Monday, July 4, 2016

July 4, 1974 - Firecracker 400 - That's 3!

I've historically thought of snooker as a billiards game. The word, however, can also sometimes be skillfully applied to motorsports.

Daytona's annual Firecracker 400 in 1974 was scheduled as it had been since the first one in 1959: on the 4th of July. Regardless of the day of the week on which the 4th fell, the Firecracker began at 10 AM on Independence Day. In 1974, the race was run on a Thursday morning.

Four drivers won the season's first fifteen races:
  • Bobby Allison, 1
  • David Pearson, 4 in only nine starts
  • Richard Petty, 5 
  • Cale Yarborough, 6
Pearson was the two-time defending champion of the Firecracker and the winner of Talladega's Winston 500. Petty had finished second in the Firecracker three consecutive years (twice to Pearson), captured the Daytona 500 in the second race of the season, and finished third at Talladega. Clearly all eyes were on the #43 STP Dodge Charger and #21 Purolator Mercury.

The race included the normal cast of NASCAR regulars. In addition to them, two USAC regulars  - A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford - joined the fray. Rutherford was making his second of three NASCAR starts in 1973.. He won the Indianapolis 500 six weeks before the Firecracker and the Schaefer 500 at Pocono few days earlier.

Pearson won the pole, and Bobby Allison flanked him in his Roger Penske-owned, Coca-Cola sponsored Matador. Donnie Allison qualified third in his DiGard Chevy, and Charlie Glotzbach timed a pleasantly surprising fourth in Junie Donlavey's famed #90 Ford. Petty nabbed the sixth starting spot.

The competition was intense all day long. Bobby Allison launched from his front row starting spot to lead lap 1. Buddy Baker in Bud Moore's Ford then led laps 2 and 3. Bobby decided he liked the look of the top spot, and he went back in the lead for another couple of laps. And so it continued all morning.

Rutherford brought out the first caution after losing an engine and spinning in his own oil.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
Once the car stopped, the normally open wheeled driver took the rare opportunity to stand on the roof of his car to signal his crew all was OK. JR looked, however, a bit like Ricky Bobby up there: Help me Tom Cruise! Help me Oprah!

Source: Spokesman Review via Google News Archive
Fans witnessed 48 lead changes among 9 drivers. Only twice in the 160-lap race did a driver's lead last for 10 more more laps. And neither of the two "large" lead segments lasted more than 14 laps.

With about 15 laps to go, Pearson took the lead from Baker and brought Petty with him in the draft. The two titans and career rivals then began to pull away from Baker and Cale Yarborough.

Immediately after Pearson took the white flag, he slowed dramatically and pulled to the inside. Petty kept his foot on the floorboard, swept around the Wood Brothers Mercury, and pulled a sizable lead down the backstretch.

Many sensed Pearson's car had dropped a cylinder or cut a tire. Instead, he simply lagged a bit and showed no signs of a developing engine or tire problem. As the two barreled through turns three and four, Pearson closed the gap he intentionally had opened. Then coming through the tri-oval, Pearson used the draft to sling-shot past Petty for the win.

Source: Southern Illinoisan
ABC aired a condensed version of the race a few weeks later. Here is the final two laps with accompanying audio by Ken Squier and Barney Hall of MRN.

Lost perhaps a bit at the time because of the Petty-Pearson battle was the race for third. Baker and Cale raced side by side much of the last lap - though they trailed the first two by a quarter to half a lap. As the two headed for the stripe, Baker's Ford was on the outside with Cale's Junior Johnson Chevy to his inside. Cale leveraged the draft to pull even with Baker. At the stripe, however, the two literally tied. Had today's technology been available then, it's possible NASCAR could have determined who finished ahead of whom. With the cameras and scoring technologies available, however, no one could determine who got the edge. The tie remains the only one in the NASCAR history books.

Source: Daytona USA by William Neely
While the King had to settle for his fourth consecutive second-place finish in the Firecracker and left over birthday cake, Pearson went to victory lane for the third straight year. Once there, he got the trophy, a peck from Miss Winston, and a fresh cig.

Barry McDermott covered the race for Sports Illustrated for SI's July 15, 1974 issue. Also, Ed Hinton, long-time motorsports writer, retired in 2014. On his way to retirement, he reflected upon his first race to see in person and his first race to cover as a professional writer: the 1974 Firecracker.

Petty was physically hot from having just raced 400 miles on a Florida summer morning. He was also hot at having been snookered by Pearson in the way that he did and likely for having finished second in the race for the fourth consecutive year.

Source: Spartanburg Herald Journal via Google News Archive
Two days after the race, however, Petty and Pearson met again during an appearance at Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg, SC as a fund raiser for the Greenville Shriners Hospital. Though I'm not sure all was forgotten, the two career rivals and long-time friends were friendly and in a joking manner.

Source: Spartanburg Herald Journal via Google News Archive

1 comment:

  1. Note that Pearson is wearing two different hats during the trophy presentation - one for his main sponsor (Purolater) and one for the tyre sponsors (Goodyear).