Saturday, March 28, 2015

March 28, 1971: Rivals Battle At Bristol

After more than two decades as the Grand National division, NASCAR's top series was re-branded as the Winston Cup Grand National Series in 1971. The importance of R.J. Reynolds' infusion of financial support and marketing cannot be overstated.

With the exception of Chrysler Corporation's backing of Petty Enterprises' two-car Plymouth and Dodge effort, all other teams were on their own to find the needed level of sponsorship dollars to compete. Even Holman Moody, the long-supported Ford Motor Company team, was on its own - and on its last legs.

The ninth race of the inaugural "Winston Cup" season was the Southeastern 500 at Bristol International Raceway. David Pearson won the pole with his now-independent Holman Moody team. Rival Richard Petty timed second in his pre-STP, all-Petty blue Plymouth. Petty arrived at Bristol on a hot streak of 3 consecutive wins at Richmond, Rockingham and Hickory.

From 1967 through 1970, Pearson's team was backed almost exclusively by Ford. The quarter-panels would occasionally sport the name of a local car dealer; otherwise, factory-backing toted the note. With the loss of factory dollars, Holman Moody (or perhaps Pearson) secured the support of Purolator Oil Filters. Purolator also sponsored the part-time effort of the Wood Brothers Mercury driven in 1971 by Donnie Allison. (Side note: how did that ever come to be?) Allison's car was painted in the traditional Wood Brothers white and candy apple red colors - which complimented Purolator's logo. Pearson's #17 Ford was distinctly different with a red roof, white hood and blue sides (and red wheels in a few races).

At the drop of the green, Pearson set sail from his top starting spot. He then proceeded to lead about the first 10% of the race. After 48 laps, third place starter Bobby Allison went to the point in his self-owned, Coca-Cola sponsored Dodge Charger. Allison then set the pace for 78 of the next 79 laps.

After Allison's time out front, true independent and 1966 GN Rookie of the Year, James Hylton, took the lead and spent several dozen laps out front. Pearson stayed near him and finally decided to make a move to re-take the lead. Rather than smoothly glide by Hylton's Ford, Pearson squirrelled as he attempted the pass. He hooked Hylton's #48, and both spun. Hylton got the worst end of the incident and was done for the day at only lap 180.

Source: National Speed Sport News
With Hylton parked, Allison's set-up fading, and Pearson recovering from his self-induced spin, The King seized control of the race. Over his career, Bristol wasn't one of Petty's better tracks as compared to other shorties such as Richmond, Martinsville, Nashville and North Wilkesboro. On that day, however, he took off and led almost half the race - 233 of the next 238 laps - to build a pretty comfortable, quarter-to-half lap lead on Pearson. Until.

Source: The Times-News via Google News Archive
The fickle finger of fate can touch anyone, anywhere and at anytime during a race. With solid command of the race and about 80 laps to go, Petty suddenly felt a vibration through turns 1 and 2 and realized he had a problem with one of his front wheels. He was carrying too much speed, however, and was unable to duck down the backstretch pit road to his stall (back when Bristol had two separate pit entrances). Sure enough, as he sailed through turns 3 and 4, the center hub broke loose from his right front wheel. The steel doughnut took off with a mind of its own, and the King limped down the front stretch with a not-so-graceful tricycle approach. The second time around, he had slowed sufficiently to hit pit road to replace the wheel.

Though the 43 soon had new shoes, his lead was gone. He went back on the track and set sail in pursuit of Pearson. But the Silver Fox would have none of it. He began to end the race just as he had started it - out front. Petty continued his chase of the 17, but could draw no closer than 3 to 4 seconds of the Purolator Ford as it took the checkers.

Source: Bristol Motor Speedway by David McGee & Sonya Haskins
Had it not been for a broken wheel, Petty could possibly have 201 Grand National / Cup wins in the record books. But he doesn't. Instead, Pearson notched his 60th career victory - and his final win with Holman Moody.

Source: The Times-News via Google News Archive
Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
After the mid-race incident with Hylton, Pearson re-grouped, instinctively thought fuhgetaboutit, and raced for the win. Hylton, however, didn't get over it quite as easily. Once he parked his wrecked Ford, he made his presence known in the Pearson pits. Co-owner Ralph Moody went on record as saying he - and Pearson - would cover the costs of Hylton's repairs. I'd be interested to know if those checks were ever written.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Pearson won two championships and a boocoodle of races in Holman Moody's #17 Ford from 1967-1970. By 1971, however, the in-fighting between John Holman and Ralph Moody combined with the cessation of Ford's monetary support resulted in a tenuous situation for Pearson. His tenure with the team lasted only five more races following Bristol. He raced a handful of times the rest of the season with Ray Nichels with very little success. In 1972, he replaced Donnie Allison as the driver of the Wood Brothers' Mercury - a move Petty fans eventually exclaimed you've GOT to be kidding me!

After his 1971 Bristol win, Pearson didn't race at the track again for seven more years. He returned to run a final time in 1979 in a substitute role in the Rod Osterlund #2 Chevy as rookie Dale Earnhardt recovered from injuries suffered at Pocono.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

March 26, 1989: A dismal day for Petty Enterprises

On March 26, 1989, Rusty Wallace won the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond. His win was the second of six victories that season as he eventually earned his first and only Winston Cup title.

But Rusty's win was not the story of race weekend...

About a year earlier, Richard Petty had an awful wreck in the 1988 Daytona 500. Before a national TV audience, Petty's 43 pirouetted on its nose before getting t-boned by Brett Bodine. Fortunately, the King was more bruised than broken. Some speculated Petty would immediately retire.

Retire?? No way. Instead, Petty did what racers do. He belted in the next week to run 400 laps on the bullring of Richmond. Following a third place finish in the Pontiac 400, a tired and sore King Richard climbed aboard an STP-emblazoned bulldozer for a celebratory tearing up of the old half-mile speedway.

It was the first visible step in converting Richmond's facility to the modern 3/4-mile track still raced today. Though worn out from a tough race and a body bruised from the 500, he smiled after the race and took a seat in the dozer as the all-time winner at Richmond.

Six months later, the new facility was in place for its September debut. The second race on the new surface, the Pontiac Excitement 400, was again scheduled for late February 1989.

Mother Nature, however, had different plans. With the teams already in town, winter weather arrived and forced track promoter Paul Sawyer to cancel the weekend's events because of ice and snow.

Credit Donald Evans
With a packed schedule in the early months of 1989, Sawyer and NASCAR were forced to reschedule the race for the not-so-desirable Easter weekend. The scheduled was condensed to a two-day event with qualifying on Saturday and the race on Easter Sunday, March 26th.

Geoff Bodine won the pole and Wallace timed second during Saturday's qualifying session. Davey Allison swept the pole and the race on the new surface's debut the previous September. In February, however, his get-up-and-go got up and went. The #28 Havoline car had to settle for a provisional to make the field.

Once the dust settled on the single day of qualifying, the story turned out to be about the driver who would not be racing on Sunday. After 513 consecutive starts dating back to 1971, the King Richard's 43 failed to post a fast enough speed to make the show. Petty wasn't able to take advantage of the available provisionals, he elected not to run in a "hooligan" race with other non-qualifiers, and he chose not to buy a ride to continue the streak.

The Petty bunch tried to point out a technicality with Davey's provisional start. Harry Ranier sold his #28 team to Robert Yates after the 1988 season. The team marched forward into 1989 with the understanding Yates "bought" Ranier's owner points along with the shop and equipment. Petty contended that shouldn't be the case and the change in ownership meant Davey didn't have enough owner's points to earn the provisional. NASCAR reminded Petty that he entered his cars under the name of John Carrington in 1988 (a North Carolina gubernatorial candidate) before switching back to his own name in 1989. That point pretty well ended the discussion.

Dave Fulton recalls:
I'll never forget that day. My old friend, Paul Sawyer, the Richmond promoter, implored Bill France, Jr. to do anything to let Richard race. He offered to increase the purse and number of starting positions. I honestly believe Paul went to his grave hurt that it was at his track, where Richard was the all-time winner, that his string of consecutive starts would end. 
So just like that, *poof* the streak was over. Petty returned to the hauler, told his crew to load the car, and everyone headed back to Level Cross to enjoy Easter from the couch instead of at the track. Adding insult to injury was that Kyle Petty also failed to qualify at Richmond - his second time in four races with his newly formed team, SABCO Racing.

Courtesy of Brian Hauck    
I believe Petty Enterprises was all but finished as far back as 1982 or 1983. When Richard returned to Petty Enterprises in 1986, he nor the team could ever put the pieces back together to successfully recapture past glories. The sport had passed them by. PE continued its struggle to return to old glories but without a tremendous amount of success over the next 20 years - 3 more seasons with King at the wheel and the others with a rotating list of drivers. Ultimately, the team was absorbed into a 'merger' with Gillett Evernham Motorsports to form what has since become known as Richard Petty Motorsports.

One could argue, however, PE hit rock bottom when the King was unable to wring enough speed out of his Pontiac to qualify at a track that had been among his best (albeit on different configurations and surfaces).

Article courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
After the race, Pontiac execs likely exhaled slowly and ran their fingers through their hair. Granted, Wallace won the race in his Kodiak Pontiac. Otherwise, the race was a dismal showing by the the rest of the fleet. King and Kyle missed the race - as did Jimmy Means, J.D. McDuffie, Hut Stricklin and Ken Bouchard. For the Pontiacs other than Wallace that did make the show, the last 4 finishers all drove Pontiacs: Morgan Shepherd, Greg Sacks, Derrike Cope, and Jim Sauter.

The race was successfully completed on its make-up date as Rusty Wallace won comfortably over Alan Kulwicki and Dale Earnhardt. The drivers did what racers do - they raced. No one was going to bay at the moon at the King's absence because there was work to be done.

Fans, however, are wired much differently than drivers. For the Petty faithful, the DNQ by the 43 was a body blow as many finally recognized how fragile the once-dominant team had finally become.


Friday, March 6, 2015

March 6, 1977 - Jimmy Insolo wins Ontario

Through much of the 1970s, NASCAR's Winston Cup Series began its season in January at Riverside's road course in California. When Ontario Motor Speedway closed in the early 1980s, Riverside's season opener was moved to the end of the season. Then began the tradition begin of starting the season in February with the Daytona 500.

USAC had its own stock car division for about three decades from the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s. Though the division had several name drivers, many of them were 'double-dippers' - Indy car drivers who also raced in USAC's other divisions - including the stock car one.

USAC started its 1977 season with a twin-bill event at Ontario, another southern California track. Modeled after Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ontario was a track ahead of its time, but it was woefully underfunded. From the early 70s through 1980, Ontario was the site of NASCAR's season-ending race.

On March 6, 1977, the track promoted the Datsun Twin 200, a pair of 80-lap, 200-mile races for USAC's stock cars and Indy/Champ cars.

A couple of drivers - Bobby Unser and A.J. Foyt - were looking to turn the double by entering both events. Foyt threw down the gauntlet early by winning the pole for the stock car event in his #51 Chevelle. Making his first USAC stock car start, west coast regular, Jimmy Insolo, qualified on the front row alongside Super Tex in his Chevelle. Unser lined up behind Foyt in the third spot in his Camaro.

The 30-car field was a hodgepodge of cars. Some were from the muscle-car class of Detroit such as Unser's Camaro. Others ran full-size sedan models such as Foyt and Insolo in their Chevelles and the 8th place starter, Ohio's Woody Fisher in his 1974 Schlitz Beer Dodge Charger.

Fisher's Charger was built by Petty Enterprises and was the same one he raced to victory in the 1977 ARCA 200 at Daytona about a month earlier.

Foyt set the early pace and let the field know who was boss.

Source: Bakersfield Californian
Unser's day nearly ended before it really got going. With a nudge from Insolo, he spun off turn 3 on lap 16. Bobby sent up a plume of white tire smoke, but his car was otherwise unharmed. After a stop to replace his flat-spotted tires, he went back on the track and was a contender as the race neared its conclusion.

Source: Corona Daily Independent
Foyt was in control of the race though Unser had rallied. With 5 laps to go, however, Super Tex cut a tire and began to fade. Foyt's misfortune quickly became a huge opportunity for others. Insolo's hulking Chevelle and Unser's small Camaro hooked up in the race to the finish. The duo swapped the lead eight times in the final four laps.

Unser took the white lap with Insolo in tow. With the checkers in sight, the two drivers came upon a slower car. Unser went to the inside, and Insolo jumped to the outside putting the lapped car in the middle of a 3-wide sandwich. Insolo carried the momentum off the corner and won by less than a car-length over Unser.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
Though the race was Insolo's first USAC stock car race, it was not his first Ontario race nor his first close win. A year earlier, he narrowly defeated L.D. Ottinger in a 250-mile NASCAR late model sportsman race.

Foyt managed to keep his ride under him and came home a disappointing third. Chuck Bown - who later won NASCAR's Busch Series championship in 1990 - finished fourth, and Ron Hutcherson rounded out the top five. Full-time beer distributor and part-time racer Woody Fisher brought home the Petty-built Charger tenth.

Foyt's day wasn't a complete loss. After finishing third in the day's opener, he dusted the field to easily win the Indy car main event race.

The two winners

Photo courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
Source: Corona Daily Independent
Two years later, Insolo played a significant role in Richard Petty's seventh Winston Cup title. When The King needed relief help in the NAPA 400 at Riverside, Insolo was called upon to belt into the 43. He rallied the STP Monte Carlo to a third-place finish behind second-place finisher Darrell Waltrip. Considering Petty won the title over Waltrip by a razor-thin margin, Insolo was instrumental in Petty getting his seventh Cup.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

March 1, 1970: An 1ndependent Has H1s Day

Some folks who have become a NASCAR fan only within the last 20 years or so may have tuned in to the most recent NASCAR Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies just to see Bill Elliott. Some may have heard of Wendell Scott or Fred Lorenzen, but they may not have known some of the others - including the presenters.

James Harvey Hylton is one man I suspect many contemporary fans didn't recognize that night. Hylton wasn't inducted into the Hall, but he was there to present the Hall of Fame ring to his friend and former employer, Rex White.

If you saw that night's events, you'll recall poor ol' James didn't get to say much. White was so excited about being inducted that he pre-empted Hylton's remarks before James even got a chance to begin! Hylton didn't seem to mind though. He stood quietly and patiently by his friend's side - biding his time until the moment was right.

In some respects, that typified Hylton's driving career. Hylton began his racing career as a mechanic. He crew'd for drivers such as White, fellow NASCAR HOFer Ned Jarrett and Dick Hutcherson. He joined the Grand National ranks as a drive and was named NASCAR's 1966 Rookie of the Year. He finished second to David Pearson for that season's title - despite not winning a race.

Hylton knew his way around a car and around a track, but the promising young driver just could not find his way to victory lane. Not in 1966 or 1967 or so on. Hylton was an independent driver. He bought and built his own stuff and did not have financial advantages of being associated with a factory-supported race team. Yet he rolled in to the track each race and gave it all he had.

The 1970 season began in Riverside, California in mid-January. Super Tex A.J. Foyt won the race, but Hylton trekked back east with a 35th place finish after losing an engine in his Dodge. In late February, folks were stunned when a Petty Plymouth Superbird won the second race of the season, the Daytona 500 - but without The King at the wheel. Pete Hamilton pulled off the surprising victory to become a first-time GN winner.

As the Petty team celebrated, Hylton's Speedweeks was pretty only so-so. He wrecked his recently acquired Ford during practice before the qualifying twins and had to borrow a year-old #23 Plymouth from owner Don Robertson to race to a 22nd place finish in the 500.

One week after Daytona, the GN circus rolled into Richmond, Virginia for the season's third event. After racing the winged Superbird in the first two races of the season, Richard Petty went to his bread-and-butter, short-track special, Plymouth Roadrunner. With the ease that Petty got around Richmond, no one was all that surprised when he won the pole.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Fellow Mopar driver, Bobby Isaac, timed second in his short-track #71 K&K Insurance Dodge. Hylton was perhaps a mild surprise in qualifying with the third quickest time in his Ford. His Blue Oval, however, wasn't just any Ford.

Perry Allen Wood interviewed Hylton for his book Declarations of Stock Car Independents:
I had just bought a Holman Moody Ford, an ex-David Pearson car. I run it under Pearson’s colors. It was pretty. We just had time to put the 48 decals on it... Picked it up at Holman Moody, Ralph Moody set the car up, took it up to Richmond, unloaded it, qualified either second or third... Petty had the hotrod. He was the fastest car there. He was factory backed, I was independent. Havin’ a Holman Moody car kind of put us on an equal basis temporarily anyway. ~ p. 229
Courtesy of Jeff Droke
Though Hylton was excited to have his new ride, it was business as usual for the big boys. When the green flag dropped, Petty leveraged the top starting spot to begin his domination of the race. He led 303 laps and buried the field by lapping every competitor multiple times. As the race hit the 300 lap mark, he had second place running Isaac pinned down three laps and third place Hylton six laps.

Courtesy of Ray Lamm
But racing luck can be fickle. With the race solidly in hand, the 43 developed electrical issues. The King hit pit road - yet the #43 stayed as P1 on the leader board for the next few laps as Isaac circled to make up lost ground.

Petty's problem could not be solved quickly, and his huge cushion quickly evaporated. Meanwhile, Isaac took over the top spot and paced the field for about the next 40 laps. It seemed Petty's misfortune became a gift to Isaac who had a multi-lap lead on Hylton. As with Petty's Plymouth, however, Isaac's Dodge experienced an unexpected problem. An oil line came loose, and the 71 was forced from the lead to the pits.

Hylton then found himself in the lead with the top two Mopars having issues. He went from being six laps down to Petty to having a three lap lead on the 43. Yet, the Dale Inman-led Petty crew didn't crater. With the electrical issues resolved, Petty resumed his assault on the track. He clicked off lap times far better than Hylton - yet he was running out of time.

Remarkably, Petty made up the three laps on Richmond's half-mile bullring. He then tried to track down Hylton's Ford to get the win I'm sure he felt he'd earned. Hylton, however, didn't waver either. He hit his marks, kept a good pace, and led lap after lap after lap for the final 160 circuits.

With Petty within range, Hylton kept the big picture in mind. Finally the white and then the checkered flags fell over him, and James Hylton was able to notch that elusive Grand National victory - the second first-time winner in two weeks.

Hylton continued in Wood's book:
Richard had trouble early with his ignition. They lost several laps gettin’ his car runnin’ again. He was unlappin’ himself to the point where at the end I won the race by 15 seconds, which on a track of that size was a good half a lap. He was within 15 seconds of havin’ a shootout… That’s the hardest I probably ever drove in my life. That was before we had power steering. And 500 laps! It wasn’t no 300 or 400, it was 500 laps. At the end of the race, you had to pry my hands off the steerin’ wheel. Had gloves on of couse, and blisters through the blisters. My hands were like raw steak or somethin’…  In the end, it was Petty and myself and was, without question, the best race I ever drove. ~ p. 229
Courtesy of Ray Lamm
Source: Times-News via Google News Archive
Hylton had to wait two more seasons to see victory lane again. He won the Talladega 500 in 1972 - a track five times the size of Richmond. But that was it - those were his two GN/Cup wins. He continued racing and ended his driving career with 602 Cup starts. Hylton continued to stay active in racing with almost 200 ARCA starts as well as fielding cars for up-and-coming young drivers.

Yet on that winter Virginia day in 1970, Hylton's independence prevailed. He was finally able to convert the 48 into a #1.