Sunday, October 18, 2015

October 18, 1964 - National 400

The fall 1964 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway was race number 59 of a long, grueling 62-race season. As is known to many, the 1964 auto racing season was filled with several tragic losses - both in NASCAR and in Indy Car. Two of those driver deaths came at the track which hosted the National 400. Yet, racers did what racers do - they continued.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
As noted on the program cover, CMS hosted its first ARCA race in October 1964. Though banned from NASCAR by Bill France Sr., Curtis Turner returned to the track he helped build and won the 200 miler overseen by a different sanctioning body. Because of persistent rain all weekend, however, the ARCA race was postponed one week.

First-day qualifying was held on Wednesday before the rain spurred on by Hurricane Isbell arrived, and Richard Petty laid down a track record lap to put his Hemi-powered Petty Engineering Plymouth on the pole. Paul Goldsmith, driving a Ray Nichels Plymouth qualified second to reverse the front row starting order from the 1964 Daytona 500.

Fred Lorenzen in his Holman Moody Ford timed third, and Bobby Isaac in another Ray Nichels car - a Dodge - secured the fourth position. Jim Paschal rounded out the top 5 starters in a second Petty Plymouth. Practice, qualifying and and the ARCA race were washed out because of the rain on Thursday through Saturday.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
The race at Charlotte was the first since the death of Jimmy Pardue who died during a Goodyear tire test in September. Pardue's death was the second resulting from accidents at Charlotte and the third Grand National driver to be killed in 1964.

Fireball Roberts suffered critical burns during May's World 600 and died about six weeks later. Joe Weatherly - the two-time defending GN champion - died during the Motor Trend 500 at Riverside in January 1964. In addition to those deaths in NASCAR, Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald perished after they wrecked and suffered critical burns on lap 1 of the Indianapolis 500. Another Indy driver, Bobby Marshman, died in December 1964 following a tire testing accident in Phoenix. 1964: a truly gruesome year for motorsports.

Source: Eugene Register Guard via Google News Archive
Paul Goldsmith led lap one when the race's green flag waved. Petty then took over for 26 laps before Goldsmith returned to the front. Lorenzen took the lead on lap 69 but only for three laps before Petty re-assumed the lead for 63 laps. Petty's teammate, Jim Paschal, took over on lap 199 but led only a single lap. Petty went back out front where he would stay until lap 265 of the race's 267 laps.

Courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
For the final 65 laps, Lorenzen ran right on Richard's back bumper and made move after move to take the lead. The two cars ran off and hid from the rest of the field, and the duo even lapped Paschal's third place car. But Lorenzen could not get his Ford past the rapid Plymouth. Fred tried lap after lap - high, low, and even moving Richard aside going into three - but he simply could not get past the 43.

Courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
As the two cars entered turn three on lap 265 and looking for the white flag coming off four, the blue Plymouth darted to the right and slammed into the guard rail with tremendous force. The blown right front and subsequent impact threw the 43 high into the air, but it came down on all fours and coasted to the inside of the track. Lorenzen darted to the inside and came off four to take the white and caution flag together.

When the Plymouth came to rest, Richard was lying down in the seat having been jerked out of the shoulder harness by the force of the impact. It was a scary moment for the fans because Pardue had hit the rail in the same place a month earlier. Richard said in an interview after the race, "When it blew, it seemed like it took two hours to get to that fence. I went the same route Pardue did. I was just lucky enough to stay inside the track".

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
Fellow Petty fan Tim Leeming recalls:
My friends and I were parked against the fence midway between turns three and four. We absolutely yelled ourselves hoarse with that battle between Richard and Freddie. Richard's tire blew almost in front of where were were standing. We watched the car hit the wall and thought for a minute it would be going over in the same place Jimmy Pardue was killed. Charlotte Motor Speedway said they had reinforced the rail there, and that may have been the difference that saved Petty from going over.

When the car slid to a stop, we were running in that direction. It was very scary not to see Richard sitting up in the car, but he almost immediately popped up. We didn't know he had come out of his shoulder harness at the time. We headed for the pits, happy Richard was OK but really upset because Freddie won that race. At that time, we rated Fords along with garbage trucks as our least favorite vehicles.

As soon as they opened the pit gate, which they did after the races back then, we headed for the Petty truck. We waited a while before Richard came over, nursing what appeared to be a very sore arm. I remember being so glad to see that he was OK. All of us started talking at once, and Richard smiled and waved his hand telling us one at a time. He explained to us that everything was OK and we would get 'em next time. And yes, he did use we. That was the way we talked back then. We (all of us who followed him from race to race) were unofficially part of the Petty team.
Lorenzen continued around the final circuit under caution to take the win. Paschal finished second in the #41 Petty Plymouth, one lap down to Lorenzen's pearl white #28 Ford.

Courtesy of Smyle Media
Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Despite the wreck, Petty finished third, two laps down to the winner. Petty's bad luck finish at Charlotte was just one of many for him through the 1960s and early 1970s. He seemed to routinely run well - and even dominate parts of races. But a win at the track just never seemed to fall his way. The King was finally able to grab a winner's trophy of his own in 1975 when he swept the season's races at Charlotte - the World 600 and the National 500.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
As might be expected, the winner confidently concluded he had Petty right where he wanted him anyway. Regardless of Petty's blown tire and wreck, Lorenzen was certain he would have been able to pass the 43 on the last lap - though he had been unable to pass him throughout the rest of the race.

Source: Statesville Record and Landmark
Thanks to Tim Leeming for much of the text for this post.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

October 13, 1957 - Gwyn Staley Nabs Norfolk

North Wilkesboro's Gwyn Staley ran about half the NASCAR Grand National races in 1955 and 1956 - with pretty much all of them behind the wheel of Chevrolet's fielded by car owner Hubert Westmoreland. (Johnny Mantz won the first Southern 500 in a Plymouth fielded by Westmoreland.)

In 1956, Staley and Westmoreland ran about half the convertible division's races in addition to their GN schedule. In 1957, Staley and Westmoreland began their season focused only on the convertible races - perhaps in an effort to claim the division's championship that was won by Bob Welborn in 1956.

For whatever reason, the duo parted ways about half-way through the season. Staley hired on with Julian Petty to run most of the remaining convertible races as well as a dozen GN events.

The new arrangement paid dividends early for Staley in the GN races as he won three times in Julian's cars. The convertible races were a different story though as Gwyn and Julian couldn't quite find their way to victory lane despite a number of top 5 finishes.

Then with three races to go in the 1957 season, the ragtops rolled into Virginia for a 250-lap race on the 4/10-mile, dirt Virginia Beach Speedway. (The track, built in 1947, seems to have gone through a a series of name changes over the years including Chinese Corner Speedway, Weatherly Speedway and Norfolk Speedway.)

Glen Wood won the pole in the Ford maintained by his brothers. Staley qualified on the front row alongside him in Julian's #38 Chevy. Lined up third was Welborn in his own #49 Chevy, and starting fourth was 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Joe Weatherly. Starting shotgun on the 14-car field was perhaps an unexpected entrant: Julian Petty. In addition to fielding Staley's car, Julian saddled up in the #88 Oldsmobile belonging to his older brother Lee. The race was Julian's one and only career convertible start - and his first race as a driver since June 1955.

Welborn controlled the race as was often the case in the convertible races from 1956-1958. When he made a pit stop with 40 laps to go, however, Staley was able to take the lead from him. Staley was able to prevail over the remaining laps to finally secure the long-sought, ragtop win. Welborn soldiered on to finish second, and he all but secured his second consecutive convertible division title.

As an owner, Julian Petty had a fine day. As a driver, well... not so much. He apparently tooled around on a Sunday afternoon in a '57 Oldsmobile owned by his brother Lee. After all, he did have the top down. Though records indicate he was still running at the end of the race, Julian finished where he started - 14th and dead last - 195 laps down to the winner's car that he owned.

Source: Greensboro Daily News
The four victories in the two divisions in the back half of the schedules likely gave Gwyn Staley and Julian Petty the confidence greater things lay ahead for them in 1958. They returned the next season to run the full schedule in both series - including the beach race at Daytona.

Fate had a different plan, though, and Staley was tragically killed in Julian's car on the first lap of of the convertible race at Richmond's fairgrounds raceway. His win at Norfolk in October 1957 turned out to be his final one.


Monday, October 12, 2015

October 12, 1958 - Wait another day kid

In September 1958, Lee Petty had a pretty comfortably points lead as he headed towards his second Grand National title.

Source: Wilmington News via Google News Archive
Bob Welborn had the same situation in NASCAR's convertible division. He was on pace to snag his third consecutive convertible title - but his first with car owner Julian Petty, Lee's brother.

Source: Free Lance-Star via Google News Archive 
Martinsville was scheduled to host a GN and convertible sweepstakes race on September 21, 1958.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
Qualifying was held, and Glen Wood in a convertible edged out Lee Petty in his Oldsmobile hard top for the quickest time.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive 
Sunday's race was rained out, however, and rescheduled for October. Welborn had qualified Julian's convertible in September. His time along with those of the other qualifiers were carried forward to the rescheduled October date.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive 
When the teams returned in October, Welborn didn't race Julian’s #49 Chevy. Instead, he raced a #2 Petty Engineering Olds convertible.

Though the qualifying times carried over from September, the starting line-up was set by finishes in two 50-lap qualifying heats. Wood won his heat race for the convertibles, and Speedy Thompson won the hard top prelim. Those wins put the two of them on the front row. Joe Weatherly in his #1 Holman Moody Ford convertible lined up third for the big race, and Fireball Roberts started 4th in his #22 Chevrolet. Roy Tyner and #42 Lee Petty made up the third row.

Welborn's Julian Petty-owned ragtop truly got hot in the convertible heat. He wrecked the car, and the hit sparked a fire underneath the car. The damage was extensive enough to withdraw the Chevy. I'm all but certain Welborn could have missed the Martinsville race and remained in good shape to win the convertible title. But he had the experience, he had the points lead, and Martinsville promoter Clay Earles likely wanted Welborn in the show.

With Julian's Chevy smoldering, his brother came to the rescue with a replacement car. Lee Petty provided a #2 Olds convertible for Welborn to drive. But the generous offer of Lee to help his brother and a fellow driver came at a cost to another driver.

Lee moved aside the semi-regular driver of the #2 Olds - his son Richard - to give Welborn the ride. Richard raced the #2 1957 Olds as a hardtop at Hillsboro and Salisbury leading into Martinsville. The Martinsville sweepstakes race was originally scheduled the week before Hillsboro, and Richard qualified the car as a convertible.

After the Salisbury GN race, Lee and Richard unbolted the hard top for the make-up date at Martinsville. After Welborn's misfortune in Julian's car - and his second chance with Lee's offer - Richard got to channel a bit of Jerry Reed. Guess Uncle Julie trumped the Future King that day.

When the green flag dropped, Glen Wood let it be known he didn't care if they raced in September or October. Either way, he knew the quick way around the track that was just a bit more than a half-hour from his home. Wood led the race until almost the halfway mark.

Fireball stayed in the hunt with Wood. He took the lead from Wood, and he then became the rabbit for the day. Roberts did not relinquish the lead the rest of the way.

The race was called because of darkness after only 350 of the scheduled 400 laps. If the race had gone off as scheduled a month earlier, it's likely the full distance could have been completed. Also, track and NASCAR officials lost about an hour trying to sort out who finished where in the heat races. The analysis and decisions were critical as only the top 20 cars in each 50-lap heat transferred to the main event. Because scoring efforts were so poor, a lot of time was lost dissecting who finished where. In the end, it cost the fans 50 laps of the big show.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive 
The two Petty cars had safe, title-preserving days. Lee finished seventh and Welborn finished eighth - each enough to clinch their respective titles. With his third GN title secured, Lee was free to go all-out in an effort to win his first race at North Wilkesboro the following week. (He didn't win though he did finally capture a Wilkesboro win in the spring of '59.)

Source: Star-News via Google News Archive
Richard returned to race at North Wilkesboro, Lakewood Speedway near Atlanta and Champion Speedway in Fayetteville, NC to wind down 1958. The driver and team then set about preparing for what had to have been a jaw-dropping experience - the inaugural Daytona 500 in February 1959.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Last chance for last dance

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about many of the racing firsts I've been fortunate to witness. I've also had my share of memorable lasts - though in some cases I wouldn't have known it at the time.

The ones I can recall...

1992 Food City 500 - Bristol Motor Speedway
Alan Kulwicki's second and final Bristol win
Alan was killed in a plane crash one year later

1992 Winston 500 - Talladega Superspeedway
Buddy Baker's last career start

Source. J.C. Hayes at
1992 Pepsi 400 - Daytona International Speedway
Richard Petty's last Daytona race
President George Bush was the Grand Marshal

1992 Hooters 500 - Atlanta Motor Speedway
Richard Petty's last race
Unfortunately, the King went out in a blaze of glory

2000 Winston 500 - Talladega Superspeedway
Dale Earnhardt's final career win

2003 Pop-Secret 400 - North Carolina Motor Speedway
Bill Elliott's final career win

2007 Coca-Cola 600 - Charlotte Motor Speedway
Kyle Petty finished third - his final career top 5

2011 AAA 400 - Dover International Raceway
Kurt Busch's last win for car owner Roger Penske

Any other memorable lasts you were able to witness?