a local company that makes plastic packaging. She has sung in the choir at the United Methodist Church of the Covenant and has enjoyed various hobbies. For the past three or four years, she has been doing Diamond Art, a craft that lets one create beautiful mosaics.
Another memory Piazza shared was some traveling she did to Europe in 1998 and 1999.
“It’s just nice to be in another country and notice how different people are from us,” said Piazza. “It’s so beautiful over there; I just loved it.”
She visited Christmas markets and spent time trying the food or going on tours.
“The coffee hour at the bakery shops—their bakery shops are outstanding! I don’t know if anything here compares to it. I used to go there a couple times during the morning with my son Clark and it was a nice experience. Everybody should go there,” Piazza said.
Piazza made it to Paris and went up the Eiffel Tower.
“I took the elevator up. And that was exciting. I didn’t know how high it was until you got up there and looked around. You could see a long way.”
She also went the other way—on a tour below the streets of the city.
“In town, the champagne is underneath the ground. You got to see how they store the champagne and turned them certain ways at certain times,” said Piazza. “The only problem was getting back out. It was 100 steps to go up. But I made it.”
They went further into Germany and saw the Christmas markets.
“What a beautiful experience. It was super nice. Ate some different food, tried some different things. I wasn’t afraid to try them. And I learned a little of the culture while we were there. It was just awesome,” she said.
Piazza visited a friend from Germany whom she originally had met in South Carolina.
“I rode the train to a town where my girlfriend who was from Germany was. She came to Spartanburg when she married; she married an Airforce man. But she went back to Germany because her family was ill, and she had to live there. So I took a train, didn’t know a bit of German, got off at the right stop and she wasn’t there and I almost had a heart attack. I waited a little bit and walked to the gate where you come in and then she came in. She couldn’t find a place to park. She took me to a nice restaurant and we had dinner. And that’s when I met ALDI, the grocery store. When they came here—10 years later–I couldn’t believe it. It was an interesting experience,” Piazza said.
As far as recent events involving racing, Piazza has gone to a few, like when Chuck was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cherokee Speedway in Gaffney, S.C. in 2017.
“I think Randy came down there with us. Clark joined the military young. He did go to the races when he lived here, but he never really got into it like Randy did. Randy still loves it, and his son loves it, and they go with Chuck to a lot of different things. And that’s good,” Piazza said. “Gives Randy and him some time together.”
They also watch races on TV on a weekly basis.
“Every race that’s on. Even some during the week that’s somewhere else. He’s got it on.”
As far as being involved in motorsports on a regular basis, Piazza has a few thoughts based on many years of experience.
“If you’re going to get into it, you have to be together. Your family has to be there. And know what the gameplan is. You’ve gotta try to balance it out so everybody’s satisfied and happy.”