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

1 comment:

  1. Those Nashville and Bristol night races could be tough to pick up on the radio if your local racing station was WXGI in Richmond, a 1,000 watt daylight only station back then. Your only hope of hearing those races, as they faded in and out in the summer night, was to get outside in a car with a good antenna and strong radio - A.M., of course. That was back before neighbors called the police when they saw some guy sitting outside in a car at night for several hours.