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.