Tuesday, September 6, 2016

September 6, 1976 - Southern 500

For the second year in a row, the 2016 Southern 500 was run at Darlington Raceway under the lights on a Sunday evening. For about 10 years before 2015, the race was a bit of a gypsy with it being run in November, Mother's Day weekend, and April.

Back the in day, however, the Southern 500 was run on Labor Day Monday.  The race was also held in the full sun of a late summer, scorching, Southern day. Many drivers were gassed from heat exhaustion and needed relief. Yet many returned to their seat after a few whiffs of oxygen and a cup of Pepsi Cola diluted by rapidly melting ice.

The 1976 Southern 500 - held during the Bicentennial year of the United States - was held on Monday, September 6th.

A few days before the race, South Carolina's governor released a proclamation declaring Saturday, September 5th as Richard Petty Day. He was also chosen by the track as the race's Grand Martial.

In addition to the nation's celebrating its Bicentennial, 1976 also represented an election year for the presidency of the United States. Both major parties used the Darlington weekend to stump for votes. Jimmy Carter - the Democratic nominee - already had a connection to NASCAR. He attended a handful of races at what is now Atlanta Motor Speedway as Georgia's governor in the early 1970s.

Source: The Index-Journal of Greenwood SC
Senator Bob Dole - the VP running mate for Republican nominee President Gerald Ford - also spent a bit of time pressing the flesh.

Source: The Index-Journal
When the dust settled in November, Carter was elected as the incumbent Ford was ousted. One of the campaign promises Carter made was to invited many from NASCAR to the White House. True to his word, President Carter invited several drivers, owners, and NASCAR brass to the White House in September 1978. First Lady Rosalynn Carter hosted the event as the POTUS remained at Camp David trying to get the leaders of Israel and Egypt to hammer out a binding peace agreement.

David Pearson won the pole - his fourth in a row at Darlington - in the #21 Wood Brothers Mercury. Pearson would extend his pole-winning streak to five in the 1977 Rebel 500. In the fifteen Darlington races Pearson raced for the the Woods, he won the pole nine times. Nine times? Nine Times.

Pearson's pole win for the '76 Southern 500 was bit unique because he was wearing another driver's uniform! Mike Hembree (now a writer for USA Today) wrote about the conundrum for the Spartanburg Herald.
As Pearson was preparing to get in his car to drive from his motel to the track Thursday morning, Grand National car builder Banjo Matthews happened along and talked Pearson into riding with him to the speedway. Therein lies the first plot twist. Pearson left his driver uniform in his car.

Pearson discovered his mistake at the track and being no Lady Godiva, borrowed one of Allison's bright red uniforms.

As soon as qualifying ended with Pearson knocking Allison out of the pole spot, the Spartanburg veteran dashed to a nearby truck (which happened to belong to Darrell Waltrip's team) and rapidly changed into his civilian clothes.

Someone wanted to know if Pearson planned to wear the Allison suit in Monday's race. "Naw, I've got one faster than this back at the motel." he said. 
Source: Spartanburg Herald
At the drop of the green, Allison powered off into turn 1 from his second starting position. About halfway down the backstretch, however, Pearson slithered under Allison, took the lead, and stayed there for the first eleven laps. Allison then passed Pearson as the fans were about to be entertained by 30 lead changes throughout the day.

A couple of laps after Allison took the lead, the caution waved for Nashville's David Sisco who crashed on lap 14. The year was a tough one at Darlington for the Sisco family. David's brother Jerry crashed in the spring Rebel 500, caught fire, and was pulled from his burning car by Petty crewmen Dale Inman and Barry Dodson.

Two other key characters from the 1979 Daytona 500 finish - Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison - were also stout in the first half of the 76 Southern 500. Donnie found his way to the front in Hoss Ellington's souped-up, Army-sponsored Chevrolet. But once there, something broke in the engine dumping fluid all over the track. Donnie angrily stormed away knowing he'd lost a solid shot at a win.

The cars hit pit road for Donnie's caution. In an era of no pit road speeds, Bobby Allison hastily pulled out of his stall to clear a car in front of him. Yarborough, however, had already committed to the outer lane. Cale bounced the right side of his #11 Holly Farms Chevy off the pit wall after being pinched by Bobby. In a quick turn of events, both Cale and Donnie were done.

About 15 laps after the race went back green, Buddy Baker and Dave Marcis got in a skirmish to bring out another yellow. A bad wreck involving rookie Skip Manning and Joe Frasson happened behind Baker's and Marcis' incident. When the caution flag flew, Manning accelerated a bit to catch up to the field for pit stops. His brakes apparently locked, and he spun. Frasson was trying to close on the field as well, couldn't avoid Manning's spinning #92, and t-boned him.

Frasson suffered bruising and a few cuts but was generally OK healthwise. His injuries, however, could have been far worse. The hit jarred his helmet off his head, tore his shoulder harness loose, and gashed his abdomen with his seat belt. Injured more than Frasson himself was his bank account. A true independent, Frasson's accident ended his season. He competed in only one Cup race in 1977 plus a handful of sportsman and ARCA race, and raced in only five Cup races in 1978 before moving on to other, more affordable series.

Manning had to be carefully extricated from the car with a broken leg. He missed the next race at Richmond. However, he managed to get in the car two races later at Dover. He started the race to earn driver points and then turned the car over to a relief driver. He soldiered on the rest of the season without technically missing a start. His tenacity - while perhaps viewed as risky and foolish through today's lens - was a necessity in that era to keep one's ride. It also helped him earn the Rookie of the Year award over drivers such as Neil Bonnett and Jimmy Means.

After surrendering the lead on lap 12, Pearson thought he'd check back in as the leader. After nearly being lapped by Donnie Allison before his problems, Pearson coolly continued. With 100 laps to go, Pearson went back to the point and led for another 30+ lap stretch.

Marcis (recovering from his encounter with Baker) and Darrell Waltrip then traded the lead with another for the next 25 or so laps. Marcis was in his final season with the famed #71 K&K Insurance Dodge prepared by Harry Hyde. Waltrip was in his first full season with DiGard and the #88 Gatorade team. DiGard had just recently hired Robert Yates as its engine builder, and the new guy's efforts were on display with plenty of speed.

With 45 laps to go, Pearson navigated past Marcis - then Bobby Allison - and then Waltrip to take the lead. Waltrip found another gear and dogged Pearson with his Robert Yates power.

Source: Stock Car Racing magazine
The King earned more than his Darlington stripe that particular day. He smacked the wall on three different occasions - yet continued with his boot on the gas.

Source: Stock Car Racing magazine
Petty poured on the steam late in an effort to chase down Pearson. The 21 was g-o-n-e GONE. But Petty still pursued Waltrip's 88 for second. After two or three laps of sizing him up, Petty finally completed the pass for second coming through turn four of the last lap. Waltrip likely filed away that move and recalled it when the two raced again for the win at Darlington's 1979 CRC Chemicals Rebel 500.

Source: Lakeland Ledger
Despite 16 years of racing at Darlington, the poles and six victories, Pearson's win in the Southern 500 was his first in that race. He also became the second driver to win three of Cup's biggest races in the same year. He also bagged the Daytona 500 in February and the World 600 in May. Beginning in 1985, the three races plus the Winston 500 would be featured in R.J. Reynold's Winston Million program.

Petty had a tremendous 1976 in the three big races as well with P2s at Daytona, Charlotte, and Darlington. His major hurdle, however, was that Pearson nabbed the win in all three. The race was also the 63rd and final time Petty and Pearson finished in the top two spots. Of the 63 times, Pearson won 33 of them with Petty capturing 30.

The second finish to Pearson ... again ... was perhaps softened a bit by the announcement STP would return as sponsor of the 43 again in 1977. With multi-year sponsorship deals and driver contracts today, it seems a bit unthinkable that back in the day even the big teams lived on year-to-year deals.

Source: Spartanburg Herald
Though a day of honor was declared for Petty before the race, the governor recognized Pearson with a full week following the Silver Fox's victory.

Source: Sumter Daily Item



  1. That was one of those entries that, while you're reading, you want it to go on and on. Great job dude!

  2. Lol, Chase... Hope the King didn't have to deliver any of those old Joe Namath Karate chops in his role as Grand Martial! Wonderful writeup.