Sunday, June 4, 2017

June 4, 1972 - Mason-Dixon 500

Dover opened in 1969 and hosted four Grand National / Winston Cup races in its first three years. Richard Petty won three of the four - including the first two, and Bobby Allison banked the 1971 Mason-Dixon 500.

The Cup regulars returned to Dover in June 1972 for the track's first of two races of the trimmed Winston Cup schedule. The Mason-Dixon 500 once again turned into a race between the two drivers who had claimed all of Dover's previous trophies.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
With Harry Hyde as his crew chief, Bobby Isaac won the pole in the #71 K&K Insurance Dodge Charger. Fellow Bobby - the Allison one - qualified alongside Isaac in his #12 Coca-Cola Chevy.

Coo Coo Marlin lined-up third in his first ever Dover start. He actually laid down the same timed lap as Allison. Because Allison qualified first, however, Marlin was bumped back to the third starting spot. At the time, the fast lap became his top career starting position. He later qualified second at Talladega in 1976.

Allison won the 1971 Mason-Dixon 500 in a Holman Moody Ford. After several years of a strained business partnership, John Holman and Ralph Moody finally divorced at the end of 1971. Allison joined Richard Howard's Chevy team with its cars prepared by Junior Johnson. Moody joined Dover as a Vice President and assisted many drivers with set-ups for the race - primarily independents such as James Hylton, Soapy Castles, and British driver Jackie Oliver in Junie Donlavey's Ford.

Isaac capitalized on his top starting spot and led the first two laps. Allison took the lead on lap three, and the rest of the race was a duel between his Coke Machine and Petty's STP Plymouth.

Each driver led a chunk of laps before returning the lead to the other. As the race entered its final 100 laps, Petty was out front. On lap 416, however, Allison returned to the top spot. He remained there for the next 85 laps to take the win. The King developed transmission issues, lost a lap to Allison, but still managed to finish second.

Source: Spartanburg Herald
The race was the eleventh of  24 career times where Allison and Petty finished in the top two spots.


Friday, May 12, 2017

May 12, 1979 - Sun-Drop Music City 420

The 1979 Cup season ranks comfortably in the top five of all-time memorable NASCAR seasons. The season began with a Waltrip win on Riverside's road course in January, and then the entire nation seemingly took notice of the legendary finish of the Daytona 500.

Through ten races of the season:
  • Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 for the sixth time and notched his fifteenth Martinsville victory in the Virginia 500. 
  • Darrell Waltrip logged two wins, and Bobby Allison banked three. 
  • Cale Yarborough won at Richmond after two rough finishes at Daytona and Rockingham.
  • Buddy Baker recovered from a disappointing Daytona finish with a win at Atlanta. 
  • Rookie Dale Earnhardt picked up his first career Cup win in at Bristol.
A roadie, two superspeedways, three intermediates, and four short tracks to open the season. Ahhhhh.

After Bobby Allison captured his third win of the season at Talladega, the circuit headed to Nashville for the fifth short track race of the season.

After years of being known as Fairground Speedways and Nashville Speedway, the track was re-branded as Nashville International Raceway by the track's new leaseholders and promoters, Lanny Hester and Gary Baker. The wording choice perplexes me to this day because the only thing international about Nashville in 1979 was the house of pancakes near Vanderbilt.

The Winston 500 raced with a full field of 40 cars. By contrast, 28 drivers answered the call a week later to Gentlemen, Start Your Engines! in Nashville - the second lowest car count of the season.

One driver who raced at Talladega but opted not to race at Nashville was independent Coo Coo Marlin. Coo Coo was a four-time Nashville late model champion and had raced in all but two of Nashville's Cup races since his debut Cup event in 1966. (His son Sterling raced his dad's car in the two races Coo Coo didn't start.)

The new promoters implemented a change to charge crew members a pit entry fee - including Sterling's crew at a late model race a few weeks before the 420. Coo Coo fervently disagreed with the new policy, took a stand, and and refused to race at his home track.

Source: The Tennessean
Coo Coo was peeved, but another local driver was relieved. Steve Spencer, the track's 1977 late model sportsman division champion, got the opportunity to make his Cup debut on his home track. Owner/driver Henley Gray put Spencer in his car, and Steve did an admirable job in his debut by qualifying 15th and finishing 12th.

Source: The Tennessean
Spencer raced in seven more Cup events in his career, and he later became Sterling Marlin's personal pilot. His weekend was made a bit more memorable as he won the 50-lap late model feature following Friday night's first round of Cup qualifying.

Dale Earnhardt was already a raw but popular and promising rookie. He brought a fan base from both his father's legacy as well his late model experience on tracks in the Carolinas. (Hint to NASCAR: a return to supporting short track heroes will result in their bringing a fan base with them to trucks, Xfinity, and Cup.)

Earnhardt, however, was not the only promising rookie in the 1979 class. Other talents in what was arguably the most talented collective group of rookies in Cup history included Joe Millikan, Terry Labonte, and Harry Gant.

Joe Millikan had been tabbed as a Petty protégé. He grew up in Level Cross, worked for Petty Enterprises for the better part of ten years, and won Daytona and Talladega late model sportsman races in an STP sponsored Petty Dodge.

Millikan got his chance at the big time in 1979 by landing a ride with L.G. DeWitt whose team had won the 1973 title and 1975 Daytona 500 with Benny Parsons. Earnhardt nabbed a win at Bristol, but Millikan had been impressive as well in the early part of the season. His #72 Chevy unloaded quick off the truck, and Joe captured his first (and ultimately only) Busch pole award.

Source: The Tennessean

Flanking Millikan was Buddy Baker - an unusual qualifying spot for him on a short track. Baker was known as more of a superspeedway racer though he did win at Nashville in 1973 and Martinsville later in 1979. Waltrip, Cale, and the King rounded out the top five starters.

Cale and Bobby Allison tangled in February at Daytona, but they soon put the incident behind them. The fact both of them had wins on the ledger by the time Nashville rolled around likely helped ease things a bit.

Source: The Tennessean
Millikan leveraged his top starting spot when the green fell, and he led the first 31 laps. Unfortunately for him, that brief time out front was the highlight of his race. Engine woes forced him out of the race with a DNF after only 120+ laps.

Long-time independent driver J.D. McDuffie took the lead from Millikan on lap 32. J.D. had himself quite the career race that spring night in Nashville. Over the course of the race, he led 111 laps across the four times he found himself out front. The number of laps led was easily the highest he had in any of any of his 653 career starts by a factor of 10! Though he didn't win the race, he finished a solid 5th - his 12th and final career top 5.

Before McDuffie headed to the front, he tangled a bit with Yarborough. Cale lost a lap because of his spin, but he didn't hit the wall or otherwise damage his Olds 442. Adding insult to injury was a second spin in the first half of the race. But again, racing luck favored Cale as he managed to keep it out of the wall a second time.

Part of McDuffie's secret sauce was his McCreary tires vs. the Goodyears worn by other cars. His tires provided a speed advantage in the short run, but they had a tendency to fall off quicker later in a run.

The STP Monte Carlo was out front when McDuffie wasn't. Petty led a stretch of 100+ laps in the middle stages of the race. Knowing McDuffie's McCreary tires wouldn't last as long, the 43 seemed to be in good position to capture the trophy.

Because of his need for new tires, J.D. surrendered the lead to Petty with just under 150 laps to go. Petty led the next 61 laps before officially losing the lead to Yarborough in a controversial turn of events.

During his final stop, Petty got tangled up a bit on pit road with Benny Parsons in his #27 M.C. Anderson Chevy. The King did a half-spin on pit road and had to straighten up to complete his stop. But the Dale Inman-led crew completed their service and sent the King back on track as the leader.

NASCAR ruled, however, that Yarborough had unlapped himself and taken the lead from the King during the 43's pit road bobble. After the race, Petty insisted he had not lost the lead to Cale and believed he was the winner of the race. Bobby Allison - in a rare moment of unanimity with Petty - agreed Petty won with Allison as the second place finisher.

But...NASCAR maintained its position and insisted Cale had made up his lost laps, passed Petty, and led the remaining laps to the checkers. Yarborough returned to Timmonsville, SC with yet another Nashville trophy as Petty and Allison scratched their heads.

The win was Cale's third in a row at Nashville and seventh in a 13-race stretch. The race was also the 27th time Petty and Cale finished in the top two spots.

Source: The Tennessean
Source: The Tennessean

Monday, May 8, 2017

May 8, 1976 - Music City USA 420

I started following Winston Cup racing in 1975. As I've blogged many times, I latched onto Richard Petty as my favorite driver. As my family and I started attending Saturday night races at Nashville Speedway, I assumed Petty would also win the Cup races at the Fairgounds. After all, the 43 had banked eight Nashville wins from 1964 through 1974.

In May 1975, Darrell Waltrip notched his first career Cup win on his home track in the Music City 420. Cale Yarborough dominated the Nashville 420 in July 1975 and won by a full lap over the second place finisher. The upside I suppose was that The King was the one who finished second.

The 1976 Music City 420 was the next opportunity for Petty to get back to his winning ways at Nashville.

The King had already experienced a topsy-turvy start to the season. He lost to David Pearson in the Daytona 500 in what was arguably the craziest NASCAR Cup finish in history. His team rallied two weeks later, however, to win the Carolina 500 at Rockingham. In other races leading into Nashville, the STP Dodge either went home with a top 5 or a DNF.

Source: The Tennessean
While I was personally interested in whether Petty would experience feast or famine in the 420, his up and down 1976 season wasn't the primary story line. Two others trumping it involved an old guy and an upstart.

The old guy was two-time NASCAR Grand National (and now NASCAR Hall of Famer) Buck Baker - father of perhaps his better known son, the late Buddy Baker. Buck won two titles in the 1950s and raced actively in the Grand National division through the mid 1960s. Over the next ten years, he only raced sporadically in NASCAR's Grand National, Grand Touring, and Grand National East divisions. He got the itch again in 1976 and started eight Cup events. Nashville was to be the third one of the season for him.

Source: The Tennessean
The young'un making headlines was Sterling Marlin, Coo Coo's boy. After making only four local late model sportsman starts - including the fourth one the night before the 420 - Sterling prepared to take over his dad's #14 Cunningham-Kelly Chevrolet to make his first career Cup start.

Benny Parsons won the pole, and Yarborough qualified alongside him. As noted earlier, Cale won the previous Nashville race and had already won at Bristol and North Wilkesboro prior to the 420. Dave Marcis, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker rounded out the top five starters. Waltrip, the defending race champion, timed sixth, and Petty started seventh.

Both Buck and Sterling made the race, but neither had a desirable starting spot. Sterling laid down a solid lap in the first round of qualifying and would have started 12th had he kept it. He chose to try again the next day, however, and missed things badly. His inexperience and bad decision relegated him to a 30th place start - at the end of the field.

In the 1975 Nashville 420, Cale dominated by leading 385 laps. He was an even stingier lap bully in the 1976 Music City 420. He led 398 of the 420 laps leaving only crumbs for the others.

Sterling's Cup debut was short-lived. He lasted only 55 laps before the oil pump went out on his family Monte Carlo, and his first race ended with a DNF.

Buck did alright for the rusty, crusty ol' man that he was. He finished 16th in the 30-car field and was the the last car still running at the end of the race.

As he had the previous July, Cale nabbed the money, trophy, and kiss. The win was also Cale's third in four short-track races of the season to date.

Also as happened the previous July, the King went to the next race with another second place finish. The race was the 22nd of thirty-one times that Petty and Cale finished in the top two spots. Considering the fortunes of his season, a P2 certainly outweighed a DNF. But after a 13-win season in 1975, Petty was expecting more Ws - as was I as a new fan!

Source: The Tennessean
Though some had concerns about Sterling's entry based on his truly limited experience, he handled himself well. He didn't make any notable bone-headed moves, and he wasn't a potential problem for the field after 50+ laps anyway. Marlin didn't become a Cup regular until 1983, but I'm sure he still recalls that first start at his home track.

Source: The Tennessean

Monday, April 17, 2017

April 17, 1976 - Nashville's new season begins

NASCAR's 1976 Winston Cup season opened in January with the road course race in Riverside, California. Nashville Speedway's weekly series didn't kickstart its new year, however, until mid-April. The Winston Salute To America 200 was slotted for Saturday, April 17, 1976.

The race was sanctioned as a NASCAR national Late Model Sportsman division race. It was one of many during a pre-Busch Series era when national LMS points could be earned at tracks scattered all over the place.

The race attracted a few of the big dawgs of the day such as 1975 national LMS champ L.D. Ottinger, future Cup winner Neil Bonnett, Cup regular Donnie Allison, 1972-1974 NASCAR Late Model Sportsman champion Jack Ingram...

...and Midwestern hotshoe Bob Senneker. His car didn't exactly match the look and configuration of most LMS entries. But hey, he towed all the way from Michigan, was a proven winner in his area of the country, was making his first Fairgrounds start, and had a last name that rhymed with WINneker. So they let him race! OK, I made up that part about the rhyming name.

They were joined by local racers such as 1975 Nashville late model champion Walter Wallace, Alton Jones (who claimed the 1976 LMS track title), James Climer, and second year Nashville driver but first year LMS racer Mike Alexander.

The 200 was also a homecoming of sorts for Dave Sisco and Darrell Waltrip, two Cup drivers who were also Fairgrounds champions earlier in their careers. Waltrip's Nova carried the colors of his new new Cup sponsor, Gatorade. Nashville fans got their first opportunity to see the colors live on DW's late model. They saw them again about three weeks later when Waltrip raced his DiGard 88 Monte Carlo in the Music City 420 Cup race.

Four-time Fairgrounds champion and Cup regular Coo Coo Marlin did not enter the 200. However, he assisted the efforts of a rookie driver who prepared for his debut professional racing career start: his son Sterling.

Source: The Tennessean
Today's NASCAR fans can often be stereotyped as chronic whiners about everything - especially changes. Almost any change these days triggers a social media outcry. But one change in 1976 even had the competitors chirping.

NASCAR implemented a rule change for LMS teams at short tracks. Rather than using air guns, crews were required to use manual lug wrenches. NASCAR's position was the change would help level the playing field on pit road as well as reduce operating expenses a bit for the teams. The new rule, however, was met with almost universal derision.

Source: The Tennessean
Ottinger captured the pole in his #2 Chevelle. Senneker lined up alongside him in his interesting looking car. When the green flag fell, Ottinger got the hole shot and paced the field for the first 10 laps.

Allison then took the top spot and dragged the field around for the remainder of the first half of the race. Following the crossed-flags, Senneker decided it was go time. He took the lead, dominated the second half, and seemingly was on his way to the win.

Ottinger's luck went from good to bad to worse. After leading early, he faded back and lost a lap during a pit stop. With 30 laps to go, he pounded the wall as he tried to get back on the lead lap. He was able to continue, but then his fuel pump broke fifteen laps later. His wrecked ride caught fire, and he was finally and mercifully done for the night.

As the laps continued, Senneker built a sizable lead - even after late cautions resulting from Ottinger's incidents. His car developed an ignition issue with three laps to go, however, and he began slowly limping towards the finish. At first it was thought he may have been out of fuel; however, he later noted it was his electrical system that had simply laid down on him with victory in sight.

With Senneker's fade, Donnie Allison roared past him in his #8 Nova to claim the win. Allison sported 88 on his car to match the number he used to race in Cup. He was fired by DiGard in 1975 and replaced with Waltrip. Both showed up at Nashville with 88 on their cars. With Allison being a late entrant, his car was scored as the single-digit #8.

Ingram finished second, and Randy Tissot placed third. Former track champs Sisco and Waltrip rounded out the top five finishers. Sterling finished an admirable seventh in his first professional race. He continued having a pretty successful rookie year - including his first career Cup start in the Music City 420 less than a month after his late model debut. He banked several consistent runs his rookie season, built a solid fan following, and finally nabbed his first of many Nashville wins in June 1977.

Source: The Tennessean
Nearly 40 years later, Marlin's passion for racing still burns. Though no longer a Cup driver, he is a fixture at the Fairgrounds racing regularly in the once-a-month Pro Late Model division.

Special thanks to Russ Thompson for providing several photos and a few trivia nuggets for this post.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

April 6, 1997 - Texas Motor Speedway Arrives Alive

Schaefer Hall of Fame co-founder Philly and I made multiple efforts to attend the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. Tickets were available of course, but at some ludicrous prices. We held our ground and refused to overpay. Result: We missed the show. Oh well, life goes on. And we did get to go to the second Brickyard in 1995 thanks to my brother-in-law taking care of us.

Three years later, a similar scenario arose. Bruton Smith's new Texas Motor Speedway scheduled its inaugural event for April 1997 - the Interstate Batteries 500. Again, Philly and I wanted to be there for Race #1. Unlike our failed Indy venture, however, the Texas trip played out perfectly. Well, it did for us - though not so much for many others, fans and competitors alike.

My sister and brother-in-law had relocated to Farmers Branch TX - a Dallas 'burb. As luck would have it, he wrangled tickets for all of us for the first event at the best price of all: FREE! Furthermore, he landed us suite passes for Saturday's Coca-Cola 300 Busch Series race (remember Bruton's praise-rant about Coke during his NASCAR HOF induction speech?).

Next challenge: getting there from Tennessee. I thought I'd won the lottery when I learned I'd been assigned a work project in Terrell, TX the week before the race. Only 50 miles or so lay between my work stint in Terrell and race weekend.

And it rained. Every. Stinkin'. Mile. Of my Friday drive to Farmers Branch. But I arrived! Philly landed at DFW the next morning, and race weekend was officially underway.

I've previously blogged about the start to race day by my brother-in-law as well as my pre-race lap adventure around TMS. A few other non-racing memories from that weekend still make me smile as I recall them.
  • My brother-in-law introduced us to Razoo's Cajun Cafe. Lawdy, did we put a dent in a monster-sized platter of fried seafood and hushpuppies. As we waited near the bar for a table, I spotted a couple wearing white golf shirts and white hats. Both simply had the NASCAR logo on them. I smiled, nodded, and asked "How are y'all? First race this weekend?" They were stunned a bit as they replied pleasantly "Yes! How did you know that?"
  • We had four suite passes for Saturday's Busch race - but also a stowaway: my niece. Upon arrival at the elevator, we were (rightfully) given the third degree about our passes, the need for a wristband, etc. The deal breaker was our fifth person. The cute smile and blond hair of a four-year old fortunately warmed the guy's heart; however, and he sent all five of us on our way.
  • The Busch race was the first time for Philly and me to watch one from a suite. We'd always wanted to do so, but once there we concluded it was too sterile of an environment for us. Plus our host booked it on the cheap. No munchies, sandwiches, or beer. Just a few meager Cokes and water. If for no other reason other than to have some fun at my brother-in-law's expense, we leaned on him. "C'mon man. Nothing to eat? And no beer?? Fix this mess." He asked around and returned with an answer that the catering fee for a case of beer was eighty dollars and a sandwich board two hundred bucks or something like that. We held his stare, said we didn't care, and to make it happen. To his credit, he got his host to pony up more from the marketing budget!
  • The track distributed rally towels for the Cup race. I still have mine, keep it in my race pack, and wave it often 20 years later at the races I attend.
Though we had a good time, fortunes weren't so great for some at the track. I cringed when I got word Thursday evening that Ricky Craven wrecked hard during a practice session. He destroyed his #25 Hendrick Motorsports Budweiser Chevy, and the wreck nearly destroyed him. Fortunately, Craven returned to race another day (and win). But by his own admission, his health today is very much affected by the wrecks of his racing career - perhaps most notably by his Texas lick.

Race day excitement in the Lone Star State was amp'd. Well, maybe except for many fans bitter about the transfer of a race date from North Wilkesboro to Texas...or those stuck in traffic or muddy parking lots. Nonetheless, the fans, drivers, Ken Squier, etc. were pumped about getting the 500 underway.

We were standing at our start-finish line seats and watched the field roar past the green as they barreled into turn one. And then what happens? The Big One. In the first turn of the first lap of the first race at a new track.

Johnny Benson got into Darrell Waltrip, and the rest of the field piled in like a game of Buck Buck by Fat Albert's friends.

In less than a quarter of a lap, all sorts of fan favorites were essentially done for the day. Both of the Petty cars driven by Kyle Petty and Bobby Hamilton: Involved. Both continued - but neither were a factor. And Darrell Waltrip's chrome-wrapped 25th Anniversary Western Auto Chevy returned to the garage looking like a ball of aluminum foil.

About fifteen laps later, NASCAR's Three Stooges of that era - Bobby Hillin Jr., Derrike Cope and Greg Sacks tangled in another turn 1 accident. All could just about be assured of being involved in an accident on a week-to-week basis. But I'm not sure you could've secured Vegas odds to have all three involved in the same wreck.

For those who made it beyond the lap one wreck, many found their way to the front. Lap bosses included Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, and crowd favorite Terry Labonte. Others getting a shot at clean air included Bobby Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd, and Todd Bodine who was hired as the substitute driver for Craven.

Just shy of halfway, Rusty Wallace lost the edge in his #2 Miller Lite Ford, hit the wall coming out of turn 4, and drifted slowly through the quad-oval frontstretch. Several other cars spun to avoid Wallace or because of the fluid from his car. Ernie Irvan - Swervin' Irvan - tried to bonsai his way through the accident in an effort to make up a lap by passing leader Terry Labonte. He instead drilled at full speed a slowing Greg Sacks - this after Sacks had returned from his earlier accident. Rather than getting a lap back, Irvan nearly found his engine block sitting in his lap.

Throughout the afternoon, a steady presence on the track was the #99 Exide Batteries Roush Ford of Jeff Burton. Crew chief Buddy Parrott tweaked the car and worked with the fourth-year Cup driver to set both up for the finish.

As the race entered its last 100 miles, the 99 got a nose for the front. Burton took the lead from Bodine (who *ahem* wrecked while leading) and led the rest of the way to notch his first career Cup win.

A 20+ minute recap of the race.

To date, the inaugural race is the only one I've attended at Texas. I genuinely want to return, but circumstances just haven't played out yet to do so.

Over 20 years, the track has had its share of storylines including:
  • opening weekend jitters with rain, parking, and traffic
  • the lap one wreck
  • a disagreement between drivers and the track's general manager Eddie Gossage that was humorously transferred to a Shut Up And Race t-shirt
  • a subsequent re-working of the track's configuration to blend the sharp transition angle at the apron, and
  • a controversially cancelled CART race in 2001.
Yet my memories of race weekend #1 are nothing but great. My hope is to again enjoy a second memorable experience down there. Meanwhile, I wish nothing but the best to Gossage and his team as they ready for another 20 years of racing.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

April 4, 1976 - Gwyn Staley 400

Richard Petty ripped through the 1975 Cup season like a Ginsu knife through a mater. He nabbed 13 wins as well as his sixth championship. The Petty Enterprises / STP team had every reason to believe they'd keep the mojo rolling in 1976.

David Pearson notched 18 wins for the Wood Brothers' famed #21 team over the two-year stretch of 1973-1974. He only won three races, however, during 1975 in the Purolator Mercury. The team was ready to prove the single digit number of wins was an anomaly vs. the new norm.

Cale Yarborough began 1975 as his third season with Junior Johnson's Chevy team. Like Pearson, he bagged a double-digit number of wins in 1974 - but slipped to only three victories in 1975. Cale, Junior, and Herb Nab were ready for another shot at knocking King Richard off his throne in 1976.

The Winston Cup drivers rolled into North Wilkesboro in early April for the Gwyn Staley 400, the seventh race of the 1976 season.

Clearly, the story line of the season to-date was the amazing finish between Richard Petty and David Pearson in the Daytona 500. Pearson backed up his superspeedway Daytona win with two more victories at Riverside's road course and then at Atlanta.

The King rebounded nicely from Daytona. The crew thrashed on the wrecked 43, towed it to Rockingham two weeks later, and celebrated as Petty won the Carolina 500 in the rebuilt Dodge. Dave Marcis nabbed a win at Richmond, and Cale put a whuppin' on the field at Bristol.

Wilkesboro was slotted as the third short-track event in the first seven races of the season. The scarce number of short track races now compared to the abundance of them then has robbed today's fan base of some legendary racing facilities, rivalries, and driver skills.

Dave Marcis' #71 K&K Insurance, Harry Hyde-prepared Dodge Charger was fast in qualifying just as it was at Richmond. Marcis captured the top starting spot - his third pole of the season. Benny Parsons - who was born in Wilkes County, NC - qualified on the outside of the front row. Darrell Waltrip timed third, and Dick Brooks notched a surprising 4th in Junie Donlavey's Ford. Yarborough rounded out the top five starters.

On race day, a thunderstorm kept many folks in their cars and trucks until closer to race time. Once the weather moved to the east, folks headed for the gates. Track employees were stubbing tickets as quickly as they could. Assisting them was NASCAR's president, Bill France Jr. - on his birthday no less!

Prior to the start of the race, track officials recognized Wilkesboro legend, former driver, and car owner Junior Johnson by renaming a new section of backstretch grandstands in his honor.

Source: High Point Enterprise
Credit to & courtesy of Keith Hall
Petty started seventh in his rebuilt Dodge and was still sporting the beard he'd grown to commemorate America's bicentennial.

Credit: Mickey York
Parsons got a good jump at the green and led the first dozen laps. Yarborough then took the lead and dominated the rest of the way. He allowed Parsons to lead another dozen or so laps and spotted the 43 the lead for about a baker's dozen of his own. Otherwise, it was all Cale all day. He punished the field and won by a full lap over second place Petty.

The race was the 25th of 31 times Petty and Yarborough finished in the top two spots.

When Cup racing began its rapid ascent in the 1980s, North Wilkesboro expanded its seating. Fans continued sitting in the Junior Johnson Grandstand, but many more seat options became available. was gone. The track has remained silent for 20+ years. It has deteriorated to the point of being an unusable facility - despite the cries from well-meaning and hopeless romantic fans that continue to proclaim "NASCAR ought to return to Wilkesboro!" A few years ago, the remnants of the Junior Johnson Grandstand were finally demolished - about 35 years after being named in his honor.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

March 9, 1980 - Rockingham's Carolina 500

The 1979 NASCAR Winston Cup season was one for the ages. Richard Petty won his sixth Daytona 500 to end a losing streak that spanned a season and a half. The King then battled Darrell Waltrip for the top points position in the second half of the season, and he ultimately prevailed to claim his seventh title.

Waltrip and his Gatorade DiGard team did not hang their heads after losing the title to Petty. The 88 bunch came out of the chute hot in 1980 by winning the season-opening race in Riverside, CA and the third race of the year at Richmond - both from the pole. Buddy Baker's 1980 season also started off in grand fashion. After years of fast cars and frustrating luck, he finally won his prized race - the Daytona 500. As Waltrip had done, Baker won the 500 from the top starting spot.

With races on a road course, superspeedway, and half-mile short track in the books, the grind of the season moved to Rockingham for the annual Carolina 500.

As often seems to happens with NASCAR, the larger story of  the race weekend happened off the track. When the teams rolled in to the North Carolina sandhills, many eyes turned to an unexpected team.

L.G. DeWitt was a long-time car owner. He fielded Chevrolets for Benny Parsons for most of the 1970s - including for Parson's Cup title in 1973 and Daytona 500 win in 1975. Second year driver and 1979 rookie-of-the-year runner-up, Joe Millikan returned as his driver in 1980. DeWitt also owned the tracks in Atlanta and Rockingham.

The garage buzzed when word got out that the FBI was investigating members of DeWitt's #72 race team for dealing in stolen cars. The seriousness of the allegations was magnified by the embarrassment of having the news released when DeWitt was hosting a race at his own track.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Though I'm uncertain how the allegations eventually played out, DeWitt's team was all but done. Millikan had a miserable finish at Daytona, flipped his car over the guard rail at Richmond, and lost an engine for a third consecutive poor finish at Rockingham. A few races later, the team folded leaving Millikan without a ride.

Source: Rockingham Speedway by Rick Houston and Bryan Hallman
Teams and fans also faced the news former driver Lee Roy Yarbrough had been committed to a mental institution. Yarbrough was a genuinely successful driver in the mid to late 1960s. A series of bad accidents in NASCAR and Indy cars shortened his career. Yarbrough likely suffered a series of serious concussions - and CTE likely followed. Around the time of the Daytona 500, Yarbrough tried to kill his mother and was declared incompetent by a court.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald-Journal
In qualifying, Darrell Waltrip had a ton of Robert Yates horsepower yet again. He won the pole - his third top spot in the first four races of the season. Despite the noise of the FBI investigation hanging in the air, Millikan put DeWitt's car on the outside of the front row.

Cale Yarborough puked a motor and wrecked his Junior Johnson-owned, Busch Beer-sponsored Chevy Monte Carlo during final practice before qualifying. Johnson rallied his guys to head back to the shop and return with the Olds 442 Cale had raced in the Daytona 500. Yarborough was unable to lay down a lap on the first of two days of qualifying. In the second round, however, he was the quickest car despite his concerns the Olds wouldn't hustle around The Rock as well as the Monte Carlo.

third storyline involved the race itself. As noted on the program, the race was originally scheduled for March 2. After qualifying was completed, however, a winter weather system arrived. Snow and ice scuttled the plans of all to race for a week.

The race was delayed by a week though the line-up from qualifying was retained.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald-Journal
When the green flag fell, Waltrip set sail. He led 77 of the race's first 78 laps. After winning Daytona, Buddy Baker's Ranier Racing team skipped Richmond. Baker laid down a solid qualifying lap, started third, and led a chunk of 100+ laps after taking over the top spot from Waltrip. After giving up the lead to others, however, his day ended prematurely - as it often did in his career - when he skidded through a patch of oil and popped the wall.

Source: Decatur Daily Review
Yarborough didn't count himself among the favorites to win the race. His finishes in the first three races of 1980 were lousy - and he had wrecked his preferred Monte Carlo at Rockingham - and he had to start deep in the field - and he was nursing a leg injury after having been kicked by a calf before the Richmond race. Yet after Waltrip and Baker had their initial turns up front, Cale led significant chunks of laps during various points of the race.

The King was pretty sporty at one of his favorite tracks. Petty followed up his 1979 championship season with P3s at Riverside and Richmond. He had a lightning quick Olds at Daytona; however, a burned clutch ended his day with a DNF and rotten finish. With a little over 100 laps to go at Rockingham, Petty had worked himself up to the point as he pursued yet another Rockingham trophy.

Cale's #11 Olds, however, had a nose for the front. Despite his moaning about how the 442 would likely pale in comparison to his preferred Monte, Junior Johnson likely spent the second half of the race with a wry smirk on his face as he leaned on a jack.

Petty hounded Yarborough for much of the final 100 laps. He hit a slick spot of oil as Baker did, wiggled, recovered and continued. He didn't stick his 43 Chevy in the fence, but he did lose his momentum in birddogging Cale.

Source: Rockingham Speedway by Rick Houston and Bryan Hallman
Yarborough kept his foot to the floor and built a sizable enough lead that he was able to make his final pit stop without losing the lead. He cruised to a relatively comfortable win over second place Petty.

Speaking of Petty, the race was also the first Rockingham start for Kyle Petty. Kyle made his first five Cup starts in 1979 and had a disappointing 1980 Speedweeks. His Dodge Magnum was wiped out in a qualifying race wreck, and he DNQ'd for the Daytona 500. He qualified deep in the field at Rockingham, lost an engine, and returned to Level Cross with a poor finish. About a decade later, however, he and crew chief Gary Nelson (who coincidentally worked with Waltrip at DiGard) dominated the field for a win at The Rock.

Source: Greenville News
The race was the 29th of 31 times Petty and Yarborough finished in the top two spots.

Courtesy: NCMarrk on Twitter