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 21st of 31 times Petty and Yarborough finished in the top two spots.

Source: High Point Enterprise
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.