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.


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