Wednesday, September 23, 2015

September 23, 1973 - A close one at Wilkesboro

The King, Richard Petty, won an astounding 15 races at the famed North Wilkesboro Speedway. His record included eight victories in twelve races in the six season stretch of 1970 through 1975. The King also had three in row - both 1972 races and the spring 1973 Gwyn Staley 400 - as the Winston Cup series returned to the hills of Wilkes County.

Petty's career rival, Bobby Allison, was all business on pole day. He arrived to the track later than expected, took a quick couple of hot laps to shake down his Coke Machine, won the pole in qualifying, and then left immediately for a late model race in Missouri. Petty qualified alongside him on the front row. Eventual 1973 Cup champion Benny Parsons started third, and three-time Cup champion from 1976-1978 Cale Yarborough timed fourth.

Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal via Google News Archive
The field took the green on a Sunday afternoon. Allison got the hole shot at the green, charged into turn one, and led the first 57 laps.

Petty stayed close and led the next 34 laps. And so it went - back and forth - the rest of the day. Yarborough and Buddy Baker had opportunities to lead also, but each only led for a single-digit number of laps.

With the race well past half-way, Petty found his well-known groove. He took the lead from Baker at lap 256 and led the next 79 laps. With about 65 laps to go, Dale Inman made the call to bring the 43 to pit road for his final stop. The track was greasy, right side tires were wearing, and the Petty Enterprises felt it was time to get the STP Dodge Charger its last pair of shoes for the remaining stretch.

Allison, who had been running second to Petty, stayed on the track to take the lead rather than follow the 43 to pit road. He led an 18-lap stint before pitting for his final service. Allison's team noted the 43 only took right sides, and they made the call to change all four. Doing so meant an extended stop, but the team believed the call would pay dividends over the remaining eighth of the race.

The #12 Coke Chevelle returned to the track a full lap down to Petty. With four fresh tires and eighteen fewer laps on them, Allison was able to pull away from the 43. Yet, Petty was easily in control with 48 laps to go.

Allison's four stickers, however, continued to pay dividends. With each passing lap, Allison was passing more cars and making up time on the 43. Along the way, the Maurice Petty built Hemi lost a cylinder. King was running on seven cylinders and worn out left side tires, but he still had a sizable lead on Bobby.

After only a handful of laps after his stop, Allison was able to unlap himself. He then had to repeat the cycle to catch Petty again and compete for the win. As Petty took the white flag, Allison was right on his bumper - shades of how the 1972 Wilkes 400 last lap began between the two.

As the pair rumbled down the back straightaway, Allison was finally able to pass Petty for the lead. With worn out tires and an inability to lay the pedal to his Mopar, Petty had no choice but to see Bobby pull away. At the stripe, Allison was almost 2 seconds ahead of Petty.

I've accepted over the years that you can't win 'em all. Petty had a remarkable career - especially at North Wilkesboro. To lose a close one to Bobby Allison though, grrrr that burns deep.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

September 15, 1957 - Gwyn Lassos Langhorne

Today's Cup schedule seems to run forever as it begins in February and finishes in November. The schedules of the 1950s and 60s, however, were a true grind for those who made a legit effort to race in all or the majority of the races.

The 45th race of the 53-event 1957 season was scheduled for September 15th at Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania. The 300-mile race was a NASCAR Sweepstakes event - a blended race of Grand National hard-top sedans and drivers from NASCAR's convertible division.

Paul Goldsmith won the pole in Smokey Yunick's #3 Ford convertible. Fireball Roberts qualified second in his hard-top sedan. Glen Wood and Lee Petty made up the second row. Bob Welborn rounded out the top 5 starters. The rest of the 48-car field was set with the quickest ragtops starting in the inside, odd-numbered positions and the sedans filling the outside, even-numbered slots.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Several starters were drivers from the northeast making their one and only or at least an infrequent GN start including:
  • George Bumgardner - only start
  • Bobby Abel - only start
  • Roger Baldwin - 2nd of two career starts
  • Jerry Benjamin - 4th of 5 career starts
  • Art Binkley - 4th of 5 career starts
  • Don Gray - 3rd of 5 career starts
  • Dick Klank - 6th of 7 career starts
  • Tommy Elliott - 6th of 7 career starts
  • Ken Marriott - 4th of 5 career starts (4 at Langhorne and 5th in inaugural Daytona 500)
  • Huck Spaulding - 6th of 9 career starts
  • Dutch Hoag, modified ace of the northeast  - 4th and final GN race
Fans witnessed a great back and forth battle between Goldsmith and Fireball during the first third of the race. Each led a handful of laps before being passed.

Fireball was finally able to shake Goldsmith as the race neared the 100 lap mark. Two additional challengers then made their way to Roberts' bumper. First, Bill Amick of Portland, Oregon got by Roberts to lead 19 laps. Like Goldsmith, Amick's time up front was short-lived. Roberts re-took the lead, and Amick later lost an engine near the 200-lap mark.

After Fireball led for a 63-lap stint, he began having steering issues. Multi-time NASCAR Short Track Division champ Jim Reed went out front for 44 laps as Roberts fell further behind. Then Reed developed engines issues of his own, and he fell out of the race after only 220 laps.

As the race cleared the two-thirds mark, Gwyn Staley arrived. Staley was driving a Chevrolet convertible for owner Julian Petty and started the race deep in the field in 25th. He led the remaining 85 laps to take the win by a half-second or so ahead of unknown Whitey Norman. Though close at the time for the fans and drivers, a post-race scoring recheck revealed Norman was actually two laps down to Staley.

Johnny Allen came home third. The little bit of remaining drama involved the fourth and fifth place finishers. With four laps to go, Buck Baker eased by Rex White into fourth place. On the last lap, however, Baker's Chevy ran out of gas. He coasted helplessly to the finish, and White was able to pass the fading Baker to reclaim fourth.

Although Staley raced Julian's convertible, NASCAR records recognize his win as a Grand National victory. His car was the only convertible of the top five finishers.

The race also turned out to be the final Grand National race at Langhorne. Staley needed a shade over four hours to capture the win. It seems like that would have been like an eternity to wrestle the wheel around Langhorne's one-mile, dirt circle. Yet at the time, the mark was a race record.

Staley's win was also the last of three career Grand National victories. All were won in 1957, and all were at the wheel of Julian Petty's Chevrolets.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Monday, September 14, 2015

September 14, 1958 - Welborn Stakes Salisbury

NASCAR scheduled races for two of its major series on September 14, 1958. The Grand National drivers raced at Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds for the Richmond 200. Speedy Thompson won the race, and Lee Petty finished second.

About 250 miles southwest of Richmond, Salisbury Super Speedway hosted a convertible division race, its first major NASCAR event.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Despite what one of the preview articles said, the race was not 500 miles. It did, however, have an odd distance - 155 laps, 96.9 miles. Twenty-six cars started the race with Larry Frank on the pole. The Petty teams were quite busy that day. Papa Lee raced in Richmond, and he had two more cars in the convertible race. His brother, Julian Petty, fielded three cars at Salisbury.

Julian's three cars were driven by the soon-to-be-crowned season champion, Bob Welborn, as well as Ken Rush and Tiny Lund. Rush was returning after an early race tumble at Wilson Speedway a week earlier.

Petty Engineering's two Oldsmobiles were driven by Richard in car #2 and Fireball Roberts in Lee's traditional #42. The race was the one and only time Roberts raced in a car fielded by the Pettys. I'm sure a story exists for why Fireball piloted the Petty Olds. With both Lee and Fireball gone, the chances of learning it are slim.

For the most part, the Petty cars qualified well. Lund started on the front row in Julian's #48 Chevy alongside pole winner Frank. Fireball qualified the #42 Petty Olds third. Welborn lined up sixth, and Julian's third driver Ken Rush started 7th. Richard had to start from way back in 17th in the 26 car field, but he up his stock once the race got underway.

Lund got the jump on Frank as the green flag fell. Tiny went to the point in Julian's Chevy and stayed there for the first 78 laps. Bad racing luck hit Lund, and an issue with the engine knocked out his chances for a win. He did finish the race, but he ended up tenth and 15 laps down to the winner.

With Tiny having issues, Frank went from second to the lead. The pole-winner paced the field for the about the next thirty laps. On lap 111, however, Welborn let it be known he had not grown weary of winning. Welborn led the remaining 40+ laps to claim his eighth convertible division win of the season. The finish was pretty close as Welborn finished just a couple dozen yards ahead of second place finisher Frank.

Petty rallied from his deep starting spot to run with the leaders. Near the end of the race, however, he lost an engine. The future King was initially scored third - which would have been the best finish of his young career. After rechecking the score cards, however, Petty was placed fifth which matched his finish from a week earlier in the convertible race at Wilson Speedway.

Fireball didn't have much success in Lee Petty's car. He was the final car still running at the end of the race, but he was about 100 laps down to Welborn.
Source: Statesville Record and Landmark
And yes, the AP writer committed a double Petty faux pas by:
  1. referring to Richard as Dick Petty and
  2. stating he was a Jr.
Source: The Daily Times-News of Burlington, NC
Salisbury hosted only one other major race - a Grand National event on October 5, 1958, a race won by Lee Petty. After building and opening the track in 1958, the track's promoter chose to move on to bigger projects. The promoter? O. Bruton Smith. The project? A development effort with Curtis Turner that would become Charlotte Motor Speedway.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

If ya ain't first...

Later this month, a couple of my Schaefer Hall of Fame brethren and I will be making our first trip to Chicagoland Speedway for the Cup race. We also plan to make our first visit to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game.

I've hit a good streak of luck the last few years visiting tracks for the first time - Homestead in 2014, Phoenix in 2013, Dover in 2011 and Las Vegas in 2010.

Over the almost 40 years of going to races, I never got to see a Petty car win. Yet, I've been fortunate to experience several racing firsts - sometimes for me and/or sometimes for a driver.

1976 Nashville 420 qualifying - Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway
Neil Bonnett's first Cup pole
He qualified and later raced the CAM2 Penske Mercury in relief for Bobby Allison who was badly hurt in a late model race in Minnesota.
The night was also the first time for me to see the #43 STP Dodge Charger of Richard Petty.

1978 Music City USA 420 - Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway
My first Cup race
First time to get close to the legendary #43 STP Dodge

1980 Daytona 500 - Daytona International Speedway
My first Daytona race
First and only Daytona 500 victory for Buddy Baker

1986 Valleydale 500 - Bristol International Raceway
My first Bristol race
First Cup win for Rusty Wallace

1987 Winston 500 - Alabama International Motor Speedway
My first race at track now known as Talladega Superspeedway
First Cup win for Davey Allison

1991 Motorcraft 500 - Atlanta Motor Speedway
My first (& second) trip to Atlanta - rained Sunday, returned Monday
First race for Alan Kulwicki with Hooter's as his sponsor
Special K started from the pole position

1991 Winston 500 - Talladega Superspeedway
First Talladega race run on a Monday
Harry Gant won after Sunday's race was postponed by heavy rains

1992 Hooters 500 - Atlanta Motor Speedway
First Cup start for Jeff Gordon
Kulwicki won his first (and only) Cup championship

1994 Daytona 500 - Daytona International Speedway
First Cup win for Sterling Marlin

1994 Coca-Cola 600 - Charlotte Motor Speedway
My first Charlotte race
First Cup win for Jeff Gordon

1995 Brickyard 400 - Indianapolis Motor Speedway
My first race at Indy
First (and only) Brickyard win for Dale Earnhardt

1995 Goody's 500 - Bristol Motor Speedway
Terry Labonte wins first of two late race battles with Dale Earnhardt

1997 Daytona 500 - Daytona International Speedway
First Daytona 500 victory for Jeff Gordon
Terry Labonte finishes second with Ricky Craven third
First 1-2-3 sweep for Hendrick Motorsports
(Yes, I was at Gordon's first Cup race, Cup win & Daytona 500 win.)

1997 Interstate Batteries 500 - Texas Motor Speedway
First Cup race at Texas
First Cup win for Jeff Burton

2003 Pop Secret 400 - North Carolina Motor Speedway
My first Rockingham race
Matt Kenseth clenched his first (and so far only) Cup championship

2007 Coca-Cola 600 - Charlotte Motor Speedway
First Cup win for Casey Mears

2009 Coca-Cola 600 - Charlotte Motor Speedway
First Cup win for David Reutimann
Took two days and several rain delays to get it done, but Reuty won it

2010 Food City 250 and Irwin Tools Night Race - Bristol Motor Speedway
Watched Kyle Busch win two-thirds of the first NASCAR weekend sweep in the truck, Nationwide and Cup races

2011 Quaker State 400 - Kentucky Speedway
First Cup race at Kentucky Speedway
(But not first GN / Cup race in Kentucky. Lee Petty won at Corbin KY in 1954.)

2014 Ford 300 - Homestead-Miami Speedway
First Homestead win for Kevin Harvick
Captured his first (and so far only) Cup championship

How 'bout it? What racing firsts have you been fortunate to see?


Monday, September 7, 2015

September 7, 1958 - Julian Petty's bookends day

The next to last race of the 1958 NASCAR convertible division season was a 150-lap race on the half-mile, dirt Wilson Speedway in Wilson, North Carolina.

Julian Petty's 1957 Chevrolets were fast - as was often the case in 1958 in the convertible and Grand National divisions. Ken Rush in Julian's #44 Chevy, and teammate Bob Welborn qualified on the front row with Rush.

Starting 11th was Richard Petty in his family team's #42 1957 Oldsmobile. The race was only his second convertible start and seventh NASCAR start overall.

Ken Rush's last name was appropriate - if he wanted to be the first one to leave the track. On the 12th lap, he lost the car coming out of turn four and rolled his convertible down the frontstretch. Rush remarkably suffered only a bruised shoulder and arm, and he returned to race the next week. Though I'm sure his wreck brought the crowd to their feet, Rush left Wilson with a 23rd and dead last finish.

All was not lost for Julian as an owner though. Welborn did what he'd been doing pretty much all season: winning. Though I haven't found any detail about lap leaders, Welborn did lead the lap that mattered most - the last one. With Welborn's win, Julian went home with bookend finishes - cars that finished first and last in the race.

Brownie King finished third, a career best finish for him in a combined 120 or so GN and convertible division starts.

Petty finished fifth - his first top 5 in NASCAR competition. The weekend was a pretty good one for the Petty clan as Lee finished third in in the Grand National race in Birmingham, AL the same day. Coincidentally, Richard's first top 5 in a Grand National race was also at Wilson Speedway. He finished third at Wilson in March 1959.

One confusing point about the race is its distance. Some materials I've referenced indicate the race was 150 laps and 75 miles. The wire service report I found in several newspapers, however, states the race was 200 laps and 100 miles. Either way, the constant between them all is Welborn again took the top prize in a 1958 convertible race.

Source: Greensboro Daily News

Saturday, September 5, 2015

September 5, 1957 - Gwyn Staley Scores Syracuse

NASCAR's Grand National drivers arrived at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse on Thursday, September 5, 1957. They readied to compete for 100 laps on Syracuse's legendary one-mile dirt oval.

Gwyn Staley won the pole in Julian Petty's #38 1957 Chevrolet. Short-track ace Jim Reed qualified alongside him. Twenty-two other cars trailed behind the two front-row starters.

Staley took control of the race early. He led the first 62 laps from his top starting spot though Reed hounded him lap after lap. As the race neared its two-thirds mark, Reed decided it was time to go to the front. He made the pass and led the next 10 laps. In a true That's Racin' moment, Reed then blew a tire, pounded the guardrail and saw his chances for a win disappear. His crew changed the tire and did what they could to make repairs to the car. When the checkers fell, however, Reed found himself in 12th place, 26 laps behind the winner.

With Reed out of the picture, Staley re-took the lead and ran a moderate pace to get the win. Lee Petty in a 1957 Oldsmobile finished second, one lap down to his brother's car.

Source: Syracuse NY's The Post Standard
Source: Syracuse NY's The Post Standard
Staley shared victory lane, such that it was, with Julian. His victory was the second of only three career Grand National wins. The race was also the fifth and final NASCAR Grand National and Convertible division races at Syracuse.

Source: Syracuse NY's The Post Standard
About 20 years later, the historic Syracuse track became home to one of the premier dirt modified races in the nation. The Schaefer 100 (and later 200) ran at Syracuse from the 1970s through early 1980s. Scha-LOOT!