Monday, August 28, 2017

August 28, 1976 - Nashville's Bob Hunley 100

A couple of NASCAR's national late model sportsman drivers came to Nashville in late summer '76 to race against the local heroes in the third annual Bob Hunley Memorial 100.

Bob Hunley was an amateur racer and a full-time Metro Nashville policeman. He raced in the fairgrounds' late model sportsman division for much of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Sadly, Hunley was killed during a race on April 29, 1972. From April 30, 1972, edition of The Tennessean:
An off-duty Metro patrolman was killed last night when his race car slammed into a retaining wall at Fairgrounds Speedway in the fourth lap of a late-model sportsman race.

Bobby Hunley was dead on arrival at Baptist Hospital after the speedway accident.

Hunley's 1964 Chevelle collided with another car in a group of five autos jockeying for positions on the straight-away. Hunley's auto flipped over several times, then struck a retaining wall at a turn on the quarter-mile track.

Two other cars were involved in the track collision, but there were no other injuries. Hunley's wife, Wilma, and children reportedly were in the fairgrounds audience when the crash occurred. The patrolman was scheduled to go on duty with the police department at midnight following the race.

In an interview last year, Mrs. Hunley said she could seldom relax at home, knowing her husband was a police officer during work hours and a race car driver on his off nights. "A night never goes by that I don't worry about his welfare," she said. "When he leaves out of here, especially on that midnight shift, I never know if I'll see him again.

"Then when  he's racing, I have to sweat out each turn he makes. I never take my eyes off him when he's on the track. Even though I can't stand to watch Robert race, I can't stand to stay at home and wonder what's happening. If something ever goes wrong, I want to be there," she said.

In addition to his widow, Hunley is survived by a son and two daughters. 
L.D. Ottinger broke Nashville's track record with his qualifying lap. But less than a minute later, fellow NASCAR national LMS division competitor, Harry Gant, set his own track record.

When the green flag fell, Ottinger got the jump on Gant and grabbed the lead. From there, it was all L.D. - all night - all race. He won handily over the rest of the field.

Credit Jim Phillips and MRM Racing Photos
Local racer Steve Spencer finished second. Coincidentally, Spencer raced a Chevelle purchased from Ottinger. He also won the track's 1977 LMS title in L.D.'s former car.

Neil Bonnett, balancing a schedule of Cup and late model races, claimed third. Alton Jones finished fourth and later claimed the track's LMS title in 1976. Despite winning the pole, Gant wasn't a factor and finished 16th.

Source: The Tennessean from TMC Archives
On Monday after the race, The Tennessean ran a follow-up column about Ottinger's dominance in the Hunley 100 written by Larry Woody, the long-time racing beat writer and humorist for the paper. Woody made it sound as if L.D. won the pole with Gant qualifying second.

I had listened to the race coverage on WENO-AM radio on Saturday night and knew Gant was quickest. Woody's race report in the Sunday paper included the same info.

Source: The Tennessean
As a still relatively new race fan and one more passionate about the late model heroes at Nashville than NASCAR's Cup drivers (Richard Petty not withstanding), I made the choice to let Mr. Woody know the facts and wrote him a letter. Though I don't remember my exact wording, I think I penned a polite but direct one. At least my 11 year-old conscience was clear.

A few days later on a Saturday morning, our black, rotary phone rang in the kitchen. My mother answered, acknowledged a couple of uh-huhs, handed the phone to me, and smirked a bit as she said "It's for you."

After saying hello, the voice on the other end said "Chase? Larry Woody from The Tennessean. How are you?" I nearly puddled on the kitchen floor. I recall Larry was pleasant though I kinda hemmed and hawed. Yet I was able to re-state my understanding about Gant's lap, and Larry understood the mix-up between his Sunday and Monday articles.

When the call ended, I'm sure I broke out in sweat and hives. I have no memory of what my mother said afterwards - if anything. She may have just gone back to making biscuits for my dad or helping my brother or sister with a school project

Though I've spoken with Larry a time or two by phone on local racing radio shows, I've never had the opportunity to meet him face to face. I'm hopeful that day will still come so I can remind him of this story and hopefully share a laugh with him about it.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

August 26, 1972 - Nashville 420

Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway hosted Grand National / Cup racing from 1958 through 1984. The original track that opened in '58 was reconstructed in 1970. The banking was increased to 35 degrees - similar to Bristol's configuration today. The track underwent another re-design in 1973 that dropped the banking to 18 degrees, and that design remains in this place. But in the early 70s, my gosh was that place lightning quick...

The 1972 Nashville 420 was messed up on multiple levels:
  • A big pothole developed during qualifying on Friday, and the race was delayed on Saturday as repairs were made.
  • The track's turn 3 electronic leader board went out during Friday night qualifying.
  • The King lost valuable time to Bobby Allison because of a messed-up pit road and miscommunication between the driver, crew and a NASCAR official.
  • The run-down of the race in Greg Fielden's Forty Years of Stock Car Racing Volume 4 book is messed up because Fielden noted the date of the race as August 27th.
  • The internet is messed up because just about every web page about the race also notes the date as August 27 - likely because they simply ran with Fielden's info or copied the date from another site.
But despite issues with the asphalt and subsequent documentation, the race was indeed held under the lights on Saturday night, August 26th and not on Sunday the 27th.

Richard Petty came to town a couple of days before the race for a press conference at the Airport Hilton to help promote the race. Coincidentally, I attended my one and only Cub Scout Blue & Gold Banquet at the same Hilton two years later before I'd even learned about racing or Richard Petty.

Coo Coo Marlin and Miss Fairgrounds Speedway Deborah Jett joined Petty at the Hilton, and The Tennessean published a photo of their gathering.

The photo published in the paper was heavily cropped - and it begs the question: who applied that STP sticker?

Among the questions answered and opinions given, Petty suggested the Saturday race would be a rough and tough one. On the one hand, King's response could have been a typical reply at any promotional presser. As it turns out though, Petty's observation was spot-on for how qualifying and the race would unfold.
Do I like the track? Yes and no. I like the way I have been able to finish here. But it is hard on equipment. It's hard on the drivers. I'll say one thing. There is never a dull moment. You've got to stay with it. 
Another interesting observation from Petty is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1972. Petty was asked where the next generation of drivers would come from. His reply:
They were asking that same question in my father's day. That's no problem. New ones keep coming along. There is more talent in driving than car building.
Bobby Allison was another driver who arrived in town a couple of days early. In addition to racing Junior Johnson's Coca-Cola sponsored Chevy at the fairgrounds, Allison towed his late model Chevelle to town to race at Highland Rim Speedway just north of Nashville on Thursday night before Cup activities began. Not only did he race at Highland Rim (and pocket some walkin' around money), he won!

Source: The Tennessean
Allison moved from The Rim in Goodlettsville, TN on Thursday to Nashville's fairgrounds, and he won the pole in the Friday night qualifying session. After Cup qualifying was completed, local driver Darrell Waltrip won the late model sportsman race.

Source: The Tennessean
Qualifying alongside Allison for the 420 was King Richard in his STP Plymouth. The 43 team began transitioning to Dodges in the spring of 1972 (teammate Buddy Baker was already driving one); however, the team continued to race Plymouths the rest of the season on short tracks, at Dover, and on Riverside's road course.

Local driver and four-time track champion, Coo Coo Marlin, started third. At the time, the starting spot was a career best starting spot for Marlin. He later qualified P2 at Talladega in 1976. Independent driver Cecil Gordon and 1970 champion Bobby Isaac rounded out the top five starters.

Starting 12th was Waltrip, a relatively unknown to the Cup regulars but a familiar face at Nashville. He was the track's 1970 late model sportsman champion and frequent winner, and he was starting his fourth career Cup race in a former Holman Moody Mercury - the same one Mario Andretti raced to his win in the 1967 Daytona 500.

The field gets ready to take the green.

As noted in the above article from The Tennessean, the condition of the track had already become an issue during qualifying. A pothole had developed, and the cars tried to dodge it during time trials.
  • The drivers blamed the NASCAR. 
  • NASCAR blamed track officials. 
  • Track promoter Bill Donoho Sr. blamed the paving contractor.
Yet NASCAR and Donoho forged ahead with the race. Nothing was done to the track during the day on Saturday - arguably a mess-up. Yet when race time arrived, the start was delayed almost 90 minutes as track officials then rallied to make repairs. A steam roller was tethered to the winch of a tow truck on the high side of the track, and efforts were made to patch the deteriorating surface.

Hey y'all, watch this!
The race got off to a messed-up start. After taking the green flag, Marlin and Isaac wrecked on the first lap. They squandered their prime starting spots and finished 26th and 27th respectively in the 28-car field.

So who finished 28th and dead last? Lee Roy Yarbrough - without even taking the green. Lee Roy slowed on the pace lap, pulled off the track at the start, and parked his #45 Bill Seifert Ford without explanation - a truly messed-up situation. It was Yarbrough's second and final start at Nashville.

After the lap one wreck was cleaned up and the race returned to green, Allison led the first 10 percent of the race. Cecil Gordon managed to lead lap 43, and then car 43 went to the point. Petty led the next 124 laps before Allison reclaimed the lead to set sail for 157 laps. The King then reclaimed the lead for a few laps before needing a pit stop.

For twenty years, Nashville had an odd pit configuration. Cars came off turn 4, passed the start-finish line, hooked left on the inner quarter-mile track, got service, re-entered the track from turn 4 of the quarter-mile, passed the start-finish line again (though without being scored for another lap), and blended back into traffic.

As the 43 screamed off pit road, a NASCAR official held up the stop paddle because of on-track traffic coming out of turn 4. Petty already had a head of steam and was likely looking over his right shoulder to find a place to blend in. Consequently, he missed the stop paddle and was on his way back up to speed.

NASCAR official Bill Gazaway wasn't interested in why Petty missed the paddle - just that he did. The 43 was called to pit road to serve a one-lap penalty. The mild-mannered King blew a fuse in the car barking at Gazaway. The Junior Johnson and Petty Enterprises crews then barked at each other as well as at Gazaway.

Petty eventually got back on the lead lap with Allison but could never track him down again to take the lead. Allison took the win, and an angry Petty finished second. The two were sixteen laps ahead of third place finisher Waltrip. Despite the large deficit from 2nd to 3rd, the finish was easily the best of DWs brief career. The race was the 35th of 51 times that Petty and Allison finished in the top two positions.

Source: The Tennessean
Following the race, Allison offered to help Donoho and his team re-design the track and its steep and overly-fast turns. He made good on his offer by visiting the track again in November 1972.

Source: The Tennessean
Plans were sketched to drop the banking to 18 degrees. Allison reviewed the plans, liked what he saw, and said he would return to race on the new track. The corners were indeed lowered, and the track was repaved in time for the 1973 racing season. The pavement rolled between 1972 and 1973 lasted for 20+ years before the track was resurfaced in 1995.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

August 22, 1982 - Champion Spark Plug 400

Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip both changed teams in 1981, and both tangled for the Winston Cup title. Waltrip prevailed over Allison as the the championship battle came down to the final race of the season at Riverside, CA's road course - a season without lucky dogs, stages, or a playoff.

In 1982, Waltrip remained with his green, Mountain Dew-sponsored team. Allison left the #28 Harry Ranier team and got a green, beverage-sponsored car of his own. He joined the #88 DiGard, Gatorade team - the car Waltrip vacated after the 1980 season. Despite the move, Allison again challenged Waltrip for the Cup in '82. He was seeking his first title as Waltrip looked to repeat.

As the season hit the two-thirds mark, the teams arrived at Michigan International Speedway for the Champion Spark Plug 400. Waltrip had banked seven wins through that part of the season, and Allison had notched five victories - including the Daytona 500.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
As an indication of what was to come over the rest of the 1980s, Bill Elliot won the pole in his #9 Melling Tool boxy Thunderbird with Waltrip lined-up alongside him. Ricky Rudd and Buddy Baker made up the second row, and Buddy Arrington qualified an impressive fifth in his Chrysler. The starting spot was the third best of his career.

Kyle Petty timed eighth - easily his best start in his limited 1982 schedule in the #1 STP/UNO, Hoss Ellington car. He raced a Pontiac - the only time he did so when racing for Ellington. It's possible the Ellington car was actually from the Petty Enterprises fleet as Hoss normally fielded a Buick or Chevrolet in other 1982 races.

Country singer Marty Robbins attempted to make his first Michigan start in three years. He could not, however, muster enough speed. His qualifying lap ranked 37th for a race that only slotted 36 cars. Two other drivers - Al Loquasto and Ronnie Thomas - had qualifying speeds slower than Robbins. They earned provisional starts over Robbins based on higher ranking owners' points.

Marty returned to start one more race in his #22 purple and yellow, self-sponsored Buick, the Atlanta Journal 500 in November, before sadly passing away from a heart attack in December.

When the green fell, Elliott seized the early lead. After six laps, however, Waltrip went to the point for nine laps. Then Yarborough led - then Allison - then Geoff Bodine - then Dave Marcis - then Arrington, Tim Richmond, and Morgan Shepherd. Yes, nine drivers led at least one lap before one of them took the top spot for a second time (Richmond). Through the first third of the race, Allison was the only driver to lead more than a dozen laps in one stretch.

Elliott's plan for a solid day ended early when he clobbered Loquasto. Ricky Rudd made a move to pass Waltrip. He couldn't quite pull it off, tried to slide back into line, and nicked Loquasto as they overtook him. Loquasto then spun and collected Elliott in the process.

Rudd and Richard Petty also spun but straightened their cars and continued onward. Elliott went to the garage for extensive repairs. He returned to the track and finished the race but no longer as a factor in it.

Fans saw things settle down a bit during the second half of the race. Rather than a large number of drivers leading a small number of laps, a few controlled the final 100 circuits. Waltrip, Petty, and Allison were the lap bullies, and they let Bodine lead only a single lap of the last 100.

As the raced near its end, Waltrip developed an engine issue. He finished the race but faded to 7th, two laps down to the leaders. With about 25 laps to go, the King trailed the leader Allison by almost 4 seconds. But Petty focused, found another line that worked, and began cutting into Allison's lead. 

With two to go, Allison's mirror was full of the day-glo red and Petty Blue 43. Petty had recovered from his spin on lap 20 and was looking to win for the first time since the 1981 edition of the Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan.

As Allison took the white flag, Petty was all over him and made a couple of moves to set Allison up for the winning pass. Allison twitched as he came out of turn 4 - his car losing grip - and perhaps doing a bit more mirror driving than forward facing racing.

Allison held on to his lead and flashed across the start-finish line with Petty just a half car-length or so behind.

The race was the 51st and final time Petty and Allison finished in the top two positions of a Grand National / Winston Cup race.

Allison pulled to within one victory of Waltrip by besting the 43 at Michigan. He'd win two more times in the final third of the season. Waltrip, however, won five more times in the final 10 races of the season and claimed his second consecutive title at Riverside. Petty, on the other hand, unfortunately went the rest of the year without a win.

The race as it aired on ESPN....


Monday, August 14, 2017

August 14, 1982 - Nashville's Winston 200

On June 5, 1982, Mike Alexander and Sterling Marlin crashed as Marlin attempted to pass Alexander for the lead late in the 50-lap Grand American feature. Both went home with wrecked cars, but Alexander got the worst end of the deal with a concussion.

Doyle Ford, Nashville's race director (and later Winston Cup flag man), didn't like what he saw and filed a letter of reprimand against Marlin with the NASCAR office in Daytona Beach. Marlin's reaction? He returned the next week and won. Two weeks later, he won yet again - two days after NASCAR officially placed Marlin on probation for the rest of the season because of the June accident.

As the summer months rolled on, Marlin continued his scorching streak with two more feature wins in July. On August 14th, the track scheduled a 'big race', the 200-lap Winston 200.

While many eyes, cheers, and boos would be directed towards Marlin, the race featured another storyline. Tony Formosa, Jr. was scheduled to make his first Nashville start in 3 years. Formosa began his driving career at Nashville. He also watched his father Tony Sr. field formidable limited sportsman cars for Sonny Upchurch. Today, Tony Jr. is the leaseholder and promoter of Fairgrounds Speedway as Nashville's track is now known.

Source: The Tennessean
Alexander returned to the track after a five-week absence and won the pole for the race. His rival Marlin lined up alongside him on the front row. When the green fell, Alexander snagged the lead and set the pace for the first 20 laps.

But that was all Alexander had. A part failure sent him home early, and Marlin began his domination of the remainder of the race. Again.

Wayne Carden tried to fill the gap after Alexander exited the race. He dogged Marlin over half the race but couldn't quite catch him. A tire issue forced Carden to make an extra stop, and he wasn't able to recover to be a continuing challenger.

Marlin won going away and by six laps over second place finisher, Duke Monroe. His win came just a few days after NASCAR lifted his remainder-of-season probation penalty.

The notice from NASCAR about the lifting of the probation apparently included no explanation. In an interview with Larry Woody of The Tennessean, Marlin said "I guess the people there thought about it some more and realized I hadn't really done anything."

Source: The Tennessean
Marlin sloughed off the wreck with Alexander, the reprimand, the probation, and the lifting of the probation. He just kept on a'winning. Though he wasn't rattled, the track (and Marlin's car) had a couple of jitters during and following the Winston 200.

A couple of limited sportsman drivers and crewmen went to jawing with one another following their race. Track officials and a police officer were monitoring the situation, and the policeman thought things were about the escalate. Six cop cars were dispatched to the track - though the encounter was much ado about nothing.

In addition to the crew feudin', the track's scoreboard wasn't working because of a maintenance worker's mistake. To this day, the track's scoreboard - though prominently positioned - remains virtually impossible to read in any condition other than on a pitch black night.

The third (known) challenge of the night involved Marlin's car. During post-race inspection, officials found Marlin's #14 Coors Camaro had a bit more left side weight than technically allowed. Doyle Ford was willing to award Marlin the win and Duke Monroe his second place finish because a 2 percent variance had been judgmentally allowed during the season.

Carden, however, wasn't willing to accept the ruling. At stake was not only the race win but also the season championship. From his perspective, the decision had big consequences. Marlin's win would also give him the championship. A DQ of Marlin and a win by Carden would give Carden the title.

Ford then made the decision ... to wait. Rather than rule that night on his own, he agreed to discuss the matter with Bill Gazaway, NASCAR's Director of Competition in Daytona Beach.

The discussion with Gazaway didn't take long. A couple of days after the race, Marlin was awarded the win and, as a result, his third track title. Gazaway noted he wasn't a fan of the unwritten measurement tolerance - but agreed the track had to the discretion to have such a policy.

Source: The Tennessean
The decision clearly didn't sit well with Carden who had plenty of strong words for Marlin and the track's inspection process. He probably fumed over the next few months as he looped Luke The Drifter's ♫ Your Cheatin' Car ♫.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

August 5, 1972 - Nashville's STP 200

Forty-five years ago, several of NASCAR's national Late Model Sportsman drivers traveled to Nashville's Fairground Speedways. They prepared to race against many of the local drivers in the STP 200.

Darrell Waltrip was the local hot shoe at the fairgounds and wasn't yet a big timer at the Cup level. He won the track's LMS title in 1970, piled up a bunch of wins, and was seeking sole possession of second place for the most career wins at Nashville.

Source: The Tennessean

Though Waltrip was a full-time racer at Nashville, he had begun his Cup career with two starts in Talladega's Winston 500 and Atlanta's Dixie 500. He was hustling the first weekend in August 1972 as he practiced and qualified for the Talladega 500 and returned to qualify and race at the fairgrounds.

Despite the hectic traveling, Waltrip won the pole for the STP 200 in his #48 American Homes Chevrolet. Another local driver, Charlie Binkley, qualified on the front row next to Ol' DW. Some expected out-of-town drivers didn't arrive in-town on Friday for first round of qualifying. Drivers such as Jack Ingram, Grant Adcox, and Tony Bettenhausen raced elsewhere Friday night. They then made the overnight drive to Nashville for a quick practice, qualifying run, and race.

Source: The Tennessean
Early in the season when Waltrip secured his sponsor, his car was painted all white with blue numbers. Once the season got rolling, the sides of the car were painted red with white numbers.

Despite arriving on the day of the race, future NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Jack Ingram served notice he came to race. Waltrip, however, plan to defend his home turf.

For the first 75 laps or so, Waltrip was king of the hill. He leveraged his top starting spot to grab the lead and keep everyone behind him. He hit pit road on lap 76 under caution and returned to the track.

Two laps later, Ingram made his stop before the green returned - but had an issues that cost him a lap. Ingram believed he finished his stop in time to peel off  Nashville's makeshift pit road on its quarter-mile track and return to track ahead of the pace car. A track official felt otherwise, however, and held Ingram until the field passed. Home cookin' advantage for Waltrip? Who knows. But suddenly Ingram found himself a lap down.

A couple of laps after Waltrip made his stop, he was blackflagged for a missing gas cap. He acknowledged the flag and hit the pits to replace the cap. He returned to the track in the lead, but Ingram made up his lap during Waltrip's extra stop.

The caution flew once again on lap 114. Waltrip pitted once again for fuel that apparently wasn't even needed to make it to the end of the race. The reason for the extra and seemingly unnecessary stop isn't known. What is known is Waltrip and his team lost sight of the fact that Ingram was back on the lead lap.

When the race returned to green, Ingram found himself at the head of the pack with Waltrip at the end of it. Over the next 10-20 laps, Waltrip hammered down and sliced through the field in his pursuit of Ingram.

Waltrip dove low under Ingram coming out of turn 4 on lap 129. His #48 Chevelle twitched, and Ingram kept his lead with momentum on the high side. For the balance of the race, Waltrip stayed after Ingram's brown #11 Chevelle. Ingram kept his foot in it, however, and led the remaining 70 laps to take the win.

Source: The Tennessean
Waltrip had little time to lick his wounds over the pit call miscue. After cleaning up following the Nashville race, he had to make a beeline back to Talladega to race Sunday afternoon. He had a small victory in that he led for a seven-lap stretch in his recently purchased Mercury that had once been part of the Holman Moody fleet.

Following the race, an odd post-race note was published in The Tennessean. The article noted Waltrip was only the second rookie in NASCAR history to lead a superspeedway race.

I didn't realize such a stat was were ever maintained - though I suppose writers started crawling for information when Waltrip's #95 Mercury took the lead. Also, the internet for the general public clearly wasn't up and running, and information from sources such as wasn't just a click away.

But from what I've been able to determine, I'm not sure either fact noted in the column is correct. Billy Wade is not credited with ever officially leading a lap at Daytona. A few examples of other rookies leading a superspeedway race before Waltrip, however, include:
  • Tiger Tom Pistone - 1959 Daytona 500
  • Richard Petty - 1959 Southern 500
  • Richard Brickhouse - 1969 Talladega 500
  • Earl Balmer - 1964 Firecracker 400