Friday, November 20, 2015

November 20, 1977 - LA Times 500

From 1974 through 1980, NASCAR ended its Winston Cup Series schedule at the 2-1/2 mile Ontario Motor Speedway. The southern California speedway was built as a twin of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Indy had been - and it remains - a racing institution. Ontario was a west coast track ahead of its time. The track faced steep challenges with relatively low attendance and troubled finances, and it was perched on real estate that became much more valuable as re-developed commercial property than as a race track.

Before its demise in 1981, however, OMS hosted some solid races. One of those events was the 1977 Los Angeles Times 500, the season-ender for the Cup series.

The King - Richard Petty - nabbed the pole in his famed #43 STP Dodge Charger. Though no one could have predicted it at the time, Petty's top starting spot was the next-to-last of his career. His earned his final career top qualifying spot in August 1979 at Bristol's second ever night race.

Other than his Petty Blue Plymouths of 1966-67, the 1974 body style Charger was perhaps Petty's best race car. When Petty drove onto Ontario's surface, it would be the next to last time the Charger raced. The Level Cross bunch prep'd the car just one more time for a Cup ride in the 1978 season-opener at Riverside International Raceway road course.

Neil Bonnett plunked a second Dodge Charger alongside Petty on the front row. He was racing the #5 Jim Stacy Charger. For many years, the team was owned by insurance businessman Nord Krauskopf; was sponsored by K&K Insurance; won races with drivers such as Bobby Isaac, Buddy Baker and Dave Marcis; and sported #71.

Stacy bought the team in the off season between the end of 1976 and beginning of 1977. Marcis was not re-signed, and Bonnett was given the opportunity to race the car. Stacy continued to use #71 in the early part of the season. At mid-season, he changed to number 5. Bonnett notched a few poles and got his first Cup win at Richmond, but the team was otherwise inconsistent on a week-to-week basis.

Source: Ocala Star Banner via Google News Archive
Two racing legends - A.J. Foyt and David Pearson - made up the second row, and NASCAR Hall of Famer and 3-time Cup champion Cale Yarborough rounded out the top 5 starters.

Scott Baker of captured the start of the race as the field barreled down the half-mile long front straightaway.

Interestingly, neither Petty nor Bonnett led lap 1. Pearson in the Wood Brothers #21 Purolator Mercury got by both of them and Foyt to lead lap 1. Bonnett hammered down to pass Pearson and led the next five laps. The back and forth in those first few laps set the tone for the rest of the day in terms of lap leaders.

Eleven different drivers had their time out front. Many of them led on multiple occasions, and many led for only single-digit segments. Lap leaders included the expected such as: Petty, Pearson, Bonnett, and Cale Yarborough. Others had their day in the shade as well including James Hylton, rookie Ricky Rudd, James Hylton and even Janet Guthrie.

It's amazing to reflect back to the day when two (eventual) seven-time champions - The King in Cup and Super Tex in USAC - were in the same race.

Today's Hendrick Motorsports can trace it's lineage to the days of Stacy and Bonnett's Dodge. The legendary crew chief Harry Hyde turned the wrenches, a young Randy Dorton built the engines, and the Charger sported #5. When Rick Hendrick started his fledgling Cup program with Geoff Bodine as the driver, Hyde led the team, Dorton built the engines, and the All Star Racing Chevy had #5 on it's sides.
As the race entered its final 25 laps, Bonnett found himself in front with Petty's 43 in hot pursuit. With six laps to go, Petty made his move. The 43 Dodge eased in front of the 5 Dodge. As the twosome rounded the monstrous track, however, Bonnett found more horses in Dorton's engine and motored back around Petty as they got the signal of five to go.

Neil would not be passed again. He led the remaining five laps and claimed his first career superspeedway win. Petty who had last won at Daytona on July 4, 1977, extended his wait to another day to win his next one. What the King obviously couldn't have anticipated was that he'd have to wait a full season and then some before notching win number 193 in the legendary 1979 Daytona 500.

Source: Richard Guido

Though the win was a huge boost to Bonnett's career and a near-miss for Petty, the larger story perhaps was Cale Yarborough's claim to his second consecutive Winston Cup title. His nine wins and 25 top 5's in 30 races remains among the top seasons of all time. Though Cale had accumulated enough points to clinch the title over Petty as the runner-up, Yarborough's title became official when he crossed the line in third place at Ontario.

Source: Reading Eagle via Google News Archive
Thanks to Scott Baker of who attended this race and provided several of the great photos for this post.


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