50 Years of nascar racing ~ Charlotte 1964: Drama and danger, part 2 (Post 19)
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.
After that nightmarish day in Charlotte when Fireball Roberts was fatally injured, the driver who had attempted to rescue him went on a roll, winning the next two races in a row at the short track in Asheville and the superspeedway in Atlanta. That race at Atlanta was another day fraught with tire failures that destroyed the cars of Bobby Johns and Doug Cooper. Cooper was lucky to walk away from a wreck that saw him take down thirty uprights that held up the fence. LeeRoy Yarbrough made a miraculous save after losing two tires in the same instant. To add tragedy to tragedy, occasional NASCAR competitor Dave MacDonald was killed in the Indianapolis 500. (Editor's note: It seems to be a little-known fact that Glenn "Fireball" Roberts and Dave MacDonald were the very best of friends, thereby doubling the grief of both families)
Richard Petty also began a hot streak, and he and Jarrett were involved in a tight points battle. The frightening part of the points chase was that to a large extent it would be decided on the basis of attrition, with the high speeds and tire problems hanging the specter of fatality over every event. Even at tiny Spartanburg, in a 100-mile dirt track race, four cars wound up doing barrel rolls after two separate incidents. Buddy Baker and J.T. Putney hit and wound up rolling through the first corner. Ned Jarrett and Billy Wade were battling for the lead. Jarrett took command and was fending off Wade, and the cars made contact. Wade spun out. He returned to the track and laid a bumper so hard into the rear of Jarrett's car both vehicles were sent rolling. In an age of sometimes extreme driving tactics, Jarrett was known as Gentleman Jarrett for his clean racing style, and the fans booed Wade lustily.
The next race marked the circuit's return to Daytona, the biggest and fastest track on the circuit. As if the drivers didn't have enough concerns, days before the race, Fireball Roberts passed away. In those days there were 40-lap qualifying races before the Firecracker 400, to determine the starting positions from third on back. During one of those races, yet another tire failure set off a severe collision. Paul Goldsmith lost a tire and spun, collecting AJ Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Darel Dieringer. In a frighteningly similar situation to the one that claimed his teammate's life, Fred Lorenzen came onto the scene late and tried to spin to avoid the wreck. He plowed hard into Goldsmith's car and tore the majority of the sheetmetal on the left side of his Ford off. While there was no fire, Lorenzen staggered out of the car with a severed artery in his hand. He announced a few days later he was retiring, but then changed his mind. To a man though, every driver was admitting they were frightened by the speeds and the tire failures, and NASCAR began promising they would do something to slow the cars down in 1965.
In July of that year, during the circuit's annual Northern swing, Billy Wade and his Mercury went on a tear, winning four straight events for Bud Moore. His wins included a pair of short tracks, and the road courses at Bridgehampton and Watkins Glen. At the tiny Islip Speedway, a two-tenths of a mile oval, Wade and Jarrett once again mixed it up, making a lot of heavy contact in the closing laps. Some other drivers had less luck, particularly on the road courses. Bobby Isaac claimed he had been off course and into the woods so many times that the animals were beginning to recognize him. Lee Petty drove his last Grand National race at Watkins Glen.
Two relative newcomers made an appearance at the Ashville-Weaverville speedway that August as part of Ford's talent search for new young drivers. Though neither won the event both Benny Parsons and Cale Yarborough would go on to become championship drivers. That race was part of the brutally tough short track schedule of late summer that had Grand National drivers racing every few days. In fact, there was one three-day period where there was a race on three consecutive days from August 21st to 23rd. Junior Johnson finally returned to winning form, winning on the 22nd and 23rd. After that, there was a short break before the next superspeedway event on the schedule, the Labor Day weekend classic, the Southern 500 at Darlington. Once again the race was marred by tire failure and wrecks. Junior Johnson spun after blowing a tire and Little Bud Moore hit the spinning Ford so hard the front bumper of his Plymouth ended where the rear seat would have been in a production car version of Junior's Ford. The fact there was no fire was a miracle. Poor Darel Dieringer was involved in not one, but four wrecks as a result of tire failures before his car owner, Bud Moore, told him to park it. Ever the gamer, Darel wanted to keep driving what was left of the car. By that point, Richard Petty was closing in on his first Grand National title, though Ned Jarrett tried gamely to keep his Hemi-driving rival in sight and in fact, won two races in a row at Manassas, Virginia, and the ultra-tough .9-mile dirt oval at Hillsborough.
Tragedy once again struck the Grand National family two days after the Hillsborough race. Goodyear and Firestone were trying desperately to develop new tires that could handle the stress of the speeds and weights of the cars. Typically, factory sponsored drivers, the fleetest of the fleet, were used to shake down new rubber compounds in testing. Jimmy Pardue and several other drivers were invited to the Charlotte Motor Speedway to test Goodyear's latest compound. On the seventh lap of the test, Pardue's factory Hemi Plymouth blew a front tire at nearly 150 miles per hour and he went hard at the wall, tearing down 48 feet of guard rail before sailing out of the track. Because of the banked curves his car was 75 feet above the parking lot as Pardue left the track and it flew over 150 feet before nose-diving into a fence and rolling into a dry creek bed. The other drivers there for the test and track officials rushed through the hole that the errant Plymouth had punched in the guard rail and scrambled down the steep bank to his aid. The wreck was so severe, pieces were scattered everywhere and the engine assembly had been torn from the car and was lying in a separate smoking heap. Three drivers assisted in removing Pardue from the wreck, fearing fire. Pardue was semiconscious and died a few hours later, moments after his beloved wife Betty arrived at the hospital and took his hand in hers. One of those three drivers helping remove Pardue, Billy Wade, was destined to die testing tires for Goodyear at Daytona a few days after New Year. Clearly something had to be done to stop the terrible carnage.
Martinsville was the next race after Pardue's death, and Fred Lorenzen took the win. By finishing second to Ned Jarrett's fifth, Richard Petty clinched his first title.
Shortly thereafter, NASCAR announced the rules changes for 1965, intended to slow down the cars. First and foremost, engines would have to be of production design, which eliminated the powerful Hemis and Ford's soon to be released 427 SOHC. Secondly, and perhaps a bit confusingly, the minimum wheelbase for cars on the Superspeedways would be increased from 116 to 119 inches. That meant Chrysler would no longer be able to run their midsize cars but would have to go the larger cars, which were heavier still, and thus would be even tougher on tires. Ford took the change calmly, as their production 427 had run well against the Chrysler wedge engines. Chrysler, on the other hand, was enraged. Besides scrapping all the development work they had done on the Hemi, they would be back to square one behind the faster Fords. Thus began a high-stake game of chicken between Chrysler and NASCAR that would wind up with the infamous Chrysler boycott of the 1965 season.
While eliminated from title contention, Ned Jarrett kept right on racing and won the next race at Savannah, edging out Richard, just to show he was going to be back as a factor in 1965.
In a rare strategy for that era, Marvin Panch, driving the Wood Brothers Ford won the race at Martinsville on a fuel economy strategy. Even more amazing for the era, he managed to edge out Fred Lorenzen for the win at a major race that day.
The last superspeedway race of the year was run at Charlotte, less than a month after Pardue's death at the facility. Richard Petty and Fred Lorenzen, the kings of the superspeedways, battled it out for the win. Once again tire failure reared its ugly head and Cale Yarborough and Wendell Scott both hit the wall hard after losing a tire. Bad luck spares no one, and newly crowned champion Richard Petty was involved in a frightening wreck. With a few laps to go he lost a tire and slammed the outside wall almost exactly where Pardue had exited the track. Richard's Plymouth got up on the guard rail, all four wheels in the air, but he bounced back onto the track. Petty, who was painfully aware of what had happened to Pardue, admitted it was sheer luck he had not shared his fate.
A week later, Petty shook off the effects of the wreck to win his ninth race of the season, claiming the trophy at the Harris Speedway, edging out friendly rival Ned Jarrett, just as the two had seemed to be dueling one another all year.
Mercury surprised everyone and announced the division was not going to be backing any teams the next year. Darel Dieringer helped them retire in style, driving a Mercury to his first win of the season at Augusta, Georgia. (Editor's note: Augusta Speedway, .5-mile paved oval, not the giant 3-mile road course within the same complex)
Two days less than a year after the season started, the final race was won at the half mile dirt oval in Jacksonville. Just as he had won the first race of the year, Ned Jarrett won the last race. Jarrett won by over a lap on Petty, under threatening skies. But the storm clouds over the sport were even darker than the rain clouds over the Jacksonville track, with Chrysler announcing if it did not get concessions that spared the Hemi, it would be the last race the company's Dodges or Plymouths would run in NASCAR. They managed to get the Jacksonville race in without a weather delay, but Chrysler sat out most of the 1965 season, and with them, reigning champion Richard Petty. 1964 provided a lot of memorable racing moments with Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett, and Fred Lorenzen thrilling the fans race after race, an intense championship battle among two giants of the sports , and the emergence of the Chrysler Hemi, one of the most successful and legendary engines in NASCAR history. Unfortunately, along with the drama, 1964 was marred by numerous frightening wrecks, and the death of three of the sport's great names.
AFTERMATH- While Petty won the championship, Ford won the manufacturers crown in 1965. Ned Jarrett would win the next year's championship after finishing second in 1964. Despite Chrysler and their Hemis sitting out the event , the pole speed at Daytona in 1965 was down only marginally to 170.551, a mark set by Fred Lorenzen. Of course, as the 1965 season kicked off, over and above the Chrysler drivers who were boycotting the event, three drivers who had finished in the top six in the points at the end of 1963, and another driver who won four races in 1964 were not present, having lost their lives at the wheel of race cars during the 1964 season. It was not rule changes, but the introduction of tires with inner liners by Goodyear, and a rubber lined fuel cell developed by Firestone, both developed in 1965, that made racing on the superspeedways "safe" once again.
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