Soon after the announcement, fans began to chirp about how hot it's expected to be in Joliet on a July day. Seriously.
Genuinely hot races of NASCAR's salad days included the daytime Firecracker 400 at Daytona, the Talladega 500 in July and August, and Atlanta's Dixie 500 before it was moved to November. One such Dixie 500 was held on July 23, 1972.
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The season was largely controlled by three drivers: Richard Petty and Bobby Allison in full-time efforts and David Pearson in an abbreviated schedule with the Wood Brothers. Petty was the two-time defending winner of the Dixie 500 in 1970 and 1971, and Allison won the Atlanta 500 earlier in the season.
A few days before the race, Petty joked with a few writers by reminding them to tell fans not to forget their blankets for the race. Blankets in July? "They're not for the temperature. But folks might want to throw a blanket over the finish. That's how close things are."
Pearson captured the pole - his second in seven starts with the Woods. Bobby Isaac qualified alongside him in the #71 K&K Insurance, Harry Hyde-prepared Dodge Charger. Allison, Coo Coo Marlin, and Petty rounded out the top five starters.
On Saturday night before Sunday's race, the track hosted a country music concert. Ferlin Huskey, Ray Price, Don Gibson, Donna Fargo, and fellow racer Marty Robbins entertained the fans and apparently a few drivers in a matinee and an evening show.
Donnie Allison raced a few times for Bud Moore in 1972 - the ride Pearson vacated after two starts earlier in the year before joining the Wood Brothers. For most of the 1970s and into the early 80s, Bud's #15 Fords were always plain white. In 1972, however, he painted them butterscotch yellow.
The race was highly competitive throughout its first half. The top five starters along with Donnie Allison and a couple of others swapped the lead regularly. No lead lasted longer than a single-digit number of laps other than two segments when Pearson held serve for 47 and 13 laps, respectively.
In the middle stages of the race, Pearson put his #21 Mercury into the wind and decided to keep it there. Whereas the first part of the race saw many lead changes, the middle third saw Pearson pull the field around Atlanta lap after lap after lap. He was seeking his first Atlanta win since the 1961 Dixie 400, his third career victory.
Around lap 230, the skies could no longer hold the mugginess of the day. Showers arrived, and a yellow flag flew for the damp track. Today's crew chiefs have all sorts of weather technology at their disposal. In 1972, however, teams had to survey the skies and read the winds. Glen and Leonard Wood believed plenty of rain was on the way, the race would soon be called, and Pearson would be declared the winner.
As a result, the Woods chose not to have Pearson pit. The Junior Johnson and Dale Inman led teams of Allison and Petty believed otherwise. Both were called to pit road.
Sure enough, the rain was short-lived. With one to go before returning to green, Pearson was called to pit road after all. He got fresh tires and a load of fuel, but he lost a lot of track position.
Allison took off with Petty in pursuit. Pearson was about a half-lap behind the duo after his team's weather gamble failed to pay off. With a quarter of the race left to go and still some uncertainty about the weather, Pearson picked up his pace. But in doing so, he burned a valve in his Mercury's engine. Down on power, he cruised the rest of the race. He still managed a third place finish albeit three laps down to the winner.
Petty was a three-time winner of the Dixie 500 - all in a Plymouth. He was looking for his first Atlanta win after Petty Enterprises converted to Mopar's Dodge brand. But Allison had the mojo in his Coca-Cola Machine.
The #12 Chevrolet stretched the lead over Petty's Dodge and led 90 of the race's remaining 92 laps. Allison took a comfortable win over second place Petty - the only two cars on the lead lap at the finish.
The win was Allison's third in a row after having won at Trenton Speedway and Bristol. He also swept Atlanta's races in 1972. The race was the 34th of 51times Petty and Allison were the top two finishers.
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