Wednesday, August 26, 2015

August 26, 1957 - Gwyn Staley Wins Myrtle Beach

From the late 1980s through 2000, NASCAR's Busch Series (now Xfinity) raced at Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina. Prior to its branding as Myrtle Beach Speedway, the track was known as Rambi Speedway. Rambi hosted Grand National (later Cup) races from 1958 through 1965.

Rambi replaced another Myrtle Beach track - Coastal Speedway. Coastal was just a couple of blocks from the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean and hosted two GN races. Fireball Roberts won the first one in 1956, and the drivers were back for the second and final 200-lap race at Coastal on Saturday night, August 24, 1957. Because of South Carolina's blue laws, the race was moved to Monday evening vs. running it on Sunday.

Source: The Robesonian via Google News Archive
Johnny Allen surprised the other drivers and the fans by putting his Plymouth on the pole on the half-mile dirt track. His top spot was the first of only three career poles for Allen. Fireball started second in a Ford. Gwyn Staley qualified third in Julian Petty's Chevrolet. Lee Petty and Jack Smith rounded out the top 5 starters.

Allen's fast lap in qualifying did nothing for him in the race. He didn't lead so much as one lap, and he was the first to depart the race when the fan assembly on the Plymouth failed after ten laps. His DNF relegated him to 15th and last in the field - a true case of going from the penthouse to the outhouse.

Fireball got the jump on the field and began his domination of the race. His plan was to go the distance without making a pit stop. One thing about Fireball though. His M.O. was pretty straightforward: go fast. It's likely he used more gas than was needed simply because he was leading - and likely trying to pull away.

Roberts' strategy almost worked, but almost doesn't get it in racing. With 15 laps to go, Fireball ran dry. He coasted into the pits, got him a splash to go, and returned to the track. Instead of a trophy, Roberts went home with a third place finish and two laps down to the winner.

Staley took advantage of Fireball's miscue. He put his Julian Petty-owned Chevy out front, led the remaining laps, and scored the win. The win was Staley's first of three career GN victories. All three were won in 1957 and in Julian's '57 Chevrolet.

Staley did not, however, receive any GN points for the race. Julian had bolted a hardtop on the Chevy following Staley's second-place finish in a convertible race at Charlotte Fairgrounds three days earlier. The car had no rear window, however, which made him ineligible for points. Because Staley was a full-time convertible division driver and raced only part-time in a few GN races, the points loss was of little concern to him or Julian.

Eddie Pagan finished second, one lap down to Staley. Pagan had traveled across the country to race in the Southern 500 at Darlington. He also entered the Myrtle Beach race while he was in the neighborhood. As was often the case back in the day, a win generally didn't happen without a corresponding protest. Someone (it's unknown who) filed a protest saying Staley made a pass under caution. The protest was either withdrawn or rejected by NASCAR officials because Staley was allowed to keep his win.

Source: Greensboro Record
Thanks to fellow Petty fan Tim Leeming (web | Twitter) for the assist with this post. 


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

August 25, 1979 - Bristol's Second Night Race

One of the most celebrated races on the NASCAR Cup schedule is (or perhaps was) the Bristol Night Race. Until lights were added at Charlotte, Richmond, Texas, etc., Bristol had the only night race on the schedule from 1985 through 1991.

Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway had the only night race on the schedule from 1972 through 1977. Bristol installed their gear in time for the 1978 Volunteer 500, and the two Tennessee tracks shared the distinction of having the only night races. When NASCAR dropped Nashville from the Cup schedule after 1984, Bristol continued solo for the next few years as the only lit speedway to host a Cup race (though fans at all Cup tracks continued to stay lit - both during the day and at night).

Cale Yarborough dominated the Volunteer 500 in 1978 and returned in 1979 to try for another. The second Bristol night race was scheduled for August 25, 1979.

Three weeks before Bristol, rookie Dale Earnhardt suffered a tough wreck at Pocono. He was airlifted to an area hospital with a broken shoulder. As a result, Earnhardt missed the next four races with Bristol being the third one in the string. Team owner Rod Osterlund and crew chief Jake Elder put veteran David Pearson at the wheel of Earnhardt's #2 car.

Pearson delivered in his relief role. He qualified and finished second at Talladega the week after Pocono. At Michigan, he won the pole and finished fourth. He then arrived in east Tennessee to race at Bristol - a track where he hadn't raced since 1971.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
The King - Richard Petty - won his 127th and final career pole. Petty Enterprises brought an STP Chevrolet Caprice to the high banked half-mile. Bobby Allison put his Bud Moore Ford on the front row with Petty. Pearson kept his hot streak alive by qualifying third.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
The trophy for Petty's final pole win was on display at the Petty Museum when I visited it in 2012.

A heavy summer shower delayed the start of the race by an hour. When the race began, NASCAR displayed the green and yellow flags together. The first 32 laps were counted but were run under caution - one of many head-scratching decisions made by race officials over the years. NASCAR made the same decision to start counting laps under caution in the legendary Daytona 500 in February of that year.

Petty was credited with leading those first 32 laps. When the full green was displayed, Allison raced ahead of the 43 to lead lap 33. Petty let it be known, however, he was there to compete and not just ride around. After yielding to Allison for a lap, the King went back out front to lead the next 37 laps.

Harry Gant started a handful of Cup races in the early to mid 70s. His official rookie season, however, was 1979 when he joined Jack Beebe's #47 team. Gant took the lead from Petty and pulled the field around Bristol's high banks for the next 18 laps.

The rest of the race was really competitive. The lead was swapped several times in the first half of the race between Petty, Gant, Allison, Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip in his #88 Gatorade Chevrolet. The second half of the race, however, was dominated by Parsons and Allison. Both led sizable chunks of laps and soon found themselves as the only two cars on the lead lap.

Though Pearson signed on as a substitute for Earnhardt, he too needed relief during the race. With about 150 laps to go and Pearson enduring significant neck strain, Lennie Pond took over for the Silver Fox in the Osterlund Monte Carlo. Pond did an exceptional job in bringing home Earnhar... err, Pearson's Chevy to a seventh place finish and just a few laps down to the winner.

Used with permission from David Allio
As the race neared its conclusion, that's racin' luck - of the bad sort - hit Parsons. With just over 20 to go, Parsons had a comfortable lead over Allison. He'd led 140 of the previous 141 laps and just needed to hit his marks and navigate lapped traffic to get the win.

Coming through turns three and four, Parsons ran upon the sandwich of Sandwich of Dick May in Henley Gray's #19 Chevy, Dave Marcis and Frank Warren.

Parsons was able to slip by the trio and tried to regain his groove. The next lap, however, he ran upon James Hylton and Richard Childress - who happened to run into each other. Parsons spun his Chevy to minimize the risk of clobbering either of them.

When the caution flew, Waltrip and Petty were able to regain their lost lap as Parsons headed for pit road following his spin. Allison found himself in the lead as the green flew for the final time. Seven laps later, however, Waltrip with new tires passed Allison to take the lead and brought Petty with him.

Waltrip extended his lead over Petty to a couple of seconds and held on for the win. The King couldn't go after Waltrip as hard as he would have liked because he was busy battling with Allison. Petty threw a final block on Allison as they came to the fine, and 43 left Bristol with a second place moral victory finish.

The one-two finish by Waltrip and Petty was critical for both of them. Waltrip was pursuing his first Winston Cup title, and the King was pressuring him week by week to claim his seventh title.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive


Sunday, August 23, 2015

August 23, 1958 - Bob Welborn Wins Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Beach Speedway hosted several Busch Series races from the late 1980s through 2000. Drivers including the Green brothers - Jeff and David, Randy LaJoie, Jeff Burton and late Rob Moroso won races at the track.

The half-mile speedway also hosted annual Grand National / Cup races from 1958 through 1965 when it was a dirt track known as Rambi Raceway. Soon after the track opened in 1958, NASCAR ran a convertible division event on July 23rd. The race was won by Bob Welborn in Julian Petty's ragtop Chevy.

Welborn and Petty returned on August 23, 1958 with a hard top bolted to the convertible to run Rambi's inaugural Grand National race. Twenty-one cars qualified for the 200-lap, 100-mile race.

Speedy Thompson in a Chevy won the pole. Rookie Shorty Rollins timed second. Junior Johnson and Joe Weatherly made up the second row, and Buck Baker and Lee Petty started fifth and sixth, respectively. Welborn was eighth quickest in Julian's Chevrolet, and Julian's nephew Richard Petty lined up ninth for his sixth career racing start.

Weatherly got tangled up with traffic on the start, was credited for completing just one lap and finished dead stinkin' last. Richard Petty was running in the top ten when his #2 Oldsmobile sailed off turn three and into one of the ponds off the turn.  Richard was thoroughly soaked, and he had to settle for a 16th place DNF as his Olds was fished from the pond. That turn would later become known as "alligator alley", but the future King did not report an encounter with a gator in that particular race.

Thompson broke an axle and parked his Chevy on lap 166. Welborn, in contention as was generally the case in 1958, took the lead. He held off a hard-charging Baker and Rollins for the win and a sweep of NASCAR's two big races held in Rambi's first year.

Source: Greenwood SC Index-Journal
Welborn's fifth Grand National win of the season came in only his fourteenth start of 1958. The GN win was also the first for Welborn and Julian Petty since May 24th at Bowman Gray Stadium.

Thanks to fellow Petty fan Tim Leeming for the assist in noting information about Rambi and this race.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

August 8, 1958 - Ken Rush Inherits Southern States

Prior to the opening of Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960, NASCAR's Grand National and Convertible divisions raced on other tracks in the Charlotte - Concord area. One of those races was a 200-lap, 100-mile ragtop race on Sunday, August 3, 1958 at the dirt, half-mile Southern States Fairgrounds in Charlotte.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
As the cars readied for qualifying, a summer shower arrived and gave the track and the fans a good soaking. Bob Welborn and Soapy Castles had already made their laps, and Fred Harb was on the track when the rain began to fall. Promoter Bruton Smith and his crew tried to run cars on the muddy surface to help pack it and ready it for racing.

What followed was a comedy of errors. A few cars and a tow truck toured laps around the banked dirt oval. After while, however, they started sliding from the high muddy side to the low loose dirt. Even the wrecker had to winch a cable and pull itself out - only to slide back down to where it initially had become stuck. Finally, the decision was made to postpone the race about a half-hour before the scheduled start. Not long after the announcement was made, however, the sun returned. The track was soon ready for racing, but the decision to postpone had already been made. No make up date was initially announced, but Bruton and NASCAR soon decided to try again on Friday the 8th.

Source: The Statesville Record and Landmark
Curtis Turner, who would lead the effort to build Charlotte Motor Speedway, won the pole for the Southern States race when the drivers returned five days later. Two-time Grand National champion, Buck Baker lined up alongside Pops. Lee Petty timed third in one of his infrequent convertible division starts, and Joe Weatherly started on the outside of the second row.

Lee Petty's son, Richard, planned to run what would have been his second convertible start and fifth overall career start after racing in Grand National events at the Canadian National Exposition in Toronto, Civic Stadium in Buffalo, and Wall Stadium in New Jersey.

The day before the original date of the Charlotte convertible race, Lee raced in the first Grand National race on Bridgehampton, New York's road course. After the convertible race was postponed, Papa Lee returned home and likely told his 21 year-old son "I got this." As a result, Richard went back to servicing his dad's car in the pits. About a 1-1/2 years later, though, the future King captured his first of 200 career GN / Cup wins at the Southern States Fairgrounds.

The race was not a good one for the #42 Petty Plymouth. Problems with the rear-end relegated Lee to a 15th place DNF. The car was likely the same one (minus the hard top roof) Lee raced 24 hours earlier in a 200-lap GN race in Columbia, SC.

Turner apparently was unable to leverage his top qualifying spot. Buck Baker got by him right away and proceeded to dominate the race. After leading 183 laps and with victory in sight, Baker broke a ball joint and lost one of his front wheels.

Ken Rush, NASCAR's 1957 Grand National Rookie of the Year, had been tooling behind Baker. Rush was driving a #44 1957 Chevrolet fielded by Julian Petty as a teammate to Bob Welborn. When Baker broke, Rush assumed the lead and led the remaining 17 laps.

Source: Rumblin' Ragtops - The History of NASCAR's Fabulous
Convertible Division 
by Greg Fielden
I suppose Rush's win was a bit of an upset considering how dominant Bob Welborn and Curtis Turner had been in the convertible series that year. Rush's victory was his only one in 106 combined starts in NASCAR's GN and convertible series.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Rush's career as a NASCAR convertible division driver ended after 1959 when the series was disbanded. He continued to run a Grand National race or two each year from the early 1960s through his final one in 1972.

He found perhaps his greatest success in NASCAR's Grand American division - a support series from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. He had the distinction of being the first winner at Talladega, Michigan and Dover - all in 1969 - when the GA races were held the day before the Grand National races.

Rush passed away at the age of 80 in October 2011.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

August 6, 1961 - Paschal Nabs Nashville

NASCAR brought its Grand National division to Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway for the first time in 1958. Joe Weatherly won the inaugural 200-lap race. Rex White and Joe Lee Johnson split the two GN races in 1959, and Johnny Beauchamp captured the only one in 1960 (his second and final career GN victory).

The race distance was increased 100 laps each year, and the 1961 race was billed as the Nashville 500. Rex White, one of the track's race winners in 1959, captured the pole for the 1961 race. Starting up front at Nashville was nothing new to Rex. He had won the pole for the fifth consecutive race at the track (four Grand National races and one GN - convertibles "sweepstakes" race).

Source: The Tennessean
Any smiles Rex may have sported after qualifying quickest again likely faded quickly. He couldn't leverage his top starting spot to lead any early laps, and his day came to a sudden end on lap 15. White blew a right front tire, hooked right, popped the guardrail, and nearly launched through the the track's outer-ring billboards.

Source: The Tennessean
I had the opportunity to mention the wreck to White when I met him in October 2014. He laughed as he recalled it and noted some of the other drivers suggested he may have hit the billboard on purpose in an effort to meet "that purty girl" on it.

Source: Russ Thompson 
Richard Petty started on the front row alongside Rex, and he dominated the race from its beginning. A scenario then developed that seemed to mirror what has frequently been seen in the 2015 Cup season: rain. Showers began to fall around lap 220. NASCAR opted to let the cars ride around under yellow for eighty laps before finally displaying the red flag at lap 302.

After a delay of about 45 minutes, the cars were put back under the yellow where they rolled around for another 50 laps or so. When the green flag was finally displayed again at lap 351, the fans had endured approximately 130 consecutive caution laps plus a 45-minute halt in racing action.

Petty dominated the first 220 laps and paced the field through the extended rain delay. When the race went back to green, however, the engine in Petty's #43 Plymouth wasn't up to the challenge. The engine raced at optimal temps under green. When the rains fell and the engine cooled off substantially, however, the Mopar power plant wasn't ready to return to full song. The future King led 10 more laps when the race returned to green, but he then had to watch the rest of the race from a different vantage point than from behind the steering wheel.

With White and Petty sidelined, Jim Paschal went to the front in his #44 Julian Petty-owned Pontiac.

Source: Russ Thompson
Paschal led the next 41 laps before rain returned. Officials then called the race after 403 laps, and Paschal was declared the winner.

Source: Russ Thompson
Paschal's win was the last victory for a #44 Petty car until Kyle Petty won Daytona's ARCA 200 to begin his driving career in February 1979.

By 1961, Richard had already built a solid fan following. Many were disappointed to see such a dominant run end prematurely. And of course, most were disappointed when the last 20 percent of the race was cancelled because of summer showers and especially with 172 of 403 laps run under caution.

Source: The Tennessean
Ned Jarrett finished second to Paschal, and Jarrett eventually won the 1961 GN championship title - his first of two. Johnny Allen finished third in a Chevrolet owned by one of the 1959 Nashville winners, Joe Lee Johnson.

Source: The Tennessean
Paschal and Julian Petty parted ways at the end of 1961. Paschal began the 1962 as the driver for Cliff Stewart's Pontiac team. About half-way through the season, Paschal then moved to the other Petty team - Petty Enterprises. The pairing gelled immediately as Paschal won three consecutive races in the #42 Plymouth - including a second consecutive win at Nashville. With Lee Petty as his crew chief, Paschal kept his Music City mojo working and won a third consecutive time at Nashville.


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

August 5, 1995 - A long day at the Brickyard

When Tony George, Jr. announced on April 14, 1993, that Indianapolis Motor Speedway would host the inaugural Brickyard 400 NASCAR Winston Cup race in 1994, I was "all in". Sorta.

Schaefer Hall of Fame co-founder Philly and I lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee at the time. We were determined to be in the stands for that first Cup race at Indy - though we did have some self-imposed cost constraints. Frankly, we wanted to land a pair of comps.

We worked every angle we knew possible back in that pre-internet / email age but without success. Even by compromising our position to pay for tickets, we couldn't land any at a reasonable price. In the end, we missed the show. Simply couldn't make it happen.

But the second year!

As we shot fireworks at my parents' house on the 4th of July, my brother-in-law asked if I'd be interested in going to Indy. Done! I'm in! Got a second one? Yes!

In the pre-dawn hours of race day morning, four of us departed Nashville for Indianapolis: Philly, my brother-in-law Chuckles, a business associate of his, and me. We put a biscuit and a cup of coffee on our bellies, and then we were on our way. In the rain. The whole way.

Along the way as we headed north on I-65, we ran upon this glorious Kentucky Kadillac.

When rain shows up on race weekend, we try to be patient and optimistic. A long-time adage of Philly's is "there's magic in believing." Yet, as we approached the track, optimism turned to pragmatism. We had little hope of the race starting on time - and maybe not at all on that Saturday.

We were committed to racing - we just weren't sure if we were committed to sleeping in a van in wet clothes. In perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of all my racing trips, Chuckle's business associate became the financier of the weekend. As we neared the speedway, he pulled into a hotel whose brand I can't recall and asked about the possibility of getting a reservation for the night in case we needed it.

As race fans have grown to know, hotel operators are easy to hate on race weekends. Inflated rates, multi-night minimums, bait and switch bed preference availability, etc. The front desk guy - without batting an eye - said he wanted three bills per room. $300 per! Non-refundable!

Philly and I had camped enough nights or made other sacrifices to return on a next-clear-day to say walk away. Instead, the dude parted with his money knowing he was out $600 regardless of what happened. Philly and I looked at each other and smirked like Ferris Bueller.

After getting fleeced by the Hospitality Inn, we parked in someone's yard. I had no idea at the time this was an Indy tradition dating back decades, but what a neat (and likely profitable) tradition. Lift gates were raised on vans, coolers were moved to the ground, sandwich fixin's were made available, and folks did what they could to stay as dry as possible.

The rain finally slowed to a series of sprinkles and mist, and Philly and I did a walk-about to see the legendary speedway - if nothing else just to metabolize some of our brew intake.

Meanwhile, Chuckles wasn't walking anywhere. He stayed close to the vans and continued pounding brew after brew after brew.

As Philly and I moseyed near the front gate, we heard the announcement track drying efforts were underway with the race beginning soon! We hustled back to the van, grabbed our scanners, packed our coolers, checked in with Chuckles to make sure we knew where to meet, and headed back for the gates. By that time, however, I'm not exactly sure Chuckles realized he was back home in Indiana.

Very few tracks have caused my pulse to quicken as I passed through the gates. My first time at Daytona in 1980 - yes. The inaugural race at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997 - perhaps. Indy - definitely. 

After getting settled, however, reality set in. Indy may be a racing facility - but it isn't a spectator's destination. With the trees, pagoda, a museum, etc. in the infield - plus the flat banking - we quickly discerned we'd see little of the race. Yet we were there!

The King - Richard Petty - took a lap or two in 1992 as part of a NASCAR tire test and public relations stunt, but he retired before having the opportunity to race in a Brickyard 400. But the driver of the 43 in 1995, Bobby Hamilton Sr., gave the Petty faithful something to cheer for with his second place qualifying run in the STP Pontiac.

Because of the rain, the cars remained in the garage area. When the call came to start the race, pole sitter Jeff Gordon and Hamilton did something no other driver in an Indy race had ever done.
They led the field into the first pace lap by driving out of the garage.

Loy Allen, Jr. started the 1995 season as a teammate to Brett Bodine on Junior Johnson's team. After lousy runs in the first six races - including two DNQs - Allen was dumped and replaced with Elton Sawyer.

Sawyer apparently, like Allen, didn't embrace his sponsor's theme of it's what up front that matters. The finishes for the 27 Hooters Ford didn't improve, and Sawyer was the first car out of the Brickyard. And you thought Roush Fenway Racing had problems in 2015. Yeesh.

Junior had seen enough. At the end of the season, he sold the 11 team to Bodine, shut down the 27 team, and left NASCAR as a team owner. Junior Johnson's exit was a tough closure to about four decades of racing as a driver, crew chief and owner.

Hamilton did more than give hope to the Petty faithful with his front-row qualifying run. The 43 was competitive all day, and Hamilton led just past the halfway mark. Near the end, however, Hamilton faded to an eventual 11th place finish.

With about 30 laps to go, a name synonymous with Indy - Andretti - took the lead. John Andretti in the Kmart / Little Caesar's Pizza Ford led for 3 laps. Like Hamilton, however, Andretti didn't have staying power and finished 12th.

After Andretti's brief time out front, Dale Earnhardt took command. Rusty Wallace pursued the Goodwrench Chevy, but he couldn't get close enough to mount a legitimate challenge. The Ironhead Army lost their collective minds as the black #3 took the win.

Remarkably, IMS and NASCAR were successful in completing the full race without more rain and without losing daylight. After the checkers, we humped it back to the van for the 5+ hour trip back to Nashville. 

Because the race ran as scheduled, the dude's hotel $600 deposit went POOF - but no skin off our nose. We cautioned him not to pay it. Let's roll. It was four hours later getting started back because of the rain delay - but hey, we had just seen the friggin' BRICKYARD.

I'm not sure we'd made it back to I-65 headed south to Nashville before Chuckle's snores resonated throughout the van. It was an otherwise fairly quiet ride as the other three of us stayed awake. 

When we got near Louisville, Chuckles suddenly awoke and screamed like a banshee WAFFLE HOUSE!!

After calming our bladders, we agreed to pull over and eat at the next Waffle House we could find. I don't remember our exit, where we sat, what time we arrived, or what I ordered. But I do remember two things:
  • Our waitress' name was Turtle. Seriously. I'll swear on a stack of Bibles before the Almighty himself. A nickname perhaps - sure. Whether legit or labeled, the name was befitting. She was shaped liked a turtle. But she was nice, Gomer. Real nice.
  • I also remember what Chuckles ordered. Hash browns. All the way. Turtle suggested that for only something like 49 cents more he could double his order. He managed to pull his head slightly off the table and mumbled something we all presumed was a "yes".
Now I love me some Waffle House. Regular breakfast time, mid-day or late night - it really doesn't matter. But when Turtle returned with our meals, she possessed a platter of something not of this world.

Turtle plopped down an oval platter in front of Chuckles - pitched at about a 30 degree angle. A double-order jambalaya of scattered, smothered, chunked, diced, topped, capped, country'd, and peppered taters sloshed to one end of the plate. Chuckles slowly raised his head from where it had been resting on the table and defiantly asked "who ordered that shit?" Philly and I replied in unison "YOU DID." Philly then followed with "...and you're into Turtle for an extra 50 cents man."

Chuckles managed to eat one bite of his cruel gruel. One. He then resumed his period of beauty rest at the table. The rest of us enjoyed ours, paid and tipped Turtle, got Chuckles loaded back into the van, and headed for Nashville.

The remaining three hours to get home was tough. We'd been awake right at 24 hours, but another set of race experiences had been lived.