Monday, February 15, 2016

February 15, 1976: Daytona 500 - Petty v. Pearson

Most old school fans and members of the media consistently say the 1979 Daytona 500 was the race that put NASCAR on the map. The race was nationally televised by CBS from beginning to end, and it had the legendary finish of Richard Petty winning as Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison, and Bobby Allison scrapped in the mud on the backstretch.

Three years earlier, however, the 500 had another epic finish. Not nearly as many folks saw it on TV as only snippets of the race aired on ABC. Yet the finish arguably trumps the 1979 race because the top two cars battled to the end rather than wrecking with a half-lap to go and allowing someone else to win.

When the dust settled on the 1975 season, King Richard had banked one of his most successful years. He won 13 of 30 races, finished in the top five a remarkable 21 times, and captured his sixth series title.

He rolled into Daytona Beach for Speedweeks 1976 sporting a beard to help commemorate the United States' bicentennial year and kept it until he caved and shaved in the spring prior to Darlington's Rebel 500. Petty was going for his third consecutive Daytona 500 victory, sixth overall, and the fifth in seven years for Petty Enterprises.

David Pearson's 1975 season was a bit of step back from his previous two. In a limited schedule with the Wood Brothers, he won three of 21 races in 1975 after having won 18 races over the 1973-74 seasons. Though he had won four summer Firecracker 250/400 races at Daytona, he had never won the 500 since his debut in the race in 1960.

Super Tex A.J. Foyt from USAC made the most of one of his infrequent NASCAR appearances by laying down the quickest time in qualifying. Darrell Waltrip in the DiGard #88 Gatorade Chevy and Dave Marcis in the iconic #71 Harry Hyde-prepared K&K Insurance Dodge Charger timed second and third. But as Lee Corso often says on ESPN's Game Day...

In post-qualifying inspection, NASCAR pinched Foyt, Waltrip, AND Marcis. Their times were disallowed though they were allowed a second-round qualifying effort and to race in the twin 125-mile qualifying races to determine their starting spot for the 500.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
Waltrip took the approach of that's racing when news came down that his time had been tossed.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
With the time of Foyt's Chevrolet kicked to the curb, another USAC regular, Ramo Stott, found himself as the surprise top starter for the 500. Regardless of how he performed in his qualifying twin, he was guaranteed to start P1. Stott always had a good time, and he was certainly delighted in getting the nod to start on the front row.

Perhaps more surprising than Stott starting first was the driver elevated to the second starting spot: Terry Ryan. In his debut at Daytona and in Cup overall, Ryan found himself perched on the front row alongside Stott.

Despite their qualifying times being disallowed, the teams of Foyt, Waltrip, and Marcis stayed focused on the big picture. Waltrip and Marcis won their respective twin, and the duo started third and fourth in the 500 - only a spot back from where they'd originally qualified.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
The Daytona 500 rolled off with Stott and Ryan on the front row. But that's about as close to the action as the duo got all day. When the green flag fell, Stott was moved aside on lap one as Buddy Baker whipped his Bud Moore Ford from its fifth starting position to the lead where he stayed for four laps.

Credit: John Betts of
The crowd watched the lead swap back and forth, lap after lap between several drivers. Except for Baker, Petty, and Foyt, no other driver kept the lead during the first half of the race for much more than a single-digit number of laps.

The final 100 laps were a duel between Pearson, Foyt, and Petty - though Benny Parsons hung around as well to keep the top three honest. Foyt won the 1972 Daytona 500 in the Wood Brothers Ford, and he planned to win it again four years later in Hoss Ellington's Chevrolet. On lap 143, however, the engine in Foyt's Chevy went south. A.J.'s day was done, and he had to settle for a 22nd place finish despite leading the most laps. Foyt's exit left a three-way battle between The Three P's: Parsons, Petty, and Pearson.

With 25 to go, Petty and Pearson had separated themselves from Parsons by a full lap. The two rivals raced only inches apart the remaining laps, and Petty led the way as the 43 and 21 took the white flag. Entering turn three on the last lap, Pearson made his move. He slipped under Petty's Dodge and slid in front of the Charger's front bumper as the two ran the high line of the track. But as Pearson moved up, he slipped ever so little which gave Petty the opportunity to dive under him.

Credit: John Betts of
Coming off turn four, Petty's Dodge charged back past Pearson. As the two headed through the dog leg of the front stretch, Petty moved up to block yet another crossover move from Pearson. But it was not quite enough.

Petty's right rear clipped the left front of Pearson's Mercury. Both cars began spinning and crashed into the wall right in front of the packed grandstands. Petty's Dodge spun wildly and coasted to a stop on the infield grass between the track and pit road - just yards from the finish line. Pearson spun around and tagged Joe Frasson's Chevrolet at the entrance to pit road. Tagging Frasson actually helped Pearson a bit as the rebound of the hit pointed the 21 back in the right direction.

Petty sat in his stalled Dodge trying desperately to restart the car. Pearson, who kept his Mercury running by pushing the clutch as the car spun, began to literally plow the infield grass with the crumbled Mercury as he slowly moved toward the checkered flag.

Meanwhile, the Petty crew rushed to the scene of Richard's stopped Dodge to push the 43 to the finish. NASCAR had a rule stating a car could not be pushed across the finish line. The 43 was therefore penalized a lap but still credited with second place ahead of Parsons.

Eddie Wood recalls hearing Pearson key his mic to reply to the question from the pits of "What happened?" The Silver Fox's reply was direct and concise: The bitch hit me.

Tim Leeming, who first met Petty at his debut race at Columbia Speedway in 1958, shared his memories from the race:
The big thing about our trip was that one of our good friends had been involved in an auto accident two weeks before the race and spent a week in the hospital with a severely broken leg. He was determined he would not miss that race. So, as we loaded up to go, we literally lifted him into the passenger front bucket seat pushed back as far as it would go. Looking back, I will never know how he survived that long ride in the position in which he had to sit, but he did it.

When we got the track Sunday morning, we signed in for press credentials and then parked in the infield press parking area. We took a chair next to the fence for our friend with the broken leg and sat around and talked until about an hour before race time when I went into the pits for a couple of interviews for the radio show. To say things were really different back then is a full blown understatement. It was easy to approach almost any driver as he came down off the stand from introductions, and they all had time to talk with you.

I spent most of the race watching with my friends against the fence near turn one as that was the best vantage point for my friend who had to sit. With about 30 to go, I walked into the pits and took up position in the same place I had been for the previous year's 500, right at the first turn end of pit road. The last 30 laps were thrilling as we could all tell it was going to be the classic Petty-Pearson duel 'til the end.

As the two flashed by on the white flag lap, I watched them as far as I could see them going through turns 1 and 2. Then I immediately turned my attention to turn four to wait for them to come back around. I was leaning as far over the pit wall as I could. I jumped off the ground when I saw the red and blue Dodge coming first but something was big time wrong. Petty and Pearson were both sliding and spinning and then Richard went nose first into the wall.

For a few seconds, I think I was in shock trying to figure out what happened. Then I saw some of the Petty crew running towards the car so I jumped the wall and started to sprint in that direction to help push. About the time I hit the grass between the pit road and the track, the biggest man I have ever seen (still a true statement even all these years later) grabbed me and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was NOT going out there to push Petty. It was about that time Pearson made it across the line so the point for the win was moot anyway.  
The crumpled 21 Mercury arrives in Victory Lane.

Meanwhile, the Petty crew pushed the 43 to garage area as they wondered what might have been. Joe Frasson who also spun during the melee waits as the 43 crew gets Richard through the pit wall opening first.

Credit: John Betts
Several years ago, Pearson was interviewed by Johnny Hayes. The two talk about the 1976 Daytona finish beginning around the 3:00 mark.


Though the King had to settle for a spectacular second in the 500, the Petty team didn't go home empty handed. Shop employee and part-time driver, Joe Millikan, piloted the Petty Enterprises Hayes Jewelers #04 Dodge Charger to the win in the Permatex 300 late model sportsman race the day before the 500.

Courtesy of Ray Lamm
Also, beer distributor and part-time driver Woody Fisher - driving a Petty Enterprises built and crewed Dodge Charger - finished second to Cup regular Lennie Pond in the ARCA 200 .

Courtesy of Brian Norton
Many may remember the British accent of David Hobbs serving as color commentator to Ken Squier's lead announcing role on the later CBS stock car telecasts. Hobbs made his first of two career NASCAR starts in the 1976 Daytona 500. He drove a Coca-Cola sponsored #73 L.G. DeWitt Chevy. He crashed on lap 68, however, and finished 39th.

Judging by this photo, I'm thinking the team may have been supplied with caffeine-free Coke.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
Ed Negre raced the 10,000 RPM Speed Equipment Dodge Charger. Nine months earlier, Negre fielded what was likely the same Dodge for rookie Dale Earnhardt in his first Cup race, the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte.

After getting boat raced on lap one of the 500, Stott faded back through the field. He blew an engine on lap 118. Skip Manning spun after hitting the oil from Stott's engine.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
Journeyman driver Johnny Ray then t-boned Manning and was badly injured. Ray's driving career ended with the accident. He continued in racing, however, as a car owner. One of the races in which he fielded a car was the 1976 Dixie 500 at Atlanta - the next to last race of the season. Earnhardt spun, flipped and destroyed Ray's car in only his third career Cup start.

Finally, Petty's Charger lived to race another day. Rather than scrap the wrecked car or donate it to Dale Jr's property as is often done today, the Level Cross crew thrashed. The wrecked 43 was hauled back to the shop, and the crew repaired it over the next two weeks so the King could race it at Rockingham. Result: win #178 in the Carolina 500.


1 comment:

  1. The Greatest Race in the history of NASCAR