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.