Sunday, January 24, 2021

January 18, 1976 - Winston Western 500

NASCAR entered 1976 with several storylines:
  • Could additional team sponsors be signed to shore up many teams who struggled in 1975?
  • Would fan attendance increase if the number of quality, sponsored cars participated?
  • Richard Petty captured the Cup title in 1975 with 13 wins in 30 races - his second consecutive, fourth in five years, and sixth overall. Could he keep the mojo rolling?
  • After a season of once again racing for his own team, how would Bobby Allison fare with Roger Penske's CAM2 team?
  • With Holly Farms Chicken returning as a sponsor for the second year, how would Cale Yarborough fare with Junior Johnson's team as they pursued a full schedule?
  • In their fifth season together, what kind of results would David Pearson and the Wood Brothers have as they ran a limited schedule of about two-thirds of the races?
The 1976 season opened as it had since 1970 with a 500-mile race at Riverside International Raceway's road course. Though many fans, drivers, media, sponsors, etc. viewed the Daytona 500 as the beginning of the season, the mid-January race gave the drivers and teams a chance to shake off the rust and get ready for superspeedway testing and Speedweeks that soon followed.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
Interestingly, NASCAR and Riverside scheduled the race on the same day as Super Bowl X. No one would book such an event in this day and age. Though still a spectacle in the mid 1970s, the Super Bowl wasn't nearly on the level that it is today making such dual scheduling feasible. As fans watched the non-televised Riverside race from the stands, greater America watched the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Dallas Cowboys on TV from Miami.

Allison qualified Roger Penske's car on the pole. Though the team would race a Mercury the rest of the season, Allison raced his trusty AMC Matador with Penske's CAM2 sponsorship colors. Pearson joined Allison on the front row. Benny Parsons, Buddy Baker, and Dave Marcis rounded out the top five starters. Petty's Dodge developed engine issues during practice and returned to notch his starting spot on the second day of qualifying.

Courtesy of Daniel Mensinger

At the drop of the green, Allison set sail and led the first 18 laps before yielding to Dave Marcis for a lap as Allison hit pit road. As Allison made his stop, the Matador's engine failed. NASCAR did not have a rule prohibiting engine changes in that era. So the Penske crew spent the next hour thrashing to install a new engine in Allison's #2.
     
Allison re-entered the race but remarkably blew another engine with two laps to go in the race. Somehow, however, he still managed to eke out a 15th place finish.

The King, Richard Petty, roared through the field from his 27th place starting spot to take the lead on lap 20.  After leading a few laps, Parsons assumed the top spot followed by a rotation of drivers over the next few laps. The lead changed hands over the next 60 or so laps between Parsons, Marcis, Yarborough, Pearson, and Petty. The valves in Petty's STP Dodge Charger, however, once again began failing. He pulled behind the wall on lap 83 with a DNF to open his pursuit of a third consecutive title.

With Allison and Petty on the sidelines or on the trailer, Pearson broke the logjam of multiple leaders when he seized the lead and paced the field for 74 of the next 77 laps. He surrendered the lead briefly as he made a scheduled stop on lap 159 allowing Yarborough to retake the lead for a lap.

As Cale made his stop a lap later, Pearson returned to the lead and did not surrender it again for the remaining 32 laps. Pearson captured his 88th career Cup win, his second road course win, and his first at Riverside. The Wood Brothers also enjoyed their their fifth Riverside win with Dan Gurney having won the others in 1964-1966 and 1968. 

Source: San Bernardino County Sun
TMC

Sunday, January 17, 2021

January 16, 1977 - Winston Western 500

The first race of the 1977 NASCAR Cup season was the annual event on Riverside International Raceway's nine-turn road course. In a change from prior races, the 1977 season opener was a 500 kilometer race vs. 500 miles. The change lopped off about 200 miles and a couple of hours.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
Cale Yarborough started from the pole in Junior Johnson's Holly Farms Chicken Chevrolet. David Pearson joined him on the front row in the Wood Brothers' Purolator Mercury. Darrell Waltrip, Jimmy Insolo, and Dave Marcis rounded out the top five starters. 

Waltrip was entering his second full season with the DiGard Gatorade #88 team. Though the results to-date had been hit and miss - largely because of constant turmoil within the team's ownership and leadership, Ol' DW was entering his salad days that continued until the mid 80s. 

Crew member Gary Nelson rode the rise with Waltrip. After having worked with Ivan Baldwin's west coast race team, Nelson joined DiGard in the offseason. The 1977 opener at Riverside was Nelson's first race as a Cup team member. Nelson, of course, grew to have a phenomenal career with teams such as DiGard, Hendrick Motorsports, and SABCO Racing. He did so despite starting his career looking a bit like actor Owen Wilson.

Pearson entered 1977 after having a dominant - though limited - 1976 season in the Woods' 21 Mercury. Although the team did not run the full schedule for the championship, Pearson won 10 times in 22 starts - including both Riverside races. As the new season began, he picked up right where he left off with the 1976 roadies by leading lap one of the 1977 race.

Pearson may have won 10 races, but Yarborough won the 1976 title. He too was ready to continue excellence into the new year. Cale  roared back by Pearson on lap two, and he quickly set the pace for the race.  

After Pearson led lap one and Yarborough flashed across the line to lead lap two, Bobby Allison must have decided it was his time to shine...or maybe not. After racing for Roger Penske in 1976, Allison returned to his own team with an AMC Matador. He qualified a respectable eighth but grenaded an engine on the fourth lap. His red-white-blue car suddenly had orange flames added to the sides as he headed for the sand to extinguish the flames.

Source: Newport News Daily Press
Yarborough dominated the race and led every lap through lap 103 when disaster struck. With a five-second lead over Pearson and only 16 laps to go, Cale committed a mental mistake and got off into the sand. He looped his Chevrolet allowing Pearson to catch and then pass him, but Yarborough managed to straighten his car and returned to the track in in hot pursuit. 

Cale couldn't, however, make up the lost distance. Pearson led the remaining laps and won his third consecutive Riverside race as Yarborough finished nine seconds behind him in second. Richard Petty, Marcis, and west coast racer Sonny Easley completed the top five finishers.

The victory was win #98 for Pearson. Not only was the win his third consecutive one at Riverside, but it was also his fourth consecutive California win. He also won the 1976 season ending race at Ontario Motor Speedway.

Source: LA Times
TMC

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Nashville's Sterling Beer Trophy

Nashville's Fairground Speedways opened in 1958, and quickly built a solid reputation for its annual NASCAR Grand National race, the season-ending Southern 300 late model event, and the weekly modified and later late model sportsman programs.

A new tradition began in 1969. Sterling Beer introduced the rotating champion's trophy. The winning driver's name of the track's annual late model sportsman division points title was added to the trophy. The driver apparently retained custody of the trophy for the following season, and it was then returned to be awarded to the new champion. The trophy was to be permanently retired only if a driver won three track championships.

The trophy was first awarded to Dave Sisco who captured the track's LMS title in 1969. Sisco advanced to NASCAR's Cup series in 1971 where he raced as an independent pretty regularly through 1977.

The second recipient of the champion's trophy was Darrell Waltrip in 1970. After a few additional seasons in Nashville, Ol' DW moved up to Cup where his accomplishments are well known.

A few days before the annual awards dinner, Sisco and Waltrip rehearsed the passing of the trophy to the new champion.

Source: The Tennessean
Waltrip celebrated his championship with his wife, parents, and inlaws. A portion of the trophy can be seen on the table at the right edge of this photo.

Coincidentally, Waltrip secured Sterling Beer as his sponsor for the following season. Sterling also sponsored the Sterling Beer 100 late model race in July 1971, and Waltrip used his champion's trophy and postcards to help promote it.

Source: The Tennessean
Flookie Buford earned the honor of hoisting the champion's trophy in 1971. He won 13 LMS races at Nashville from 1969 through 1974. His son, Joe Buford, later became a four-time track champion and is Nashville's all-time win leader.

Buford's promotional photo for the 1972 season included his R.C. Alexander-owned Ford Fairlane and the champion's trophy from '71.

Buford won his second consecutive championship in 1972, and he became the first driver to have his name on the champion's trophy twice.

The 1973 season was another turning point for the track. After three years with banking steeper than Bristol, Nashville lowered its banking to 18 degrees where it remains to this day. Despite the change in configuration, Waltrip captured his second championship in four years. For much of the season, Buford contested Waltrip in an effort to win his third consecutive championship. After going winless, however, Buford's car owner replaced him ending any hope for Flookie to capture the champion's trophy for a third time and permanently.

Before being awarded the champion's trophy for the second time, Waltrip looked it over along with the other hardware with mini-stock division champion Maurice Hassey and limited sportsman division champion George Bennett.

Source: The Tennessean
The 1974 track champion was an out-of-towner. Jimmy Means traveled each week from Alabama, and he outpointed the local contingent of drivers. Interestingly, photos haven't surfaced of Means being awarded the champion's trophy. Perhaps Waltrip wasn't ready to surrender it to the new champion - or maybe he was too busy with first few races of the 1975 Cup season to make the transfer. Nashville's awards dinner was March 1, 1975 - right in the thick of Waltrip's commitment to a three-race stretch of Daytona, Richmond, and Rockingham.

Means did receive his 1974 Winston Racing champion's helmet. Though he didn't receive the rotating champion's trophy, the helmet went into a bit of rotation on its own. Some time later, Jimmy passed along his helmet to his son, Brad. More recently, Brad passed along the helmet to good friend, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Future NASCAR inspector, Walter Wallace, won his second track title in 1975 and received the champion's trophy from Don Naman of Alabama International Motor Speedway. Wallace earned his first championship in 1967 - two seasons before the introduction of the champion's trophy.

Courtesy of Russ Thompson
As Jimmy Means did in 1974, Alton Jones traveled from Alabama each week and won the track title in 1976. How he did so is a bit of a mystery. Jones won three feature races as compared to the eleven victories by rookie Mike Alexander. Consistent finishes by Jones helped him in the end, however, as Alexander had some struggles with a few DNFs and injuries.

The ninth and final season to be recognized on the rotating trophy was in 1977. Steve Spencer of Old Hickory, TN, a Nashville suburb, captured the title over drivers such as Alexander, Sterling Marlin, Dennis Wiser, and P.B. Crowell III. Spencer later became the personal pilot for Marlin.

Though Spencer's name is the last one engraved, the champion's trophy rotated once more. Racers and fans returned in 1978 for yet another season of Late Model Sportsman racing. All were stunned when track operator Bill Donoho announced the sale of his rights in the track's lease to Lanny Hester and Gary Baker. The new operators then announced weekly racing would not continue in 1979 as they focused on track improvements and larger events.

In that final season, Mike Alexander earned his first Nashville track LMS championship. As with Jimmy Means, Walter Wallace, and others, he was presented a Winston Racing Series commemorative champion's helmet. Because of the change in track operators and cessation of the weekly racing for 1979, the formal awards dinner to recognize the 1978 champions was scuttled. Consequently, Alexander was not presented the champion's trophy.

The trophy, however, had been returned by Spencer - or at least had remained at the track during the year. Knowing what it represented and knowing he earned it, the Sterling Beer Champion's trophy rotated once more to an ... ahem, permanent location.

Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is now readying for racing again this season under new management. In this writer's opinion, 2020 would be an ideal year to renew the tradition of a rotating champion's trophy. Of course, it would need to be a new trophy as the 1969-1978 one has been retired.

TMC

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Nashville's Superspeedway Ventures - part 2

Part 1: Nashville's Superspeedway Ventures - 1960s-1970s

In late 1978, promoter Bill Donoho sold his interest in the Fairgrounds lease to racer Lanny Hester and CPA-lawyer-businessman Gary Baker. A couple of years later, Hester sold 25 percent of his interest to Stanley King - a local construction contractor. Hester, Baker, and King planned to develop their own superspeedway - independent of Donoho's plans from the previous few years.

Baker subsequently partnered with California businessman Warner Hodgdon. The partnership then bought out Hester and King and proceeded with their plans to build a track in an undisclosed location.

In late 1980, however, promoter and former racer Boyd Adams announced plans for his superspeedway - Tennessee International Raceway. Unlike Donoho who planned to build southeast of Nashville, Adams announced his track would be built in Robertson County - about 30 minutes northwest of Nashville. As advance prep for the project, Adams purchased thousands of grandstand seats, scales, medical equipment, etc. from the Ontario Motor Speedway. The Ontario track closed following its final race - the LA Times 500 Cup race - in November 1980 after Dale Earnhardt clinched his first Cup title.

From the jump, however, Adams encountered a myriad of challenges including (1) local residents who wanted nothing to do with the project with concerns about noise, traffic, crime, pollution, etc. and (2) a lack of support from NASCAR President Bill France, Jr.

June 10, 1981 - The Tennessean
April 24, 1981 - The Tennessean
Baker announced his speedway plans in November 1981. Prior to partnering with Hodgdon, he floated the vague statement that others were interested in joining with him. A rumored investor was Richard Petty - similar to the arrangement Bill Donoho promoted in the mid 1970s. In the end, however, Baker was convinced Hodgdon's finances and construction project experience would be the key elements to build the track.

Baker's announcement had other vague aspects. He did not name a location for the track nor a timeline for its construction. In subsequent news reports, Baker did acknowledge the effort would take two or three years.

Despite news of Baker's planned development, Adams continued onward with his project. He had to change sites a couple of times to satisfy local citizens and politicians, but he finally negotiated a governmental development bond to help ensure project financing.

March 9, 1982 - The Tennessean
About a year later, however, Adams was no closer to fulfilling his dream than Donoho years earlier. Local opposition continued to be a thorn in his side, and he finally pulled his project into the garage.

April 27, 1983 - The Tennessean
Two months after Adams noted his project was dead-in-the-water came the stunning news that Baker sold his half-interest in Nashville's Fairgrounds track to Hodgdon. With the transaction, Hodgdon became sole "owner" of the track's lease. Hodgdon opted not to negotiate an extension of the Fairgrounds lease beyond 1987. That decision led some to believe he still planned to build a replacement track and move all racing away from the Fairgrounds. The reality, as it turned out, was far deeper than anyone fathomed.

About 18 months after buying out Baker, Hodgdon filed bankruptcy. His ownership interest in the Fairgrounds lease as well as other race tracks such as Bristol, Rockingham, and Richmond along with half-interest in Junior Johnson's race teams were caught in his dire financial challenges.

As Hodgdon's assets and liabilities were debated, negotiated, distributed, settled, etc., another casualty of the bankruptcy filing was the Nashville area superspeedway. Though Hodgdon was not in a position to build a new track, Baker continued to pursue the project on his own. Such plans, however, were murkier than ever.

The location of Baker's and Hodgdon's planned track wasn't announced in 1981. Over time, Baker purchased several acres in in Franklin, TN just off I-65. He could not, however, accumulate all that was needed to fulfill the development.

Without the remaining acreage, Baker divested the land. Instead of a speedway, Cool Springs Galleria was constructed on the site and opened in 1991. The mall has spurred a ton of retail, sales and property tax revenues, attractive housing, desirable schools, etc. As someone who now lives about 10 minutes from the location, it's hard to imagine how different Franklin would have become had the track been built.


One vestige of Baker's involvement remains near the mall. Baker's Bridge Ave. runs perpendicular from the top of the mall across I-65 and to Carothers Parkway. One wonders if the track would have been built on the west side of I-65 with parking and other fan amenities on the east side.


Though Adams' plan ended in spring 1983 and Baker's plan effectively ended in July 1983 with his sell-out to Hodgdon, the idea of a new Nashville-area track continued.

A trio of investors/developers - with no racing experience or connections - announced in mid 1985 they planned to build a 1.6 mile track in Robertson County - not far from Adams' failed location. The track was to be named Music City Motor Complex. Baker assessed their likelihood of success as low.

June 4, 1985 - The Tennessean
July 18, 1985 - The Tennessean
Baker's prediction was spot-on. Within just a few months, the developers learned what others had already experienced. Without community support or a commitment from NASCAR, no spade of dirt would be turned.

August 2, 1985 - The Tennessean
A new racing wildcatter, Jesse Rogers, arrived on the scene in 1992. Rogers acquired over 1,000 acres of land near Shelbyville, TN - about 60 miles south of Nashville. Shelbyville is known worldwide for its annual Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration. Rogers, however, planned to bring several hundred horsepower to the area.

Rogers'  Rocky Top Speedway plans included a uniquely-shaped two-mile superspeedway, a road course, a drag strip, a golf course, camping areas, and a motorsports museum.


Three years later, however, the song remained the same. Financing challenges. Legal woes. Delays. Yada, yada, yada. As with all the predecessor projects, Rocky Top turned to Rocky Slop.

After nearly three decades of announced and fizzled speedway projects, middle Tennessee racing fans got some unexpected news. Dover Downs Entertainment announced with great fanfare their plans for a new superspeedway in November 1997. Dover acquired the lease for the Fairgrounds track and set plans in motion to build what was to become Nashville Superspeedway in Wilson County - about 35 miles east of the Fairgrounds.

Though the track was built - unlike every other predecessor project - the effort wasn't without challenges. To add some local credibility, Dover partnered with Nashville-based Gaylord Entertainment Company as a minority investor. Gaylord owned the Grand Ole Opry, the Opryland theme park and hotel, and WSM radio. It also held naming rights to Nashville's new hockey and concert arena. Two years later, however, Gaylord announced it was divesting itself of its minority position. Dover then had to complete the project on its own.

After several delays, Dover finally began construction on the track in fall 1999. The Nashville Superspeedway hosted its inaugural events in April 2001- nearly three decades after Bill Donoho first visioned his big track.


Despite the hype associated with the new facility, Nashville Superspeedway just didn't resonate. After only 10 years of operations, Dover closed the track following the 2011 season.

Epilogue:

Boyd Adams competed with Gary Baker to build a Nashville-area superspeedway. Baker reassumed control of the Fairgrounds Speedway lease in 1985 as part of Hodgdon's bankruptcy proceedings. Three years later, he opted not to pursue a lease renewal. The Nashville Fair Board awarded Adams the lease beginning in 1988. Among other improvements to the facility, Adams replaced the track's grandstand seating with the seats from Ontario that he'd mothballed since 1981 - seating he had planned to install at his never-built Tennessee International Raceway.

Baker didn't realize his dream of building a superspeedway; however, he didn't end up empty handed. He parlayed the land he accumulated for the track into an investment in the Cool Springs retail area. He also returned to racing in the early 2000s as a team co-owner. Partnering with long-time racing enthusiast, music publisher, and former politician Mike Curb, the two purchased the assets of Brewco Motorsports. They moved the team from Central City, Kentucky to Nashville and operated multiple Busch/Nationwide Series teams until 2011. The doors were shuttered after additional sponsorship could not be secured.

With nearly a half-century of grand ideas and failed ventures to construct a new track, middle Tennessee racing has seemingly made a full lap. In recent months, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. via Bristol Motor Speedway has indicated its interest in helping renovate the existing Fairgrounds Speedway. Their plans and investment would help elevate the track to a first-class short-track jewel. Perhaps that vision is one everyone should have dreamed over all these years.

TMC

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Nashville's Superspeedway Ventures - part 1

Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway hosted NASCAR's Grand National division (later Winston Cup Series) from 1958 through 1984. Following financial difficulties of the track's operator, Warner Hodgdon, NASCAR pulled its sanctioning agreement after 1984.

Though NASCAR and related financial support of the Winston Racing program returned later to the Fairgrounds with local racing, trucks, and Busch (now Xfinity) Series, Cup never returned. Many continue to believe that will forever be the case.

Perhaps more than ever, however, a glimmer of renewed hope recently appeared. Speedway Motorsports, Inc. has indicated a willingness to collaborate with the current operators of the track, the city of Nashville, and its Fair Board to revitalize the speedway.

SMI will be swimming upstream as it tries to navigate the good ol' boy network of Nashville politics and the changing citizenry demographics of areas surrounding the Fairgrounds. While many outside of Nashville think SMI's investment in the property is a slam-dunk, can't miss proposal, those inside the greater Nashville area understand (barely) the forces that more often than not have been against the race track the past several decades.

For over 50 years, local promoters, investors, and developers have visioned a future for Nashville-area racing well beyond the boundaries of the land-locked fairgrounds.

Bennie Goodman was originally a partner with Mark Parrish and Bill Donoho in the development of what is today Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway. Donoho later acquired the equity positions of both Goodman and Parrish. By the late 1960s, Goodman believed racing had already outgrown the fairgrounds - just 10 years or so after the half-mile and quarter-mile tracks opened.

Goodman along with a handful of partners (including singer Roy Orbison and future NASCAR flagman Doyle Ford) formed Nashville International Raceways, Inc. in early 1969. The company purchased land southeast of Nashville near the intersection of I-24 and Old Hickory Blvd. Though few details have surfaced, it is believed Goodman was the first to envision a middle Tennessee superspeedway.

Goodman's team could not secure guaranteed sanctioning from NASCAR and Bill France. The company then sold the land a year or so later, and Goodman and others made successful investments in other non-racing projects.

In mid-May 1973, Donoho announced plans to build a superspeedway at just about the same location as Goodman's planned project a few years earlier. Local racing would have remained at the fairgrounds, but Cup racing and other major events would have been moved to the new facility.


Donoho planned to have the track ready by mid-1974 for the annual Nashville 420. Instead, the project never got off the ground. Years later, Starwood Amphitheater opened not far from the planned site. Starwood hosted many epic concerts during the 80s and 90s.

In 1975, Donoho revamped his plan to build a new track just a couple of exits down from the site announced in 1973.

Perhaps in an effort to create more buzz and industry equity, Donoho announced some notable investors including NASCAR drivers Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough along with Loretta Lynn's husband, Mooney.

Donoho spent the better part of 1976-1977 working on his new project - including releasing an architectural rendering of the new speedway. Considering the era, the track was to be second to none including Charlotte and Daytona.

Despite his focused efforts, however, Donoho's multi-year plan to build a state of the art facility for future Cup racing was spiraling the wrong direction. By the end of 1977, Donoho found an old cemetery on his new property. A few months later, his track plans may just as well have been buried there.

TMC Archives
Donoho never realized his vision of building a new track. Furthermore, he sold his rights to the lease of the Fairgrounds track to Lanny Hester and Gary Baker in late 1978. By and large, Donoho's quarter-century run as a Nashville race promoter was over.

Part 2: The dreams of building a Nashville-area superspeedway did not end with Donoho's departure.

Source for articles: The Tennessean archives

TMC