Friday, September 30, 2011

September 30 - This day in Petty history - part 2

1970 - Richard Petty wins his 117th career Grand National race and the final NASCAR Grand National race run on dirt - the Home State 200 in Raleigh, NC. He drives a Plymouth owned by Don Robertson - not Petty Enterprises - to a two-lap victory over second place driver Neil Castles.

In October 2010, the governor of North Carolina presented an historical marker to recognize the fairgrounds track as the site of the final Grand National dirt race. (Despite what the sign says, I'm all but certain this race was not the final NASCAR dirt race.)

As the Petty team began to look towards 1971 and an all-asphalt series, a Plymouth was sold to Robertson who fielded cars sporadically - primarily for Jabe Thomas. Because Richard still needed to race on the dirt at Raleigh, the team rented back the car for this event though it was still officially entered under Robertson's name.

In May 2010, writer Rick Houston interviewed Petty as part of a series on each of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees. At the end of the interview, he asked him about Don Robertson as a favor for me.
RP: They were boys out of somewhere in Virginia. What we did, we sold the car to Jabe Thomas and at that time, they was going to mostly asphalt tracks. Wasn't but two or three dirt tracks a year, so we didn't even have a dirt track car. So what we'd do ... we did it two or three different times ... we'd go borrow his car, bring it back to the shop.

RH: Are we talking about Jabe Thomas or Don Robertson here?

RP: This guy (Robertson) owned Jabe's car. So we'd borrow the car back. We'd put a new engine in the thing, put all new suspension and just refurbish it, just like we would our car. Then, we didn't pay him anything for borrowing the car, but when he got the car back, he had a brand-new motor with one race on it, had brand-new spindles, hubs, rear ends, axles. He had a brand-new car again ... we won a couple of races. We borrowed it a couple, three times and I know we won two races with it. But it was one of our cars.
In his book, Silent Speedways of the Carolinas, Perry Allen Wood laments:
Instead of hats and horns and some sort of fanfare worthy of a truly landmark event, NASCAR let the era of the dirt track slip away for good on Wednesday night, September 30, 1970. About 6,000 race fans witnessed that last battle on the dirt and what a shame it was...It is a real shame that everybody and his brother did not try to run that last scheduled dirt race...The Home State 200 itself was an anti-climax to 21 years of great dirt track history. Big John Sears took the pole and led early. Then Benny Parsons paced the pack over the next 89 laps until Petty got out front and it was all over...Then they loaded up the trucks and trailers and literally left NASCAR's heritage in the dust. (pp. 150-151)
For many years, Petty 'wrote' a column for the monthly Stock Car Racing magazine. In a September 2009 column, he wrote about the legacy of dirt racing in NASCAR's Grand National series. Here are some excerpts from the column about the final dirt race at Raleigh:
... John Sears, a drivers dirt track racer, won the pole and led the first 10 laps. Then Benny Parsons took the lead and led from lap 11 through lap 88. I took over on lap 89 and led the rest of the race, which was through lap 200. I think I averaged about 68 miles per hour. Neil Castles finished second, Bobby Isaac third, James Hylton fourth, and Cecil Gordon fifth. Bobby Allison finished sixth.

Now, I want to tell you something about how we won the race. At Petty Enterprises we didn't have a car built exclusively for dirt track racing. We were running the Plymouth SuperBird on the big speedways and the regular Plymouths on the paved short tracks. But we remembered selling driver Jabe Thomas and team owner Don Robertson a '69 Plymouth built for dirt track racing, or let's say it was better suited for dirt than anything we had to race at our shop. So what we did was borrow that car from Jabe and Don. We put one of our engines in the car and won the race. Then we returned it to Jabe and Don and left our engine in the car as a payment.

The other two dirt track races that year were at Columbia Speedway in Columbia, SC. That track was as hard as asphalt. We ran the first race at Columbia that year on April 30. We did the same car-borrowing then. That was the first time we borrowed our old car back from Jabe and Don. We were lucky enough to win that race too. Bobby Allison finished second and Bobby Isaac third. Neil Castles ran fourth and James Hylton fifth.

We did the same thing after the win too. We turned the car back over to Jabe and Don with one of our engines in it. What you must remember is that back in the early days of stock car racing, we ran a lot of state fairgrounds tracks, and they were all dirt. In fact, I don't remember Hillsborough, NC having guard railings for a long time. You ran off the track going into the third turn, and you drove off down into a pine thicket. Nope, racing wasn't always as prim and proper as it is now.

~ Full column is here. HT to Dave Fulton, fellow member and former special events/media coordinator for Wrangler Jeans, 7-Eleven and Richmond International Raceway.
Article courtesy of Jerry Bushmire

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