Tuesday, July 14, 2015

July 14, 1966: Pearson, Petty and Putney the Putz

Fonda Speedway hosted its first NASCAR Grand National race in 1955. Junior Johnson split the laps led with Tim Flock about 50/50. Flock led the first half of the race, and Junior led the second half to claim the win.

After that race, the Grand National division didn't return to Fonda for eleven years until July 14, 1966. The track became part of the "northern tour" along with tracks such as Trenton Speedway in New Jersey; Islip Speedway on Long Island; Oxford Plains in Maine; Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta, NY; and Bridgehampton Raceway's road course in New York.

The half-mile, dirt Fonda Speedway - just shy of an hour west of Albany NY - was built along the banks of the Mohawk River. A 2011 Hemmings.coms article described the track as such:
...Fonda is a profoundly quirky place. The backstretch, once a canal towpath, was aligned to miss a cemetery (whose graves proved to be empty when they were later moved). That gave the track an odd elliptical shape, with one end cramped and the other no-lift wide. Errant cars have plunged into the Mohawk River, and still do. The grandstand was thrown up in three old sections. It's weirdly wonderful.

The "garage area" was least green in July 1966 rather than 10 acres of dusty dirt or muddy slop. Plus, crews had little time to do much tweaking of their cars. The teams' tight schedule over that mid-July stretch was:
  • July 7 - Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, VA
  • July 10 - Bridgehampton Raceway in New York
  • July 12 - Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine
  • July 14 - Fonda
  • July 16 - Islip Speedway on Long Island
Tiger Tom Pistone made his one and only Fonda start in 1966. He is shown sporting a grin for a couple of reasons:
  • He qualified fifth (though an engine issue relegated him to a 20th place DNF).
  • He was wearing an epic Batman t-shirt - presumably for the Adam West-led TV series that debuted in January 1966.
Credit: John Grady
Another driver with a big smile on his face was Bobby Allison. He had won his first GN race two days earlier at Oxford Plains Speedway in his trusty Chevelle.

Source: Bobby Winnett at Randy Ayers Modeling Forum
Richard Petty claimed the pole in his Hemi-powered #43 Plymouth. Independent driver J.T. Putney timed second. Tiny Lund, 1965 GN champion Ned Jarrett and Tiger Tom rounded out the top five starters.

When the green flag waved, Putney took advantage of the rare occasion of starting up front. He went toe-to-toe with Petty, led the first lap, and settled into an early groove to lead the first 30 laps or so. Then on lap 35 - after losing the lead to Petty - things didn't go quite so well for Putney. One writer went so far as to say Putney pulled one of the ten dumbest moves in racing. Ever. With all the dumb things racers have done, that is saying something to be in the Top 10.

From the 2011 Hemmings.com article:
J.T. Putney started the #19 car ... on the front row alongside Richard Petty and took the lead. I had been standing in turn two with my camera and shot this photo when Putney hit the backstretch fence. I would say he was driving over his head because you could see him coming off two and hitting the fence with his back end, lap after lap, until Putney finally went so high he was forced to take the lower tow road, which was kind of an escape road. There was quite a drop down to the tow road, probably 10 feet. Putney stayed on it and roared back up on the track right in front of Tiny Lund, who hit him and caused a pileup. Putney and Lund were two huge guys who then confronted each other in the infield. Supposedly, Tiny punched Putney and knocked him unconscious. NASCAR fined Tiny for doing it, but I still think that Putney just fainted.
Source: Hemmings.com. Credit: Frank Simek.
Bobby Allison started the race with a smile on his face. But the smile quickly turned to a look of concern when he realized his Chevelle had been shortened on both ends - simply because of a bone-headed, reckless move. Lyle Stetler had to be furious as well. He had two cars taken out in the avoidable accident - one driven by him and the other by Tiny who settled matters with Putney for both of them.

Source: The Leader-Herald
Buddy Baker in #00 was making his second of five consecutive starts for car owner Emory Gilliam. Though he started sixth, a faulty axle relegated him to 19th place finish in the 31-car field.

Source: Hemmings.com. Credit: Frank Simek.
A couple of weeks after the Fonda race, Baker and Gilliam signed a unique sponsor for Bristol's Volunteer 500. John Jay Hooker - lawyer, political gadfly, and CEO of STP Corporation in the mid-1970s - ran for governor of Tennessee in 1966. He incorporated his name into the appropriately numbered car driven by Baker.

Petty assumed the lead after Putney's unfortunate trip out of the track, down the access road, through the cemetery, back onto the track, and into a wad of other cars. He paced the field for 13 laps before his career rival, David Pearson, assumed the lead.

Pearson led about 40 laps before Tiger Tom made his presence known. Tiger set the pace for 32 laps before having to make a pit stop. As Tiger's car hit pit road for service, Petty's 43 took back the lead for four laps. Pearson then again took the lead from Petty in a script played out frequently over a two-decade period.

The King got back around Pearson with just under 50 laps to go. With less than 40 to go, however, Pearson in his #6 Cotton Owens' Dodge took the lead yet again. Petty hung tight with Pearson and hounded him constantly over the remaining laps.

With a couple of laps to go and Petty in hot pursuit of Pearson's lead, the 43 broke loose. Petty lost the car but gathered it to soldier on. The gap was enough, however, to allow Pearson to roll on the remaining circuits and nab his eleventh win of the season. Petty still managed to finish second, and home track racer Rene Charland finished third in his seventh of nine career GN starts.

Photo courtesy of Ray Lamm
The race was the 14th time Pearson and Petty finished in the top two spots. Over their careers, that stat grew to a remarkable string of 63 races through 1977.

Source: The Leader-Herald
Though the King came up a little bit short in 1966, he returned in 1967, won the pole again, dominated the race, and claimed the Fonda 200 win. Though he didn't win the pole in 1968, he again led the most laps (180 of 200) and picked up another trophy in the Grand National division's final race at Fonda.

Remarkably, Allison managed to race his car the next race. He took his demolished Chevelle to a cousin living in New York. Over a two-day period, the front fenders and hood were replaced and the rear of the car rebuilt. Allison made the show at Islip Speedway much to the surprise of NASCAR officials. He not only qualified for the race - but he won his second career GN race four days after his first victory.


1 comment:

  1. Great report. JT Putney was my first Grand National hero. Putz is strong, but accurate, I guess, on the night in question!