Saturday, December 13, 2014

December 13, 1971: The King's Vietnam Visit

On December 12, 1971, NASCAR's top drivers concluded the inaugural Winston Cup season at Texas World Speedway in College Station. Richard Petty won the Texas 500 after a week's delay because of a rain-out on December 5th.

The upside of the week's delay was Petty (1) won his 21st race of the season and (2) was able to cement his standing as champion of the 1971 season - the first under the new branding of Winston Cup Grand National Series.

The downside of the delay was Petty had to wait a week to join a great gesture with other racing drivers. On December 6th, a contingent of Don Garlits from NHRA drag racing; Wally Dallenbach Sr., Art Pollard, and Bill Vukovich Jr. from USAC open wheel racing; and Butch Hartman from USAC's stock car division headed to Vietnam to visit American servicemen.

When rain postponed NASCAR's season-ending race by a week, Petty had his scheduled altered as well. After his win in Texas on December 12th, the King departed for Vietnam on Monday, December 13th.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
Earlier this year, Petty recalled the trip in a 12 Questions column with USA Today writer Jeff Gluck:
Q: Obviously, you've had a lot of amazing experiences away from racing through your job over the decades. What's one that sticks out as being really special?

A: I've done so much. Been all over the world. But we went to Vietnam for a few weeks for one of them Christmas deals (visiting troops) and I really enjoyed that. It was kind of miserable to do it, but to see what these guys in the service have to go through, it gives you a different perspective when you see them and talk to them and thank them for being able to do what we want to do.

Q: So this was actually during the Vietnam War?

A: Yeah, it was 1970 I think (actually 1971, according to drag racer Don Garlits' autobiography). There were four or five different guys who went over there, so we spent 20-some days over there (visiting troops who couldn't go home for Christmas).
Petty has long been known as a political conservative. He like others, however, wanted to see an end to the war - regardless of political leanings. Beginning in 1971, Petty Enterprises crewmen Richie Barz (or Reggie as referred to in the following article), his brother Les, and other PE shop guys welded a peace symbol head rest in the cars for the King and teammate Buddy Baker. 

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
In September 1971, the King (along with Pollard, Garlits, Vukovich, and over 100 other folks involved in racing) met at the White House and with President Nixon. A photo of the President, the King and the famed 43 Plymouth was used as the cover photo for the 1972 spring Bristol race program.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
In his book Tales from the Drag Strip, Garlits recalls about the trip to southeast Asia:
Back during the Vietnam War, President Nixon asked a bunch of racers around December if we'd go over to Vietnam and visit some of the kids who were fighting and weren't going to make it home for Christmas. So I spent 16 days rooming with Richard Petty in Saigon. I'll tell you, it was something I'll never forget when we had to helicopter  out to where the troops were in the field.

We took fire as we flew over the jungles, and we returned machine gun fire with the Viet Cong. Luckily, we were flying high enough that they couldn't hit us, but we could hit them. But the time I spent with Richard showed me he is a real person. What you see is what you get.
An AP wire story published about six months later in the San Bernadino Sun reported:
The troop of drivers were barely unpacked, the story goes, when Garlits and Hartman delighted the soldiers with an impromptu race in two 20-ton tanks. After Garlits had edged Hartman at the wire, one of the soldiers shouted, "Garlits, you jumped him, you jumped him." "Aw." said Garlits, "I heard him rev'ing his engine and figured it was time to go." 
Back: Ray Marquette, Art Pollard, General Creighton Abrams, 
Richard Petty, Butch Hartman
Front: Wally Dallenbach Sr., Don Garlits
Courtesy of The Pollard Family
Though the primary purpose of the trip was a goodwill gesture to share some joy from home with the troops, The King and Big Daddy found some time to talk the business side of racing. Garlits talked about his concerns with race purses, driver safety, etc. In turn, Petty apparently shared his perspectives and how NASCAR's drivers tried to address them through the Professional Drivers Association (PDA). That discussion led Garlits to organize the Professional Racers Association in 1972.

Source: Reading Eagle via Google News Archive
Petty's visit to support the troops as well as his visit to the Nixon White House helped earn him the prestigious 1971 Myers Brothers Award presented at NASCAR's annual awards dinner held in Charlotte NC on January 17, 1972. 

Source: Wilmington NC Star-News via Google News Archive
Lee Petty accepted the award of behalf of Richard. The King was already on his way to Riverside, California by way of Chicago and Los Angeles where he hammered out the details of a new and now legendary sponsorship agreement with STP for his Plymouth and Buddy Baker's Dodge.

Coincidentally, Art Pollard who was part of the contingent may have been the first driver to win in an STP Plymouth. He won a 200-mile Indy car race at the new Dover Downs International Speedway in August 1969.

Ray Marquette, who accompanied the racers to Vietnam, was a long-time reporter/photographer for the Indianapolis Star. He later became USAC's Vice President of Public Affairs. He, seven other USAC officials, and the pilot were tragically killed in a plane crash in April 1978.

General Abrams, included in the photo with the drivers, was appointed to Chief of Staff of the US Army in June 1972 - about six months after the drivers' visit. The army's M1 Abrams tank is named in his memory.

Edited December 14, 2014

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Night They Drove The Ol' Dart Down To Dixie

...with upfront apologies to Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and The Band...

By the early 1970s, Richard Petty was firmly entrenched as the King of NASCAR. He claimed his 4th Winston Cup Grand National title in 1972, won his fifth Daytona 500 in February 1974, and had tallied his 162nd career Cup / GN win on August 11, 1974 in the Talladega 500.

The Petty Enterprises team also had grown as a business. With factory backing from Chrysler Corporation, the team fielded other Plymouths and Dodges at NASCAR's top level with drivers such as Pete Hamilton and Buddy Baker. Petty Enterprises also became the go-to place for all sorts of parts for the hundreds of short track racers of the era.

In addition to selling parts, Petty Enterprises also built and sold 'kit cars' based on an idea developed by Larry Rathgeb of Chrysler. The idea was to provide a racer the opportunity to buy a ready-to-assemble Mopar through the Pettys. Chassis, engine, body. Purchase, assemble, paint, and race - and hopefully get the best of a Chevy Nova in the process.

Hamilton, Petty Enterprises' 1970 driver, shook down the Dodge Challenger version of the car.

Courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
I remember building a model in the late 1970s of a Dodge Dart kit version. Wish I still had that model - made the moves from my parents' house to three apartments. But then marriage ... and the first house ... and the merger of her stuff and our stuff. Alas, the model was sacrificed.

The kit car program was featured in the December 1973 and May 1975 issues of Stock Car Racing magazine. The May '75 issue also featured an article about Petty's venture to give the Dart a try of his own.

On Saturday, August 17, 1974, the Petty team decided they'd test the kit car in a representative environment - the track. On an off-weekend from Cup racing between Talladega and Michigan, the crew rolled into the legendary Dixie Speedway in Woodstock, Georgia - a track still operating today (web | Twitter)- to race in the track's feature event.

The race was no gimme match race. Petty also wasn't there to race someone else's car simply for show money (well, I'm sure he got plenty of show dough though). The team was there to put the kit Dart through its paces in a legit race against the established locals. When the night was over, however, the veteran Cup bunch humbly returned north to Level Cross.

Photo courtesy of Chris Hussey
Billy Biscoe worked for Petty Enterprises from the late 1960s on through much of the 1970s. He traveled with the team as they took the Dart to Dixie.
Dale Inman and Wade Thornburg carried the car to Dixie Speedway via the Chrome Goat and open Reid trailer. Richie Barz and I followed in a brand new Dodge Charger.

I can remember changing drivers in Spartanburg when we stopped for fuel. As I re-entered the I-85 south bound lanes, the wiring underneath the dash of that new Charger caught fire. Holy crap what's going on? Richie help me put it out. The plastic looms were melting and dripping down on my pants legs and burning through to my legs. Ouch that hurt. Richie passed me an open can of soda, and I poured it on myself trying to put out the fire on my pants. I could see the tow truck still going away from us, and we pulled over to the side of the road to find out what was really happening to this car. We found a shorted wire at the brake light switch so when the brakes were applied it shorted and caught the wiring on fire. The rest of the trip we had no brake lights!

When the traveling circus finally arrived in Georgia, we were welcomed by the Speedway promoters and were given preferred parking in the pit area. As I watched the locals come rolling in the cross-over gate, it became apparent to me that this was not just another race.
When qualifying began, Jody Ridley from nearby Chatsworth laid down the quickest lap and tied the track record. The Petty blue 43 Dart was a couple of tenths slower. The King lined up for a 20-lap heat race and was leading ... until. Billy McGinnis used a trick that all short-trackers do when they need to get a spot - they move someone! McGinnis nudged the 43 aside and took the win with Petty placing 2nd.

Photo courtesy of Chris Hussey
In the 100-lap feature, it was all Jody Ridley all night. He easily won the race as the 43 exited early with a failed transmission while running fifth.

More memories from Biscoe:
I do remember a ragged ol' Ford with a hot shoe driver running away from the rest of the field. Oh by the way, that old ford was driven by none other than Georgia's own Jody Ridley. We came back to Randleman with our tails tucked beneath our legs, and Chrysler engineers went back to Detroit to scratch their heads and spend more factory money.

Also on the return to NC, the tow truck followed the Charger home since we had no tail/brake lights. Just one of the several outings with the Kit Car Program. We also took it to Beltsville [Maryland] and Myrtle Beach - a match race with Bobby Allison and his old Nova - and Martinsville with Joe Millikan.
The May 1975 SCR article about the race at Dixie...

The race may not have gone Petty's way. But the team gained valuable information about the kit car and pocketed some nice spending money from Dixie's promoter to boot.

The kit car program continued for another few years as additional testing took place and cars were built and sold. Another driver who helped test the Challenger in addition to Pete Hamilton was a scruffy, mill town, struggling up-and-comer who was recommended by the legendary crew chief Harry Hyde: Dale Earnhardt.


Friday, August 15, 2014

August 15 - This day in Petty history

As I blogged my series about each of Richard Petty's 200 wins from August 2011 through July 2012, my hope was to:
  • blog about each of his wins
  • include an article or photo in each post
  • include as many personal accounts as possible, and
  • address other interesting aspects of each race beyond Ol' Blue getting the checkers.
Looking back, I've thought "Dang son, ya did it. Well almost..."

Two races eluded me. One was Petty's 10th career Grand National win at Starkey Speedway in Roanoke, VA. I couldn't find any photos, articles, program, ticket stub, or video, and no one I encountered along the way had any personal memories to share.

I've continued to revisit my posts and edit them as I find additional information. With the passing of another year, I'm now glad to say I can cross one of the two remaining wins off my list. I now have a new #200wins post vs. an edited one. I found an article about the August 15, 1962 Roanoke race in the archives of the Spartanburg Herald. I'm not sure if I overlooked it in 2011, if I didn't check that page, or what happened. But I now have it.

Jack Smith won the pole for the 18-car race with Petty to his right on the front row. Ned Jarrett, Bob Welborn and G.C. Spencer rounded out the top 10 starters for the 200-lap race on the quarter-mile paved oval.

At the drop of the green, pole-winner Smith grabbed the lead and rode the point for the first 8 laps. Third place starter and future NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett got by Smith on lap 9, and he paced the field for the next 152 laps.

With 40 laps to go, however, the King went door-to-door with Gentleman Ned and took the lead. Once out front, Petty put his Plymouth into the wind and went the distance to take the checkers. Richard won driving a #42 Petty Plymouth. The win was his first of only two victories with the number most commonly associated with his father, Lee Petty. (The second win in #42 was at Augusta in 1965.)

Four of the top five qualifiers finished up front - Petty as the winner, Jarrett in third, Welborn in fourth and Smith in fifth. Joe Weatherly finished second after starting seventh in Bud Moore's Pontiac.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
The sixth place finisher was Tom Cox in Cliff Stewart's Pontiac - a car Jim Paschal piloted for much of the season. Paschal left the team about two-thirds of the way through the 1962 season to go race for ... Petty Enterprises. Stewart hung around the sport as an owner for another two decades or so. He generally fielded entries in a handful of races during most of that time. He expanded to a full-time schedule in the 1980s with drivers such as Geoff Bodine and Rusty Wallace, and he earned his second and final win as a car owner in 1981 at Martinsville with Morgan Shepherd driving.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

August 7, 1966: A day of Blue and Yellow

Three years ago, I began a year-long project of blogging about each of Richard Petty's 200 wins. As I routinely reference many of the entries, I realize how little detail I included about the races as I began the series as compared to my content as I started winding down the series 10-12 months later. I've continued to tweak many of the blog posts as I learn new info, correct errors, find another photo or two, etc. - but I leave the original posted date "as is".

One of my posts was for Petty's win on August 7, 1966 in the Dixie 400 at Atlanta International Raceway. The victory was the King's 48th of his career but his first at Atlanta. I've got much more info I now want to include and decided to blog an entirely new post.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
The combo of blue and yellow at the race track could be interpreted in a few ways such as...
  • The blue flag with yellow stripe move-over flag often displayed to slower drivers as leaders approach them
  • Ricky Stenhouse's Best Buy Ford in contemporary times
  • Jim Vandiver in the good ol' days. 
But on August 7, 1966, the two primary storylines at Atlanta were Richard Petty's Petty Blue Plymouth and Junior Johnson's infamous Yellow Banana Ford driven by Fred Lorenzen.

NASCAR made several rules changes to slow Chrysler's hemi engine that dominated many races in 1964. As a result, Chrysler parked its Dodge and Plymouth teams for over half the 1965 season. With stars such as David Pearson and Richard Petty on the sideline, NASCAR finally compromised so the money drawing starts would return.

The compromise didn't sit well with the brass at Ford Motor Company so they sat their factory-supported teams for much of 1966. Cooler heads again prevailed, negotiations were held, some backs were scratched I'm sure, and eventually Ford returned to the series.

Meanwhile, FoMoCo clearly wanted cars on the track to help sell ones in the show room. While the finer points of the rule book were discussed behind closed doors, John Holman of Holman-Moody apparently approached independent car owner and retired driver Junior Johnson about building a car for H-M superstar Fred Lorenzen to race. Junior built a Ford alright - but it didn't measure up against its street counterpart at all.

Source: Ray Lamm collection
Long-time NASCAR journalist Tom Higgins wrote in 2012 for
Junior and his crew arrived at the track with a car that immediately ignited a barrage of fireworks and howls of protest from rivals. The car was supposed to be a Ford, but its profile looked like nothing that had come out of Detroit.

The front sloped downward, the roof was cut very low and the rear end was raised. Because the car carried sponsor Holly Farms’ yellow paint scheme, it was likened to a banana. 

Smokey Yunick, another imaginative car builder, had brought an equally strange-looking Chevelle to Atlanta for driver Curtis Turner.

A ruckus raged over both cars, but they were cleared to race by NASCAR, which rejected three other machines, including those of Ned Jarrett, Bernard Alvarez and Cotton Owens, fielding a Dodge for David Pearson. Owens’ car was rigged with a device to lower the vehicle from the cockpit after the race started.

Turning away Jarrett, Alvarez and Owens – while clearing the cars of Junior and Smokey – further fueled an already incendiary situation.

“I realize that Lorenzen and Turner are valuable drawing cards,” said an irate Owens. “But that doesn’t make what’s happening right.”

The discord doubled, both among fans and competitors, when Turner won the pole at 148.331 mph. Lorenzen qualified third fastest.

“I built the car because John Holman was a friend and he asked me to help him out,” a smiling Junior Johnson said years later. “He said, 'Build me something that will run,’ and I did.

“We had a heck of a time getting through inspection. We took that car to body shops all around Atlanta, making changes before we got it close enough for NASCAR to approve.”

Read more here:
Though the two primary storylines may have been the Petty and Lorenzen cars, they weren't the only ones. As referenced in Higgins' article, Curtis Turner won the pole in Smokey Yunick's #13 Chevrolet. Earl Balmer in Nord Krauskopf's Dodge timed second. The Banana started third - right behind Turner's car.

Turner had raced only a limited GN schedule since Bill France reinstated Turner in 1965 from a 'lifetime ban'. And Smokey had fielded cars in less than a dozen Grand National races - total - since 1961. Yet here was the pairing with the quickest lap at Atlanta. Many believe Holman wanted that Junior Johnson specially-built Ford to run as a counter to what was expected to be a similarly tricked-up Chevy out of Smokey's Best Damn Garage in Daytona Beach.

The race had a double-helping of Petty Blue as Marvin Panch drove a second Petty Plymouth. It was Pancho's second of four starts for the Pettys in 1966. Unfortunately he lost the clutch, ended up in the fence, and finished 28th.

Ol' Blue and the Yellow Banana side by side - albeit in Black and White.

Schaefer Ring of Honor member "Bruton" (also known to many as as GaPettyFan) recalls:
The 1966 Dixie 400 - my first race and I had yet to even turn three. I don’t remember the events prior to the race, but my grandfather told me later that on the pace laps he picked up one of us while my Dad hoisted my twin brother. They pointed out Ol’ Blue and told us, “See that blue car? That’s Richard Petty. That’s who we pull for.” The King won my first time out! He started fifth, led 90 laps, and earned $13,525 for his efforts. [TMC: dang good memory for a kid who was three at the time!] My Dad had a brand new, bright red ’66 Chevelle that was gorgeous. He got good and drunk that day. After the race some poor schmoe backed into it. My Dad immediately jumped out of the car (my Grandfather was driving) and wanted to fight the guy. Yes, I come from impressive stock. I was so scared I peed all over myself. Sadly, I remember that part.
The big personalities of the race, however, didn't deliver. Turner lost a distributor in Smokey's engine around the halfway point of the race. Then a few laps later, Lorenzen blew a tire, slipped on a peel, and wrecked Junior's Yellow Banana. After starting first and third, the two cars finished 23rd and 24th.

Meanwhile, who spent the most time up front? The Mopars - the brand that dominated in 1964 - routinely flexed its muscle again in 1966. The Petty Blue 43 Plymouth paced the field for 90 of the race's 267 laps, and Buddy Baker led 62 laps en route to a second place finish in Ray Fox's Dodge.

Petty flashes across the finish line as he takes the checkers.

Time in victory lane never sucks - especially when you're the King.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
Article courtesy of Jerry Bushmire


Monday, August 4, 2014

August 4, 1956: The OK Race ... That Wasn't

On August 3, 1956, Jim Paschal won NASCAR's only Grand National division race completed in the state of Oklahoma - a 200-lap feature at the state fairgrounds in Oklahoma City.

A day later, the same twelve GN cars that raced in OKC towed to Tulsa for what was to be a second GN event in the state - a 200-lap race on the city's half-mile dirt track. However, things didn't go exactly according to plan though for Tulsa Time.

As best I can tell, the event remains the one race in NASCAR's GN/Cup history that was scuttled mid-race and simply wiped from the record books.

Though the race was scheduled as  the first Grand National race in Tulsa, it wasn't the first NASCAR event at Tulsa's fairgrounds. Twenty entrants from NASCAR's short-lived convertible series raced in Tulsa on June 2, 1956. Frank Mundy won the 200-lap race held about two months before the GN cars arrived.

Based on the limited information I've found, Speedy Thompson seems to have won the pole with Ralph Moody beside him (later to become half of the powerful Holman-Moody team of the 1960s). NASCAR Hall of Famers Fireball Roberts, Lee Petty and Buck Baker rounded out the top 5 starters.

The field took the green flag as scheduled. With qualifying completed and the race underway, that's about as far as the planned events got.

In 2011, Mark Aumann wrote about the race at Key excerpts from his article follow:
Lee Petty had led 168 laps before he broke a differential with seven laps to go [TMC: at OKC], so he was already in a bad mood by the time he pulled into Tulsa. So imagine the surprise and disappointment that he and the other teams had when they realized the fairgrounds "track" was nothing more than a large expanse of dry hard-pan clay, set off with traffic cones to demarcate the turns. And even worse, according to one report, the only lights were a pair of bulbs that lit the grandstand area.

The 12 drivers from Oklahoma City who towed to Tulsa - plus John Schipper, who entered his convertible - reportedly argued with the promoters about their safety concerns, particularly after seeing the amount of dust kicked up during qualifying. But the weather was clear and a crowd of about 6,000 people showed up for the race, so the decision was made to go on with the show.

Almost immediately after the green flag dropped, the 13 cars began to create a huge dust storm, which covered everyone in the grandstand in a layer of red clay and made it almost impossible for the drivers to see more than a yard in front of them. As the sun began to set, the visibility got worse, as two cars crashed in the first 17 laps. At that point, no one dared try to make a pass for fear of unintentionally running into one another.

By Lap 32, Petty had had enough. According to reports, Petty pulled his Dodge into the infield, ran across the track, climbed into the flagstand, grabbed the red flag from the starter, and began waving it to stop the race. That set off an argument between the drivers, NASCAR officials and race promoters as the crowd became more and more unruly.

Local authorities were called in to restore order, the promoters eventually relented and refunded money to the fans, and NASCAR packed up and left. Although Speedy Thompson led all 34 laps from the pole, the race was declared abandoned and removed from the official record. No prize money was issued and no points were given.

Despite his mid-race mutiny, Petty was not reprimanded by NASCAR. In fact, his impertinence was probably welcomed, as Tulsa never returned to the schedule.
Accounts differ on how the race was unfolding at the time Papa Lee had seen enough. Aumann's account had Speedy Thompson leading every lap of the race up until the time Lee stopped things. Sportswriters indicated Lee was leading the race. Some said the race was stopped after 25 laps - others 25 miles. Aumann's article says the race was stopped after 34 laps. But as Mark Twain said "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

Source: Reading Eagle via via Google News Archive
Source: Wilmington Morning Star via Google News Archive
In the end...
  • the fans went home - some angry, some perplexed, some glad they got their money back
  • the writers had a different type of copy to file 
  • the drivers headed north to their next race - the only GN race at Road America in Elkart Lake, MN, and 
  • another head-scratching chapter was written in racing's history book.
With almost 60 years of hindsight, the story can be dismissed as a funny one - and one indicative of the intensity of Lee Petty as well as his concern for himself and the other drivers. Looking at it closer though, NASCAR officials should not have been surprised at what the track had to offer. Admittedly, the different era had different types of planning vs. what is available today. But with NASCAR's convertible series having raced at Tulsa just two months earlier, the suits at the beach had the opportunity to get feedback from the the drivers who raced and put it to use for the GN race.

Oh, and driver John Schipper mentioned in Aumann's article? He has the distinction of being the only driver to race in both the convertible and GN events at Tulsa. He didn't exactly have sterling results in either of them though - dead last in the former and next to last in the latter.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Schaefer 500s revisited

Back in 2010 - a lifetime ago in my blogging practices - I posted about each of the Schaefer 500 USAC Indy car races at Pocono. At the time, I threw them together quickly.
  • the date
  • the winner
  • a link to the results
  • a photo or two
Over the last week, I've edited each of them with more details about the race, additional photos, plus an article or two as well. I left the entries with their original posting date though I did add an 'edited' date. Here are links to each of the posts.
Bench Racing's series of Schaefer 500 posts ... the one blog to read when you're reading more than one.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

June 21, 1975: Neil and Woody in Nashville

With a subject line of Neil, Woody and Nashville, one might infer this post would be about folk protest music. Instead, it's one about racing as is always the case here ... well, that and Schaefer beer.

A couple of times in the mid to late 70s, my family went to Nashville's fairgrounds speedway for a dual ARCA / NASCAR Late Model Sportsman night. Both races were 200 laps...I think. While I don't remember the specifics of any of them including the winners, I do remember a few general themes:
  • My dad wanted to see the a handful of drivers race: L.D. Ottinger, Harry Gant, and Butch Lindley.
  • The ARCA race always seemed to have a lot of wrecks which extended its duration and delayed the start of the LMS race.
  • My dad groused about how late it was getting without the LMS race being completed. (He is now 79 and still whines about that situation.)
  • I just wanted to see cars race lap after lap regardless of the time.
On June 21, 1975, the track hosted such a double header though the LMS race was only 100 laps and didn't draw as many of the national touring drivers. I don't think we attended this race as our regular visits began in 1976.

The late model sportsman race was sponsored by Uniroyal Tires. As a promotion, track promoter Bill Donoho brought in the stunt driving team of Uni, Roy, and Al. Yes, seriously.

Except that particular evening the trio simply made an appearance and distributed photos vs. thrilling the crowd with their driving skills. I'm guessing in retrospect the appearance fee probably wasn't quite large enough to cover the stunts.

The Tennessean - June 20, 1975
Darrell Waltrip, the all-time wins leader at the the time at the fairgrounds and a two-time track champion in 1970 and 1973, had moved on to the Winston Cup series. As matter of fact, he'd won his first Cup race a month or so earlier in the Music City USA 420. In June, he returned to the fairgrounds with the plan to run in both races.

The Tennessean - June 21, 1975
The late Neil Bonnett raced a Bobby Allison-prepared 1972 Chevy Nova to the win in the 100-lap LMS race. The car was similar to this one (perhaps the same one) that Bonnett raced in the 1975 Falls City 200 at the fairgrounds earlier in the month.

Credit: Russ Thompson
Ohio driver and beer distributor, Woody Fisher, won the opening 100-lap ARCA feature. Coo Coo Marlin, a four-time Nashville late model champion, stepped away as did Waltrip from his regular gig as a Cup driver to race in the ARCA event. He laid down the quickest lap in qualifying in his Cunningham-Kelly Chevrolet - almost as if he might know how to get around the place!

Waltrip's night for the fans didn't go very well. He lost an engine in his borrowed car during qualifying for the ARCA race and missed the race. In the LMS race, he did what he could to pursue the bumper of Bonnett's car. But he experienced engine issues in that car as well, and he dropped out of the main feature.

Fisher has been featured in this blog previously - based on his piloting of a Petty Enterprises built Dodge Charger to a win in the 1977 ARCA 200 at Daytona.

Source: Chris Hussey
The Tennessean - June 22, 1975


Thursday, June 12, 2014

June 1982 Nashville Raceway: Sterlin vs. Mike

Though I've been a Petty lifer for 40 years, I followed the local late model hot shoes of Nashville's fairgrounds speedway (web | Twitter) from the mid 1970s through the early 1980s.

As the country celebrated the nation's bicentennial early and often throughout 1976, our family spent several Saturday nights at the track watching the rise of the Kiddie Corps. Four drivers had really caught the attention of the fan base as the track transitioned away from its earlier legends such as Darrell Waltrip, Flookie Buford and Coo Coo Marlin. The Kiddie Corps was comprised of:
  • Coo Coo's son Sterling
  • Mike Alexander, a bit of a protege of Waltrip and the son of R.C. Alexander for whom DW raced at Nashville
  • P.B. Crowell III, the son of another Nashville legend P.B. Crowell Jr. as well as a former owner for Waltrip
  • Dennis Wiser

By 1980, Marlin and Alexander had separated themselves from the other two. Crowell suffered a couple of tough wrecks, and in time he faded from the scene. Wiser didn't have the success of the other three, and his racing career wasn't lengthy.

Sterling, Mike and their teams had a full-on rivalry in the early 1980s. Both had an opportunity to race at the Cup level a few times though neither had yet made the full-time move. Week to week, it seemed the two were battling for the win. Whoever won, the other one often protested. After the inspectors tore the winner's car apart, the team needed a week or two to get back in the saddle giving the opportunity to the other one to win for a while. Back and forth it went.

Alexander was the first of the two to nab a track championship in 1978. Marlin countered, however, by winning back-to-back championships in 1980-1981.

On June 5, 1982 with the track having been renamed simply Nashville Raceway, the rivalry may have reached its apex. Alexander wrecked hard, and he and his team directed the blame towards Marlin.

The Tennessean - June 11, 1982
Marlin made a change around the same time that may have been as controversial as his run-in with Alexander - at least in his mother's eyes. Being a good ol' country boy, he often didn't enunciate the 'g' in his name. Hey, that's just the way we talk in middle Tennessee. I pronounce it the same way to this day: Sterlin vs. Sterling. So he dropped it - from his car...

...and from his uniform.

Larry Woody, beat writer for The Tennesseean, acknowledged the change and referred to Sterlin Marlin in his columns. Later, however, the 'g' returned. Apparently Marlin's mother made it very clear she named him STERLING. So honoring his mother's scolding, he returned to Sterling. (Though we all still just say Sterlin.)

The Tennessean - June 12, 1982
So while the heat from his mother over a 'g' may have affected Marlin, the pressure from Alexander, NASCAR, track officials, the fans, etc. did not. On June 12, a week after Alexander's wreck, Marlin continued his winning ways at Nashville by winning the 82-lap Tammy Wynette Grand American feature.
Throughout his Cup career, Marlin was known as a laid-back, Krystal Sunriser eating, no frills, throwback driver. He didn't talk smack and didn't court controversy. On that June night, however, Marlin went a little off script. He not only won the race, but he applied a faux-rookie stripe to his Coors Light Camaro just to add a bit of agitation to all of the critics. A yellow middle finger if you will.

The Tennessean - June 13, 1982

The Tennessean - June 16, 1982
Sterling continued his winning ways and three-peated with another track championship in 1982. He then caught a break and was hired by Roger Hamby to race for Winston Cup rookie of the year in 1983. Though he was no longer a fairgrounds regular week-to-week, he did return for certain races.

I went to the Cup qualifying session for the Marty Robbins 420 at Nashville in May 1983. In addition to the Cup cars being in town, the late model locals also ran a feature race. Sterling returned for double duty - this time with a new Pepsi / Beaman Automotive sponsored Pontiac.

And who else was there? Yep, Alexander. I remember my eyes shifting from one car to the other as the teams readied the rides for racing - with the occasional glance towards the other one.

Ah yes, racing rivalries. Nothing better.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

June 3, 1978: My first Cup race

As has been mentioned a time or two here over the years, one of my mother's older brothers introduced me to racing in 1974. For all the years I've known him, my uncle has seemingly lived a life of Laissez les bons temps rouler. I don't think there was any advance plans to go to Nashville's fairgrounds speedway that night. He just decided he wanted to go, drove to Nashville from about 90 minutes away, dropped by our house, asked my dad and me to join him, and off we went. I was hooked from the drop of the first green flag for the night's mini-stock races.

My aunt and uncle also took me to my first Winston Cup race - again in Nashville - on June 3, 1978 for the Music City USA 420. Again, he just made the decision to drive to town and stopped by my parents to see if I wanted to go. Though I can't recall specifically leaving our driveway, I'm sure I was in the car before my uncle could hug my mother and shake my dad's hand.

I bought my first race program that night - and still have it.

Only recently did I learn Nashville bought a ready-made program that was also sold by North Wilkesboro a couple of months earlier for its spring Gwyn Staley 400 race. I have no idea why someone would have approved the proof of the cover with U.S.A. 420 in quotation marks.

As noted on the program, Nashville's race was originally scheduled for Saturday May 13th. A week earlier, however, Talladega's Winston 500 was rained out. NASCAR rescheduled it for the following Sunday, May 14th - the day after Nashville's night race. As a result, Nashville was then forced to move its date to June 3.
Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
One of the pre-race stories written by Larry Woody, the long-time racing beat writer for The Tennessean, was about Jimmy 'Smut' Means. Means was the fairgrounds' local late model champion. In 1976, he made the decision to head for the big time and invest his efforts and resources into Cup racing. He remained an independent driver on the circuit for almost 20 years, and he remains in the sport today as a Nationwide Series car owner for driver Joey Gase. (Twitter)

Source: The Tennessean
Most remember Means for racing car number 52 in Cup. When he raced at the fairgrounds, however, he raced number 92. His car number was used in a promotional decal for the track in the mid 1970s. Billy Hagan's Stratagraph team with driver Skip Manning was regularly using 92 when Means got to Cup, so he adopted 52. 

I remember perusing the limited inventory of the souvenir stands on the concourse behind the grandstands (no driver-specific trailers in those days) - as my uncle presumably sought out a couple of cold beers. My aunt bought me this photo of Richard and Kyle Petty - a pic I still have. After holding it for all these years, I finally had the King autograph it at Phoenix in fall 2013. Next goal: Kyle.

Another long-time independent driver, Lennie Pond, won the pole for the race. Cale Yarborough qualified second, and two-time Nashville track champion Darrell Waltrip timed third in his #88 DiGard Gatorade Chevrolet. Dave Marcis and Benny Parsons rounded out the top 5. 

For the 1978 season, Pond caught a break and latched on with upstart car owner Harry Ranier. Pond had four other poles in 1978 - the second Nashville race, one at Bristol, and both Martinsville races. He also won his only career race in the Talladega 500 that summer. Yet he lost his ride after only one season. 

King Richard had an incredible run of success from 1972 through 1977 with the STP Dodge Charger. The body style became obsolete after the 1977 season, and Petty Enterprises chose to race the ill-fated, boxy Dodge Magnum. Though Petty led several laps in the Daytona 500 and at Wilkesboro, the car rarely had a nose for the front. The 43 accumulated a few top 10 finishes, but the finishes masked how non-competitive the Magnum was. The team raced the Magnum only six more times after Nashville before ditching it for a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. 

The nine-time Nashville winner qualified seventh for the 420. (Cup regular and former Nashville track champion Coo Coo Marlin started eighth. He needed relief driving help during the race and got it from his son, relative Nashville newcomer Sterling.)

Photo courtesy of Russ Thompson
The Magnum did find a second life, however, as the starter car for Kyle Petty. In his first professional race in Daytona's ARCA 200 in February 1979, Kyle won it racing one of Richard's discarded Magnum.

Back to Nashville...

The race wasn't very memorable - unless you were a Cale Yarborough fan. The Timmonsville Flash led every stinkin' lap. Green ones, yellow ones, during pit stops, all of them. Even with the 11 car pacing the field lap after lap, I was mesmerized as the track's lights rebounded from each of the cars on a muggy Nashville night.
Source: The Tennessean
Four races later, the Cup teams returned to the fairgrounds for the Nashville 420. Cale took it a bit easier on the competition by leading only 411 of the 420 laps. Four races after the second Nashville event, Cale dominated the Volunteer 500, Bristol's first race under the lights. The victory gave the #11 Junior Johnson team three wins in Tennessee's four races that season.

Pond showed his pole run was no fluke by finishing second to Cale - albeit two laps down to the winner. The 43 Magnum surprisingly had a good third place finish. Again, however, the finish wasn't reflective of the gap between the Dodge and other teams because Petty finished four laps down to Cale.

Unfortunately, the pre-race, feel-good story about Smut Means having success at a track he knew well didn't happen. He had ignition problems, lasted only 12 laps, and finished 30th - dead last.

Following the race as was the norm in those days, the track opened the gate in the fence below the starter's stand. Fans were allowed to cross over the track and mingle among the cars, crews and drivers. I had a single objective - find the King. As we pressed towards the transporters, my uncle grabbed me by the shoulder to slow my roll and said "Here comes Cale and Junior."

They were apparently being led back across the track for media interviews. In a decision based on teenaged Petty fandom and one I now regret, I looked at my uncle as if to say hell no. The 11 car had just punished the field by leading every lap and pummeled the 43 by four laps. Why would I want his autograph? A few years later, I had another opportunity to meet Junior Johnson and DID get his autograph. To this day, however, I've never had the second opportunity to meet Cale.

As my eyes searched for the day-glo red and Petty blue Magnum, I spotted a Petty Enterprises crewman who looked vaguely familiar. Then it clicked - it was Kyle Petty! He was one day beyond his 18th birthday and nearing his high school graduation. Then as is the case 30+ years later, he was kind enough to this kid to stop for a picture with my GAF 110 camera and sign my program with my pathetic Bic ballpoint pin.

Having the chance to meet Kyle affirmed my decision to pass on Cale and Junior. But quickly I resumed my search. Finally, I spotted the STP transporter! It was a box truck with an open flat-bed trailer. The car wasn't there yet, but I was trying to get in a position so my aunt could take my photo with the transporter in the background. As she was about to snap, my uncle walked up and started laughing. He pointed to a car being pushed to the trailer. It was Buddy Arrington's #67 Magnum instead of the 43. Arrington, yet another independent driver of the era, often bought gently used Petty equipment with his limited funds - including the transporter. I had a lot of admiration for Buddy, but I was clearly at the wrong spot.

My panic mode began to amp a bit by then as I tried to figure out where the car was. If you've ever seen an STP race car live, you know how vibrant that day-glo red can be. How could I not find it? Finally, we spotted it already loaded on the truck down near the 'garage' area entrance by turn 1. (Nashville's garage was actually just an inner loop between the quarter-mile inner race track and the .596-mile outer speedway.)

I broke into a run to get there and made it in time. I didn't meet the King, but at least I did get to stand by my hero's car. Looking back, perhaps I should have taken the time to seek out Richard, Maurice Petty, Dale Inman, or any other crewman. Shoot, by then my 'in' was Kyle who I'd just met. Maybe I should've leveraged my friendship with him! But as it was, I had a smile permanently pasted on my face after seeing the car up so close.

We returned to the pits where we ran into two drivers who later sadly lost their lives doing what they loved - racing.
  • J.D. McDuffie
  • Neil Bonnett
After we got home and went in the house, I of course told my folks about the 43 car, meeting Kyle, and such. My uncle then announced "He's coming with us for the night." He was working a construction job in Hartsville, TN, about an hour from Nashville. He and my aunt were staying with friends in the area during the duration of the job. He didn't ask my parents if I could go with them to spend the night. He told them I was going. It was just his personality style that my parents knew well.

I don't remember if I fell asleep on the way there - or if I babbled all the way (likely the latter). But after all these years, I do remember how much it meant for them to take me to the race, help me find the 43, and treat me as if it was me who was the king that weekend.

As the decades have passed, my uncle and I don't get to see each other as often. But when we do, the conversation always and quickly turns to racing.