Monday, May 30, 2016

May 30, 1976 - World 600

THE storyline of the 1976 Winston Cup season was the instant classic finish of the Daytona 500. The titans of NASCAR - Richard Petty and David Pearson - separated themselves from the field, battled side by side in the remaining laps, and then crashed coming through the tri-oval. Petty spun through the infield grass, but he almost did so across the finish line as the winner. But he didn't. Pearson richoeted off Joe Frasson, straightened his Mercury, pushed in the clutch to keep the engine running, and crawled at a school zone speed to win his one and only Daytona 500. Folks still talk about that finish 40 years later.

The Petty team shrugged off the one that got away, and the King won again immediately in the next race at Rockingham. Interestingly, however, Petty's mojo at Daytona and The Rock didn't translate to a boocoodle of wins as he'd experienced in 1975. Pearson, on the other hand, was accumulating trophies right and left during a limited schedule with the Wood Brothers. Pearson and the Woods raced in 8 of the season's first 12 races. In those eight races, Pearson pocketed four wins, a second, and a third.

The thirteen race of the 1976 schedule was the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 30 - the traditional date of Memorial Day.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
As expected, David Pearson captured the pole on the first day of qualifying. The top spot was his sixth in what eventually became an eleven-race, pole-winning streak.

Photo courtesy of Randy Murphy
Despite his mixed-results start in the first dozen races of the season, King Richard qualified second alongside his career rival. Two NASCAR Hall of Famers and protagonists of another legendary Daytona 500 finish in 1979 - Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison - qualified on the second row. Dave Marcis rounded out the top five starters.

The race garnered a huge bump in press coverage because of one particular driver: Janet Guthrie. Though Guthrie wasn't the first woman to qualify for a GN/Cup race, she was the first on a superspeedway and the first since the early years of NASCAR.

Guthrie had planned to race in the Indianapolis 500. She finished 15th in her Indy Car debut in the Trenton 200 and passed her rookie test at the Brickyard. When she was unable to land the needed ride to make the 500; however, she was approached about heading south for NASCAR's 600.

A local banking businesswoman purchased a Chevy from Hoss Ellington, and arranged for it to be set-up by Will Cronkrite. A.J. Foyt had raced the car in the 1976 Daytona 500. Ralph Moody, long associated with Ford Motor Company, provided the engine for the Chevrolet. Guthrie leveraged all the support to her advantage, and she indeed qualified 27th in the 40-car field.

Photo courtesy of Randy Murphy
USAC - the sanctioning body for Indy - was none too happy about Guthrie's re-direct. As was the case frequently from the 1950s until the late 1970s, USAC seemed to enjoy creating slap fights with NASCAR.

The promoter at Texas World Speedway refused to accept her entry for a June 1976 USAC Indy Car race because of a rumor about her accepting an appearance fee for a NASCAR race. Guthrie also had to withdraw from the NASCAR race on Riverside's road course in June. The race fell on the same day as a USAC race. She was threatened with the suspension of her USAC license if she raced in Riverside.

Joe Millikan also planned to make his Cup debut in the 600. Millikan spent time with Petty Enterprises as a shop worker and weekend crewman from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s. He also won the Late Model Sportsman Permatex 300 race at Daytona in February 1976 with a Petty-provided crew and support. Unfortunately, Joe suffered engine failure during practice and didn't qualify for the race.

The race featured yet another debut ... Eli Gold with MRN Radio. Eli recalled these memories in an excerpt from an Q&A:
Q: What was your first big opportunity in broadcasting? 
Gold: My first big opportunity was getting hired by MRN. I was hired in 1975, and I did not start working until May of 1976 for the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was basically an on-the-air audition. I never had done a race in my life. Jack Arute was running the network then, and he said if you do well we'll keep you and if you stink you go home. I guess I fooled them enough to still be here 39 years later.

Q: What do you remember about your first broadcast with MRN? 
Gold: A couple of things...I do remember the big promotion in May of 76 was whoever led the first lap of the World 600 was to receive the unheard sum of $1,000. That was the thing, 'Who is going to get the $1,000 to lead the first lap?' Also, shortly prior to airtime I was working Turns 1 and 2, Barney (Hall) was in 3 and 4. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I remember the power went out. In those days we weren’t wireless. We were working on hard lines plugged into the wall. Everything went dead, and I thought my box had gone out. I told my wife you have to go down to the booth and find out what’s going on, and she looked at me like I was nuts. We had never been to a race track, but thankfully the power came back on. I also remember after the race the traffic was rather thick so we all went back to the parking lot and all of us leaning on Barney's car. He had some kind of land yacht in those days, and I asked him, “Do you think they are going to bring me back?” He said, "I think so you did OK, and I'm sure you'll be back again." Those are the three elements that I really remember from that first day. 
When the green dropped, Cale pulled a fast one on the front row. He jumped under Pearson and got past Petty as well to lead the first lap. Pearson quickly recovered to lead the next couple of laps before Cale again led the next two laps. And on and on it went.

Pearson and Cale went back and forth for the first 250 of 400 laps. Each had their turn at the front, but each stint was short-lived. A couple of other drivers took their turn at the front every once in a while, but the Silver Fox and Timmonsville Flash led all but eight of the first 250 laps.

With 150 laps to go, Petty decided it was his time to go. The King FINALLY nabbed a checkered flag at Charlotte in 1975 after more than fifteen years of trying. Matter of fact, he went back to back with wins in the World 600 and National 500. Richard and Maurice Petty and Dale Inman were more than ready to capture a third win in a row. Around lap 250, Petty put the 43 Dodge Charger in the wind. He paced the field for about 50 laps to get the race to the 3/4 mark.

Pearson, however, wasn't done. He re-took the lead from Petty and led the next 63 laps. The King then led a stretch of five laps before Pearson yet again went to the front following final pit stops by the two.

With two to go, Dick Brooks, James Hylton, and Chattanooga's Grant Adcox tangled. Quite frankly, the wreck had little effect on the outcome of the race - though it possibly could have. At the time of the wreck, Pearson had a six-second lead on Petty's 43. He made a pass in the grass to avoid the three-way accident, and he cruised the remaining two laps under caution to notch his second World 60 win in three years.

Pearson's win took place about three months after his Daytona 500 victory. Another three months or so later, Pearson claimed the win in yet another legendary race - the Southern 500. Lee Roy Yarbrough was the only other driver prior to Pearson to have won those three races in a single season. Nine years later, R.J. Reynolds bundled those three races plus the Winston 500 at Talladega to form the Winston Million incentive program.

The race was the 59th time of 63 races in their careers for a Petty-Pearson, one-two finish. The 1976 600 fell in the middle of a remarkable four-year stretch for the two drivers where neither had an off day in the race. Ponder these results over four consecutive years of 600-mile races:
  • 1974: Pearson P1, Petty P2
  • 1975: Petty P1, Pearson P3
  • 1976: Pearson P1, Petty P2
  • 1977: Petty P1, Pearson P2
When the checkers fell, the scoring slotted Guthrie in 15th - a remarkable debut that coincidentally matched the finish from her Indy Car debut. After parking her car, she quickly hugged the neck of Cronkrite.

Photo courtesy of Randy Murphy
The 1976 World 600 was not Dale Earnhardt's debut, but it was his second career Cup start. Earnhardt drove a #30 Chevy owned by Walter Ballard and sponsored by the U.S. Army to a 31st place DNF.

Coincidentally, the Army also sponsored the Chevrolets fielded by Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2007-2008, just a few years after Earnhardt's death in 2001.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

May 26, 1974 - World 600

As OPEC came on the scene, the U.S. population was scared into the first of several energy crises. NASCAR quickly fell into the crosshairs of many who believed (and still do) auto racing is a needless waste of fossil fuel energy sources. In a good faith gesture to appease some, Bill France Jr. worked with track promoters to cut Winston Cup race distances by 10 percent in 1974. Consequently, the drivers competing in the 1974 World 600 actually raced for only 540 miles.

David Pearson won the pole in the #21 Wood Brothers Purolator Mercury. The top starting spot was his second in what was to become an eleven-race, pole-winning streak. He also won the pole for the 1972 National 500, and qualified second for the 1972, 1973, and 1980 World 600s. Even today, his ability to hustle the Woods' car on pole day at Charlotte remains amazing. Again, Pearson started no worse than second from May 1972 through May 1980.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
In winning the pole, Pearson also became the top pole winner for superspeedways. When their careers ended, Richard Petty had 127 career poles to Pearson's 113. Pearson, however, eventually captured the top spot in 57 superspeedway races - a record that still stands even in an era where the schedule is dominated by 1+ mile tracks.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Petty, in his STP Dodge Charger, qualified on the front row alongside his long-time rival. Despite their staggering career numbers, Petty and Pearson interestingly only had two Charlotte wins between them coming into 1974 - Pearson in the 1961 World 600 and Petty in a 100-mile qualifying race for the 1961 600.

Buddy Baker qualified third in his first start with Bud Moore's team in the 1974 600. Five of his 19 career wins came at the wheel of the #15 Ford - including three at Talladega. Baker's hiring, however, came at George Follmer's expense. Moore hired Follmer at the beginning of the 1974 season, and the duo had mixed results over the first dozen races of the season. Follmer was none too pleased when he learned of his release after less than half a season behind the wheel.

If Follmer's situation was a feel-rotten story, Billy Scott's opportunity was a feel-good story. For the second year in a row, Charlotte promoter Richard Howard gave fans an opportunity to vote for a deserving driver to get a shot at the big time. And for the second year in a row, Scott, a short-track regular of the Carolinas, got the fans' vote.

Scott got the opportunity to race a Howard-owned, Junior Johnson-prepared Chevrolet and was essentially a teammate of Cale Yarborough. He had two career Cup starts - both in the 600 and both because of his fan support. Scott raced the same Chevy Yarborough drove to the win in Bristol's Southeastern 500 two months earlier.

When the ballots were collected, Scott earned more fan votes than drivers such as Dick Trickle, Harry Gant, Richie Panch, Ray Hendrick, and Jody Ridley. Based on his limited Cup experience, his day was likely considered successful with a 22nd place starting spot and 24th place finish in the 40-car field.

When the green flag fell, the drivers barreled off into turn 1 on lap 41. Wait. What?? Because of the shortened distance, the first forty laps weren't scored. The race was officially 400 laps, but only 360 laps were raced.

The race was very competitive with different drivers taking their turn out front. When someone got the lead, he didn't keep it for long. Few led for more than just a few laps, and only a couple of times did a driver reach double-digits in laps led at a time. Pearson was the first to drag the field around the track for more than 20 consecutive laps when he hit lap 164.

Baker led several times during the first half of the race in his new ride. He surely had a big smile on his face as he had sights on winning the 600 for the third year in a row and with three different team (1972 with Petty Enterprises and 1973 with Nord Krauskopf). Engine failure, however, hit him in the second half of the race relegating him to a disappointing, 22nd place, DNF result.

Petty and Pearson controlled much of the race's second half with Yarborough leading several laps every now and again. The field was thinned by the exit of several drivers with mechanical problems.

With about 20 to go as Petty was leading, James Hylton puked a motor and soaked the track with oil. Pearson and Yarborough barreled through turn 4, and Pearson slid in the oil from Hylton's engine. He wiggled, skittered up the track, and bounced off Cale. The side-slap straightened Pearson's Mercury, but Cale wasn't so fortunate. He spun, hit the wall, and was done for the day.

Pearson set sail for Petty again after the race returned to green. With nine laps to go, Pearson's Mercury slipped by Petty's Dodge to take the lead. The #21 gapped the #43 a bit and took the checkers by about a half-second. Pearson's win was his first at Charlotte since his first career win in the 1961 World 600. The race was also the 48th of 63 times Petty and Pearson finished 1-2.

Coming to the line, veteran Bobby Allison nipped rookie Darrell Waltrip for third. Less than a decade later, the two of them would battle for the Winston Cup title for three consecutive seasons.

In the post-race interview, Pearson wryly answered a handful of questions from the media.
  • When asked if he believed he was quicker than Baker who led many laps in the first half of the race, Pearson replied "I must have been. I out-qualified him. Seriously, I thought he ran a strong race, maybe too strong."
  • Pearson was asked if he'd rather see Follmer or Baker in Moore's 15 in the weeks to come, and responded "I'll just say whoever is the slowest."
  • Gamesmanship with restarts seems to be a weekly theme in today's Cup racing. A few drivers bumper-banged each other coming to the start of the 1974 600, and they criticized Pearson for pacing a slow start. Pearson responded matter-of-factly "The man on the pole can start the race at any speed he wants."
Source: The Gaffney Ledger
The week was a clean sweep for the Pearson clan. David won the World 600 pole and Sunday race. On Saturday, his son Larry won a 15-lap Baby Grand National race by narrowly edging his father. They raced twin Mercury Capris. The race was planned by Bob Latford, track publicist. Later in 1974, Latford and a couple of others developed the points system used in Winston Cup from 1975 through 2003 when it was scrapped for the ever evolving Chase format.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

May 15, 1966 - Richmond 250

NASCAR's Grand National drivers rolled into Richmond's half-mile, fairgrounds dirt track on May 15, 1966 for a 250-lap race. The storylines of the season after about a third of it had been completed were:
  • Richard Petty's second win in three years in the Daytona 500
  • A four-race win streak by David Pearson in Cotton Owens' Dodge
  • The full-time return of the factory-supported Plymouth and Dodge teams 
  • A withdrawal of factory support for Ford teams after NASCAR endured a similar protest by Chrysler a season earlier.
Source: Free Lance Star via Google News Archive
Fans got a pleasant surprise during qualifying for the race. James Hylton qualified second, and future NASCAR pace car driver Elmo Langley timed third.

Ford's withdrawal of support for its marquis teams - namely Holman Moody and the Wood Brothers -  didn't mean, however, the absence of all Ford racers that season. Dave Fulton, simply a race fan at the time but a future employee of Paul Sawyer's Richmond Raceway, shared this memory from race day about an independent Ford driver who won the pole.
As a high school senior in Richmond, VA on May 15, 1966, Tiger Tom Pistone gave me and my buddies one of our most cherished NASCAR memories. On that spring Sunday, driving his powder blue #59 1964 Ford Galaxie, Tiger Tom blistered the old dirt half-mile Richmond Fairgrounds layout with a record, all-time, NASCAR Grand National qualifying speed of 70.978 mph - a record that stands to this very day and will never be broken. Only three more dirt races were run on the Richmond track before it was paved for the September 1968 GN race, and nobody ever again approached Tiger's one-lap speed record on the dirt.

To this day I feel privileged to tell folks that I saw Tiger Tom Pistone set a NASCAR track record that will never be broken on a track that I dearly loved. For those who never saw a NASCAR Grand National stock car kick up a roostertail of dirt as it slid sideways, you are part of the underprivileged NASCAR generation.
Tiger grabbed the lead as the green flag fell, and he kept his dual, four-barrel carb'd, independent Ford at the point for the the first 22 laps. Pearson then took the lead from Pistone, and it was pretty much his race to lose the rest of the way.

Pistone's top starting spot didn't help him in the long run. He burned a piston, and ended the day with a DNF and 16th place finish in the 30-car field. Like Pistone, Langley's starting position near the front didn't mean anything when the day was done. After racing for a while against King Richard, he lost a differential in his two-year old Ford. The final results showed Langley with a 17th place DNF - one spot behind Tiger.

After Pistone's 22 laps out front to begin the race, the day belonged to Pearson. He led 216 of the remaining 228 laps to capture his fifth win of the season.

Petty, who started tenth, hung around, but really offered no substantive competition to Pearson that day. He returned home to Level Cross with a second place finish, two laps down to the winner. By finishing two laps behind Pearson, it's tough to say Petty's second place finish was an almost win. The race was, however, the twelfth of 63 times the two drivers finished first and second.

Source: Free Lance Star via Google News Archive
Big thanks to Russ Thompson and Jerry Bushmire for sharing images from Stock Car Racing magazine.