Monday, July 4, 2016

July 4, 1972 - Firecracker 400 - That's 1

David Pearson started the 1972 Winston Cup season without a guaranteed, solid ride. He finished 26th in the season opener at Riverside, California's road course and fourth in the season's sixth race, the Atlanta 500. In both races, Pearson drove Bud Moore's #15 Ford.

Meanwhile, the Wood Brothers continued with A.J. Foyt in their #21 Mercury in 1972 after several successful races together in 1971. Super Tex and the Woods were magic in their first four races of 1972:
  • won the pole at Riverside, 
  • won the Daytona 500, 
  • won the pole and the race at Ontario, and 
  • finished 2nd in the Atlanta 500.
Foyt, however, needed to turn his attention to preparing for the Indianapolis 500. He chose to step away from the 21 ride. Glen and Leonard Wood phoned David Pearson to see if he'd be interested in driving for them. The rest, as they say, is history.

Pearson won the pole and the race in his first start with the Woods, the Rebel 500 at Darlington. Pearson also captured wins at Talladega and Michigan as the Cup season hit its midpoint.

The Cup teams returned to Daytona for the Firecracker 400 - the traditional beginning of the second half of the season. The race was held on Tuesday, July 4th.

The grand marshal for the race was Don Shula, the head coach of the the Miami Dolphins. Shula's experience at witnessing the speed, sounds, smells and incredible competition dropped his jaw. The day may have also inspired him to become an even better as coach as well. A few months after teh Firecracker race, Shula coached the Dolphins to a 17-0, Super Bowl-winning season.

Bobby Isaac, the 1971 Firecracker winner, won the pole for the 400 with Pearson qualifying on the outside of the front row. Petty Enterprises and STP Dodge teammates Richard Petty and Buddy Baker made up the second row. Bobby Allison rounded out the top five starters.

Isaac and his Harry Hyde-led Dodge team arrived in Daytona a bit like the walking wounded.
  • Isaac was nursing a broken rib suffered in a golf cart accident.
  • Hyde was awaiting knee surgery to repair damaged cartilage.
  • Hyde injured his thumb with a drill bit after arriving in Daytona.
  • Crewman Buddy Parrott's broken jaw was wired shut after a diving board accident.
  • Crewman Harlan Cox couldn't work the race because of a slipped disc.
Despite the multiple injuries, the #71 team didn't get much sympathy from folks in the garage. Quite the contrary - at least by Pearson who took a good natured jab at Isaac after time trials:
I never worry about Isaac. I can beat him even if his car stays together. The way he looks now, his crew's in such bad shape he needs an ambulance instead of a race car.
At the drop of the green, Baker drafted by both of the front row starters to lead lap 1. Pearson returned the favor to lead lap 2, and the duo repeated process for laps 3 and 4.

For the first half of the race, fans saw much of the same. Baker, Pearson, Allison, Petty, and Isaac all swapped the lead. Only three times did a leader hold serve for more than a single-digit number of laps - and all three times it was Pearson.

Halfway was all Isaac had to offer. Engine woes put the 71 out of commission and on the trailer early. His DNF also continued the Firecracker pole winner curse. From 1959 through 1972, the pole winner had never won the race.

As the race neared the 100-lap mark, the twin STP Dodges showed the way. Baker found his way back to the front for a few laps, and then the King pulled the lead for a 10-lap stretch. Then, as often happened in Baker's career, misfortune whacked him upside his noggin. He blew a tire in the second turn. The shredded tire knocked the oil filter off Baker's red #11 Dodge, and he was doomed to a 24th place DNF.

The final sixty laps were dominated by the trio of Pearson, Petty and Allison. Pearson wanted to do all he could to set the pace, and he led a bit more than half of those remaining laps. Petty wasn't done though. With 25 to go, Petty put the day-glo red and Petty blue Charger in the wind for a stretch of 11 laps. Allison let the two know that his Junior Johnson-prepared Coke Machine was going to have a say in the finish, and he passed Petty to lead 4-lap segment. But the 43 Hemi found another gear, and the King re-assumed the lead with about 10 to go.

As Petty and Allison went toe-to-toe, Pearson watched from third. Then with about five to do, he put his research to work. He drafted by both of them and sailed into the lead yet again. Petty made a final pursuit on the last lap. He closed up as he and Pearson sailed down the backstretch, and he tried to side draft the 21's outside as they came through the tri-oval. But it was not to be. Pearson kept the Purolator Mercury glued to the inside and nipped Petty at the line by about a half a car-length.

The victory was Pearson's first full-length race win at Daytona since the 1961 Firecracker 250. (He also won two Daytona 500 qualifying races in the 1960s that counted as official races in that era.) Pearson knew he had a strong car, but he also thought Petty might made a stronger and/or earlier move to grab the win away from him at the last moment. The race was the 45th of 63 times Petty and Pearson finished in the top two spots.

Source: The Gaffney Ledger

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