Monday, July 29, 2013

July 29, 1973 - Petty Poaches Pocono

Throughout 2013, I've focused on blogging about Petty Enterprises wins by drivers other than Richard Petty. I figured I'd already given The King his due with my blog series about his 200 wins. But Richard also competed in a few races not sanctioned by NASCAR, and he won one of them back in 1973. Because the win isn't part of his 200-win GN/Cup tally, I didn't blog about it back then. So now - bonus edition time! A Petty Enterprises win - with Richard as the driver - but in a series other than NASCAR.

July 29, 1973: After qualifying second, Richard Petty wins the Acme SuperSaver 500 USAC stock car series race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

NASCAR's Winston Cup series had a couple of open weekends between its July 22nd race in Atlanta and August 12th at Talladega. So Petty took the opportunity to head north to race in the Poconos - perhaps even to enjoy a brief respite from the summer southern heat and humidity.

Other NASCAR regulars who made the trek with the Petty Enterprises included long-time Petty rival Bobby Allison and independent drivers Dick May, Bruce Jacobi, D.K.Ulrich, Frank Warren and H.B. Bailey. The race also featured several USAC drivers who occasionally dabbled in Cup racing including Super Tex himself - A.J. Foyt, Ramo Stott, Gordon Johncock, and Jim Hurtubise.

Bob Whitlow, former center for the NFL's Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, started the race as well. Following the end of his football career, Whitlow built a #51 Dodge Charger and raced in about 20 USAC and NASCAR stock car events from 1973 through 1976.

In his book Pocono: NASCAR's Northern Invasion, author Joe Miegoc writes:
Petty took control in the Acme 500 in 1973, beating [Butch] Hartman in a close finish that saw Petty lead 124 of the 200 laps, yet earn $10,730, or about two-thirds of what Hartman received for winning the Pennsylvania 500 in 1971.

Hartman led 39 laps and [Roger] McCluskey, who finished third, led 24. Foyt, back after skipping the 1972 race, led the other 13 laps and finished seventh after starting from the pole. Ron Keselowsi, who came out of nowhere to win in 1974 in USAC's last stock-car gasp at Pocono, was 17th, with Bobby Allison, who would be the only NASCAR driver to also run an Indy car race at Pocono, finishing 25th. Gordon Johncock who would beat Rick Mears in 1982 in the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history, ran this stock car race for Hoss Ellington and finished 34th, losing his brakes after just 34 laps.

Petty was the big draw, but among USAC officials, the welcome mat was not exactly out for the King.

Under the organization's rules, a driver or team had to be a USAC member and run the entire series to get a garage spot at any race. Without points in the series, you were an outsider.

And that included even Richard Petty.

"We weren't exactly welcome, not really," Petty said with a laugh in 2009. "When we got there, they had some garage area, and there were some of them that were still empty, but we didn't get one. They made us park out in a tent in the gravel area, work on the car behind the garage area."

Then [track owner Joe] Mattioli, who insists he didn't pay Petty any appearance money to run at Pocono before NASCAR officially ran a race there, put his foot down.

"I told them (USAC officials) if Richard Petty didn't run that race, there would be no race," said Mattioli, who also once faced down an ABC Sports official by telling him there would be no Schaefer 500 on Wide World of Sports if the Schaefer name couldn't be used. The ABC guys, while trying to avoid giving sponsors free advertising, buckled then too.

"The gentleman that owned the track (Mattioli) decided us out in the gravel wasn't going to work,' Petty said. "He told them guys that if Richard Petty did not get in the garage area, he was going to run them all out. So that pretty much took care of all of it. Once we got there and started talking to all the guys and such, we realized that, 'hey, it wasn't the drivers, the guys we were competing against. It was the officials.' But I think everybody got on their fanny and by the time it was time to race, everybody had come around.

"We came back the second year and we were welcomed with open arms."

And true to his heritage, Petty ruled that Acme race.

Oddly, it was held as a prelude to the Pennsylvania State Fair, which among others, featured Bob Hope and the Jackson 5, with a youngster named Michael singing lead.

The King and the later King of Pop at Pocono in one weekend. Strange indeed. ~ pp. 109-110
The King and Super Tex go at it during the race.

USAC regulars Hartman and McCluskey were left to battle it out for second. Hartman tried to hang tough with Petty near the end of the race, but it wasn't to be.

Photo courtesy of Russ Thompson
The starting line-up ... and the finishing order.

So once again in his career, The King got the opportunity to snuggle up to Miss Hurst Shifter, Linda Vaughn, in victory lane.

As was so often the case, The King was the class of the field. His NASCAR rival Allison was a non-factor. Foyt - the larger-than-life personality of various open-wheel racing series over the decades - couldn't beat Ol' Blue. And the cast of USAC regulars and NASCAR independents were no match for the 43. So like the old Loony Tunes cartoons, the Coyotes couldn't catch the Road Runner (or the Dodge Charger) even with an assist from Acme.

Article courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
The race was also featured in the November 1973 issue of Stock Car Racing magazine. Writer Richard Benyo was complimentary of the NASCAR and USAC drivers and the show put on for the fans. But he was very biting in his criticism of the USAC sanctioning body and the Pocono track management for the underwhelming way the race was promoted.

A year later - plus a few days - Petty returned to Pocono for its inaugural Winston Cup race. The King picked up where he left off in 1973 by winning the 1974 Purolator 500.

Edited 2013-08-19: Petty raced the same Charger three years later at Pocono and won the 1976 Purolator 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race.
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July 29, 1973 is also memorable for another racing event - but for a painful, gut-wrenching memory. As Petty raced in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania for a second time in his STP Dodge, fellow STP driver Roger Williamson of Great Britain suited up and belted in for his second career Formula 1 race. On the eighth lap of the Dutch Grand Prix in the Netherlands, Williamson's red March-Ford wrecked with David Purley, flipped, skidded a long distance, and caught fire - with Williamson trapped inside the car but not terribly injured.

As the flames began to engulf Williamson's car, Purley ran to help his friend and fellow driver. Track officials were pathetically inept and ill-prepared. A couple of Keystone Kop type characters jogged over to the car but really had no idea what to do or have any equipment to use even if they had been able to figure out what to do. Minutes passed before any sort of rescue truck arrived. Purley tried in vain to flip the car right side up by himself but got no assistance from the course workers. Williamson died while still trapped in his car - though interestingly not from the fire. Instead, he suffocated and must have endured an agonizing death on the track.



  1. Thanks for sharing the memorable events of car racing games. The 1973 event is really touching.

  2. Thanks for this. As a 13 and 14 year old i saw those races in Long Pond and thought it was great Petty was there. The USAC stocks was what I thought would be the only stocks I would see at Pocono,since it was a solid IndyCar area. How times changed that idea.