Friday, April 29, 2016

Oldsmobile: Old School & New Life for Pettys

Twelve years ago - April 29, 2004 - the last Oldsmobile rolled off GM's assembly line. Oldsmobile was America's oldest automotive brand, and it was the second brand to roll into General Motors. Over the decades, however, the brand found itself as the red-headed stepchild of GM. It wasn't the most luxurious, cheapest, hippest, coolest, oldest, creative or any other adjective. It was solidly in the middle of the company's product offerings, and GM made the decision to shutter the brand.

Oldsmobile had its place in racing, particularly NASCAR. In the mid to late 1950s, Lee Petty fielded cars for himself and often other drivers. The race car of choice during that time was an Oldsmobile Delta 88. Other Petty drivers included the likes of Bill Lutz, Tiny Lund...

From Andy Towler at
...Bobby Myers (father of long-time Richard Childress Racing crewman Chocolate Myers)...

Final photo taken of Bobby Myers courtesy of Randy Myers
....and even Ralph Earnhardt.

Courtesy of Don Smyle / Smyle Media
Richard Petty's first career start at Columbia Speedway was in a hand-me-down Oldsmobile convertible. The remnants of what is believed to be the Olds that King drove in that first race in 1958 now resides in Memory Lane Museum in Mooresville, NC. It's also likely the car was the same Petty Olds raced by Billy Myers (Bobby's brother, Chocolate's uncle) to his final win in a convertible race at North Wilkesboro in 1958.

TMC Photo
The Pettys field a pair of Oldsmobiles in the first Daytona 500 in 1959. Richard entered an older Olds convertible, and Lee narrowly won the race in his new Olds hardtop.

Partway through the 1959 season, the Pettys became a full-time Plymouth team. In 1971, Petty Enterprises fielded a Dodge Charger for Buddy Baker while keeping the King in a Plymouth. In early 1972, the decision was made to move the 43 to a Dodge as well. The 43 stayed a Dodge through 1978 with Richard racing the 1974 Charger and the ill-fated 1978 Magnum.

Midway through 1978, the Dodge was no longer competetive. The Pettys made a logical - yet unpopular to many - decision to switch to Chevrolet. The team ran a purchased Monte Carlo the rest of the season until they could begin to build their own.

In the off-season, the team expanded its General Motors fleet beyond just the workhorse Monte Carlo. As previously blogged, a Caprice was built to run several of the short tracks. And for the superspeedways, the Pettys returned to the name brand with which Richard started: Oldsmobile.

Junior Johnson fielded the Olds Cutlass 442 for Cale Yarborough in 1978. By 1979, just about every GM team built one for the big tracks. Junior's team ran the 442 frequently, but most other teams raced it sparingly - primarily at tracks such as Daytona and Talladega.

1979 Daytona 500 - This race is perhaps the most well-known race for the 43 442. With a solid Petty blue hood and no STP oval because of an on-going financial chess match between STP and the Pettys, the newly built 442 won its debut race.

1979 Atlanta 500 - This 442 started and finished 11th with a one-time, unique look. The STP oval was back on the hood - but a small one. And a series of varying sized STP decals were applied to the quarter panels.

1979 Southeastern 500 - The 43 finished a strong 4th at Bristol in the first of only two short-track races for the 442.

Credit: Woody Delbridge
Credit: David Allio /
Courtesy of Ray Lamm
1979 Winston 500 - The car took a beating in this race at Talladega. A spin by Buddy Baker triggered a multi-car crash in which the majority of the top running cars were collected. Amazingly, most were able to continue and be competitive albeit with hundreds of yards of duct tape applied. The King brought home his mangled 442 to a P4 finish. A new deal had also been worked out with STP, and the 43 again sported a large STP oval on its hood.

1979 Mason-Dixon 500 - Petty's Olds was wiped out in lap 2 accident at Dover. The 442 finished 30th in the 31-car field. Richard was hurt badly enough that he needed relief help from Jimmy Insolo three races later in Riverside, California.

Credit: Lee Greenawalt
1979 Firecracker 400 - Though Petty wasn't able to sweep Daytona in 1979, he did back up his Daytona 500 win with a fifth place finish in the July 4th Firecracker race.

1979 Talladega 500 - The race earned double-chicken money for the Petty teams. Richard finished fourth in his Olds to match his P4 from the spring's Winston 500, and Kyle finished ninth in the Dodge Magnum in his debut Cup race.

After the second Talladega race, the Olds was parked in favor of the Monte Carlo and Caprice. The two Chevy cars were used in the stretch run as Richard successfully battled Waltrip for the championship. With his seventh title in the books, the team went back to work readying for 1980. The team went with what worked before, and they again prepared the 442 to defend their title at Daytona.

1980 Daytona 500 - This one was my first Daytona race to see in person. I watched from atop a small motorhome in the infield and was mesmerized by the brilliantly-bright, day-glo red despite the great distance from me to the track. Though King won the 500 for the 6th time in 1979 and his 7th and final time in 1981, my first trip wasn't a good day for the King or the Olds. After starting 4th, the 442 broke a clutch and Petty finished a disappointing 25th.

Adding insult to injury was that Kyle missed his first Daytona 500 after wrecking his hand-me-down Dodge Magnum in his 125-mile qualifier. The accident started when Nashville's Gary Baker spun and wrecked coming out of turn 4 in his #4  ...  Olds 442.

TMC Archives
1980 Winston 500 - The superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega were great to the 43 in 1979 with finishes of 1st and 5th at Daytona and a pair of P4s at Talladega. In 1980, the big tracks weren't quite as kind. After a 25th at Daytona, Richard finished 31st at Talladega after losing an engine in his Olds. Kyle (foreground) was back to working on his dad's pit crew.

Credit: Robert Turner
1980 Firecracker 400 - After a miserable first two races at the superspeedways, Richard finished a respectable fifth in Daytona's summer scorcher.

1980 Talladega 500 - The previous week at Pocono, Richard suffered a terrible crash in his Monte Carlo. He spun, backed into the wall hard, and was then t-boned by Darrell Waltrip. He walked away from the crash - but his face showed obvious pain. Folks learned later that Richard suffered broken vertebrae in his neck. Amazingly, the safety crew didn't stabilize the King's neck after taking him from the car.

Yet, the King soldiered on. He belted into the Olds at Talladega long enough to start the race. A midday rain shower benefited the team. The race was started under a green-yellow flag (laps count, speed doesn't - a NASCAR rule I truly disdain). Richard completed one official lap and was therefore credited with the race's driver points. As he neared completion of the second lap, the 43 hit pit road. Previous Petty driver and crewman Joe Millikan qualified the car fifth and then jumped into the Olds to race the full event. Unfortunately for Millikan, however, Maurice Petty's engine soured as it did in the spring at Talladega. The 442 finished 18th after completing only 154 of the race's 188 laps.

Source: SportingNews
1980 Old Dominion 500 - Kyle raced the Olds 442 at Martinsville in its second and last short-track race. He qualified 29th and finished 27th in his one and only career start in an Olds.

In the end, the Pettys won only one modern-era race in an Olds. Yet in my opinion, the 442 remains one of the best looking rides from the Level Cross shops in that era.

A year or so after Petty Enterprises moved to a 110-inch wheelbase Buick Regal on the track...

...I began learning how to drive... my parents' Oldsmobile...
...with a wheelbase far longer than 110 inches.

The car was a 1969 Oldsmobile Delta 88. The four-door sled had a 455 cubic inch engine. A true beast.

The Petty Olds? I miss it. My family's Delta 88? Ehh, not so much.

R.I.P. Oldsmobile


Saturday, April 16, 2016

April 16, 1978 - Gwyn Staley 400

NASCAR's Winston Cup drivers arrived in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina for the eighth race of the 1978 season - the Gwyn Staley 400.

A number of story lines existed as the teams prepared to race for 400 laps on the 5/8 mile track.
  • Two-time defending Cup champion, Cale Yarborough, let it be known he was back for a crack at a third consecutive title. He won the season-opener in Riverside, California and banked five Top 5 finishes in the season's first seven races.
  • Bobby Allison won two of the season's first seven races - including the Daytona 500 - in his new gig as the driver of Bud Moore's #15 Ford.
  • Dodge finally retired its venerable 1974 Charger body style. The King, Richard Petty, was now at the wheel of a Dodge Magnum. Rather than compete for wins as he'd done for several years with the Charger, Petty had opened the season with only a couple of top 5s along with some really dismal finishes.
  • Benny Parsons, the 1973 Cup champion and 1975 Daytona 500 winner, won two early season races at Richmond and Darlington.
A unique qualifying format was used for the race. The line-up was set by the average of two qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday. Parsons - who was from North Wilkesboro - had the quickest average over the two sessions. Darrell Waltrip timed second to join BP on the front row. Allison and Yarborough were side by side on the second row. Lennie Pond rounded out the top 5 starters in his #54 Harry Ranier Monte Carlo.

Twenty-nine drivers took the green flag. Not 43 - not 40 - not even 36. Just 29. Everyone was OK, and no one panicked about the state of the sport. Of course, Twitter, Facebook and FOX Sports RaceHub didn't exist back then either.

Credit: SaveTheSpeedway (Twitter)
Despite the strong start to 1978, Cale had a rough go of it at his car owner's home track. Junior Johnson took great pride in having his drivers compete for wins at Wilkesboro. He could not have been happy with engine issues in Cale's #11 Olds - especially with a DNF for the second race in a row.

Courtesy of David Staten
As with Richard Petty, Neil Bonnett's Harry Hyde-led Dodge team had changed to the Magnum. Following Yarborough's early exit, he returned to the pit area in street clothes to watch more of the race (in dark shirt and cowboy hat in following pic). Cale may have toted a black cloud around his head that day because Bonnett soon fell out of the race with engine issues of his own.

Courtesy of David Staten
Though Petty's Magnum piled up several bad finishes and DNFs, the 43 was surprisingly strong at Wilkesboro. The fact the driver's performance was strong, however, was no surprise. With 15 wins at the track, King Richard knew how to hustle a car around it.

Petty, Parsons and Darrell Waltrip split time at the front of the field almost evenly. The bulk of Waltrip's lead laps, however, came in the final hundred laps of the race. He passed Petty and pulled the field around for almost 70 consecutive laps.

Credit: SaveTheSpeedway (Twitter)
Waltrip gained a one-lap lead with about 70 laps to go when Petty made a pit stop. The King and his crew battled, however, to back get on the lead lap. He made up much of the ground, but a last lap caution caused by D.K. Ulrich allowed Waltrip to cruise to the the checkers and the win. Pole-winning Parsons hung tough, but he could only muster a third place finish - one lap down to Waltrip and Petty.

Credit: David Allio of Racing Photo Archives
The victory was Waltrip's second consecutive win at Wilkesboro and second of the season (first one coming at Bristol). When his career was done, he had piled up twenty-two wins just at those two tracks. Waltrip was met in victory lane by crew chief Buddy Parrott. Coincidentally, Parrott went to victory lane six years later with Petty at Daytona following his 200th career win.

Credit: SaveTheSpeedway (Twitter)
Petty's P2 matched the best finish of 1978 for the ill-fated, much maligned Magnum. He got another second place a couple of months later in the second road course race of the season at Riverside. By the summer, however, he'd had enough. The Dodge was dumped in favor of Chevrolet.


April 16, 1972 - Rebel 400

Though R.J. Reynolds joined forces with NASCAR to re-brand the Grand National Division as the Winston Cup Series in 1971, most point to 1972 as the start of the modern era. A number of tracks and races were cut from the schedule, and the drivers raced a 30'ish race schedule each year for the title beginning in 1972.

Another big change facing the sport was the exit of funding from Detroit's Big Three manufacturers. Factory money was no more - at least overtly. Teams needed new revenue sources to help cover the costs of racing. Petty Enterprises did the unthinkable by signing with STP. The agreement wasn't the surprise. The adding of STP's Day-Glo Red to Petty Blue is what dropped the jaws of many. But hey, it paid the bills, a lot of them.

Petty won in 1971 ... a lot. Many fans with even a bare grasp of historical NASCAR intel can quote the fact the King won 27 races in 1967. What few remember, however, is he also won another 21 races in 1971. Those winning ways carried over into 1972. Petty won the season-opener on Riverside's road course in his first race with STP. Bad fortune hit the team at Daytona, and a fouled engine doomed the 43 to a 26th place DNF.

The bad Daytona finish didn't deter the Level Cross bunch. Petty followed up Daytona with a win at Richmond followed by a 4th at Ontario, 2nd at Rockingham, 6th at Atlanta, and 3rd at Bristol.

David Pearson, the long-time rival and peer of the King, didn't start 1972 with quite the same success. With the loss of Ford's factory funding and increased acrimony between John Holman and Ralph Moody, Pearson parted ways with the #17 ride in which he'd had so much success in the late 1960s. He picked up a few rides with Ray Nichels in the back half of 1971, and he made two so-so starts with Bud Moore's team at Riverside and Atlanta in early 1972.

The famed Wood Brothers team started 1972 a bit like the Pettys. With legendary driver A.J. Foyt at the wheel, the #21 Ford team won the pole at Riverside, captured the Daytona 500, won the pole and the race at Ontario, and finished 2nd at Atlanta. Foyt, however, needed to begin focusing his efforts on his primary job as an Indy car driver. Preparations for the Indianapolis 500 were well underway, and Foyt needed to be all-in with the effort to capture his fourth 500.

In a decision benefiting all (except Petty fans), the Wood Brothers opted to hire free-agent Pearson as their full-time driver for their part-time schedule effective with the Rebel 400 at Darlington.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
Despite racing on a truly limited basis for almost a year, Pearson didn't take long to put a smile on the faces of Glen and Leonard. Pearson plopped the Purolator Mercury on the pole. Bobby Allison, who like Pearson knew how to glide a car around Darlington, qualified alongside the Silver Fox on the front row. The two Mopars of Petty in his STP Plymouth and Bobby Isaac in his #71 K&K Insurance Dodge made up the second row.

The first third of the race was quite competitive. The lead was swapped every few laps between Allison, Pearson, Petty, Isaac, Petty's STP teammate Buddy Baker, and Jim Vandiver.

After a 27-lap stint out front, Baker  - the defending winner of the race - settled back into third. He then suddenly grenaded an engine in his Petty Dodge and found himself sliding down the front stretch and into the wall.

Source: Florence Morning News
Though Baker's Dodge was done, his teammate continued. Petty stayed in the hunt all day, but his Plymouth was no match for Pearson's Mercury.

With the exception of a 14-lap segment led by Petty and a single-lap out front by Allison, the final two-thirds of the race was dominated by #21. He built a full-lap lead on Petty and continued to lap the rest of the field repeatedly.

When Baker wrecked with 40+ laps to go, Petty hit pit road to top off his fuel. The team hoped Pearson would also have to stop and give the 43 an opportunity to get his lap back and then contend for the win.

Vandiver spun with seven laps to go, however, and Pearson cruised comfortably the remaining laps with his remaining gas to take the checkers. He won by a lap over Petty and eight laps over third place finisher, Joe Frasson (a career best finish).

Pearson was his normally, confident self heading into the race. When asked if he could race as well for the Woods as Foyt, Pearson replied "I think I can drive as well as A.J. You know, he isn't the only driver who has won in that car." Truth.

The win for David Pearson with the Wood Brothers team in their first race together was pretty remarkable. On the other hand, perhaps it wasn't such a surprise considering the strength of the Woods team plus Pearson's comfort with Darlington. Pearson's first win in over two years was also the 44th of 63 times Petty-Pearson finished 1-2.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

April 13, 1969 - Richmond 500

Richmond's spring race has bounced around a good bit over the decades. Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the race was scheduled for late February or early March. At the opposite end of the season, the race was scheduled a few times in June. Nowadays, the race floats from mid-April to early May - which seems ideal for that area of the country. The 1969 Richmond 500 was slotted in that optimal time frame on April 13th.

After more than a dozen years as a dirt track, track promoter Paul Sawyer paved Richmond following the first Grand National race of 1968. In doing so, the track was lengthened ever so slightly from a true half-mile to a .542 mile oval. David Pearson won Richmond's final 250-lap race on dirt, and Richard Petty won the first 300-lap one on the new asphalt surface.

The spring 1969 race was lengthened to 500 laps and about 250 miles - the longest race held to that point at the track. Despite the change in track surface and distance, the race featured little drama. David Pearson won the pole in his #17 Holman Moody Ford. He then set forth to puttin' a whuppin' on the field. He led a dominating 416 of 500 laps, lapped most of the field by multiple laps, and finished a full lap ahead of second place finisher Richard Petty.

Source: Stock Car Racing magazine
Pearson notched his third consecutive spring Richmond win. It was also his sixth and final Richmond win - including six trophies in ten attempts - and the 33rd of 63 times Petty-Pearson finished first and second.

Photo courtesy of Brian '200WINZ' Hauck
When you're the winner, smoke 'em if ya got 'em!

Credit: Richmond Times Dispatch
Source: Free Lance Star via Google News Archives

Saturday, April 9, 2016

April 9, 1966 - Greenville 200

Richard Petty and David Pearson were sidelined from NASCAR racing for much of the 1965 season because of a Chrysler boycott. With the suits from Mopar calling the shots (and controlling the flow of funds), Petty's Plymouth and Pearson's Cotton Owens-owned Dodge teams were caught in the crossfire.

Chrysler and NASCAR resolved their issues midway through the season, and Petty and Pearson began a gradual return to racing. In February 1966, Petty seemed ready to return to his dominant form fans last saw in 1964. He notched his second Daytona 500 win, and the team had to be optimistic about continuing their winning ways and getting a second title.

Pearson and Owens, however, had different ideas. They too had the Hemi engine that Petty's 43 ran. And as the meat-and-potatoes short-track portion of the really got underway in 1966, the #6 Dodge was indeed formidable.

Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina hosted the eleventh race of the 1966 season, the Greenville 200, on April 9th - the day before Easter Sunday. The drivers had already raced in Columbia, South Carolina on Maundy Thursday, and they were slated to race again on Easter Monday at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem. The circuit took Easter Sunday off, but my hunch tells me plenty of shops were humming to tweak cars for Monday after the two South Carolina races.

The only reason for auto manufacturers to support race teams - then and now - is to sell cars. Period. The only reason for race teams to compete, however, is to pursue wins. Generally, those two agendas align. Sometimes they don't. Dodge was pushing its 1966 Charger to consumers. Owens and Pearson, however, hadn't yet figured out how to make the model a winning race car. Instead, they fielded and won with a 1965 Dodge and even a 1964 model converted from a show car. The duo brought a two-race winning streak in the older model to Greenville.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Tiny Lund won the pole, and Pearson qualified alongside him. At the drop of the green, Tiny got the hole shot and led the first 39 laps. Pearson then went to the point and matched Tiny with a 42-lap segment of his own out front. Lund did manage to squeeze in three more laps as the leader - presumably during a pit stop sequence.

Pearson, however, was determined to put the aged Dodge back out front for keeps. He retook the lead, and he led the final 116 laps to win his third consecutive race by a full lap over Petty. Lund developed transmission issues, lost six laps to Pearson, and still finished third despite his DNF.

Pearson's win streak grew to four with a win two days later at Bowman Gray. The race was also the 11th of 63 times Petty-Pearson finished 1-2 finish in their careers.


Friday, April 8, 2016

April 8, 1979 - A legendary Darlington battle

The eighth race of the 1979 Winston Cup season was the CRC Chemicals Rebel 500 at Darlington. The storylines of the season to that point? Well, they were real and they were spectacular:
  • The Daytona 500 with The Fight between the Allisons and Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty's surprising win
  • Cale v. Donnie Allison round 2 the following week in Rockingham's Carolina 500
  • Rookie Dale Earnhardt's win in the Southeastern 500 at Bristol
  • The power of Buddy Baker's #28 Harry Ranier-owned Olds. Baker dominated Speedweeks (except for the 500) and won the Atlanta 500 three weeks before Darlington.
With so much going on in first few weeks of the season, it was doubtful Darlington could match or top what had happened thus far. Right? Wrong.

For the first time in the track's history, one of its races featured  a title sponsor. In January 1979, CRC Chemicals announced it would sponsor the race and be added to the existing, traditional Rebel 500 name. The announcement coincided with CRC's announcement of a sponsorship deal with independent racer Richard Childress.

Like many others, Childress raced an Olds 442 in the Daytona 500. For most other tracks, however, he raced the reliable Monte Carlo.

Courtesy of Statsman from Randy Ayers NASCAR Modeling Forum
The front row was comprised of pole winner Donnie Allison, whose Hoss Ellington cars continued to run well, and Darrell Waltrip.

Courtesy of Statsman
Two legends - Richard Petty and David Pearson - lined up behind one another on the starting grid in 6th and 8th spots. Their racing fortunes took two dramatically different turns at Darlington - that day and long-term.

Credit: blue65pv544 on Flickr
The King was relaxed before the race, and he tousled the hair of son Kyle who was a full-time crewman for his dad's 43. Or perhaps Richard was checking Kyle for ticks - I'm not really sure.

Courtesy of Statsman
Teams in today's racing seemingly have dozens of cars - a primary and at least one backup for each type of track. Until the 1990s, teams often had only a handful of multi-purpose cars. In the case of Petty Enterprises, the Monte Carlo raced at Darlington was also the car raced at Riverside's road course in January. The right side fuel filler used at Riverside was covered with unpainted sheet metal at Darlington.

Courtesy of Statsman
As had been the case since 1972, Pearson climbed through the window and belted into the seat of the famed Wood Brothers, Purolator Oil Filters #21 Mercury.

Courtesy of Statsman
When the green flag dropped, Waltrip stepped up as the lap bully. Though other drivers managed to lead here and there, DW's #88 Monte Carlo reclaimed the top spot in short order. The race had only a few brief cautions plus an interruption for light rain.

Pearson's 1979 season had gotten off to a shaky start - especially considering how well the 21 team had run the previous few seasons. But he was at Darlington - where he raced the place perhaps like no other. And he managed to get by Waltrip a couple of times to lead a couple of laps. But then...

With less than 100 laps to go, Pearson hit pit road for a green flag stop. The Wood Brothers crew combined with Pearson as the driver then made a remarkable mistake - one that still leaves old school race fans slackjawed. Pearson understood the team planned a two-tire stop. When the jack dropped on the right side, Pearson took off - business as usual. The crew, however, had removed the lugnuts on the lefts in anticipation of a four-tire stop. Pearson made it only about a hundred yards down pit road before the left side tires took off like wayward children at a theme park.

The Pearson-Woods pairing had been exceptional from 1972 through 1978. As a surprise to many, the relationship had begun to fray. After the disastrous miscue at Darlington, Pearson and the Woods parted ways.

In the  middle third of the race, Petty's 43 pulled the field around the track for 55 laps. He fully intended to win once more at Darlington - at track on which he'd only won three times with the last coming twelve years earlier.

Pole-winner Allison stuck his nose to between the two to lead a lap here and there, but the final stretch was between the legend Petty and the relative newcomer and one-time Darlington winner Waltrip.

A late race caution bunched the field a final time. The field took the green again with six laps to go and light rain beginning to fall. No one knew exactly if the race would run all the way to its scheduled 367 laps - or it might be call a lap or two early because of the rain. Because of the uncertainty and urgency, Petty and Waltrip began pulling moves thought impossible at Darlington. The two swapped the lead with crossover moves of fantastic precision - often more than once during a lap.

On the final lap, however, Petty made a slight mistake. As he pulled up in front of Waltrip as they barreled through turns 3 and 4, he bobbled and washed up a bit too far. Waltrip hooked left and stabbed his 88 under the 43 and pulled away. The King then had to fight Donnie Allison to the finish for second.

At the line, Waltrip had his second Darlington win in three years. Petty was close yet again but couldn't claim another victory at the Track Too Tough To Tame.

Waltrip's trophy is on display at his Franklin, TN car dealership, and the framed checkered flag hangs there as well.

Source: Gadsden Times via Google News Archive