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.

TMC

4 comments:

  1. Have no recollection of the manual lug wrench rule. Very interesting. Sounds like Senneker's car would not have survived a NASCAR laser inspection station.

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  2. Good read dude. Dave, I don't think Senneker's car would survive a (real) visual inspection.

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  3. Those big LMS races were always worth the price of admission and then some. Dave and I did the Bill Bogley at Manassas a couple of times, plus the 400-lapper at Southside and the stand-alone "Mid-Atlantic Championship Races" Paul Sawyer would promote at the old track where RIR is today. Never remember walking away from one disappointed.

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    1. Great memories Frank! Thanks for them.

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