Monday, April 4, 2016

April 4, 1971 - Atlanta 500

NASCAR's 1971 season got underway in January at the road course in Riverside, California. West coast regular Ray Elder won the first NASCAR Grand National race branded as a Winston Cup Series race by title sponsor R.J. Reynolds. A month later in the Daytona 500, Richard Petty took advantage of a rare pit stop gaffe by the Wood Brothers for their driver A.J. Foyt.

Two weeks later at Ontario Motor Speedway, Foyt and the Wood Brothers returned the favor. Foyt topped the two Petty cars of Buddy Baker and the King to capture the win. Foyt and the Woods skipped the next four races. Petty ripped off three straight wins at Richmond, Rockingham and Hickory; and David Pearson pocketed his final win with Holman Moody in the Southeastern 500 at Bristol.

Foyt and the Wood Brothers 21 team returned about six weeks after their Ontario win. Super Tex was ready to saddle up to race in the Atlanta 500.

The annual race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in today's era stirs a good bit of debate.
  • What is the ideal date? 
  • How do you gamble against the weather? 
  • Why aren't the stands full? 
  • Why doesn't the track get more support from the greater Atlanta MSA?
In many ways, questions and doubts about the track have lingered for decades. The spring race was anything but a certainty as the calendar turned to January 1971. Atlanta International Raceway - as it was known then - had problematic finances and frequent management turnover throughout the 1960s and was now bankrupt. The owners of Charlotte Motor Speedway had proposed a merger with Atlanta before withdrawing the offer. Another 20 years passed before Charlotte under the corporate name of Speedway Motorsports acquired Atlanta and renamed it.

Rather than liquidating the track's assets for cents on the dollar and stiffing a bunch of lenders and investors, the court fortunately allowed the board of directors to proceed with a restructuring of its finances and operations - including the running of the Atlanta 500 in April.

Source: Wilmington Star-News via Google News Archive
Regardless of one's personal political persuasions, leaders of a business should develop a solid relationship with whoever is in charge at the time. Kind of like Brian France's March 2016 endorse... oh, right. Never mind.

Georgia's governor, Jimmy Carter, professed to be a NASCAR fan. He attended the 1971 Atlanta 500 as he did other races at the track. When elected President, he also invited many NASCAR drivers and others from racing to a dinner at the White House.

Source: Fort Scott Tribune via Google News Archive
Foyt has long been known as a tough old bird. He raced hard, won often, cared little about making friends in racing, and spoke his mind when asked a question. Some have labeled him a jerk - many called him a hero - most have revered him as a legend. But one thing he was for certain - fair. After his Ontario win, he was allegedly quoted by Sports Illustrated as having made a pretty rough statement against NASCAR's regulars.

The statement was provocative in 1971. Had the quote been attributed to Foyt - or anyone else - in today's PC climate, Twitter would explode, the driver would be sent away for weeks to undergo sensitivity training, sponsors would likely bail, and TV "partners" would inexplicably apologize on behalf of the offending driver.

Foyt was pissed, however, as he insisted he did not make the remark. Before the racing action got underway at Atlanta, A.J. wanted to speak to the drivers as a group, explain the situation, and apologize for the whole hullabaloo.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
After setting the record straight, Foyt went back to work. He put the #21 Purolator Mercury on the pole. Bobby Issac qualified next to him in his #71 Dodge. Two Petty Enterprises Mopars made up the second row - King Richard in 3rd in the Petty blue #43 Plymouth and teammate Buddy Baker 4th in the white #11 Dodge.

Foyt seized the lead when the green was dropped for the first time, and he led the first 36 laps. Petty then paced the field for the next 15 circuits. The exchange of the lead between the two set the tone for the rest of the race. Cale Yarborough and David Pearson - a past and future driver for the Wood Brothers - each led some laps as did Pete Hamilton.

The race, however, was mainly a battle between Foyt and Petty. Each time a driver led a lap or two, Foyt returned to the point for a double-digits chunk of laps.

Despite Foyt being the lap-bully, the 43 Plymouth hung tough. With about 25 laps to go, Foyt hit pit road for the final time. Petty inherited the lead once again and was hoping he'd have enough fuel to stretch it to the end. Instead, crew chief Dale Inman called Petty to pit road seven laps after Foyt's stop. The Plymouth simply didn't have enough gas to go the distance.

Foyt reclaimed the lead for the final time during Petty's stop. He led the remaining 13 laps and won for the second time in only three starts of the 1971 season. Gov. Carter greeted the winner in victory lane along with Miss Falstaff. The late Barney Hall handled the PA duties.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive

True to his word, Foyt did sue Time, Inc., parent of Sports Illustrated, for libel. Two years later in 1973, the court awarded him $75,000.


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