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.


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