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The once-popular watering hole for the rich and famous is quiet now. So what is its connection with NASCAR?
By Frank Diez
Rockbridge Baths is a quiet town with winding roads, cow pastures and the low sounds of the Maury River flowing alongside Virginia State Route 39. As a child, Rick Mast would go fishing in that river and ride his bicycle down the roads. He would pretend he was racing NASCAR legends like “Fireball” Roberts, Curtis Turner and Richard Petty.
Mast would also hear stories of the natural spring that was not far from his house. The spring and moss, with naturally occurring lithium, were famous for having almost supernatural healing powers, and so Rockbridge Baths was visited by the rich and famous, including Civil War legends Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant.
“Whenever I had poison ivy, or bee stings, or any kind of skin irritation, my mom would take me to the pool, and the pool would have moss in it. You take the moss and rub it on your skin, and honest to God, it was the best thing I’ve ever felt.”
At 55 now, Mast adds, “I’ve felt a lot,” with a career as a NASCAR driver behind him.
At the height of his NASCAR career, he missed being at home in Rockbridge Baths with his wife and son. But when he was young, he had been determined to race cars, not work on his family’s farm. So his father, who promoted racing, traded a cow for a race car his son could start with. Like Jack of the beanstalk story, Rick Mast traded the family cow for something magical and adventurous. Instead of the low gurgle of the Maury River, he got the loud roar of stock car engines and thousands of people cheering as he flew around Winston Cup tracks in a dangerous and competitive sport.
“My head hit the pillow at my house in Rockbridge Baths two and half nights a week at most,” he says. “And I’ll tell you, that’s tough.”
Mast ran 364 races over a span of 15 years. The 1990s proved to be a long and strenuous decade for him. In 1994, he accomplished 10 top-10 finishes, putting him eighteenth in points, and finishing a career-best second at Rockingham Speedway, a race where he slid sideways while racing side-by-side with winner Dale Earnhardt coming out of the final corner. In August of that season, he won the pole position at the inaugural Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a race for which 90 cars were entered. Mast finished eighteenth in points.
His fortunes change in March 2002. One day at the Winston Cup in Bristol,Tenn., Mast woke up feeling nauseous. All through the weekend he felt terrible, and felt worse every day up until a small preliminary race inCharlotte,N.C., that May. “I stayed in bed for 31 days after that, and it was a good day if I could keep a bowl of soup down. I lost about 35 pounds in that span of 31 days.”
Rockbridge Baths was originally settled by Scots-Irish who moved down the Appalachian range from the north. The land that surrounded the spring was purchased in the early 19th century by Alfred Anderson, who used the area as a resort for people from cities near and far. The spring was advertised as a healing spa. A hotel opened across the street, accommodating the crowds until it burned down in 1925. The spring property was purchased in the late 1930s by the Spanish-born Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Daura, who had married a Richmond woman he met in Paris while she was studying art there. Forced out of Europe by World War II, the couple settled in Virginia. He taught painting at colleges in Lynchburg, and in 1959 built a house and studio next to the mineral spring.
Daura fell in love with the Shenandoah Valley’s rolling landscapes and weathered barns, and he painted what he saw with the use of many vibrant colors. He would take his students for walks in the woods to open their eyes to the beauty all around them, such as a gnarled stump, a twisted limb and a sun-burnished knot. Daura died in 1976 and is buried in Rockbridge Baths.
This was the same Rockbridge Baths where Mast was still living in 2002, when he began going to distant cities for intrusive testing for various cancers in his body. All of them came back negative. He decided to travel to Jacksonville to a NASCAR doctor who said he suspected carbon monoxide poisoning. Confused from hearing this, Mast went to a clinic in Colorado Springs to confirm that it was carbon monoxide poisoning.
Mast developed a chemical sensitivity, forcing him to stay away from the kind of chemicals that linger in traffic, racetracks and cities. Any contact with carbon monoxide would result in a bodily shut down, leaving him in bed for up to six days at a time, unable to move. He can be around carbon monoxide now, but still avoids it.
After the ordeal of getting sick, Mast was forced to stay home for a long period of time, which is something he hadn’t done since he was a child. He got acclimated to the slower lifestyle. Speaking to his old neighbors every day instead of once every three years helped the transition. If he had waited to retire naturally from the sport, he says, he would still be involved with NASCAR in some form. Mast said that this life change helped him appreciate his town and his family more.
“I really enjoy now being involved with my twin girls who just started high school and being able to watch their ball games all the time, as well as being involved in the community. I promised myself that I would be there for the girls no matter what they did because I only saw two of my son’s baseball games in four years.”
Mast would often bring his close friend Johnny Hayes, the vice president of Motorsports for U.S. Tobacco, to visit Rockbridge Baths.
Hayes had hired Mast in 1991 for the SKOAL racing team. Over the years they became good friends, and Hayes would visit Mast in Rockbridge Baths on the weekends and stay over for a few days. He was a Civil War buff, so Mast would take him to all the battlefields in this part of Virginia.
Mast convinced Hayes to purchase the Daura property, which was up for sale at the time. Once the Hayes family established a second home at the spring in 1996, the entire complex was rebuilt, and included a racing garage.
When Mast drives past the Hayes house on Route 39 now, it is dark and quiet. Last Dec. 21, Johnny Hayes was killed in a car accident near his home in Denver, N.C. Hayes, who had been subject to blackouts, lost control of his vehicle and crashed into the woods. Mast says that it was tough for him to deal with this loss. Hayes was one of his closest friends, “like a brother to me.”
But in the face of what he’s lost over the years, Mast remains optimistic about life. His health has improved in recent years. He currently owns and operates RKM EnviroClean, Inc., which specializes in environmental clean-up services, and works at the company office on Route 60 just east of Lexington. He is always around to see his twin daughters grow up.
He has returned to the quiet life he knew as a child in Rockbridge Baths. “I lived a very Tom Sawyer existence. It was very rural, very country, and everything you did, you made. It was like Little House on the Prairie. It’s a lifestyle that I now prefer.”
The only thing he misses from racing is when the announcer says, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” At that moment, everything is hopeful, every driver is equal, and this amazing sound of horsepower suddenly explodes over the crowd. “That’s the one thing about the race that is pure and never changes.”