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.


1 comment:

  1. Unlike today's cars, there was definitely no guessing who was sponsoring Pearson's #17 at Bristol, was there?