Wednesday, July 4, 2012

July 4 - This day in Petty history - part 200

1984 - Driving for Curb Motorsports, Richard Petty leads 53 of 160 laps and wins his 200th career NASCAR Winston Cup victory in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Coincidentally, his race winnings that day embedded his car number, Daytona 500 wins, championships, and number of victories needed to break his dad's record for career wins: $43,755.

The Build-Up

After the King scored win number 199 at Dover in May 1984, the hype intensified as he sought the round-numbered, 200-wins milestone. Over the course of the next month, the 43 team finished 34th in the Coke 600 at Charlotte, 23rd at Riverside, 13th at Pocono, and 34th at Michigan - not exactly Big Mo' for the team as the series returned to the beach. But it was Daytona - a track at which the King had excelled throughout his career.

A few weeks before the race, the White House announced President Ronald Reagan would attend the race as part of the nation's Independence Day celebrations.

NSSN cover courtesy of Russ Thompson
Reagan gave the command to start the engines aboard Air Force One. As the race proceeded, his plane landed at the Daytona airport right behind the speedway - providing a once-in-a-lifetime photo-op for a fortunate and skilled photographer.

The Win, The Greeting and The Picnic

As the race wound down, long-time competitors Cale Yarborough and Petty drafted each other and separated themselves from the rest of the field. On lap 157, the caution flew for a wreck in the grass near turn 1. The cars raced back to the start-finish line in that era of racing, and races could end under caution. Both drivers knew it was go-time to race back to the yellow - and ultimately the win.

At the stripe, Petty nipped Cale by *this much* and circled the track two more laps for his memorable and final win.

Immediately after his win, Petty stopped at the start-finish line, exited the car, and was hustled through the crowd up to the press box to meet with President Reagan.

Following the press box introductions, Petty returned to the official victory lane for the traditional trophy presentations and a bazillion photos.

Rather than limit his time in one location, re-board Air Force One and fly to another campaign stop on the nation's birthday, Reagan stayed in Daytona for a post-race fried chicken picnic and other celebrations in the garage area.

The following photo has always made me laugh. Richard Petty and Bobby Allison were rivals on the track. They rarely agreed on much or saw eye-to-eye, but they were unified in their support of Reagan. As a result, it stood to reason they'd flank the President and smile throughout the meal. But I've often wondered what Benny Parsons was thinking as he looked around from the nearby "kid's table".

Controversy or "Petty" Jealousy?

As noted at the opening, Petty won his 200th race while driving for Curb Motorsports. He'd left the family Petty Enterprises team after the 1983 season. After considering offers from other team owners such as Butch Mock's established RahMoc team and a possible start-up organization by (yep) Rick Hendrick, Petty settled on Mike Curb's start-up team. Buddy Parrott was hired as the crew chief, and Curb contracted with DiGard as the engine supplier. (Coincidentally, Buddy's son, Todd Parrott, is crew chief for Marcos Ambrose - driver of the Richard Petty Motorsports #9 Ford.)

Long-time Petty rival (and DiGard's driver) Bobby Allison, had a different take. Chapter 29 of Peter Golenbock's book Miracle: Bobby Allison and the Saga Of The Alabama Gang recaps Allison's memories about Petty's engine built by DiGard. Allison has always struck me as someone who was paranoid about everything and suspicious of everyone. While there are more holes in this story than a piece of swiss cheese, I chose to include it anyway.

An excerpt...
Bobby first had been suspicious of Petty's winning engine the week before the race. From time to time, he would walk through the DiGard engine room to go see Robert Yates, who built his engines as well. When Bobby viewed the engine that he was sure Yates was building for Richard Petty, he thought that it looked significantly oversized. When he asked who it was for, he was told "Don't worry about that. Its for a customer. Get out of here." Allison, suspicious, went back and scratched a little mark on the engine block with a sharp object in a "very inconspicuous place."  Said Bobby "I knew where to look. Before the race, I looked under the hood of Petty's car and saw the mark on the block." ... Adding insult to injury, according to Bobby, NASCAR skipped the post-race inspection, an indication to Bobby that NASCAR was turning a blind eye to what he believed was an oversized engine. ~ pp. 200-201
And all of chapter 29...

Personal Memories

Dave Fulton, Motorsports Coordinator for 7-Eleven Stores in the 1980s (Kyle Petty's sponsor at the time), remembers:
It was an electric moment when President Reagan gave the "Start Engines Command" while in flight to Daytona. Even more electric was the sight of Air Force One coming down out of the blue Daytona sky behind the backstretch just as the blue & red #43 came out of turn 2. Richard Petty and Ronald Reagan literally raced side-by-side the length of the Daytona backstretch!

I was allowed to string many banners throughout the compound where the post race Presidential picnic would take place (in what was the old Busch Series Garage). Somewhere in my archives I still have one of those huge blue banners with white lettering reading "7-Eleven Welcomes President Reagan."

I particularly remember the Secret Service snipers stationed on top of the Daytona Dog Track next door, as well as on the roof of the Speedway. There were guys in suits wearing sunglasses and earphones everywhere that hot Daytona morning. Back then, the race still started at 10:00 a.m. to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. The old Daytona Speedway radio ad promised, "At the track at 10:00, On the beach by 2:00."

STP always had a bunch of rooms at the Indigo resort across International Speedway Boulevard from the Speedway. It was decided the President would go from the track to a room at the Indigo resort and "change clothes" before the post race picnic. To accomplish the security required for the Secret Service, the road in and out of Indigo resort was blocked. During the middle of the night on July 3rd, dump trucks, road graders, and bulldozers were brought in ahead of the President to secure the road. Ralph Salvino, Steve Tucker and Richard's other STP car sponsor personnel almost couldn't get out of their rooms to get to the track on race day morning!

I was very lucky to have been invited to be in the NASCAR suite with my wife that day. When the race ended, all the folks in the infield garage areas were cleared out. All of the fences surrounding the garages had been covered in heavy green fabric preventing "outsiders" from peering in. Those were the same fences where I hung my 7-Eleven banners.

After an appropriate time period, we were escorted through metal detectors manned by the Secret Service at the entrances to the garage. Tables had been set up under the open air garage for the actual picnic. Not a single person who was there that day shall ever forget the sight of Richard and Lynda Petty, seated with Bobby and Judy Allison, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with the President of the United States.

President Reagan was extremely gracious and cordial to all. He was of course running for re-election. But, I always had the feeling he'd have been just as gracious any other time.

A big stage had been erected in the old Busch Series garage for the festivities. The late Bill France, Sr. was brought on stage to introduce the President. He had endured a lot of talk about his age and the need for him to step completely down and turn all command of NASCAR over to Bill France, Jr. As you may remember, President Reagan had also endured questions about his age. When the ever crusty France, Sr. introduced Ronald Reagan to the picnic guests, he asked the President a question. Mr. President, what is all this Old Man s**t we keep hearing?! Everybody roared!!!

Behind the President a curtain began to slowly raise as an unseen country music band began to play. The electricity in the air was unbelievable. Stepping from behind the curtain was singer Tammy Wynette who broke into her all-time hit song "Stand By Your Man" as she walked forward and hugged the unsuspecting President of the United States. You should have seen the smile on Reagan! That may have been the most dramatic moment I have ever witnessed - at or away from a racetrack!
For me, I spent the summer of 1984 living with my aunt and uncle in Jacksonville, FL as I worked between college semesters. On the 4th of July, my aunt hosted a retirement picnic at their home for her outgoing boss. Like a good husband, my uncle agreed to do all the grilling, keep the beer flowing, and provide a cigarette-friendly porch (my aunt wouldn't and still doesn't allow smoking in the house).

I played the role of the good nephew and house guest by shuffling food from the kitchen to the grill to the table. I continually re-iced coolers, had the opportunity to meet a lot of wonderful folks, nibbled along the way, and occasionally stopped to enjoy a cold one with someone I'd just met. My aunt and uncle always treated me as a young adult rather than as older kid - a level of respect I'll always treasure.

Because of all that was going on, I didn't have an opportunity to check in with the race. When the party ended later that afternoon, I couldn't believe it when I heard the King had won #200. Some time later, my uncle told me a story that made my jaw drop even further. He had been offered a pair of tickets to the 400. Knowing he'd already committed to help my aunt with the party, he knew he wouldn't go. But he assumed I wouldn't go alone. Truth be told, I don't know if I would have gone or not. Petty's finishes in the month of June gave me no reason to believe he'd score a win at Daytona. And my black, high-mileage, 1965 Dodge Dart - without air conditioning - had been having water pump and radiator issues that summer. Yet knowing how things turned out, I can't believe I could have had the opportunity to witness #200.   

Race Coverage

For those of you who may have started following NASCAR in the 1990s or beyond and get frustrated by the coverage by FOX or ESPN, I give you Jim Lampley and Sam Posey. How Lampley drew the assignment is beyond me. By the mid 80s, CBS was knocking it out of the park for its Daytona 500 coverage in February. But the summer Firecracker race was still thought of largely as a second-tier race on the schedule and received little national media coverage.

The race wasn't aired in its entirety on TV. Instead, ABC joined it in-progress, provided updates during the race, and was there for the finish. If you want to fast forward, the real excitement begins around the 14 minute mark.

Yarborough manned-up and gave ABC a post-race interview after he hit pit road a lap early thinking the race was over. Cale's bare-chested interview with Larry Nuber cracks me each time I see it. Though a bit odd, its a visual reminder of how hot the day was and how much it must have pained him to be that close to getting another win. (Having won the Daytona 500 in February 1984, I'm sure Cale really wanted the season-sweep too.)

Source: TMC Archives - The Tennessean

The winning Pontiac was donated by Curb Motorsports to the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington DC. I had the good fortune to see it on display in the early 1990s. My memories of seeing the car there are far greater than my pathetic camera at the time could capture.

Fellow Petty fan and Schaefer Ring of Honor member, Brian Hauck, also had the chance to view the car in the museum. Fortunately, he got a better photo of it than I did.

Courtesy of Brian '200WINZ' Hauck
The King's uniform, helmet and checkered flag used by chief starter Harold Kinder are all on display at the Richard Petty Museum in Randleman, NC.

The King won his 200th race with Buddy Parrott as the crew chief of his Curb Motorsports Pontiac - not NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman. Early in the 1981 season, Inman made the difficult decision to leave his cousin Richard and Petty Enterprises. He went to work for Osterlund Racing and defending Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

After J.D. Stacy bought Osterlund's team later in 1981, Earnhardt left. Several drivers turnstile'd through the car with Inman as the crew chief. But in 1984, Inman accomplished something Richard couldn't. As crew chief for Terry Labonte and the Billy Hagan-owned team, Inman helped Terry to his first of two Cup championships and earned an 8th one for himself as crew chief - one more than the King has as a driver.

As noted in the closing paragraph of the above article, the race following Daytona was the Nashville 420. Geoff Bodine won what turned out to be the final Cup race in Nashville driving for Rick Hendrick's relatively new operation. One of the tradeoffs of being in Florida for the summer meant I couldn't go to the race. As a result, I missed the final Cup race at my home track.

Because of funding and personality issues, Mike Curb and DiGard had a significant falling out. After Petty's 200th win, the Curb team ceased getting engines from DiGard. The 43 was rarely competitive the remainder of the season. Petty notched only 2 more top 5's while driving for Curb through the rest of 1984 and the 1985 season. Even after returning to Petty Enterprises, the King scored only 14 top 5s, no poles, no wins, through the end of his driving career in 1992.

Allison's relationship with DiGard didn't improve either. He was bitter about the Robert Yates-built, DiGard-provided engine to the Petty car in 1984. One year later under the direction of creative crew chief Gary Nelson, DiGard fielded a second car in the 1985 Firecracker 400 with driver Greg Sacks. Incredibly, Sacks won in the unsponsored #10 Chevy. While I haven't researched it, I think the race was the last win by a car without a significant sponsor. Allison had seen enough and within a couple of weeks quit DiGard, fielded his own cars for the rest of the year, and joined forces with Stavola Brothers Racing beginning in 1986.

In 2011, Speed Channel and NASCAR Media Group aired a great documentary titled The Day: Richard Petty's 200th Win.


1 comment:

  1. That July 4th, 1984 win was indeed part of a very special day that many of us will never forget.
    You've done a great job capturing the feeling.
    Dave Fulton - Charlotte, NC