Friday, August 3, 2012

1980 Coca-Cola 500 at Pocono

As my personal odometer continues to roll over year-by-year, the less I remember - or really even care - about what life was like back in my youth. But in thinking about it a bit, 1980 was a fun, interesting and even challenging year for me:
  • I went to my first Daytona 500 in February 1980 and saw Buddy Baker win his only 500 in Harry Ranier's #28 "Grey Ghost" Oldsmobile 442.
  • My first trip to Disneyworld was in May 1980 - at the expense of missing King Richard win the Music City 420
  • In December 1980, a surgeon performed full-blown knee surgery on me. If only arthroscopic techniques had been more widely available back then, perhaps I wouldn't be hobbling around today like Festus from Gunsmoke.
  • Our high school annual featured a candid of me wearing of course....
On July 27, 1980, an eventful race took place at Pocono - the Coca-Cola 500. Full recognition of the race's relevance didn't fully resonate with me - or likely others - that day. The race's story lines included a King's crash, the rise of a promising prodigy, the farewell of a contemporary trailblazer, and the Cup debut of a non-traditional but incredibly talented and impactful racer.

Richard Petty had a forgettable 1978 season, but he returned to form in 1979 to snag his sixth Daytona 500 victory and seventh Winston Cup championship. He had fewer wins at the mid-point of the 1980 season than in 1979, but he was hanging tough in the points standings. He was giving three-time champion Cale Yarborough and reigning rookie of the year Dale Earnhardt a good run for their money as he tried for his eighth Cup.

And then Pocono..

On lap 57, a wheel broke on Petty's #43 Monte Carlo, the back end came around, and he backed it into the boiler plate wall - HARD. The hit was in the era long before SAFER barriers or H.A.N.S. devices were even visioned much less designed and installed.

Chuck Bown spun himself to avoid hitting Richard, but then Darrell Waltrip ended up nailing the 43 right in the door.

The safety crews extricated the King from the car. But they didn't backboard him or put any sort of neck brace on him. They simply walked him to the ambulance as he grimaced in pain.

Officially, Richard suffered a 'strained neck' and pulled back muscles. The Petty team said it, Joe Mattioli from Pocono repeated it, and the media reported it.

Article courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
Even though Richard's day ended with a painful thud, Petty Enterprises still had some success in the race. Richard's son Kyle made his Pocono debut. Having run only a handful of races from late in 1979 through the mid-point of 1980, Kyle was still very much a rookie. Yet he seemed to take to Pocono like a duck to water and finished a very respectable 7th.

Each year, Indianapolis 500 officials recognize a 'rookie of the race'. In 1980, a promising young driver from Ashland, OH named Tim Richmond won the award. Sponsored by UNO playing cards (one of the best games ever in my opinion), the personality-laden driver finished 9th in his Indy 500 debut. His performance in the 500 caught the eye of Pocono's owner Joe Mattioli. He negotiated a deal with driver and car owner D.K. Ulrich to put Tim in a stock car for the 1980 Cup race. (As a reminder once again, Ulrich was the car owner of the Schaefer beer sponsored Buick driven by Al Loquasto one year later in 1981 at Pocono.)

Tim finished a very respectable 12th in his first Cup race - five spots behind Kyle Petty. Richmond returned to Indy a second time in 1981 and finished 12th while driving for Super Tex, A.J. Foyt. But with urging from his mother, he then turned to NASCAR full-time and raced stock cars full-time until 1987 when his health situation worsened dramatically. Complications from the AIDS virus he contracted and protracted legal wranglings with NASCAR's brass sidelined Tim permanently, and he finally succumbed to AIDS in 1989.

Schaefer Hall of Famer Rev. Randy recently sent me some great photos from the 1980 race given to him and shot by co-worker Jim Jandrasits.

Jim was able to snap a photo of what would be another relevant story line to the race - the final Winston Cup start for Janet Guthrie.While not the first female race driver in NASCAR, she did break some barriers by racing with some amount of relative success - both in Indy cars and in NASCAR - as both racing series gained more popularity across the country. Guthrie started 33 Cup races from 1976 through 1980, and the 1980 Pocono event was her final one.

As a Petty fan, I'm fortunate today that Jim took some great shots of the two-car team 30+ years ago. Rookie Kyle is seen standing near pit wall near his father's 43 Monte Carlo as the cars were rolled to the starting grid.

Years before pit wagons became the norm in the pits, 'extravagance' in the pits was limited to an umbrella and an Igloo cooler of cold water. Here, King Richard can be seen talking to his crew as Kyle likely gets the punchline of a joke from NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman (wearing the Ray-Ban sunglasses).

Taken from a great vantage point, Kyle is seen making a pit stop with his alternate day-glo red on Petty blue #42 scheme.

Before his vicious wreck, the King was challenging for the lead. Here here is sandwiched between the #88 Gatorade Monte Carlo of Darrell Waltrip and eventual race winner Neil Bonnett in the #21 Purolator / Wood Brothers Mercury.

Jim also had the presence of mind to snap a pic of the 1979 Rookie of the Year, Dale Earnhardt, as he pitted next to the 1979 Winston Cup champion, King Richard. Coincidentally, Earnhardt pounded the wall at Pocono a year earlier in his rookie season just as Richard did. He broke both collarbones and had to miss a couple of starts. But he returned to still claim the 1979 Rookie of the Year award.

And yes Earnhardt fans, that is Earnhardt driving a #2 car above. He didn't drive the famous #3 from the get-go because someone else was already driving with it - future car owner Richard Childress.

As Neil Bonnett headed for victory lane, second place Buddy Baker and third place Cale Yarborough call it a day and head for their haulers.

Bonnett and the Wood Brothers team took their Purolator Mercury in victory lane.

Source: Wood Brothers Racing
With apologies to the late Paul Harvey, here is ... the rest of the story.

Richard - The reality of Richard's injures weren't revealed until much, much later. Richard had indeed suffered a fracture in his neck. Incredibly and stubbornly, he soldiered on and did not miss a start. Had NASCAR known this - or had the information been leaked, its likely their hand would have been forced to sit Richard until doctors cleared him to race. Early in the next three races at Talladega, Michigan and Bristol, he turned the car over to former Petty crewman and driver, Joe Millikan.

Kyle - After a solid Pocono debut and a few other starts in 1980, Kyle began racing Cup full-time in 1981. He eventually notched a Pocono win in 1993. After the death of his son and Richard's grandson, Adam Petty, at New Hampshire in 2000, Pocono named the track's garage area as the Adam Petty Garage in his memory.

Credit: Action Sports Photography - Source:
Earnhardt - With Richard's championship hopes all but gone, it was up to the veteran Yarborough and the Junior Johnson team to snag their fourth championship. The Rod Osterlund-owned team with Jake Elder as the crew chief and Earnhardt as the driver, however, may have bent but didn't break. The team withstood a strong challenge by the Yarborough team, but in the end Earnhardt earned the first of his seven Cup championships.

Richmond - After racing a part-time schedule by hopping rides with multiple car owners in 1981 and 1982, Tim finally landed with car owner Raymond Beadle and his Old Milwaukee Beer sponsored Pontiac team in 1983. After a moderately successful three year run with the Blue Max team, Tim moved to Hendrick Motorsports in 1986. He and crew chief Harry Hyde caught lightning in a bottle about a third of the way through the season. With seven wins to their credit but without the Cup, the 25 team was among the favorites heading into the 1987 season. But as Richmond's undisclosed illness began to take over, he all but faded away. Tim made an abbreviated but remarkable comeback midway through 1987 by winning back-to-back races at Riverside and Pocono. After that, however, he wasn't super-competitive and raced for the final time late in mid-August 1987.

Edited July 27, 2014

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