Monday, May 17, 2021

May 17, 1969 - Langley's Tidewater 375

NASCAR's Grand National drivers battled in mid-May 1969 for the third time in a week and on back-to-back nights. After racing at Beltsville Speedway in Maryland on Friday night, the teams made the short trek to Langley Field Speedway in Hampton, Virginia for the Tidewater 375.
The six previous GN races at Langley Field had been 250-lap, 100-mile events around the 4/10-mile, paved oval. The distance was extended for the first time in 1969 to 375 laps for 150 miles. 

David Pearson captured the pole for the race and was flanked by Bobby Isaac. Pearson had already won four races during the season-to-date, and Isaac had claimed six victories - including at Beltsville the night before the race at Langley Field.

Independent, lower-funded drivers comprised much of the rest of the 24-car field. Virginia racing legend, Ray Hendrick, had planned to run the race. Hendrick knew the track like the back of his hand and won often at Langley Field in the track's modified and late model sportsman divisions.

Source: Newport News Daily Press
Hendrick raced in a handful of GN events - including a month earlier at Richmond. Though it's not clear if Hendrick failed to make the race during qualifying or if his expected ride didn't materialize, he wasn't on the track when the field took the green that Saturday night.

Another driver who wasn't in the field was Richard Petty. Two weeks earlier, Petty suffered what he says was the toughest hit of his career. He blew a tire coming out of turn four during the Fireball 300 at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway, and stuck it in the wall. Long before SAFER barriers and unlike many other tracks who used wooden or steel guardrails in that era, Petty's 43 Ford drilled the concrete wall and stopped suddenly.

The King rallied his sore body to qualify second and finish 11th the next weekend in the Rebel 400 at Darlington. The Petty Enterprises team, however, skipped the next two races at Beltsville and Langley Field. 

Physically, Petty may have been able to make the starts. The Weaverville wreck destroyed their short-track car; however, and it wasn't rebuilt in time to run the back-to-back races. 

A couple of calls were placed to other Ford teams to see if a spare car could be rallied for Petty to run the two races. When nothing surfaced, the team focused on readying Ol' Blue for the upcoming World 600 at Charlotte and getting the short-track car back in form for races beginning in June. 

With almost no other top team cars in the field, the race was a battle between rivals and friends Pearson and Isaac. Pearson leveraged his top starting spot to grab the lead at the start and hold it for the first 40 laps. Isaac then passed Pearson and paced the pack for about the next 30 laps when the race's first caution flew. 

Dick Hutcherson, Pearson's crew chief, called the #17 Ford to pit road. Isaac's crew chief Harry Hyde, however, made the call for Isaac to stay on the track. His plan was to have Isaac build a big lead over Pearson after the race returned to green and then pit under a subsequent caution.

With the race back under green, Isaac extended his lead over Pearson who was navigating traffic behind Isaac's #71 Dodge. Isaac remained out front for over 125 laps. 

As the race neared halfway, Hyde realized his pit strategy had backfired. The subsequent caution never occurred, and Isaac was forced to pit under green and surrender the lead back to Pearson. 

Though Pearson returned to the lead, Isaac tracked him down after 60 laps and motored by him with about 150 laps to go as he sought his seventh win of the year. 

About 25 laps later, Pearson made a second stop to ensure he had enough fuel to go the distance. Though the second stop put him well behind Isaac, Hutcherson firmly believe Pearson still had a shot at the win. 

Isaac continued to churn lap after lap as the race neared its conclusion. But then with about 15 laps to go, his Dodge's Hemi burped as the tank ran dry. As he coasted to the pits, Pearson flashed by to take the lead. Isaac's stop was agonizingly slow as the crew scrambled to get the car to re-fire. In the blink of an eye, Isaac went from a dominating day and a possible win to a P4 finish seven laps down to the winner.

Pearson led the rest of the way. He banked his 51st career victory, his fifth of the season, and his third consecutive win at Langley Field.

Source: Newport News Daily Press

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