50 Years of nascar racing ~ Better Get Back To Tennessee, Jed (Post 80)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
The second race held each year at Bristol has bounced all over the calendar. The first was held October 22, 1961 but the date was moved to July where it remained for over a decade, until the Tennessee summer's blistering heat finally got the date pushed back until November in 1975. After a single year, the race was moved to its current late August date on the schedule. There are two things hotter than Tennessee in August on this earth; Tennessee in July and the racing at Bristol. The track has undergone many changes as well, starting out as a flat track, until the current high banks were added in 1969. In 1992 the present concrete surface was installed.
So very little has remained constant at Bristol, with the exception of it being Volunteer state hometown favorite, Darrell Waltrip's private stomping ground for many a year. Darrell Waltrip has won 12 times at Bristol, both on the asphalt and the concrete, scoring victories in three different decades, including a remarkable seven wins in a row from the spring of 1981 up to and including the spring of 1984, and has 26 top-five finishes there in his career. Darrell's last win to date came at Bristol on August 29th, 1992. That was a lot of years ago but it'll be a lot more years before anyone ever matches his record at the track.
The 1962 running of the July race at Bristol was an odd one for many reasons, start to finish. Three Petty Engineering cars were entered that day including Richard's number 43, Jim Paschal piloting the number 42 entry and Blackie Blackburn in the 41 car. There was a bit of a row prior to the start of the race when Joe Weatherly, who was leading the points at that time, would not stage his car. Little Joe was a highly superstitious man, who refused to allow any green paint on a car he drove, and who the other racers used to drive crazy by tossing peanuts in his car prior to the race. He qualified 13th for that event and flat out refused to start in that position out of superstition. Finally, a compromise was reached and official NASCAR records from the track show Weatherly started in position 12a. Junior Johnson led much of the first half of the race but his hard charging style was ill-suited for an endurance race and a flat tire put Junior hard into the wall. That left the race in charge of NASCAR's two up and coming superstars, Richard Petty and Fred Lorenzen, who engaged in a spirited duel, trading paint frequently. All that bumping and grinding finally flattened one of Petty's tires and sent him limping to the pits. Lorenzen seemed to have a solid advantage, but Petty's teammate Jim Paschal was driving a conservative race, saving his cars and tires for when it mattered, hoping to avenge the boss. He finally ran down Lorenzen with 25 laps to go, went hard in the corner to get around Fred, and rode his big Plymouth sideways the length of the corner like it was a dirt track to take the lead. Lorenzen tried hard but he couldn't track down Paschal. On the last lap Lorenzen broke a wheel, but he calmly drove the car on three wheels to a second place finish, leaving a trail of sparks in his wake. As a partial compensation, besides Paschal winning, all three Petty cars finished in the top eight.
Richard Petty got another bitter taste in his mouth during the Summer 1964 event at Bristol. Petty was involved in a classic struggle with Junior Johnson throughout much of the event, until the hard charging Junior once again drove his car to an early grave rather than victory lane, popping a mill on lap 352. At that point, Petty had a comfortable three-lap lead on Fred Lorenzen and seemed headed for an easy win. In fact Petty's lead seemed so insurmountable Lorenzen, starting his first race since a savage wreck in July at Daytona, had Ned Jarrett drive in relief for him for 167 laps before hopping back aboard on lap 444. With four laps to go Petty's engine went sick on him and began billowing smoke. With a three-lap cushion he tried to nurse the ailing mill to the finish but it finally let loose with one lap to go. As Petty sat there helplessly, Lorenzen continued at top speed, made up the lost ground and took the checkered flag, though he was officially only scored as leading one lap. Of course, that was the lap that paid.
While most of the July races at Bristol were held in hot weather, the 1969 event was particularly brutal with on-track temperatures topping the 140 degree mark. The race was called the Volunteer 500 in those days, but it's hard to imagine anyone volunteering to drive in such brutal conditions.
Fortunately for some of the front runners, race drivers are a breed apart. LeeRoy Yarbrough was piloting Junior Johnson's Ford when he became disoriented from the heat and had to get out of the car. Donnie Allison, who had blown an engine on lap 67, hopped into the car. Not long after, Richard Petty began to suffer the same symptoms and he turned his car over to Pete Hamilton, before being treated briefly for heat exhaustion. Even the leader of the event, Bobby Allison, Alabama bred and pretty much used to the heat as a result, couldn't soldier on anymore and he turned the car over to his friend Dave Marcis. Marcis was returning a favor. Bobby had been kind enough to lend him the same Dodge for the previous event at Trenton. And Dave repaid in spades, piloting the car to victory lane. The dynamic duo of Yarbrough and Bobby's brother Donnie were credited with fourth, and the Petty/Hamilton team came home fifth. Sometimes to get a good finish all you need is a little help from your friends. It was Marcis' first trip to victory lane, though because Allison had started the race he officially received the win and the points that went with it. Hopefully, he bought Dave a cool drink with some of the loot.
If 1969 was brutal, 1973 made it look like a cold snap. That day only five of the 30 drivers who started the race went without a relief driver. Of those five, only legendary independent Ed Negre posted a top ten finish. Benny Parsons took top honors that day, with an impressive seven lap cushion over second place, with relief help from John Utsman. The win was another giant step towards Parson's 1973 Championship and was in fact, the only race Benny won that title season.
1974 was one of those legendary bump and grind finishes that have made Bristol famous. Buddy Baker seemed to have a comfortable lead late in the going when Neil Bonnett, relief driving for Bob Burcham, lost control and tore down the guard rail. A total of 41 laps had to be run under caution while repairs were made, setting off a two-lap slugfest between Baker and second place Cale Yarborough. The two beat and banged on each other like it was a demolition derby, while Cale's car owner, Junior Johnson, urged his driver on over the radio. In the final pair of turns there were at least four separate instances of contact and both drivers lost control. Yarborough was able to get going straight again first, and took the win from a thoroughly annoyed Buddy Baker. Yarborough went on to dominate the late race at Bristol, winning four out of five starting that race and ending after 1978, and tossing in a pair of wins in the Spring race there for good measure. Ironically, it was Cale's arch nemesis Darrell Waltrip, with whom he frequently verbally sparred and occasionally almost came to blows with, that broke the streak on the way to setting records of his own.
1985 proved to be another thrilling finish to a Saturday night event run under the lights. Dale Earnhardt had dominated the race, which was slowed 11 times for cautions, but lost the lead to Tim Richmond after a pit road miscue. Dale and Tim were friends….off the track anyway, but Dale must not have been feeling particularly friendly that night. When he couldn't pass Richmond, Earnhardt simply used his front bumper to push Richmond out of the way. Richmond recovered to finish second and said there were no hard feelings after the race, that was just the way Dale drove and he's been expecting it. Ironically the next year Dale was pretty straight forward about how he drove at Bristol himself. Dale was charging towards the lead that night when the lapped car of Bobby Hillin didn't move over fast enough to suit him. Unfortunately the move backfired and Earnhardt slammed the pit wall, putting himself out of contention." That damn 8 car was two laps down and wouldn't get out of the way." a clearly annoyed Earnhardt told the press. " I tried to bump him to move him out the way but instead of wrecking him, I wrecked myself." Any more questions as to why they call him the Intimidator? Dale drove what was left of his car to fourth place. Darrell Waltrip's win kept alive his slim hopes of beating Dale for that year's championship. Unfortunately for Darrell, NASCAR wouldn't agree to run all the rest of the races that season at Bristol. Dale came back to win the Bristol race in August of 1987, a year that saw him win all but two events staged on the short tracks. In the other two short track races he finished second. Earnhardt was champion in 86 and 87. The short tracks might not get the glory the superspeedways do, but they sure pay a mess of points, just like the big tracks.
Dale Earnhardt also chalked up a win at the 1988 August Bristol race, barely edging out Bill Elliott who, while not noted as a threat on the short tracks, managed to finish second that day. It was the Elliott team's improved short track performance that allowed him to edge out Rusty Wallace and beat Earnhardt handily in that year's championship hunt. That particular race will also be remembered for a fearsome crash in practice that very easily could have taken Rusty Wallace's life. Wallace popped a tire, a frequent occurrence for many drivers during that year's Goodyear/Hoosier tire war, slammed the outside wall and tumbled down the track. Quickly on the scene was ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, who in addition to working in broadcasting is a fully licensed medical doctor and renowned trauma surgeon. He saw that Wallace's air passage was blocked and quickly but carefully repositioned Rusty's head to allow him to breathe without risking complicating any possible spinal injuries. If you ever wonder why Dr. Punch seems so popular with the drivers, there's part of the answer. Next time someone is injured on the track or in the pits, you may notice Dr. Punch's reports disappear until he renders what aid he can to the injured. Amazingly, Rusty fought his way out of a hospital bed to qualify a backup car the next day, and started the car in the race before handing the wheel over to Larry Pearson. Rusty was credited with a ninth place finish.
While I normally don't deal with contemporary races in these history columns (Anything after 1992 is more old news than history at this point) few people who watched the August 26th, 1995 running of the night race at Bristol are ever going to forget it as long as they live. The race bought back a lot of old memories for long time fans as well. For one thing, racing under the lights at a short track on a Saturday night is where most of the stars of our sport got their start. And that particular night, much like the World 600 in 1993, Dale Earnhardt didn't let a little inconvenience like a few NASCAR penalties keep him out of the hunt for the win. The first of those penalties resulted from Dale getting into the back of another driver and pushing him out of the way, much as he did to Bobby Hillin in 1986, but because it was Rusty Wallace that was sent spinning, it also bought back terrifying memories of Dale getting into the back of Rusty at Talladega on the last lap in 1993. (If Dale forgot about that day, Rusty was quick to remind him of it during the infamous bottle throwing incident after the race.) Earnhardt came storming back three times and in the final lap was pressing hard to get by Terry Labonte and ran into the back of him, sending Terry into a lapped car, across the finish line and then into the wall. It was a lot like the 1992 Winston and suitably enough 1984, when Labonte survived not one but two wrecks during the August race at Bristol before going on to win the race. ( That was also Labonte's only other win at Bristol to date.) Of course the sight of Terry's badly wounded car being pushed into victory lane bought back memories of David Pearson's battered race car at Daytona in 1976. That's why NASCAR history remains so interesting. Even as we cherish our memories of old , new ones are being forged out there with every Winston Cup race run.
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