Thursday, October 4, 2018

Nashville's 1970 Southern 300

Following the 1969 Southern 300, a multi-month project began to transform Nashville's Fairground Speedways. The low-banked, half-mile track was converted to a high-banked, 5/8-mile, speed demon. In 2011, Nashville racing historian Russ Thompson blogged about the construction project and an overview of the Nashville's first season on the new track.

Through 1965, fans sat in the grandstands under an ornate, wooden roof. The September 1965 fairgrounds fire burned the structure, and the stands remained uncovered through 1969.

The project to re-design the track also included a new roof over a portion of the grandstands. Instead of installing a roof with a similar design as the original one, the track operators installed a more modern looking, metal, tethered overhang. The 1970 roof remains in place in 2018.

Because of construction delays, the season's start was delayed until July. Bobby Isaac won the first event on new track - the Nashville 420 Grand National race. The late model racers returned for their first race on the new track in the Flameless 300 in August.

Though the timing of the Grand National and Flameless races was off because of construction delays, the Southern 300 returned in its traditional autumn spot. The 12th edition of the Southern was scheduled for Sunday, October 4.

Unlike most years, the Southern 300 wasn't the final racing event of the year at the Fairgrounds. Because of the late-starting and abbreviated schedule in 1970, the track hosted two more weekends of racing - a pair of LMS features and a 200-lap ARCA race.

Several drivers from the Grand National and Late Model Sportsman ranks had been leery of the new track design. Most had raced high-banked tracks before - most notably Daytona and Talladega. Nashville was a different beast, however, because of the shorter straightaways.

Local racer James Ham, however, took to the place like a duck to water. In the LMS features leading up to the Southern 300, Ham was routinely quick during time trials. He planned to extend his early comfort with the track to the Southern despite the arrival of several heavy-hitting out-of-towners.

Darrell Waltrip raced at the Fairgrounds several times from the mid to late 1960s with little success. Once he connected with car owner P.B. Crowell and hit the high banks in 1970, the results and his future were quite different. Waltrip won five of the season's eight LMS races leading into the Southern and had a firm grasp on the track's 1970 track title.

DW's success made him a logical target for exotic dancer Morganna Roberts. Though she later became legendary nationally in the 1970s as Morganna The Kissing Bandit, she was in Nashville for nightly shows. Today, Printer's Alley is a popular tourist destination. Back in the day, the establishments were legendary but a bit more sketchy.

Ham was the first driver to qualify during Saturday's time trials. In an effort to prove his promotional photo had substance, he laid down a hot lap and dared others to knock him off the perch. One by one, all failed to rise to the challenge.

Flookie Buford and Alton Jones, both driving R.C. Alexander's Fords, qualified third and fourth. Freddy Fryar, a two-time Southern 300 winner and Nashville's 1964 track champion, timed only fifth best. Waltrip could muster no better than ninth fastest.

Yet one driver remained to take his shot. Red Farmer set a track record, nipped Ham's lap time, captured the pole, and started on the Southern front row for the fifth consecutive year.

The line-up also included several others who race fans grew to know a bit better throughout the 70s-80s including Jack Ingram, Bosco Lowe, L.D. Ottinger, Paddlefoot Wales, Sam Sommers, and Richard Brickhouse.

A year earlier, Brickhouse was pretty much an unknown driver. A single race, however, provided him an Oh yeah, THAT guy! trivia label to racing fans with his victory in the inaugural Talladega 500.

As the green dropped, Farmer seized the lead from his top starting spot. He pulled the field around the lightning quick surface for the first five laps. On the sixth lap, however, second place starter Ham smoked Farmer. Liking the view from out front, Ham stayed there for a good portion of the race.

Though Ham ruled much of the first half of the race, a couple of the name drivers got their time on the point as well. Fryar and Waltrip both led, but bad racing luck nabbed them both.

Waltrip lost a left-front brake shoe near the middle of the race, had his wheel lock-up, and spun. DW's crew repaired the car, and he returned to action albeit several laps down. When the day was done, Waltrip settled for a P4 finish.

After leading a few laps early, Fryar spun to avoid the spinning Waltrip. He gathered his car and continued. A blown engine at lap 167, however, fried Fryar's chance at a decent day.

Meanwhile, James Ham continued cycling his way in and out of the lead. He piled up 136 laps out front during the first two-thirds of the race. Misfortune, however, cooked Ham's bacon on lap 184.

Charlie Binkley blew an engine, and Red Farmer's remarkable streak of being in the wrong place at the wrong time continued. Farmer spun in Binkley's oil and then returned across the track just as Ham tried to sneak through the accident. With nowhere to go, Ham clobbered Farmer ending his fantastic run.

As the favorites fell, Brickhouse decided he'd take the lead since no one else seemed able to hold it. Taking over the top spot following Ham's wreck, he led a stretch of nearly 50 laps and built a five-lap lead over second place.

Then remarkably, racing's fickle finger of fate pointed at Brickhouse. His tire blew on the frontstretch headed for turn 1, and Brickhouse greeted the concrete wall. Though Brickhouse left the race, he remained posted as the leader for the next few laps as the second place car unlapped himself.

Newport, TN's L.D. Ottinger raced at the Fairgrounds from time to time in the late 1960s, but he never scored a win on the original half-mile track. Once he unlapped himself in the 1970 Southern 300, however, he had a clear path to his first Nashville win.

Fighting an intense headache and exhaustion, Ottinger did what others in the race couldn't do: survive. He led the remaining laps and claimed a signature, career victory.

In his first Nashville start, Harry Gant finished second two laps down to Ottinger. (Though Gant qualified for the 1969 Southern 300, he apparently did not start the race.) Gary Cook, Waltrip, and Gene Glover rounded out the top five finishers.

Source for articles: The Tennessean


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