Friday, October 21, 2011

October 21 - This day in Petty history

1979 - Richard Petty wins his 190th career Grand National race in the American 500 at Rockingham. He also takes over the points lead over Darrell Waltrip in his pursuit of his seventh NASCAR Grand National / Winston Cup title.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
Buddy Baker won the pole for the race in his Harry Ranier #28 Monte Carlo - his 6th of seven top spots during the 1979 season. Baker narrowly nipped Benny Parsons who had to settle for a front row starting spot but without a pole-winning trophy. Championship contender Waltrip started third with Neil Bonnet in the Wood Brothers Purolator Mercury flanking him. The King lined up 7th - a fortuitously numbered spot considering he ended up notching his 7th title a few weeks later.

One driver attempting to qualify for the race was Larry Pearson, son of David Pearson. After a couple of years of racing in NASCAR's Baby Grand series for small sedans, Larry was ready to give The Big Time a shot. He hitched a ride in Junie Donlavey's Mercury as somewhat of a teammate to Donlavey's regular driver, Ricky Rudd. Pearson's sponsors were Sunny King Ford of Anniston, AL (a frequent supporter of Donlavey's cars) and Andre The Giant Travel Agency! During a practice session before the first round of qualifying, however, Pearson spun and wrecked his Mercury. The team thrashed to make repairs, but Pearson couldn't muster enough speed in any of the qualifying sessions to make the show. His Cup debut wouldn't come for another six years when he qualified for the 1986 Daytona 500.

Though Pearson's car sponsored by Andre The Giant went home early, the famed wrassler - a North Carolina resident - stayed. He was the grand marshal for the race, posed with track and race team owner L.G. DeWitt, and clowned around a bit with the Unocal Racestoppers.

Credit: Rockingham Speedway by Rick Houston
Credit: Rockingham Speedway by Rick Houston
The race was competitive with a number of lead changes. As the race entered its second half, the two cars of Parsons and Petty separated themselves and had several back-and-forth lead exchanges. With about 10 to go though, Petty decided it was time to grab the gold. He passed Parsons for the final time and led the remaining nine laps.

Bobby W., fellow member at, remembers...
For that year's Rockingham race, me and friends simply bought $8.00 general admission tickets for the backstretch stands. Those tickets only allowed access to the first 10 rows of stands. But after the race was about 100 laps in, we could wander anywhere and watch from the upper sections - which we did. Richard was driving a '79 Monte Carlo, took the lead early, and blistered the field again. I was lucky. I was convinced the sun rose and set over Level Cross, and I got to see Richard in his prime. Good times!
Article courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
The comments from rookie Joe Millikan were interesting. Millikan grew up in Randleman, NC and worked in the shop for Petty Enterprises for several years. In the mid to late 70s, Petty Enterprises fielded an #04 STP Dodge Charger for Millikan in Late Model Sportsman races at Daytona and Talladega.

Joe won a couple of those events, and his performance in the Petty-built Dodges helped tee him up for a Cup rookie-of-the-year run with L.G. DeWitt. As it turns out, however, Millikan had the bad fortune to be a Cup rookie in the same season as a a guy named Dale Earnhardt.

Petty left Rockingham leading in the championship battle by eight points over Waltrip. Richard was almost 230 points behind Waltrip two months earlier.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Bushmire

Edited October 21, 2014

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