Saturday, February 2, 2019

The King was Fond of Pond

A recent birthday advanced me to the year of Lennie Pond.

Richard Petty and Lennie Pond struck a friendship somewhere during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Pond traveled from time to time to Level Cross during his late model sportsman years to buy parts from the Petty shop in Level Cross. His visits and success on Virginia shorts tracks caught King's eye. Lennie eventually moved to NASCAR's Winston Cup ranks with encouragement from the Pettys.

Credit: Donald Evans
In 1978, Petty and Pond helped one another in a relief role in multiple races.

In the Southeastern 500 at Bristol, both Petty and Pond were involved in an early race accident along with Darrell Waltrip and Roland Wlodyka. Petty parked his Dodge Magnum, but Ranier Racing patched Pond's #54 Chevy well enough to continue. The car had staying power, but Pond had a tough time remaining in the seat. The King took over and rallied the car to a top 5 running position. Pond later returned to his car and maintained the track position gained by Petty to finish fifth.

Credit: David Allio / RacingPhotoArchives
When the tour returned to Bristol for its inaugural night race, the two drivers reversed roles. Six days earlier at Michigan, Petty debuted his new STP Chevrolet. His first start, however, resulted in a late race wall pounding. The team borrowed a car from Henley Gray for Bristol, and King did his best to race with a battered ribcage. After Pond fell out 100 laps into the race, he took over the 43 in relief. Pond helped the borrowed ride finish fifth - coincidentally just as Petty did in Pond's car in the spring race.

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Before joining the Cup ranks full-time, Pond came *this close* to being at the wheel of a Petty car in the 1970 Daytona 500. Kinda. Maybe.

The Petty team was a Plymouth stalwart from 1960 through 1968. The racing community was stunned in late November 1968, however, when Petty Enterprises announced a switch to Ford for 1969. During the one-year run with Ford Motor Company, the team sold a 1968 Plymouth to another Virginian, Don Robertson.

Robertson partnered with another independent driver and fellow commonwealther, Jabe Thomas, to race the 1969 schedule with the Plymouth acquired from the Pettys. The car was painted slate blue and gold, and Thomas started and finished a respectable 14th at Daytona.

Robertson planned to field a second Plymouth in the 1970 Daytona 500, and he originally slotted James Cox to drive it. Cox raced eight times for Robertson in 1969, and Robertson apparently submitted Cox's name on the entry blank for the 500.

While it isn't known which car, if either, was the former Petty Plymouth, the paint on the cars does provide a suggestive clue. Thomas' #25 Plymouth arrived at Daytona painted red and gold.

The second Robertson #23 Plymouth, however, bore the base slate blue that Thomas raced a year earlier. Though the car number, gold accents, and sponsor lettering differed, the blue and gold suggest the second car may have been the Petty Plymouth.

A couple of weeks before Speedweeks, a friend urged Pond to call Thomas about the possibility of racing at Daytona for his second career Grand National start. After discussions with Robertson, all decided Pond would be a good choice to race Robertson's second Plymouth over Cox.

Source: Petersburg Progress Index
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NASCAR's 1966 Rookie of the Year, James Hylton, had also been a Mopar man in his three Grand National seasons. In the off-season before 1970, however, he sold his Dodge equipment and bought a used Holman Moody Ford previously raced by David Pearson.

Misfortune struck Hylton when he wrecked his Ford during a practice session on Monday before the Daytona 500. The damage was significant enough that Hylton realized his crew couldn't repair it in time for the race.

Robertson and Thomas knew of Hylton's problem - and that he had more experience than Pond. Unlike Lennie, Hylton was a full-time driver chasing points for the Grand National title.

As a nice gesture, Robertson turned the #23 Plymouth over to Hylton for the 125-mile qualifying race. Hylton finished 11th and earned the car a starting spot in the 500. Robertson then withdrew Cox's name as the official driver, substituted Hylton, and kept Lennie on the sideline. Hylton was obviously grateful for the opportunity to race, but he felt somewhat awkward knowing the ride had been promised to Pond.

When the day was done, Hylton finished 22nd in the 500 with teammate Thomas a few spots back in 25th. Cox's opinion about being removed from the car are unknown, and it's not clear if he even went to Daytona.

Though circumstances resulted in Pond's losing the opportunity to race in his first Daytona 500 in 1970, he soldiered on with his late model sportsman career. He moved to Winston Cup in 1973, ran the majority of the races, and narrowly won NASCAR's Rookie of the Year honor over Darrell Waltrip.

That season, Pond finally got behind the wheel of a Petty car for the first time when he relieved the King during the Southern 500 at Darlington.


Friday, January 25, 2019

History Springs Back to Level Cross

The King, Richard Petty, is unarguably the most successful individual in NASCAR history. His record in totality is unmatched: 200 wins, seven titles, 127 poles, over 500 top five finishes in nearly 1,200 starts, and a first-year inductee to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

That success, however, included some tough accidents and injuries as well including:
  • 1961 Daytona: Sailing over the wall during his 100-mile qualifying race for the Daytona 500.
  • 1970 Darlington: Pounding the turn four wall and then nailing the pit wall during the 1970 Rebel 400.
  • 1978 Daytona: Walloping the earthen berm in the 1978 IROC race followed by a savage lick a few days later in the Daytona 500.
  • 1988 Daytona: Flipping against the catchfence during the Daytona 500.
  • 1991 Sonoma: A head-on hit with the concrete wall and tire barrier during the Banquet Frozen Foods 300. 
Another accident that really took the wind out of the King's cape occurred during Pocono's Coca-Cola 500 on July 27, 1980. 

As Petty sailed into turn two, his right front wheel broke sending  him on a direct trajectory to the wall. After the first lick, the STP Monte Carlo ricocheted into the air for a moment before landing hard. Chuck Bown spun to avoid him, but Darrell Waltrip had nowhere to go and centerpunched the driver's side door.

The King exited the car in obvious pain.Interestingly, rescue crews didn't bother putting a neck brace on him or lay him on a backboard. He simply limped to the ambulance with his head tossed back and agony on his face.

Petty returned one week later to start the Talladega 500. Little clinical information was released beyond his having a sore neck. The truth, however, was King had fractured his neck in the crash. Though it was common in that era - and perhaps for another 25 years or so - for drivers to race hurt, King's willingness and ability to belt into the car with a broken neck was remarkable.

Back to Pocono though. The hit destroyed the right front of the car - and Petty's opportunity to notch his eighth Cup championship. 

Long-time Petty fan and licensed paramedic, Brian Hauck, attended the race that day. He occasionally assisted the medical response team for Pocono's Indy Car races; however, he chose not to do so for Cup races so he could watch as a fan.

Hauck, therefore, had no choice but to watch the track's medical crew work on his favorite driver from a distance and ask around about his condition later.

When he returned to work Monday, he was still uncertain about King's condition - and bent about the casual way the medical staff handled his neck. Meanwhile, a co-worker began holding court with stories about his weekend trip to the Pocono race. Hauck's ears perked up when he heard the co-worker mention having a piece from Petty's car.

As medical crews attended to Petty and safety crews cleaned the track, Hauck's co-worker foolishly (?) sprinted from his infield position onto the track and retreated hastily with the 43's right front coil spring. 

Hauck apparently all but demanded the guy turn over the spring - but got a hell no in return. Some time later, the guy left the company. Hauck fumed he didn't get the spring, and he lost contact with the guy to boot.

In 2018, a mutual friend reconnected the former co-workers. Hauck knew the first question he had to ask - Do you still have that spring? Sure enough, the guy still had it. With the passage of time, he was also willing to part with it for the right reason and to the right person. After nearly 40 years, the coil spring changed hands.

Once Hauck got the spring last October, I received a series of texts and photos from him about it along with a single request: Don't mention this to anyone for now

On January 24, 2019 - Hauck's birthday - he celebrated a bit differently. Instead of receiving a gift, he gave one. After driving from his home in Trenton, New Jersey to North Carolina, he presented the spring to an unsuspecting Petty and Dale Inman. 

Both immediately recognized what Hauck had and couldn't believe he was willing to return it to Level Cross. Inman in particular was flabbergasted the spring still existed. He mentioned the team looked for it in the turn area after the race but never found it. He noted that particular spring had been a good one for set-ups in 1979-80 and joked "I was more concerned about finding that spring than I was Richard's neck."

Initially, King thought Hauck may want his umpteenth autograph to tie to the spring. Once he realized the spring was again his, he held onto it during the remainder of their conversation.

As Hauck wrapped up his visit, King placed the spring atop the Monte Carlo on display in the Petty Museum until a more permanent exhibit spot can be arranged for it.


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Nashville's 1977 Permatex Southern 400

The last Late Model Sportman race of the 1977 season at Nashville Speedway was the 19th Southern 400 on Sunday, October 2nd. Coincidentally, the race was also the final Southern 400 - a tradition dating back to its first running in 1958.

Locally, Steve Spencer was the story of the track's season. Spencer won five features and claimed Nashville's LMS title.

Fans also witnessed the first career late model wins for rising stars Sterling Marlin and Dennis Wiser. Both were part of the highly touted Kiddie Corps along with Mike Alexander and P.B. Crowell III. Alexander and Crowell scored their first victories in 1976, but  Marlin and Wiser needed the extra season before finding victory lane. Coincidentally, Spencer later became the personal pilot for Marlin.

Butch Lindley, 1974 Southern 400 winner and NASCAR's 1977 national Late Model Sportsman championship leader, captured the pole on the first day of qualifying. Rival and good friend Harry Gant timed second in his Buick. Marlin laid down the third quickest lap followed by two-time Southern winner (1970 |1975) L.D. Ottinger and Alexander.

After Friday's qualifying, out-of-town teams towed their cars to local motels. Someone hotwired Gant's truck that night and swiped the truck, trailer, race car, and parts. Though the truck was found in Alabama, everything was missing from it.

Gant borrowed a back-up car from Lindley on the second day of qualifying. His luck, however, went from bad to worse. The throttle hung during a practice lap, and Gant pummeled the wall. The car was destroyed, Gant withdrew from the race, and he headed home wondering about his racing future.

An unseasonably chilly, blustery, fall day helped keep the crowds away on race day. After years of drawing upwards of 15,000 fans, an estimated crowd of only 5,000 arrived to watch what turned out to be the final Southern 400.

With Gant's withdrawal, Marlin moved to the front row to join pole winner Lindley.

After many years of late race drama, the 1977 Southern delivered little. Cars continually fell by the wayside, and the dominant driver felt little pressure up front.

Track champion Spencer started eighth but fell out of the race on lap 23. Marlin launched from second but loaded after 70 laps. Kiddie Corps member Dennis Wiser elevated his car to an impressive second, but he popped the wall on lap 144.

Many of the out-of-towners fared about as poorly. Bob Pressley was wiped out in a lap 61 accident, and Ottinger lost an engine on lap 85. Randy Tissot and Larry Utsman clocked out early as well. When the day was done, about half of the 32-car field's starters were out of the race.

Alexander won only two 30-lap features in his sophomore season, but his #84 Harpeth Ford-sponsored Cougar went the distance in the Southern 400. As others had issues, Alexander ran smoothly and consistently. When the checkered flag fell, Alexander returned home with a P2 - a far better result than his 31st place DNF a year earlier.

No one had anything for the pole winner, Butch Lindley. All day long, Lindley's Nova was the car to beat. Alexander gave it his best shot, but it wasn't nearly enough. Lindley eased around the track lap after lap and topped Alexander by about a lap and a half.

Butch Applegate finished third followed by Tony Formosa, Jr. in his first LMS start. Today, Formosa is the leaseholder and promoter of Fairgrounds Speedway.

Mike Beam, later a crew chief in NASCAR's top divisions, was a Lindley crewman in 1977 and recalled:
Rick Townsend and I got into a fight during the race about if we wanted to put a 42 treaded tire on the RR or a 46 slick. Butch wanted to pit, but Gene Petty told him he couldn't pit because his pit crew were fist fighting. Butch thought it was funny. Next caution, we pitted and put the 42 on RR and won the race. Rick won the coin toss on which one to put on. After the race when they were taking this picture, we were all friends again much to Butch's amusement. - from Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
A few weeks later, Lindley formally wrapped up his first NASCAR national LMS title. He repeated as champion in 1978. Though he made a handful of Cup starts, most of his success came in the LMS and later Busch / Xfinity Series. In April 1985, Lindley was critically injured in a late model race in Florida and lapsed into a coma. He passed away five years later.

Promoter Bill Donoho felt awful about Gant's misfortune. After working through a couple of scheduling challenges, he finally arranged a Harry Gant Benefit night in April 1978. The idea was to provide proceeds from the night to help offset some of Gant's financial loss. Perhaps as expected because of who he is, Gant politely declined the generous offer.

As noted earlier, 1977 was the final year for the Southern 400. The NASCAR-sanctioned Southern returned in October 1978 as a LMS race, but it was only 200 laps and the preliminary companion event for the Marty Robbins World Open 500.

Jody Ridley won over a sparse field in a final Southern 200 in 1979, originally scheduled as a companion event to the third year of the Marty Robbins race. The Robbins event was canceled, however, because of a scheduling conflict with another major race in Wisconsin.
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Bill Donoho's multi-year effort to construct a Nashville-area superspeedway fell apart in late 1977. Then after denying the track was for sale in spring 1978, Donoho announced the sale of his interest in the track's lease to Lanny Hester and Gary Baker in December 1978. These two events plus the challenge of scheduling the Robbins Open may have led to reducing the Southern's distance and stature on the '78 schedule.

Hester and Baker acquired Bristol a year earlier, and they began making radical changes at Nashville in 1979. Three of the most notable changes included a one-year cancellation of weekly racing, the adoption of a Grand American division and elimination of the Late Model Sportsman cars, and the permanent cancellation of the historic Southern 400.

A new tradition began in 1981 with the All American 400. Rather than have the race tied to NASCAR's national Late Model Sportsman division, the new race (billed as the "Civil War on Wheels") brought together racers from NASCAR, All Pro Series, and ASA.

Source for articles: The Tennessean


Thursday, October 25, 2018

Nashville's 1976 Permatex Southern 400

The 18th annual Southern 400 on October 3, 1976, closed the season at Nashville Speedway - a season that brought a changing of the guard.

The early 1970s late model sportsman races at Nashville were dominated by Darrell Waltrip. Other drivers who won features from time to time included Flookie Buford, Alton Jones, Jerry Lawley, James Ham, and Jimmy Means. Waltrip, however, stockpiled 50 feature wins from 1970 through 1975.

Once Waltrip joined DiGard's #88 Gatorade Cup ride in late 1975, his schedule at the Fairgrounds all but ended (except for Nashville's two annual Cup events). His departure created an opportunity for others.

The timing was optimal for the arrival of the Kiddie Corps in 1976. Four teenage drivers - three of them LMS rookies - made an immediate splash with fans. A couple of them had a rich future ahead of them in racing beyond Nashville.
  • P.B. Crowell, III - 1975 LMS rookie of the year and son of the long-time Nashville car owner and driver
  • Mike Alexander - son of long-time Nashville car owner and sponsor, R.C. Alexander, and graduate of Nashville's quarter-mile limited sportsman division
  • Sterling Marlin - son of four-time Nashville track champion and independent Cup driver, Coo Coo Marlin
  • Dennis Wiser - another limited sportsman graduate and son of long-time Nashville mechanic Kenneth Wiser
L-R: Wiser, Marlin, Alexander, and Crowell
Alexander won 10 features in his rookie season, and Crowell won six races as a second-season racer. Though Marlin and Wiser didn't win until 1977, the two of them along with Alexander and Crowell planned to be contenders in the longest late model race of the season.

In addition to the local shoes, the Southern 400 again drew some big names for the field. Out-of-town aces expected for the race included former Cup driver and 1970 NASCAR champion Bobby Isaac, Harry Gant, two-time and defending Southern 400 winner L.D. Ottinger, three-time national LMS champion Jack Ingram, and 1974 Southern 400 winner Butch Lindley.

From TMC Archives
Isaac hoped for better results than in his previous Southern effort. Simply making the field would accomplish that goal. Car owner Ellis Cook provided a car for Isaac for the 1973 Southern 400. Isaac could not get the needed speed out of the Chevelle during time trials and failed to qualify for the race.

Gant's first Nashville race was in the 1970 Southern 300, and he developed a knack for the track in the years to follow. He won three 200-lap LMS races at Nashville over 1975-1976 - including the Spirit of '76 200 just a few months earlier.

Ottinger towed from East Tennessee to Music City for several big races during the 1970s. He won the first Southern 300 on Nashville's short-lived, high banks configuration. L.D. also took the checkered flag in the World Service Life 200 three weeks before the Southern. During post-race tech, however, officials learned Ottinger's Chevelle had mysteriously lost a good bit of weight. He was disqualified, and Alexander inherited the win.

Ingram raced regularly in the 1970s Southerns. After initially planning to race in the 1976 edition, he made a late decision to opt out of it because of a Nashville connection.

Charlotte's World Service Life 300 was scheduled for October 9 - the week after the Southern. Alexander's win in Nashville's World Service Life 200 earned him a spot in Charlotte's invitational race. Because of a lack of experience, limited prep time, and college class obligations, Alexander declined the invitation.

The invitation was then extended to Ingram who chose to pass on the Southern 400 to prepare for Charlotte's 300. As it turns out, Ingram could have raced in both as the World Service Life 300 was twice postponed by rain until October 23.
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After attempting a one-day show in 1975, the Speedway returned to a three-day event in 1976. Ottinger sloughed off his DQ from three weeks earlier and won the pole for the Southern. Gant timed second to start on the front row alongside L.D.

The next three starting spots belonged to the local racers Crowell, Steve Spencer, and '76 track champion Alton Jones. In a far more successful effort than in 1973, Isaac qualified tenth.

In a bit of a stunner, Lindley blew an engine during qualifying. Without a replacement (or perhaps a rule prohibiting an engine change), Lindley had to withdraw from the race. With Gant making the race and Lindley going home early, the two would swap spots in the point standings behind leader Ottinger.
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With no real surprises during the second day of qualifying, the 34-car field was set for the Sunday afternoon start. Within a few laps, however, fans saw the first incident that somewhat set the tone for the rest of the race.

A six-car accident ended the day for Alexander. Crowell was also involved though he continued. He made repeated trips to the pits for additional repairs, however, and parked it after 132 laps.

Ottinger and Spencer both qualified well, but both were done by lap 60 with engine issues. Ottinger later took over in relief for fellow Newport, TN driver Jack Hill.

Isaac made the show, but that is about all that went well for him. Driving his own car rather than one provided for him, Isaac struggled with it throughout the first half of race. After losing three laps because of the problems and attempted fixes, Isaac finally loaded it up for the ride home at lap 190.

As the race proceeded through its second half, eighteen of the race's 34 starters crashed or fell out of the event. With many of the top cars sidelined, Gant piled up lap after lap as the leader and easily built a two-lap cushion over second place Hill (with Ottinger at the wheel).

Gant had a double-gulp, Oh Crap! moment with sixteen laps to go. His crew missed fuel mileage calculations a bit, and Gant ran dry with the two lap lead. He pulled low and coasted to the pits to get a splash.

With a fresh few gallons to last the difference, Gant's car then would not refire. Meanwhile, Ottinger continued at speed. The crew was finally able to get the #77 car to restart, and off he went to lead the remaining laps and claim the win.

Randy Tissott finished third, and the local rookies - Marlin and Wiser - had solid finishes of fourth and sixth, respectively.

From TMC Archives
Source for articles: The Tennessean


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Nashville's 1975 Permatex Southern 400

The Southern 300 / 400 races at Nashville Speedway were historically scheduled for late September or early October. Track promoter Bill Donoho decided in early 1975 that he wanted to host the race before the annual Tennessee State Fair rather than after it as had been done since 1958. Consequently, the 17th annual Southern 400 was scheduled for August 30, 1975.

As a result of the change, the Southern 400 was no longer the season-ending late model race as had been the case most years. The week after the Southern, the track scheduled the inaugural Bob Hunley 100 in memory of the former driver killed at the speedway in 1972. Then following the state fair, the Fairgrounds planned to run three October Saturday nights of regular feature races.

In addition to moving up the race by a month, the 1975 Southern 400 was scheduled to be the first one run under the lights on a Saturday night. All others had been scheduled for Sunday afternoons.

A third change in 1975 was to make the event a one-day show with qualifying, a limited sportsman preliminary race, and the 400 lap LMS event all on Saturday. Two days of qualifying were gone as were consolation races.
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Jack Ingram won the 1973 Southern 400 and three consecutive NASCAR national late model sportsman titles. As happened with three-time national champion Red Farmer, however, the grind of chasing another title had become a bit more than Ingram wanted to invest.

In the pre-Busch Series era, a driver willing to pursue the national title had to race seemingly everywhere. Races on back-to-back days often required an overnight tow from the first race. In some cases, national points were available at more than one event on the same day. Performing at a high level and keeping the competition at bay while running as many events as possible took a high toll on the individual as well as his equipment, limited crew, family, etc.

Yet with six career victories at Nashville and the prestige of the Southern 400 on the line, Ingram opted to include the the race on his somewhat reduced schedule.

As Ingram cracked the throttle on his pursuit of a fourth tittle, Harry Gant still had his foot buried. Though he trailed Butch Lindley in the national standings, he continued the pressure by racing everywhere, winning frequently, and accumulating points.

Part of Gant's success in 1975 - including wins in two of Nashville's four 200-lap events - resulted from his car built by racing legend Tiger Tom Pistone. Still active today at age 89, Pistone remained in racing long after his driving days ended. He built cars, served as crew chief for various drivers, and championed the cause of several up-and-comers.

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Lindley, winner of the 1974 Southern 400 and the national points leader, kept the Big Mo rolling by winning the pole for the 1975 edition.

For the second time in three years, Alabama's Alton Jones qualified on the front row alongside the pole winner. Jones claimed the track's LMS title a year later in 1976. Two-time Southern winner L.D. Ottinger, Gant, and local rookie P.B. Crowell III rounded out the top five starters.

Other name drivers in the show included Ingram, Neil Bonnett in a Bobby Allison-prepared Nova, 1974 Nashville track champion Jimmy Means, and Nashville legend turned Cup racer Darrell Waltrip.

Waltrip had a hectic weekend schedule traveling back and forth between Nashville and Darlington. In Nashville, he needed to shake down a new Mercury Cougar fielded by long-time owner/sponsor R.C. Alexander. Similarly in Darlington, DW prepared for the Southern 500 Cup race in only his third outing with DiGard Racing.

Late summer showers arrived after completion of qualifying, and the race was postponed until Sunday. Only one Southern 300 (1963: blog post) had been rained out prior to the 1975 edition. The rain-out also scuttled plans for the first night Southern. Thus, the Sunday afternoon tradition continued.

Lindley got the jump on Jones and the rest of the field as the race got underway on Sunday. A year earlier, Lindley had a strong car; however, his dominant second half run was aided by DNFs by his strongest competition. He planned to control his own destiny in the 1975 Southern.

Waltrip settled into a rhythm of his own in Alexander's #84 Cougar. As Lindley played the rabbit, Waltrip and Ol' Henry rode comfortably in the top five. Something went amiss, however, on lap 71. For the third year in a row, the 1972 Southern 300 winner and two-time track champion left the race early. Rather than make a hasty exit for Darlington's Labor Day race, Waltrip remained at the track.

A couple of  drivers needed an assist as the raced entered its final stages. Ottinger developed significant back pain and finally surrendered his car to Waltrip around lap 300. A few laps later, Ironman Jack Ingram needed relief from Joe Thurman.

Meanwhile, Lindley built a full-lap lead over second place as he headed for his second Southern 400 win. With 30 laps to go, however, disaster struck. Lindley puked a motor in his Nova, and he coasted helplessly to the pits.

Waltrip made up the lap deficit and soon had Ottinger's Chevelle in the lead. He led the remaining laps and took the checkered flag over Ingram's car.

Ottinger officially claimed the win, his second Southern, and his second win at Nashville in 1975. (He won the season-opening Winston 200 in April.) Coincidentally, Ottinger finished second in Waltrip's first Nashville win, the 1970 Flameless 300. Bonnett finished third followed by Crowell and Gant.

As the driver who crossed the finish line first headed to Darlington, the winning driver in street clothes loaded his Chevelle for the haul back to Newport, TN.

The 1975 Southern 400 was the the only one held in August. The race returned to its traditional post-state fair scheduling in 1976 and 1977. Also, none of the remaining Southern races were scheduled for a Saturday night.

Alton Jones won the Bob Hunley memorial 100-lap race the following Saturday night. Challenging weather and deteriorating track conditions resulted, however, in the cancellation of the remaining three October nights of racing. Walter Wallace won his second track LMS title over Jimmy Means who sought his second title in back-to-back years.

Source for articles: The Tennessean


Thursday, October 18, 2018

Nashville's 1974 Permatex Southern 400

From 1958 through 1973, Nashville's racing facility was known simply as Fairground Speedways. The property was renamed Nashville Speedway in 1974, and the new moniker remained through 1978.

The name seemed new to many and certainly highlighted the city's name. The former, generic fairgrounds label could be used to refer to many other tracks around the country. 

After Lanny Hester and Gary Baker took over from Bill Donoho as leaseholders and promoters in December 1978, they renamed their newly acquired property Nashville International Raceway. In the years to follow with a turnstile of new promoters, the track went through additional name changes including Nashville Motor Raceway and Music City Motorplex. Today, the track's name under promoter Tony Formosa, Jr. reflects the facility's origins albeit with an alternate ending "s": Fairgrounds Speedway.

In other ways, however, the change to Nashville Speedway was a bit of a throwback. Prior to opening the fairgrounds track, promoter Bill Donoho and his partners operated a quarter-mile track near East Nashville. Most referred to the track by its original name, the Legion Bowl. By the late 1950s, however, the track was formally named Nashville Speedways.

In addition to getting a fresh name, the walls got a fresh look as well. Gone was the traditional black and white pattern.With the increased support for Cup and local racing from R.J. Reynolds, the walls were repainted red and white to match RJR's Winston branding.
Credit for both photos: Russ Thompson
Despite the name and paint changes, one song that remained the same was the running of the season-ending, 16th annual Southern 400 on September 29th.

Though the race's schedule placement did not change, the distance almost did. Before the season began, Donoho planned to extend the race one hundred laps to create Nashville's own version of the Southern 500. The race would have been the longest on Nashville's schedule - including its two Winston Cup races.

In response to the nation's energy crisis, NASCAR's Bill France Sr. asked its sanctioned tracks to make measurable cuts as a visible effort to conserve energy. In addition to various other changes, Donoho opted to reduce the Southern by one hundred laps rather than increase it.

Cutting the race would have returned the Southern to 300 laps, the traditional length from 1959 through 1972. For reasons that aren't clear, however, the decision was made later to restore the Southern back to 400 laps.
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Jack Ingram captured the pole during qualifying. Ingram was the defending winner of the Southern 400 as well as the reigning NASCAR national Late Model Sportsman champion.

Darrell Waltrip qualified second. After four seasons driving Chevelle's for owners P.B. Crowell and Ellis Cook, Waltrip moved to R.C. Alexander's Ford in 1974. In doing so, he reversed his former number 48 to Alexander's 84.

Butch Lindley began racing at Nashville in 1974 and liked his results. He won a 200-lapper and finished runner-up to Waltrip in a 100-lap event. Having gained a bit of familiarity with the track, he timed third.

Freddy Fryar returned for another shot at his third Southern and had the fourth quickest lap. Fryar was the only driver in the field with a chance at a third victory as other two-time winners Jimmy Griggs, Friday Hassler, and Red Farmer were not entered.

Top starters Ingram, Waltrip, Lindley, and Fryar
Twin 30-lap qualifying races set the remainder of the 34-car field. L.D.Ottinger and Flookie Buford won the heat races and lined up fifth and sixth, respectively.
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The track offered drivers an incentive to compete for the lead in addition to a healthy winner's purse. Drivers earned $10 for each lap led as a result of support from varying race sponsors.

Though the amount per lap sounds low by today's standards, the lap bonuses caught the drivers' eyes. One could pad the regular race dollars by spending a lot of time up front. Taking a chunk of the extra $4,000 could help pay for tires, travel expenses, or other costs.
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At the start, Waltrip fired off just as he did a year earlier. In the 1973 Southern, Waltrip got the early jump on pole-winner Randy Bethea. A year later though in a different car, Waltrip grabbed the same advantage over Ingram.

Once out front, Waltrip did as Waltrip frequently did at Nashville: lead. He led close to thirty of the first fifty laps and seemed to have the right combination to win his second Southern.

On lap 51, however, Waltrip lost a cylinder and had to park it. He went from having an early command of the race to getting a head start home to Franklin.

Waltrip's departure followed the early exit by a couple of other name drivers. Ottinger hit the wall on lap 11 and finished dead last. Jimmy Means, Nashville's 1974 late model sportsman champion, followed Ottinger to the trailer a few laps later.

With Waltrip and Ottinger sidelined, Fryar reminded the field he still knew how to race in Nashville despite two track re-configurations. He led 131 laps in the middle stages of the race, but his return to Music City ended with suspension issues and a subsequent visit to the wall on lap 245.

Two contenders remained following Fryar's exit: Ingram and Lindley. Ingram led a few dozen laps, but it was Lindley who racked up one ten spot after another as the race continued its second half.

With 120 laps to go, Ingram gained the advantage over Lindley during a pit sequence. Both roared back into action, and Ingram had his hands full with Lindley's #16 red Chevelle in hot pursuit.

As the duo barreled through turns one and two, Buford lost an engine in front of them. Ingram caught the oil and drilled Buford. He continued, but his car suffered a good bit of damage. Lindley saw the problem unfolding, dropped low, and sailed by without incident.

Though Ingram stayed in the race, he was no longer a factor and faded to a sixth place finish. Lindley led the rest of the way, collected $1,900 of the $4,000 lap money, and pocketed his second Nashville win of the season.

Most of the photos in this post were snapped by Russ Thompson, long-time racing fan, participant, and Nashville racing historian. I recommend viewing more of his pictures from the 1974 Southern 400 here.

Source for articles: The Tennessean