Friday, September 1, 2017

September 1, 1975 - Southern 500

Richard Petty had a season for the ages in 1967. He won 27 of 48 races - including ten in a row. One of the signature wins that season was the Southern 500 at Darlington. The King had won Darlington's spring Rebel 400 twice and notched four top 5 finishes in the Southern 500 between 1959 and 1966. But it took him nearly a decade to finally land the Southern 500 trophy.

Petty had another dominant season going eight years later in 1975. The re-branded and reduced Winston Cup schedule included 30 races rather than 48 in 1967. Through the two-thirds mark of the season, the 43 Dodge already had nine victories and fifteen top 5 finishes. The circuit then returned to Darlington for the annual, deep southern tradition.

When Roger Penske began his Cup team on a limited basis in 1972, he fielded an AMC Matador. Around the midpoint of 1974, Bobby Allison joined Penske for a handful of races. In 1975, Allison raced for Penske in 19 Cup races as well as five USAC Indy car races, including the Indianapolis 500.

Driving the red, white, and blue Coca-Cola Matador, Allison's pairing with Penske won the Rebel 500 in April 1975. The team was looking for the season sweep as a significant accomplishment during a season otherwise dominated by the King.

South Carolinian David Pearson won the pole in the #21 Wood Brothers, Purolator Mercury. Buddy Baker flanked Pearson on the front row in his Ford fielded by another South Carolinian, Bud Moore. Allison, Petty, and Benny Parsons rounded out the top five starters.

Cale Yarborough, yet another South Carolina native, blew an engine in practice before qualifying. His Junior Johnson team did not have a spare to use so one was borrowed from Hoss Ellington's team so Cale could qualify. He missed the first round on Thursday but was able to use the borrowed powerplant to make the field via Friday's second round. Johnson's team had a replacement engine brought to the track from Junior's shop in North Wilkesboro so it could be installed for the Labor Day race.

Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal via Google News Archive
Pearson took the lead on the green and stayed there for the first twenty laps or so before Baker went around to lead the next nine. Independents Bruce Hill and Tennessee's David Sisco then got time out front before Pearson cycled back to the top spot.

A very ill Petty passed Pearson to take the lead for the first time on lap 46. The King was suffering bad headaches and flu, and he had a difficult time staying in the car in the humid weather. Champions play hurt, however, and he led the next 57 laps.

Credit: Woody Delbridge
After Dave Marcis led a couple of laps, Petty re-assumed the lead and stayed on the point for another 24 laps. Pearson, Marcis and Petty then swapped the lead back and forth over the next 100 laps or so. Marcis #71 K&K Dodge developed an overheating issue, however, and he left the race near lap 200.

The Petty crew tracked down Marcis to see if he lend a hand to their worsening driver. On Petty's next pit stop, the King turned over the driving to Marcis as he tried to get some strength back.

Petty wasn't the only driver struggling. Benny Parsons also had a tough time wheeling the car around the high line while battling sickness. BP turned his #72 Chevy over to DW - Darrell Waltrip - after Waltrip's engine overheated

Waltrip was making only his third start with DiGard. And for the second time in those three starts, he had an engine failure. DW was none too happy with the performance of the team he'd recently joined.

Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal via Google News Archive
On lap 244, Bruce Jacobi and James Hylton bumped one another with Hylton getting the worst end of the deal. The relief drivers - Marcis in Petty's 43 and Waltrip in Parsons' 72 - were collateral damage. Hylton and Parsons were done for the day as was Waltrip for the second time that day. Marcis was able to gather the 43 and return to the race.

About 50 laps later and with about 70 laps to go, heavy thunderstorms arrived and soaked the track. The race was red-flagged for nearly ninety minutes. With cars leaving the race early because of overheating and drivers needing relief for illness, the rain was a bit of a relief for the tortuous race.

Long-time Petty fan and Darlington attendee Tim Leeming recalls additional rain the day before:
It was not too long after dark that lightning began to break the darkness, but it wasn't until the thunder boomed so loudly and the lightning seemed to strike right beside us that we all got in the motorhomes and cars. Within what seemed like seconds, it began to rain in torrents as well as hail about the size of dimes. Inside the motorhome the sound was unbelievable.

When the storm passed, we opened the door of the motorhome to find about two inches of water underfoot. As we looked down towards turn three, it appeared as though a lake had formed. By this time, the clouds had moved over and the moon showed us what appeared to be only the tops of cars in turn three with folks standing on top of them. A group of us headed in that direction to see if we could help.

As we got closer to the turn three area, we were soon up to almost our waists in water but it got no higher and was beginning to lower as the infield drains were working. When we got to the tunnel going under turn three, we could not believe what we saw. The tunnel was filled to within about four feet of the top with water. We waded into the tunnel and began to use it as a swimming pool as it was seriously full and not receding at all. It did not occur to me (too many beers) or to anyone else in our group to consider that there were NO law enforcement authorities or track workers anywhere around to stop our swimming.

Within minutes, a couple of the guys in the group decided to swim through the tunnel and see what was going on outside. About 10 minutes passed, and I was getting worried about my friends. I then heard laughing and splashing as they were swimming back through the tunnel. I will never know how they managed to swim back through the tunnel with all the banners they had ripped off the fence outside the tunnel. We had STP, Winston Welcomes Race Fans, and a couple other major sponsors banners.

When we got back to turn three, this time there were law enforcement officers everywhere. I was convinced they were after the bandits who removed the signs. But one of them told me the drain in the tunnel was stopped up and they were bringing in the Navy Reserve frog man from a reserve unit in Florence to unstop the drain. I never saw the frog man, but the tunnel was soon draining and in a matter of minutes it was clear.

When the sun came up on race day, we got out all the banners that had been relocated from their original position outside the track and hung them from the motorhomes and converted bus. As the race got closer, more folks joined our group who came for just the day. By the start of the race, I am guessing there were almost 70 of us assembled there. 
Allison and the Matador were almost two full laps behind at one point during the race. With so many cars falling out and Allison's perseverance, however, he moved into the lead on lap 289 - just before the rain returned.

During the rain delay, Petty got a chance to recover a bit. He belted back into the 43 and readied to win the Southern 500 for a second time in another dominant season.

When the race returned to green, Allison was in the right spot to win. Then with about 50 laps to go, a shock broke and Bobby watched the scoreboard as Petty began to close. The King rallied from the driver change - and the spin by Marcis - and his illness to get back on the lead lap.

Allison was conserving fuel in addition to managing his failing suspension and watching the scoreboard and lap times. But in the end, Petty simply ran out of laps to track down Allison. The Matador took the checkered flag for the second time in '75.

Petty finished second - the only other car on the lead lap. The race was the 44th of 51 times the King and Allison finished in the top two spots.

Sisco, the 1969 Nashville Speedway late model sportsman champion, matched a career high Cup finish with his P3. Jim Vandiver finished fourth in his H.B. Ranier-owned Dodge. Ranier was the father of Harry Ranier, who later started his own team that eventually transitioned to Robert Yates Racing in 1989.

More memories from Tim Leeming:
All of us on our motorhome were of course cheering for that 43, and I think we believed until the checkered flag waved that Richard would catch that Matador. But we stood on top of the RV and watched Bobby take a well earned win. We watched him celebrate in Victory Lane right in front of us. We didn't cheer him, but we didn't boo him either. We could appreciate what an effort he had made to win that race. 

Many thanks to Tim Leeming for his contributions to this post.


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