Friday, March 18, 2016

March 18, 1962 - Oh so close at Orange Speedway

After Fireball Roberts' win in the 1962 Daytona 500, NASCAR's GN drivers prepared to jump into the meat-and-three of their short-track schedule. About half the field from Daytona raced a week later at the half-mile, dirt Concord Speedway in North Carolina and watched helplessly as Joe Weatherly led flag to flag in the 78-lap race.

The following week, the teams headed west about 3 hours to the half-mile, paved Asheville-Weaverville Speedway for a 200-lap race on March 4th. Winner: Joe Weatherly. Again.

A week after Weaverville, the drivers were scheduled to reverse course and head east for Orange Speedway in Hillsboro, NC. A 110-lap race on the .9-mile dirt track was slated for Sunday, March 11.

As has often been the case over the years, then and in recent years, rain can wreak havoc on a racing schedule - especially during a Southern spring. The race was rained out and rescheduled for a week later on March 18.

The teams were already scheduled to race in Savannah, Georgia in the St. Patrick's Day 200 on Saturday, March 17. No time remained for (much) post-race St. Paddy's celebration because the teams had to hump it overnight to Hillsboro for Sunday's make-up date.

Little Joe kept his hot streak rolling by winning the pole at Hillsboro. (Weatherly started and finished third in Savannah.) Richard Petty qualified second followed by Rex White. Maurice Petty started 8th, and Ralph Earnhardt rolled off 13th. The race was the second of only eight times Chief and Ralph started in the same GN race.

At the drop of the green, Weatherly commenced to puttin' a whoopin' on the field. He grabbed the lead from Richard Petty and then paced the field for the first 24 laps. Petty didn't go anywhere though. He stayed near Weatherly and managed to get by him on the 25th lap. The 43 Plymouth then led 23 laps of his own before Weatherly decided it was time for him to be lead dog again.

Little Joe reclaimed the lead, towed the field around the track for 50+ laps, and was headed for his third win in four starts. But then...

With nine to go, Weatherly's drivetrain went south in his Bud Moore Pontiac. As he faded, Petty went to the point and positioned himself to win his sixth career Grand National race. With five to go, however, Rex White gave Petty a maybe later but not today battle for the win. White's #4 Chevy pulled alongside the Petty Blue Plymouth, and they raced to the end. At the finish line, Rex (Latin for King) narrowly defeated NASCAR's future King by a couple of car lengths.

Credit: Gold Thunder by Rex White and Anne Jones
White's win was the 21st of an eventual 28-win, one championship and NASCAR Hall of Fame career. Lee Petty still had a decent day at the bank on Monday as Maurice finished sixth to go along with his older brother's P2. Dale Jr.'s granddad finished in 7th - one spot behind Maurice's #41 Plymouth.

Rex at Memory Lane Museum 2014
Source: Wilmington Star-News via Google News Archive
TMC

Thursday, March 17, 2016

March 17, 1968 - Bristol's Southeastern 500

The 1967 NASCAR Grand National season was dominated by Richard Petty. The King won 27 races, 10 in a row, and his second GN title. The 1968 season began within a few weeks following the end of the 1967 one.

Petty started 1968 with a second-place finish at Middle Georgia Raceway in Byron, Georgia; a win in Montgomery, AL; a Q4/P10 at Riverside; and a Q2/P8 in the Daytona 500. The next two races were postponed because of snow at Asheville-Weaverville and a day-long, soaking rain at Rockingham. So interestingly, the next race to follow Daytona became the Southeastern 500 at Bristol International Speedway on St. Patrick's Day.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
Bristol was still known by it's original name before being re-branded in the late 1970s as Bristol International Raceway and later as the current Bristol Motor Speedway.

The King kept his early season mojo going by winning the pole. David Pearson qualified alongside Petty on the front row. Cale Yarborough in the #21 Wood Brothers Ford and Lee Roy Yarbrough in Junior Johnson's #98 Ford made up the second row.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel
At the drop of the green, pole-winner Petty jumped ahead of Pearson as they headed for turn 1. Pearson, however, pulled back even with Petty and then ahead of him to lead lap 1 ... and then 33 laps more.

Source: Bristol Herald Courier
Petty then got around Pearson to lead an 11-lap stint. But Pearson's blue and gold #17 Holman Moody Ford re-took the lead and set sail for 50 laps. The rest of the race had to be really fun to watch. Pearson, Petty, Yarbrough and Yarborough all took turns leading healthy chunks of laps before one of the others returned to the point.

As was the case at Rockingham, the Tri-Cities got a healthy dose of rain. Fortunately for race fans, Bristol's rain happened on Saturday vs. Sunday. The downside, however, was the postponement until July of the 300-lap Grand Touring preliminary race. Though the track was dry enough to race on Sunday, the same could not be said for pit road. It's amazing to see how wet pit road remained for almost all of the race.

With about 50 laps to go, Lee Roy was leading with Pearson second and #43 in third. Petty passed Pearson to take second. As the two barreled into turn one, however, Petty's brakes went away. The 43 made a bee line for the wall, but Petty fortunately saved the car and soldiered on. Pearson took the opportunity to dive back under Petty and reclaimed the spot.

Remarkably, Petty stayed on track and in contention despite having almost no brakes. He adjusted his approach to get on and off the corners to hang tough with the 17 and 98. The late laps included some fantastic racing including a three-wide battle between Pearson, Petty and Yarbrough.

With 20 to go, Petty's lack of brakes resulted in a second and race-deciding slide. His first slide through turn 1 took him near the wall. His second slide through turn 4 took him into the wall. He recovered and held off a fading Yarbrough to finish second. Pearson, however, got the needed break and drove away comfortably to the checkers.

Source: Bristol Herald Courier
Pearson's win was his first victory in nearly a year. The win was also his first in a Ford. The Silver Fox's first three GN wins were in a Pontiac. He then won several races from 1964 through 1967 in Cotton Owens' Dodges before joining the factory-backed, Holman Moody Ford team midway through 1967.
Source: Ford Racing Archives via Autoextremist
With Brenda Clayter - Source: Sporting News
Source: Bristol Herald Courier
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel
The race was the 20th of 63 times that Petty and Pearson finished first and second.

TMC

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

March 16, 1969 - Augusta's Cracker 200

Bobby Isaac was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January 2016. Isaac won the 1970 NASCAR Grand National title and 37 GN/Cup races. He won 19 pole positions in 1969 - nineteen! Having an upfront starting spot should have tee'd him up for more success that year than he actually accomplished. His 19 poles were combined, however, with 19 DNFs along with a gaffe or two by his team.

Augusta Speedway in Georgia had a record of holding some really great races. As the 25 cars checked in to compete for 200 laps and 100 miles in the March 16, 1969 Cracker 200, fans anticipated another great show.

Richard Petty arrived wearing a patch over one eye as though he should be sailing, sailing over the bounding main rather than preparing to race for 200 laps. He injured his eye in an accident at the Petty shop and was told by the doctors to keep the eye covered for a period of time.

Isaac won the pole in the K&K Insurance Dodge. Pirate Petty started second in his #43 Ford, and David Pearson timed third in the Holman-Moody Ford. Dave Marcis qualified fourth in the Milt Lunda Dodge, and James Hylton lined up fifth in his own Dodge.

The race had only two leaders. Bobby Isaac led the first 119 circuits. Pearson then took over on pit stops and led the remaining 81 laps. Isaac's pit stop was rough. The 71 team took 28 seconds to change two outside tires as the crew had difficulty with the change. Isaac's pit woes went from bad to worse. NASCAR black flaggged Bobby as soon as he returned to the track because his gas cap was loose.

By the time the pitting disaster was concluded, Isaac was almost two laps behind. He went on a rampage with the rapid red Dodge; however, and he made up the time to get back on the lead lap. In the end though, Isaac ran out of laps and couldn't catch the winner Pearson and second place Petty.

Source: Rome News Tribune via Google News Archive
The race was the 32nd of 63 times that Petty and Pearson finished in the top two spots.

Thanks to Tim Leeming of RacersReunion.com for the assist in composing this post.

TMC

Thursday, March 10, 2016

March 10, 1964 - Richmond 250

Richmond, Virginia has been a fixture on NASCAR's Grand National / Cup schedule since 1953. The track has seen a number of changes including:
  • Multiple names
  • Lap count variances
  • A move from dirt to asphalt, and
  • Track configurations
Yet, the track has remained a constant for race fans for over sixty years. One could argue Richmond has been the most progressive and fan-responsive track over the decades.

The first of two race at Richmond in 1964 - the Richmond 250 - was scheduled for Sunday,  March 8. Petty Enterprises planned to field two Plymouths for Richard Petty - fresh off his first Daytona 500 victory - and for Buck Baker who finished 12th in the Petty car at Daytona after having some issues with his Hemi engine.

When the team arrived in Richmond, however, it was the King's brother - Maurice Petty - who took the wheel of the family's second factory Plymouth. It's unclear when the decision was made to have Chief race rather than Baker.

Source: The Progress-Index of Petersburg, Virginia
Drivers representing the Blue Oval - Ford Motor Company - qualified for the top three starting positions. Ned Jarrett in a Ford, Billy Wade in Bud Moore's Mercury, and Mavin Panch in the Wood Brothers Ford started 1-2-3. Maurice Petty showed up his older brother a bit by qualifying fourth. Rounding out the top five starters was Ralph Earnhardt. Neither Maurice or Ralph ever raced full-time in the Grand National division, and Richmond represented the fifth of only eight times the two drivers were in the same race.

When the green flag fell, Gentlemen Ned served notice his Ford was the one to beat. He leveraged his top starting spot to an early lead - and stayed there. Turn after turn, lap after lap, Jarrett's 11 paced the field. Until.

Rain arrived 25 laps before the halfway point, and the rest of the race was postponed after only 100 laps had been completed. The remaining laps were to be run the next clear day.

Source: The Progress-Index of Petersburg, Virginia
The track was still far too saturated and muddy to run the remainder on Monday. Instead, the race was restarted on Tuesday evening, March 10. The race became Richmond's first under the lights - a tradition later adopted in 1991 on Richmond's current 3/4-mile configuration.

Junior Johnson was running in fifth place when the race was postponed. But when the remainder of the race was moved to Tuesday, Junior Johnson said he had another obligation and couldn't continue. Buck Baker - apparently bounced from the Petty Plymouth - took over Junior's Dodge and raced it the rest of the way to a fourth place finish.

Dave Fulton worked in racing-related promotions for several years - in the early 1980s with Wrangler and Dale Earnhardt, mid 1980s with Southland Corporation when their 7-Eleven brand sponsored Kyle Petty, and Richmond Raceway as an assistant to promoter Paul Sawyer. As a kid, however, Fulton was simply a wide-eyed fan. He attended the 1964 Richmond 250 as his first GN race and shared his memories from it:
I was 15. That was the day I first heard the late announcer Ray Melton for the first time intone the "Most Famous Words in Sports":

"Jellllyyymennnnnnnnnnnnnnnn...START YOUR ENGINES!"

That was the day I saw my first race. It was the first time I'd see Richard Petty, who'd just won his first Daytona 500. Didn't get to see my uncle's favorite - Joe Weatherly, a terror on the Richmond dirt with both stock cars and motorcycles - because he'd been killed in January at Riverside.

Dad dropped me off after church on Sunday. I paid the entire $5 I had in my pocket for a 4th turn bleacher seat.

The first time Tiny Lund came by me in practice with his Ford kicking up a rooster tail of dirt sideways, I was hooked for life.

After the parade of visiting pace cars, Ray Melton told me to clap my hands, stomp my feet, whistle and cheer as my favorite driver passed in review (I didn't have one yet).

Ray said these were the stars and cars of NASCAR's elite Grand National racing division. He said the cars were painted in all the colors of the rainbow and the drivers came from country stands and crossroads strands. No announcer since has ever gotten a stock car crowd so worked up as Ray Melton did in his prime.

I had heard all about the new "Hemis" and decided I'd pull for them. Billy Wade replacing Joe Weatherly in Bud Moore's potent Mercury had other ideas.

Hot Damn! I never knew two cars could run side-by-side while broadsliding through Richmond's wide sweeping dirt corners!

And the sound - the heart-throbbing, bleacher-shaking sound - and the smell of the rubber and gasoline and the dirt clods and those good ol' boys rooting each other out of the groove (much better than bump drafting). All the way across the track in the dust of the first few laps one car stood out. The announcer said it was painted electric blue, but that famous color was Petty Blue carried on the #43.

Unfortunately, before the race was at the halfway point, the rain began to pour. The race was postponed.

The track was too muddy to race on Monday and even during the day on Tuesday. Finally, the race resumed on a cold Tuesday night in March under the lights. It was wonderful!
Jarrett couldn't continue his Big Mo when the race restarted. He led another couple of laps but surrendered the lead to Wade. Also, David Pearson quickly picked up the scent of the lead and moved up from his fourth place restart spot.

Richard Petty made his presence known as well. He went toe to toe with Wade once the race resumed. Wade led a 33-lap hitch, King then paced the field for 25 laps, and then Wade went back out front for another stretch of 48 laps.  Then things got really fun.

Pearson watched Wade and Petty battle as he had his own hands full racing Jarrett. He finally cleared them all and took over the top spot. With only sixteen laps to go, Jarrett's dominant Ford on Sunday cooked an engine. Then Petty separated himself from Wade's Mercury who faded back to third.

Petty gave chase to catch Pearson, but the Cotton Owens-prepared Dodge was too strong once it found the front. Pearson led the final 36 laps of the race to capture the win with Petty a half-lap back in second.

The win was Pearson's first victory since 1961 and his first in a Dodge. The race was also the third of 63 times Petty-Pearson finished 1-2.

Source: The High Point Enterprise

TMC

Monday, March 7, 2016

March 7, 1976 - Richmond 400

From 1969 through 1975, Richmond's races were 500 laps and about 250 miles. In 1976, the length of the track's two races was dropped to 400 laps and about 200 miles. The lap count continued with the track's new (and current) 3/4-mile configuration in 1989 - though the distance became 300 miles.

The first race under the 400-laps model - the 1976 Richmond 400 - was scheduled for February 22nd as the third race of the season and the first to follow what became the legendary finish of the Daytona 500.

Bobby Allison won the pole in his Roger Penske-owned #2 CAM2 Mercury. Dave Marcis qualified alongside Allison in his #71 K&K Insurance Dodge. Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough rounded out the top five starters.

When race day arrived, however, so did a persistent rain. Richmond now runs its spring race actually in the spring. Back in the day, however, Richmond's first "spring" race was frequently hit with with cold temps, rain, snow, and sometimes postponements. Sure enough, the 1976 edition was postponed two weeks to March 7 - the week after the Carolina 500 at Rockingham. The only hiccup was if Rockingham's race was postponed as well because March 7 was also earmarked as its make-up date.

The race at The Rock went off as scheduled. But a not-so-funny thing happened to Allison on his way back to Richmond. Allison tangled with Yarborough, and he flipped his Mercury multiple times.

Though hospitalized, Allison wasn't seriously injured and still planned to race at Richmond from his top starting spot. Just in case he couldn't go the distance, however, he had his brother Donnie Allison on stand-by. Though I never was an Allison fan, his toughness could never be denied - then or now. Bruised and battered but still standing, Allison started the race, went the distance, and finished third.

Source: Free Lance Star via Google News Archive
Though Allison started P1, Marcis got the jump at the drop of the green. He set sail into turn one and paced the field for almost all of the first quarter of the race. Others soon got in on the action though. Petty and Yarborough controlled much of the middle stages of the race.

With about 80 laps to go, Virginia's own Lennie Pond found himself in the lead in a strong effort at the wheel of Ronnie Elder's Pepsi-sponsored #54 Chevrolet. The 1973 Rookie of the Year led a few laps earlier, but now it was time to hammer down and take home a trophy. After a 33-lap stint at the front and only one other car on the lead lap with him, however, Pond's fortunes inexplicably turned bad. Really bad. He tangled with Ed Negre with about 50 to go, and his day was rurnt. Instead of competing for a win, Pond went home with a dismal 23rd place finish in the 30-car field.

With Pond's departure, The King did what The King generally did at Richmond: lead. He set the pace for the next 40-odd laps and seemed to be in great position to win at Richmond for the 14th time of his career. But a couple of challenges arose to face the 43. One, his Maurice Petty-engine lost not just one but two cylinders. His Dodge Charger somehow continued, but he clearly didn't have runaway speed. Two, a couple of cautions with about 20 laps to go allowed Dave Marcis to get back on the lead lap.

The second caution with 11 laps to go was quite bizarre. While running third, Yarborough popped the inside guard rail, continued on with speed through an opening into the infield, and ran smack-dab into a parked fire truck. Cale's #11 Chevy got the worst end of the encounter, yet he still managed to a fourth place result despite the DNF.

Courtesy of Donald Evans of RacersReunion.com
The race went green again with one lap to go. Petty and Marcis were the only two cars on the lead lap, and Marcis realized the opportunity was his. He barreled into turn one and got to the inside of Petty. The two battled side by side the rest of the way including a few door rubs along the way.

At the strip, Marcis narrowly won his second of what ultimately became five career Cup victories. Accounts of the margin of victory vary depending on what one reads or cares to believe. I've seen it as close as few feet to a couple of car lengths. Either way ... Marcis was the victor, and Petty missed out on what would have been his 201st victory overall.

Courtesy of Brian Yezierski of RacersReunion.com
Source: The Progress-Index of Petersburg, Virginia
TMC