Saturday, February 23, 2013

A conversation with Tiger Tom Pistone

Tom Pistone was an iconic NASCAR Grand National racer who drove from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s. Originally from Chicago, he raced many late model events and claimed championships at Solider Field. Yes, that Solider Field. The home of the Chicago Bears hosted stock car races throughout the 40s and 50s.

Tiger Tom made a handful of starts in NASCAR's Grand National and convertible series from 1955 through 1957. He did not race in either series in 1958 but signed on with car owner Carl Rupert to race about half the 1959 Grand National season - including the inaugural Daytona 500.

One of my favorite cars of Tom's is his mid-60s #59 Ford sponsored by Shoney's Restaurants. Though I don't have any memories of the car in the era it raced, our family were frequent diners at Nashville's Shoney's Big Boy drive-in when I was a kid.

Photo courtesy of Chrissy Pistone
I've lonnnnnng since bailed on Shoney's as a dining option. But I'll still give them props. My mother was looking for a job and was willing to develop new skill to function in a technology-enabled workplace. She landed at Shoney's and wondered if it would be a short-term gig. Instead, she worked in their corporate training department for about two decades; dedicated herself to learning all about Microsoft Office apps, HTML, learned to troubleshoot her PCs at the office and home; spent countless (and uncompensated) hours on nights and weekends; and was even featured in their Annual Report in the late 90s for her contributions to the company's training initiatives.

But I digress...

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes to speak by phone with Pistone about his memories from the first 500. While I wasn't able to record the call to get absolute quotes, the comments below represent the gist of his remarks. (In an weird sort of way, I kind of hope I do mess up something. It might give me to chance to reconnect with him again to get the story straight - and perhaps cover a new topic.)

For the first Daytona 500, Tiger Tom raced a 1959 Ford Thunderbird sedan purchased as race-ready from Holman & Moody for $5,900. His third place finish in his qualifying twin placed him fifth in the starting line-up. When the checkers fell, Tom's T-Bird finished a very respectable 9th five laps off the lead. Of the top 10 finishers, only Pistone and sixth-place finisher Jim Reed are still with us in 2013.

Photo courtesy of Chrissy Pistone
Tiger Tom raced a couple of times on the old Daytona Beach sand and street course - in 1956 and 1957 - in NASCAR's short-lived convertible series. But his arrival in February 1959 at the new superspeedway was his first time to see the new track. He had not visited it all during its construction.

He said the track was pretty easy to drive from the get-go. The greatest challenge was learning about the draft and figuring out to manage it well. Pistone said before the race weekend was complete, most drivers figured out the draft pretty quickly. 

Despite having run convertibles in 1956-57, he chose to go with the hardtop sedan for the 500. He said the convertibles were simply too slow on the new high-banked superspeedway.

Tom said he hadn't been out of the city of Chicago many times at that point in his life. He was unsure what trips to the South would be like. He wondered if southerners would like him. He remembers flat-bed towing the race car to Florida, passing farm houses, meeting people along the way. He said he didn't know a lot of history back then and wasn't really sure about the whole Yankee vs. southerner debate.

Pistone said two qualifying sessions were held to set the fields for the twin qualifying races. He claims he had by far the fastest times in both rounds - until Cotton Owens showed up and bested his time. He said the cars ran about 20 MPH faster than the Firestone tires were equipped to run. The full-treaded tires started coming apart with the high speeds, and the drivers had to adapt to better manage their tire wear. Pistone believes had be been better able to manage his tires as Lee Petty did that he may well have been able to win the race.

He said his team didn't have much leisure time and certainly not much money for their round-trips to the beach and back to Chicago in the second half of the 1950s. So they didn't have time to visit DIS while it was under construction. And they certainly didn't stick around long after the race wondering who'd indeed won the race: Johnny Beachamp or Lee Petty. If a racer doesn't have the trophy in one hand and his other arm around the beauty queen, he may as well just load up and begin preparing for the next race.

Pistone was very complimentary of NASCAR's first president, Bill France Sr. Big Bill supported Tom in his racing, encouraged him about participating in NASCAR events, arranged a shop in Daytona to work in, provided lodging, etc. Without France's support, Tom said he likely would not have made it in the sport. Despite some initial misgivings about how he and the South might get along, Tom took to the area and moved his family to Florida in 1965.

In 1991, Charlotte Motor Speedway created a quarter-mile track in the grass area between pit road and the frontstretch dogleg. The original purpose of it was to host a Winston Legends race for old-time drivers to race in scaled-down versions of their old cars and painted in colors recognizable to fans of their era. Tom not only returned to race in the event but also told a few old school stories along the way.


Tom still interacts a good bit with race fans - especially when made aware of someone's interest by his daughter, Chrissy. He runs a racing parts business and helps his grandson with his budding racing career. Pistone can also be found on Twitter. If interested in learning more about him or reaching out to ask a question or thank him for the racing history to which he contributed, here are a few channels.

Twitter: @TigerTomPistone
Parts business: pistonetigertom.com
Pistone Racing: pistoneracing.com
RacersReunion.com: stockcar.racersreunion.com/profile/TigerTomPistone

TMC

Friday, February 22, 2013

February 22, 1970 - Pete Pockets Daytona

February 22, 1970: Pete Hamilton from Dedham, Massachusetts - yes, MASSACHUSETTS - wins the Daytona 500 in a winged Plymouth Superbird.

As the 1970 season opened in January, the Pettys fielded a second Superbird at Riverside's road course. But it was for road course ringer Dan Gurney, the car wasn't originally built by Petty Enterprises, and the color and font of the number 42 didn't remind anyone of a Petty entry.

The arrangement with Gurney was a one-race deal. In the same month as the Riverside race, Petty Enterprises and Chrysler Corporation announced the hiring of Hamilton for a limited number of races the rest of the season, and Pete's car was assigned #40 - a number not previously fielded by PE and never used again after Hamilton's single season with the team.

Hamilton won honors as the 1968 NASCAR Grand National Rookie of the Year, but he couldn't land a solid ride in NASCAR's top series in 1969. He was delighted to be hired by the factory-supported Petty team in 1970 and planned to make the most of his new gig.

With a team headed by Richard's brother and engine builder, Maurice "Chief" Petty, Pete didn't take long to make his presence known. He laid down a solid qualifying lap, started sixth in his 125-mile qualifying twin, and finished fifth in it - one spot better than his teammate, King Richard. Their finishes in the twin placed them nose-to-tail, 9th and 11th, in the starting line-up for the 500.

Photo courtesy of Smyle Media
Pete lined up behind the two Fords of Lee Roy Yarborough in Junior Johnson's #98 and Donnie Allison in Banjo Matthews' #27.

Photo courtesy of Ray Lamm from RacersReunion.com
Chief was masterful as Hamilton's crew chief with solid pit strategy and keeping the young and relatively inexperienced driver calm as he made each stop. Note the lack of a window net for the driver. Use of the nets didn't come into favor until after The King's violent wreck at Darlington two months later.

Photo courtesy of Ray Lamm
Hamilton and David Pearson, the two-time and reigning NASCAR Grand National champion, swapped the lead a couple of times over the last few laps. Coming to the white flag, Pearson gave it his all to dive under the 40. But his Holman & Moody Ford broke traction, his tires went up in smoke, and the Silver Fox did an incredible job regathering the wheel and regaining his pursuit. Hamilton pulled away for three-quarters of the lap. Pearson shoved his accelerator through the firewall in an effort to catch the Superbird. But Pete had too much and beat Pearson to the line by about 3 car lengths. 

Photo courtesy of Richard Guido
To the victor belongs the spoils such as:
  • The congratulatory embrace from your crew chief.
 
  • Hardware for the trophy case
Credit: Daytona Beach Morning Journal
  • And maybe best of all, nice snug hugs from the pretties, including from Miss Hurst Shifter, Linda Vaughn.
Photo courtesy of Ray Lamm
Parts of the race including the finish were aired on ABC's Wide World of Sports. Keith Jackson - better known for his Whoaaa Nellie college football calls - was the lead anchor the iconic Chris Economacki from National Speed Sport News on color.

The start of the race - with pole sitter Cale Yarborough setting a fast pace early... and an early departure by The King. He completed only seven laps, broke an engine, and finished 39th in the 40-car field.


And the finish - with the battle between Pearson's Ford and Pete's Plymouth.

Article courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
Pete's surprise win earned him a feature article in the June 1970 issue of Stock Car Racing magazine.


Article courtesy of Jerry Bushmire

Edited 2013-02-26: Here is a photo of the winner's trophy. Its on display at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in Dawsonville.

Photo courtesy of Cody Dinsmore at RacersReunion.com
  TMC

February 22, 1959 - Lee Wins 1st Daytona 500

February 22, 1959: After almost a decade of running on the Daytona Beach combination course of sand and Highway A1A, Lee Petty races his Oldsmobile to victory in the inaugural Daytona 500 raced on the brand spankin' new 2-1/2 mile Daytona International Speedway. It took a few days for NASCAR to make it official - but in the end, Petty was credited with the win.

The NASCAR Grand National regulars historically raced on a hodge-podge of tracks - many quarter-mile or half-mile in length - most of them dirt but with a few of them paved. Notable exceptions included Darlington 1.3 mile egg-shaped oval, Langhorne, Pennsylvania's one-mile dirt circle, and the fast runs down A1A. The drivers didn't have experience on long, fast tracks. They did know, however, about set-ups, pit stops, crude gas mileage calculations, and a few strengths and vulnerabilities of expected competition. This experience likely helped in projecting what may happen at Bill France, Sr.'s new speedway.

But some drivers were green as grass and likely had no idea what they were about to face. One example? Richard Petty. The future King Richard saddled up - in an Oldsmobile convertible! He was bucked off early though with engine problems, completed only 8 laps, finished a peasant-like 57th, and spent the rest of the race in the pits cheering on his dad. 

Young Richard wasn't the only one piloting a ragtop. The first 500 was officially sanctioned as a combination hard-top and convertible race. It may seem ludicrous today with the benefit of hindsight to imagine racing a convertible at high-speed on a superspeedway. Drivers racing Indy roadsters, however, had been racing for decades at similar speeds with full-on winds on their chins. Also, NASCAR drivers were afraid of fire more than anything else. So the opportunity to escape from a convertible may have seemed a better way to mitigate risk than in a full-bodied sedan.

Photo courtesy of Ray Lamm from RacersReunion.com

Bob Welborn - who at times during his career raced for Petty Enterprises and Julian Petty (Lee's brother) - won the pole to set the pace for the 59-car field. The relatively inexperienced Richard Petty remarkably lined up sixth - an early sign the Randleman Rocket would take to Daytona over the next three decades like a duck to water.

A few additional trivia nuggets about the race are:
  • Several drivers in the first 500 continued or developed solid NASCAR careers. But only a few are still with us. Looking at the finishing order, NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Glen Wood, and Junior Johnson are still alive as is 1961 Daytona 500 and 1966 World 600 winner Marvin Panch. Of the top 10 finishers, however, only two remain: Jim Reed (6th) and Tom Pistone (8th). TEASER ALERT: Return tomorrow for a post about Tiger Tom.
  • The race was run with zero cautions. Think about that for a moment. First race for the NASCAR guys on a true superspeedway - mixture of hard-top sedans and convertibles - fastest speeds in the history of stock car racing - drivers sensing the draft for the first time - and so on. Yet, no cautions. Truly remarkable.
  • Fifty-nine cars started the race - 59. Did I mention no cautions? Almost half the starters raced Chevrolets, and 20+ others piloted cars from Ford Motor Company. The two Petty entries were the only two Oldsmobiles in the field.
  • Bob Said made his first and only NASCAR Grand National start. Who?? Bob Said's actual name was Boris Said, Jr. He also raced bobsleds for the U.S. Olympic team. So Bob Said raced bobsleds - perfect. And yep, Bob was the father of contemporary driver and "Said Head" fan favorite, Boris Said III. 
Source: Wikipedia

To this day, its simply remarkable to realize three cars could finish side-by-side-by side after 500 miles with no cautions. Joe Weatherly was on the outside but a lap down. Lee was in the middle, and Beauchamp hugged the inside rail.

Most in attendance believed Petty was the winner when the threesome flashed across the line. But Beauchamp was brought to victory lane and awarded the win. Lee was confident that he was the winner and headed for victory lane also. In the photo below, Petty's car can be seen at the end of the ruts in the infield grass. Beachamp's "winning car" is hidden a bit by the throng of folks around it.

Photo courtesy of Dog427435 at Jalopy Journal's Hokey Ass Message Board


Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive

The drawn-out drama by NASCAR head honcho (and owner/promoter of Daytona International Speedway) Bill France, Sr. as to the winner of the race is pretty well known - even amongst the most novice of NASCAR fans. But there was a bit on debate about who finished third, fourth and fifth as well. Weatherly who was magically caught in the photo finish of Beachamp and Petty was eventually placed fifth.

Charley Griffith, a driver with a career of only seventeen Grand National races, wound up third - the only top 5 of his limited career. Griffith hailed from Red Bank, TN, near Chattanooga - home to See Rock City, Moon Pies, Boyd Speedway, occasional Bench Racing contributor Banktruck, and to TMC for nearly a decade.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Cotton Owens finished fourth after needing a splash of gas with one lap to go. His decision to pit rather than chance it cost him big money as Griffith finished third - at least as prize money was considered in that era. Of course what isn't mentioned is the what Cotton may have lost had he chosen to stick it out, not pitted, and run out anyway. The hit to his bank account may have been even larger.
 
Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal via Google News Archive

After three days of "reviewing the evidence", NASCAR finally reversed its race-day decision and declared Lee Petty as the winner. For those in attendance, the decision was a yawner as most knew from the get-go Lee rightfully won the race. But the PR-media minded France Sr. played the drama to his advantage. The finish and the debate about who finished ahead of whom remains amongst the top 5 or 10 NASCAR stories of all time to this day.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive




TMC

Thursday, February 21, 2013

TMC's 2013 Turrible Prognostications

The 2013 race season is upon us. When this blog was launched, banktruck and I originally thought we'd use it as a forum to discuss and debate contemporary racing. By blog entry #2, I was pretty well bored by that approach. Instead, I've focused far more on posts about racing history ... and Schaefer. Both are extremely fun.

But occasionally, I try to recognize I should live in the here and now when it comes to racing. With that said, here are my predictions for the season. With any luck and by swinging for the fences, I may miss 100% of my picks.


Daytona 500 winner: Matt Kenseth will join the elite company of The King, Cale Yarborough and Sterling Marlin as a back-to-back winner. Kenseth's win will be unique in that he has changed teams and car makes from 2012 to this year. He has made some questionable moves so far in this year's Speedweeks. But he is enough of a cerebral driver that he'll have it figured out by Sunday. 

'Premier Series' Champion: Throughout the recent ceremonies for the NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees, all presenters were required - or certainly at least heavily coached - to refer to NASCAR's Grand National / Winston Cup / Nextel Cup / Sprint Cup series as "NASCAR's premier series". With that apparently being the new norm, I'm calling Kasey Kahne as the next premier series champ.
 
In no particular order, others who will join him in the 10 race Chase For the Championship but will fall short of sitting at the head table at the annual banquet will be...
  1. Smoke
  2. Jimmie Johnson
  3. Carl ESPNwards
  4. Bad Brad Keselowski
  5. Jeff Gordon
  6. Rowdy Busch
  7. Possum Biffle
  8. Matt Kenseth
  9. Clint Bowyer
  10. Flyin Ryan 
  11. Denny Hamlin
Outhouse to Penthouse: He is arguably the top dawg at Roush Fenway Racing - especially since Kenseth has moved to a new team. So it may be a stretch to say Carl Edwards has been in the outhouse. But he hasn't won in almost 2 full seasons. Now he is paired with crew chief Jimmy Fennig, and I expect Edwards to visit victory lane on more than one occasion in 2013 and easily make the Chase.

Cellar Dweller: He can change teams. He can date a positive person who seems to genuinely care for him. He can bring a camera posse to record his charitable acts. He can act as if he is an outlaw on Speed Channel. But when the season ends, Kurt Busch will again find he continues to pay penance for his hot-headed behavior at Roush and Penske. No wins and lots of struggles loom for the 78 Furniture Row team. 

Rookie of The Year: Is Joe Millikan still eligible? What about Delma Cowart? No? OK, I suppose I'll agree with GaPettyFan and hitch my wagon to Ricky Stenhouse. Danica will get all the pub, but her beau (for now) will get the ROTY award.

Other random predictions

Will They Win?:
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - Yes. A fuel-mileage, rain-shortened race at Michigan will be just what Junebug needs to keep the Big Mo going for the 88 team.  Seriously though - with Steve Letarte in his corner, Junior has no excuses not to win multiple races in 2013. None. Zero. I say he wins... um, uh... two. 
  • Aric Almirola: No. If AA's early Speedweeks runs are any indication of how the 2013 season will unfold for the 43 team, the larger question may be whether Aric is still employed by the team at the end of the year rather than if he has won a race.
  • Joey Logano: If aiding Brad Keselowski with testing, drafting, relaying information to the team, etc. that helps the Blue Deuce win races, then Yes. If he has to take the checkers himself, then my prediction is No.
  • Paul Menard: Last seen in the plumbing section of his father's home improvement stores.
  • Kevin Harvick: He should win a couple of times - but they'll come in the first half of the season. Harvick's eyes will turn to 2014 to prepare for his multi-year deal with Stewart-Haas Racing, and Richard Childress Racing will turn its focus to preparing for a 2014 rookie run with Austin Dillon.
  • Marcos Ambrose: Yes, the Aussie will pick up two wins - one on a roadie as expected with a second at somewhere such as Phoenix or Loudon for his first Cup oval win.
  • Ryan Newman: Without a win, Newman will need a new deal for 2014 and beyond. Any chance he takes over the 43?
  • Mark Martin: Gosh darn it. He will be still just so proud to drive the Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing. And gosh darn it, we'll likely hate the fact he'll go yet another season without one more win.
Danica to finish in Top 20 in points: No, but Stewart-Haas may buy Paul Menard's points from Richard Childress Racing in the hopes it'll be enough to get her some sort of table at the season-ending Vegas banquet.

Will the 3 return to Cup racing in 2014 (but be announced in 2013)?: Yes, Richard Childress Racing will announce the return of the 3 Chevy in 2014 with grandson Austin Dillon as its driver. Bonus prediction: banktruck will tear his clothes and release a blood-curdling howl upon hearing the news. 

TMC

February 21, 1954 - Lee Petty Fleeces Flock at Daytona

February 21, 1954: Lee Petty wins the beach race at Daytona - on a technicality.

Starting from the pole, Petty paced the 62-car field for the the majority of laps. When the checkers fells, however, Tim Flock was the first to the flag and received the winner's trophy. But a day or so later, NASCAR disqualified Flock for alterations to his carburetor.

Flock is believed to have been the first driver to use a two-way radio in his car so he could communicate with his crew.

Lee's pristine Chrysler before the start of the 39-lap, 160-mile race on Daytona's 4.1 mile combination sand and asphalt "track".

Photo courtesy of COMCAMJAM on Flickr
Pole-winner Lee and Otis Martin (#48) on the outside of the front row pace the field for the start.

Credit: scook801 on Flickr

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
But then uh oh, Flock was disqualified after NASCAR discovered an unapproved carburetor.

Greg Fielden wrote in his book, Forty Years of Stock Car Racing - Vol. 1:
It marked the second time in three that years that Flock had been disqualified from a Daytona victory. He also lost the 1952 Modified-Sportsman on a technicality. In a teardown after Flock had finished first in the race, the carburetor in Flocks' Ernest Woods-owned Oldsmobile was found to have been polished, and the butterfly shaft was soldered. NASCAR president Bill France said it was a difficult decision for him to disqualify Flock, but he added that rules must be obeyed by everyone, including the sport's top names. Any car found not complying with the rule book must be disqualified. ~ p. 138
Lee getting some post-race congratulations before later being awarded with the win itself.


Photo courtesy of Russ Thompson
Daytona Beach Morning Journal's race coverage included a neat side story - a feature piece on Elizabeth Petty, Lee's wife and mother to Richard and Maurice. This feature is particularly interesting considering the limited coverage stock car racing in general received in that era.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
TMC

Monday, February 18, 2013

GPF's Fearless (Not Faultless) 2013 NASCAR Predictions

It seems like only a year ago we were throwing the literary green flag on another NASCAR racing season. Actually, its a year and a week; real racing starts a week later this year but whose counting? I am obviously but we'll get to that later. Throwing caution and common sense to the winds and fueled with Schaefer, the nectar of the gods, here we go:
Since we're gathered here at The World Center of Speed (For my money Disney can suck it, Daytona is the happiest place on earth) we start with the winner of the Daytona 500.
2013 Daytona 500 Winner: Jeff Gordon has a fast race car and has already been spending extra track time working on corner exit alone. He'll find what he's looking for.

2013 Sprint Cup Champion: Saturday afternoon I asked Jimmie Johnson if he was hungry enough to reclaim what was once considered his birthright and he snapped back in a tone of voice that would make Tony Stewart proud. He's my guy.

He will be competing with these Chase finalists, who are there only for window dressing. What Jimmie wants, Jimmie gets.

Tony Stewart (Provided he keeps his hands on the wheel and off his new driver)
Carl Edwards (Provided he avoids further 'roid rage episodes)
Brad Keselowski (Easy on over-consumption of your sponsor's product there fella)
Jeff Gordon (How many senior citizens can you feed for what it takes to sponsor a NASCAR racer?)
Kyle Busch (Nobody likes him but he can drive)
Greg Biffle (Sleepy looking dude who goes fast)
Matt Kenseth (Actually my dark horse to win it all..."I didn't mean it Jimmie, really!")
Kasey Kahne (He walks and talks like a girl but he does have a weight advantage-can't ignore that)
Kurt Busch: (Who knew?)
Kevin Harvick (The lame duck doesn't get his goose cooked but comes close-never a factor)

Will Danica finish in the Top 20 in points? No but she will tear up at least 20 race cars. Fortunately for Stewart. some of them will belong to others.

Rookie of The Year: Ricky Stenhouse gets the best of both worlds. While he kicks Danica's (unmentionable) on the race track, she kisses his back in the motor coach.

Biggest Surprise: Kurt Busch returns to form and makes The Furniture Row bunch a team to be reckoned with week after week.
Biggest Disappointment: Joey Logano. By mid season, Roger Penske finds himself longing for the good ol' days with A.J. Allmendinger.

Will They Win?:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.-No. February prognosis: The Gen-6 car is just what Little E needs. The November excuse: Just when Jr. had the old car figured out...
Carl Edwards: Early and often.
Aric Almirola: Are you kidding me?
Joey Logano: See Aric Almirola.
Paul Menard: See Joey Logano.
Kevin Harvick: One win but finds life as a lame duck no fun.
Ryan Newman: Tony Stewart the only winner at Stewart-Haas and Newman the ugliest team mate. Goes looking for a new team for 2014.
Mark Martin: I thought this dude retired. He looks like he is what, 70 years old?  Next you're gonna tell me Herschel McGriff is still driving.

And, finally, who will Danica diddle next? I'm going with Tony Stewart on this one. He can threaten to take the car keys away.

Danica after reading my predictions.

Jimmie Johnson couldn't believe I would question his ability to win the title again.