Wednesday, May 25, 2016

May 26, 1974 - World 600

As OPEC came on the scene, the U.S. population was scared into the first of several energy crises. NASCAR quickly fell into the crosshairs of many who believed (and still do) auto racing is a needless waste of fossil fuel energy sources. In a good faith gesture to appease some, Bill France Jr. worked with track promoters to cut Winston Cup race distances by 10 percent in 1974. Consequently, the drivers competing in the 1974 World 600 actually raced for only 540 miles.

David Pearson won the pole in the #21 Wood Brothers Purolator Mercury. The top starting spot was his second in what was to become an eleven-race, pole-winning streak. He also won the pole for the 1972 National 500, and qualified second for the 1972, 1973, and 1980 World 600s. Even today, his ability to hustle the Woods' car on pole day at Charlotte remains amazing. Again, Pearson started no worse than second from May 1972 through May 1980.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
In winning the pole, Pearson also became the top pole winner for superspeedways. When their careers ended, Richard Petty had 127 career poles to Pearson's 113. Pearson, however, eventually captured the top spot in 57 superspeedway races - a record that still stands even in an era where the schedule is dominated by 1+ mile tracks.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Petty, in his STP Dodge Charger, qualified on the front row alongside his long-time rival. Despite their staggering career numbers, Petty and Pearson interestingly only had two Charlotte wins between them coming into 1974 - Pearson in the 1961 World 600 and Petty in a 100-mile qualifying race for the 1961 600.

Buddy Baker qualified third in his first start with Bud Moore's team in the 1974 600. Five of his 19 career wins came at the wheel of the #15 Ford - including three at Talladega. Baker's hiring, however, came at George Follmer's expense. Moore hired Follmer at the beginning of the 1974 season, and the duo had mixed results over the first dozen races of the season. Follmer was none too pleased when he learned of his release after less than half a season behind the wheel.

If Follmer's situation was a feel-rotten story, Billy Scott's opportunity was a feel-good story. For the second year in a row, Charlotte promoter Richard Howard gave fans an opportunity to vote for a deserving driver to get a shot at the big time. And for the second year in a row, Scott, a short-track regular of the Carolinas, got the fans' vote.

Scott got the opportunity to race a Howard-owned, Junior Johnson-prepared Chevrolet and was essentially a teammate of Cale Yarborough. He had two career Cup starts - both in the 600 and both because of his fan support. Scott raced the same Chevy Yarborough drove to the win in Bristol's Southeastern 500 two months earlier.

When the ballots were collected, Scott earned more fan votes than drivers such as Dick Trickle, Harry Gant, Richie Panch, Ray Hendrick, and Jody Ridley. Based on his limited Cup experience, his day was likely considered successful with a 22nd place starting spot and 24th place finish in the 40-car field.

When the green flag fell, the drivers barreled off into turn 1 on lap 41. Wait. What?? Because of the shortened distance, the first forty laps weren't scored. The race was officially 400 laps, but only 360 laps were raced.

The race was very competitive with different drivers taking their turn out front. When someone got the lead, he didn't keep it for long. Few led for more than just a few laps, and only a couple of times did a driver reach double-digits in laps led at a time. Pearson was the first to drag the field around the track for more than 20 consecutive laps when he hit lap 164.

Baker led several times during the first half of the race in his new ride. He surely had a big smile on his face as he had sights on winning the 600 for the third year in a row and with three different team (1972 with Petty Enterprises and 1973 with Nord Krauskopf). Engine failure, however, hit him in the second half of the race relegating him to a disappointing, 22nd place, DNF result.

Petty and Pearson controlled much of the race's second half with Yarborough leading several laps every now and again. The field was thinned by the exit of several drivers with mechanical problems.

With about 20 to go as Petty was leading, James Hylton puked a motor and soaked the track with oil. Pearson and Yarborough barreled through turn 4, and Pearson slid in the oil from Hylton's engine. He wiggled, skittered up the track, and bounced off Cale. The side-slap straightened Pearson's Mercury, but Cale wasn't so fortunate. He spun, hit the wall, and was done for the day.

Pearson set sail for Petty again after the race returned to green. With nine laps to go, Pearson's Mercury slipped by Petty's Dodge to take the lead. The #21 gapped the #43 a bit and took the checkers by about a half-second. Pearson's win was his first at Charlotte since his first career win in the 1961 World 600. The race was also the 48th of 63 times Petty and Pearson finished 1-2.

Coming to the line, veteran Bobby Allison nipped rookie Darrell Waltrip for third. Less than a decade later, the two of them would battle for the Winston Cup title for three consecutive seasons.

In the post-race interview, Pearson wryly answered a handful of questions from the media.
  • When asked if he believed he was quicker than Baker who led many laps in the first half of the race, Pearson replied "I must have been. I out-qualified him. Seriously, I thought he ran a strong race, maybe too strong."
  • Pearson was asked if he'd rather see Follmer or Baker in Moore's 15 in the weeks to come, and responded "I'll just say whoever is the slowest."
  • Gamesmanship with restarts seems to be a weekly theme in today's Cup racing. A few drivers bumper-banged each other coming to the start of the 1974 600, and they criticized Pearson for pacing a slow start. Pearson responded matter-of-factly "The man on the pole can start the race at any speed he wants."
Source: The Gaffney Ledger
The week was a clean sweep for the Pearson clan. David won the World 600 pole and Sunday race. On Saturday, his son Larry won a 15-lap Baby Grand National race by narrowly edging his father. They raced twin Mercury Capris. The race was planned by Bob Latford, track publicist. Later in 1974, Latford and a couple of others developed the points system used in Winston Cup from 1975 through 2003 when it was scrapped for the ever evolving Chase format.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

May 15, 1966 - Richmond 250

NASCAR's Grand National drivers rolled into Richmond's half-mile, fairgrounds dirt track on May 15, 1966 for a 250-lap race. The storylines of the season after about a third of it had been completed were:
  • Richard Petty's second win in three years in the Daytona 500
  • A four-race win streak by David Pearson in Cotton Owens' Dodge
  • The full-time return of the factory-supported Plymouth and Dodge teams 
  • A withdrawal of factory support for Ford teams after NASCAR endured a similar protest by Chrysler a season earlier.
Source: Free Lance Star via Google News Archive
Fans got a pleasant surprise during qualifying for the race. James Hylton qualified second, and future NASCAR pace car driver Elmo Langley timed third.

Ford's withdrawal of support for its marquis teams - namely Holman Moody and the Wood Brothers -  didn't mean, however, the absence of all Ford racers that season. Dave Fulton, simply a race fan at the time but a future employee of Paul Sawyer's Richmond Raceway, shared this memory from race day about an independent Ford driver who won the pole.
As a high school senior in Richmond, VA on May 15, 1966, Tiger Tom Pistone gave me and my buddies one of our most cherished NASCAR memories. On that spring Sunday, driving his powder blue #59 1964 Ford Galaxie, Tiger Tom blistered the old dirt half-mile Richmond Fairgrounds layout with a record, all-time, NASCAR Grand National qualifying speed of 70.978 mph - a record that stands to this very day and will never be broken. Only three more dirt races were run on the Richmond track before it was paved for the September 1968 GN race, and nobody ever again approached Tiger's one-lap speed record on the dirt.

To this day I feel privileged to tell folks that I saw Tiger Tom Pistone set a NASCAR track record that will never be broken on a track that I dearly loved. For those who never saw a NASCAR Grand National stock car kick up a roostertail of dirt as it slid sideways, you are part of the underprivileged NASCAR generation.
Tiger grabbed the lead as the green flag fell, and he kept his dual, four-barrel carb'd, independent Ford at the point for the the first 22 laps. Pearson then took the lead from Pistone, and it was pretty much his race to lose the rest of the way.

Pistone's top starting spot didn't help him in the long run. He burned a piston, and ended the day with a DNF and 16th place finish in the 30-car field. Like Pistone, Langley's starting position near the front didn't mean anything when the day was done. After racing for a while against King Richard, he lost a differential in his two-year old Ford. The final results showed Langley with a 17th place DNF - one spot behind Tiger.

After Pistone's 22 laps out front to begin the race, the day belonged to Pearson. He led 216 of the remaining 228 laps to capture his fifth win of the season.

Petty, who started tenth, hung around, but really offered no substantive competition to Pearson that day. He returned home to Level Cross with a second place finish, two laps down to the winner. By finishing two laps behind Pearson, it's tough to say Petty's second place finish was an almost win. The race was, however, the twelfth of 63 times the two drivers finished first and second.

Source: Free Lance Star via Google News Archive
Big thanks to Russ Thompson and Jerry Bushmire for sharing images from Stock Car Racing magazine.


Friday, April 29, 2016

Oldsmobile: Old School & New Life for Pettys

Twelve years ago - April 29, 2004 - the last Oldsmobile rolled off GM's assembly line. Oldsmobile was America's oldest automotive brand, and it was the second brand to roll into General Motors. Over the decades, however, the brand found itself as the red-headed stepchild of GM. It wasn't the most luxurious, cheapest, hippest, coolest, oldest, creative or any other adjective. It was solidly in the middle of the company's product offerings, and GM made the decision to shutter the brand.

Oldsmobile had its place in racing, particularly NASCAR. In the mid to late 1950s, Lee Petty fielded cars for himself and often other drivers. The race car of choice during that time was an Oldsmobile Delta 88. Other Petty drivers included the likes of Bill Lutz, Tiny Lund...

From Andy Towler at
...Bobby Myers (father of long-time Richard Childress Racing crewman Chocolate Myers)...

Final photo taken of Bobby Myers courtesy of Randy Myers
....and even Ralph Earnhardt.

Courtesy of Don Smyle / Smyle Media
Richard Petty's first career start at Columbia Speedway was in a hand-me-down Oldsmobile convertible. The remnants of what is believed to be the Olds that King drove in that first race in 1958 now resides in Memory Lane Museum in Mooresville, NC. It's also likely the car was the same Petty Olds raced by Billy Myers (Bobby's brother, Chocolate's uncle) to his final win in a convertible race at North Wilkesboro in 1958.

TMC Photo
The Pettys field a pair of Oldsmobiles in the first Daytona 500 in 1959. Richard entered an older Olds convertible, and Lee narrowly won the race in his new Olds hardtop.

Partway through the 1959 season, the Pettys became a full-time Plymouth team. In 1971, Petty Enterprises fielded a Dodge Charger for Buddy Baker while keeping the King in a Plymouth. In early 1972, the decision was made to move the 43 to a Dodge as well. The 43 stayed a Dodge through 1978 with Richard racing the 1974 Charger and the ill-fated 1978 Magnum.

Midway through 1978, the Dodge was no longer competetive. The Pettys made a logical - yet unpopular to many - decision to switch to Chevrolet. The team ran a purchased Monte Carlo the rest of the season until they could begin to build their own.

In the off-season, the team expanded its General Motors fleet beyond just the workhorse Monte Carlo. As previously blogged, a Caprice was built to run several of the short tracks. And for the superspeedways, the Pettys returned to the name brand with which Richard started: Oldsmobile.

Junior Johnson fielded the Olds Cutlass 442 for Cale Yarborough in 1978. By 1979, just about every GM team built one for the big tracks. Junior's team ran the 442 frequently, but most other teams raced it sparingly - primarily at tracks such as Daytona and Talladega.

1979 Daytona 500 - This race is perhaps the most well-known race for the 43 442. With a solid Petty blue hood and no STP oval because of an on-going financial chess match between STP and the Pettys, the newly built 442 won its debut race.

1979 Atlanta 500 - This 442 started and finished 11th with a one-time, unique look. The STP oval was back on the hood - but a small one. And a series of varying sized STP decals were applied to the quarter panels.

1979 Southeastern 500 - The 43 finished a strong 4th at Bristol in the first of only two short-track races for the 442.

Credit: Woody Delbridge
Credit: David Allio /
Courtesy of Ray Lamm
1979 Winston 500 - The car took a beating in this race at Talladega. A spin by Buddy Baker triggered a multi-car crash in which the majority of the top running cars were collected. Amazingly, most were able to continue and be competitive albeit with hundreds of yards of duct tape applied. The King brought home his mangled 442 to a P4 finish. A new deal had also been worked out with STP, and the 43 again sported a large STP oval on its hood.

1979 Mason-Dixon 500 - Petty's Olds was wiped out in lap 2 accident at Dover. The 442 finished 30th in the 31-car field. Richard was hurt badly enough that he needed relief help from Jimmy Insolo three races later in Riverside, California.

Credit: Lee Greenawalt
1979 Firecracker 400 - Though Petty wasn't able to sweep Daytona in 1979, he did back up his Daytona 500 win with a fifth place finish in the July 4th Firecracker race.

1979 Talladega 500 - The race earned double-chicken money for the Petty teams. Richard finished fourth in his Olds to match his P4 from the spring's Winston 500, and Kyle finished ninth in the Dodge Magnum in his debut Cup race.

After the second Talladega race, the Olds was parked in favor of the Monte Carlo and Caprice. The two Chevy cars were used in the stretch run as Richard successfully battled Waltrip for the championship. With his seventh title in the books, the team went back to work readying for 1980. The team went with what worked before, and they again prepared the 442 to defend their title at Daytona.

1980 Daytona 500 - This one was my first Daytona race to see in person. I watched from atop a small motorhome in the infield and was mesmerized by the brilliantly-bright, day-glo red despite the great distance from me to the track. Though King won the 500 for the 6th time in 1979 and his 7th and final time in 1981, my first trip wasn't a good day for the King or the Olds. After starting 4th, the 442 broke a clutch and Petty finished a disappointing 25th.

Adding insult to injury was that Kyle missed his first Daytona 500 after wrecking his hand-me-down Dodge Magnum in his 125-mile qualifier. The accident started when Nashville's Gary Baker spun and wrecked coming out of turn 4 in his #4  ...  Olds 442.

TMC Archives
1980 Winston 500 - The superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega were great to the 43 in 1979 with finishes of 1st and 5th at Daytona and a pair of P4s at Talladega. In 1980, the big tracks weren't quite as kind. After a 25th at Daytona, Richard finished 31st at Talladega after losing an engine in his Olds. Kyle (foreground) was back to working on his dad's pit crew.

Credit: Robert Turner
1980 Firecracker 400 - After a miserable first two races at the superspeedways, Richard finished a respectable fifth in Daytona's summer scorcher.

1980 Talladega 500 - The previous week at Pocono, Richard suffered a terrible crash in his Monte Carlo. He spun, backed into the wall hard, and was then t-boned by Darrell Waltrip. He walked away from the crash - but his face showed obvious pain. Folks learned later that Richard suffered broken vertebrae in his neck. Amazingly, the safety crew didn't stabilize the King's neck after taking him from the car.

Yet, the King soldiered on. He belted into the Olds at Talladega long enough to start the race. A midday rain shower benefited the team. The race was started under a green-yellow flag (laps count, speed doesn't - a NASCAR rule I truly disdain). Richard completed one official lap and was therefore credited with the race's driver points. As he neared completion of the second lap, the 43 hit pit road. Previous Petty driver and crewman Joe Millikan qualified the car fifth and then jumped into the Olds to race the full event. Unfortunately for Millikan, however, Maurice Petty's engine soured as it did in the spring at Talladega. The 442 finished 18th after completing only 154 of the race's 188 laps.

Source: SportingNews
1980 Old Dominion 500 - Kyle raced the Olds 442 at Martinsville in its second and last short-track race. He qualified 29th and finished 27th in his one and only career start in an Olds.

In the end, the Pettys won only one modern-era race in an Olds. Yet in my opinion, the 442 remains one of the best looking rides from the Level Cross shops in that era.

A year or so after Petty Enterprises moved to a 110-inch wheelbase Buick Regal on the track...

...I began learning how to drive... my parents' Oldsmobile...
...with a wheelbase far longer than 110 inches.

The car was a 1969 Oldsmobile Delta 88. The four-door sled had a 455 cubic inch engine. A true beast.

The Petty Olds? I miss it. My family's Delta 88? Ehh, not so much.

R.I.P. Oldsmobile


Saturday, April 16, 2016

April 16, 1978 - Gwyn Staley 400

NASCAR's Winston Cup drivers arrived in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina for the eighth race of the 1978 season - the Gwyn Staley 400.

A number of story lines existed as the teams prepared to race for 400 laps on the 5/8 mile track.
  • Two-time defending Cup champion, Cale Yarborough, let it be known he was back for a crack at a third consecutive title. He won the season-opener in Riverside, California and banked five Top 5 finishes in the season's first seven races.
  • Bobby Allison won two of the season's first seven races - including the Daytona 500 - in his new gig as the driver of Bud Moore's #15 Ford.
  • Dodge finally retired its venerable 1974 Charger body style. The King, Richard Petty, was now at the wheel of a Dodge Magnum. Rather than compete for wins as he'd done for several years with the Charger, Petty had opened the season with only a couple of top 5s along with some really dismal finishes.
  • Benny Parsons, the 1973 Cup champion and 1975 Daytona 500 winner, won two early season races at Richmond and Darlington.
A unique qualifying format was used for the race. The line-up was set by the average of two qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday. Parsons - who was from North Wilkesboro - had the quickest average over the two sessions. Darrell Waltrip timed second to join BP on the front row. Allison and Yarborough were side by side on the second row. Lennie Pond rounded out the top 5 starters in his #54 Harry Ranier Monte Carlo.

Twenty-nine drivers took the green flag. Not 43 - not 40 - not even 36. Just 29. Everyone was OK, and no one panicked about the state of the sport. Of course, Twitter, Facebook and FOX Sports RaceHub didn't exist back then either.

Credit: SaveTheSpeedway (Twitter)
Despite the strong start to 1978, Cale had a rough go of it at his car owner's home track. Junior Johnson took great pride in having his drivers compete for wins at Wilkesboro. He could not have been happy with engine issues in Cale's #11 Olds - especially with a DNF for the second race in a row.

Courtesy of David Staten
As with Richard Petty, Neil Bonnett's Harry Hyde-led Dodge team had changed to the Magnum. Following Yarborough's early exit, he returned to the pit area in street clothes to watch more of the race (in dark shirt and cowboy hat in following pic). Cale may have toted a black cloud around his head that day because Bonnett soon fell out of the race with engine issues of his own.

Courtesy of David Staten
Though Petty's Magnum piled up several bad finishes and DNFs, the 43 was surprisingly strong at Wilkesboro. The fact the driver's performance was strong, however, was no surprise. With 15 wins at the track, King Richard knew how to hustle a car around it.

Petty, Parsons and Darrell Waltrip split time at the front of the field almost evenly. The bulk of Waltrip's lead laps, however, came in the final hundred laps of the race. He passed Petty and pulled the field around for almost 70 consecutive laps.

Credit: SaveTheSpeedway (Twitter)
Waltrip gained a one-lap lead with about 70 laps to go when Petty made a pit stop. The King and his crew battled, however, to back get on the lead lap. He made up much of the ground, but a last lap caution caused by D.K. Ulrich allowed Waltrip to cruise to the the checkers and the win. Pole-winning Parsons hung tough, but he could only muster a third place finish - one lap down to Waltrip and Petty.

Credit: David Allio of Racing Photo Archives
The victory was Waltrip's second consecutive win at Wilkesboro and second of the season (first one coming at Bristol). When his career was done, he had piled up twenty-two wins just at those two tracks. Waltrip was met in victory lane by crew chief Buddy Parrott. Coincidentally, Parrott went to victory lane six years later with Petty at Daytona following his 200th career win.

Credit: SaveTheSpeedway (Twitter)
Petty's P2 matched the best finish of 1978 for the ill-fated, much maligned Magnum. He got another second place a couple of months later in the second road course race of the season at Riverside. By the summer, however, he'd had enough. The Dodge was dumped in favor of Chevrolet.