50 Years of nascar racing ~ Charlotte: Bright Lights And Dark Days (Post 4)
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 Charlotte Motor Speedway is considered one of the crown jewel circuits in the Winston Cup schedule, and the track has a rich history for producing some of the most exciting races ever, but there have also been some dark days in the track's history.
Charlotte seemed to be born under a dark cloud, the brainchild of Curtis Turner, one of the great racers of the day. Unfortunately, he was not a great businessman as well, and from the outset the track was in deep financial trouble. It was discovered that the area of the current turn one was solid granite beneath the soil and the costs of blasting nearly doubled the budgeted amount to complete the track. The inaugural event had to be pushed back a month owing to the construction delays, and like New Hampshire and more recently Gateway, the track surface was not properly cured and came up even in practice, leaving huge potholes. Many cars were equipped with heavy grated screens over the windshield and grill to prevent flying rocks from damaging the car or injuring a driver. Joe Lee Johnson (no relation to Junior) won that first event, which was further marred by poor fan turn out and confusion over the entrance to pit road that wound up with five drivers, including both Lee and Richard Petty being disqualified.
The '61 World 600 was run with the track in serious financial trouble as creditors lined up to get paid. Turner went to an unusual source for a loan to maintain ownership of the track, the Teamsters Union, run by Jimmy Hoffa, who currently is said to reside in the concrete beneath the end zone at the Meadowlands. In exchange, Turner and his right hand man at the track, were to do the union two "favors." They were to try to unionize the drivers, and to get sports betting on stock car racing legalized. At that point NASCAR was still in its infancy and any association with organized crime, and any suspicion the events were fixed as a result of wagering, as was rampant at horse tracks of the day, could have killed the sanctioning body off, just as it was fighting for respectability. When he became aware of the situation, Bill France Senior came down on the union organizers like a ton of bricks. He announced no member of the union could race at a NASCAR sanctioned event and he would enforce the rule with a pistol if he had to. He went on to threaten if the union did take hold, he would plow under the Daytona Speedway and plant corn there rather then run any more races. Turner, Tim Flock, and Fireball Roberts were banned for life for joining the union. Roberts resigned the union and was reinstated. Turner was in no position to back down, owing the Teamsters all that money and was suspended. Curiously his right hand man was not banned from NASCAR. That man? Our buddy O. Bruton Smith.
The '61 race went on as planned and indeed there were four races at the track that year. Two of them were officially listed as qualifiers for the World 600 and occurred May 21st, 1961. They both paid points towards the championship as well and drivers were free to enter both. There was also a third points race that same day on a road course in California. And you thought the current day schedule was tough? Richard Petty and Joe Weatherly won the two qualifiers. Finishing second to Richard in the first race was one Ralph Earnhardt, Dale's dad. It was the best the senior Earnhardt ever finished in a Grand National race.
David Pearson won the 1961 World 600 in a Pontiac. Pearson was to go on to become the most successful driver ever at Charlotte. That day he finished the final few laps dragging a rim around the track after a tire blew out and came off the wheel, and he still won by two laps. During his tenure with the Wood Brothers driving the fabled red and white Purolator Specials , in a period stretching from October 1972 to October 1978, Pearson finished in the top five 11 out of 13 races and won three times. He also holds a record 14 poles at the track. Anyone wondering about the special red and white paint scheme on the Wood Brothers car Michael Waltrip ran Sunday, there's your explanation.
The darkest day at Charlotte, and one of the darkest days in NASCAR history, took place May 24th 1964. On the seventh lap, Junior Johnson lost control and slammed Ned Jarrett, two time NASCAR champion and present day TV announcer. Both cars were sent spinning. Fireball Roberts tried to avoid the wreck and slammed the wall right at the pedestrian crossover gate. It sent his lavender Ford rolling and both his car and Jarrett's caught fire as they crashed into the infield. Jarrett's car was still on its wheels and he managed to escape quickly. Roberts' car was upside down and the interior was burning. In one of the most heroic and selfless acts this sport has ever known, Jarrett ran to the aid of Roberts and managed to help pull him free of the fire and began tearing away at Fireball's burning driving suit and beating out the flames until the rescue squad arrived. Tragically, after showing some signs of healing, a few weeks later Fireball Roberts died from his injuries. Let me hasten to add here, because I've had several people ask, the nickname " Fireball" did not come from that wreck, but rather Roberts' blinding fast ball when he was a high school baseball pitcher.
For those Chevrolet fans out there, Charlotte was the track where Chevys returned to competition after a long layoff, back in '71. Track owner and promoter Richard Howard, who saved the track after the Turner fiasco, was worried by falling attendance as the same teams dominated the sport week after week. He decided to try to lure Junior Johnson back into preparing and driving a Chevrolet. Johnson declined the offer to drive, but did prepare a Monte Carlo for Charlie Glotzbach, the first time a Monte Carlo turned a wheel on a NASCAR track. Glotzbach took the pole but lost an engine during the event. Still, the huge fan turn out and the interest in that Bow Tie, led Johnson to return to racing as a team owner, anywhere promoters would pay to have him run. And of course Junior and winning Monte Carlos were to become a staple of the sport. As for Howard, sadly he was forced to resign after a hostile takeover of the track's stock by none other than Bruton Smith.
Another first timer at the Charlotte track, who was destined to become synonymous with not only Chevrolet but NASCAR, was a rough as a cob country boy up from the Sportsman ranks, one Dale Earnhardt, who drove his first Cup race at Charlotte May 25th 1975. Dale drove a Dodge (!!!) that day and wound up 22nd, 45 laps behind Richard Petty, who finally won the World 600 that day, the one prize that had always eluded him. Finishing 23rd, one place behind Dale, was Richard Childress, who had some sharp words for the young Earnhardt's driving techniques holding him off in the last laps. Of course they went on to make up later. Besides giving Dale his first chance at Winston Cup, a run at that track was credited with landing him his first full time ride. Humpy Wheeler decided in 1978 that having an African-American driver enter the World 600 would help NASCAR shake its "all white Southern Redneck male" image. He contacted Willy T. Ribbs, a noted road and IndyCar racer and made a Ford owned by Will Cronkrite available to him. Ribbs failed to show up for two practice sessions, though he did make a special guest appearance at the Charlotte police station after being arrested for DWI and going the wrong way on a one way street. Earnhardt was put into the car as a last moment substitute and caught the eye of Rod Osterlund, who needed a new driver but had been looking for someone with more experience. Dale finished the season for Osterlund and posted a fourth place finish at the Atlanta finale, thus getting himself a ride driving for Osterlund in the '79 season when he won rookie of the year, and the '80 season when he won his first championship.
The '80 championship season was not without incident for Earnhardt. After the Charlotte race, his crew chief, "Suitcase" Jake Elder, abruptly quit much like Gary DeHart did this week. But Elder was a bit more colorful about going, and said the team manager "couldn't manage a five-car funeral" and added some harsh words about Dale. He was replaced by Doug Richert, who was all of 20 at the time. And you thought Jeff was young? In a stirring battle, Benny Parsons went on to win that race after swapping the lead with Darrel Waltrip 8 times in the final 26 laps. That day Benny was driving for a new sponsor to the sport, Harry Melling, who would of course go on to sponsor the Bill Elliot team.
Waltrip had much success at Charlotte, but despite that, or maybe because of that, he was not a fan favorite in the 80's. In fact when he crashed out of the 1982 World 600 the crowd cheered every bit as loudly as they applaud Jeff Gordon's misfortunes these days. But Darrell was a bit less easy going about it. Over the PA system he called for any one of those fans booing him, to "meet me in the Big K parking lot and we'll duke it out!" Of course, this weekend when Darrell failed to qualify the fans were stunned and saddened, and voiced their support for Darrell. Take heart Jeff. Given some time maybe the fans will come around to you as well. But I wouldn't go calling out anyone to a fist fight in the K-mart parking lot before then.
Of course, two of the most famous finishes at Charlotte came in the Winston, and both involved, who else, Dale Earnhardt. Fans newer to the sport have probably heard of the infamous "Pass In the Grass" and wondered what that was all about. The "pass" took place at the 87 Winston, which was configured as a 75, 50 and 10 lap shoot out that year. Bill Elliott won the first two segments handily, and lined up for the final ten lap dash on the pole with Geoff Bodine beside him, and Dale Earnhardt just behind Geoff. Bodine got a jump on Bill on the restart and Dale tried to follow him. Earnhardt made contact with Elliot who got sideways, and hit Bodine. Bodine was sent into the wall, but Bill gathered it back up and went after Dale. There were several instances of contact as Elliott tried to pass Dale. At one point, Earnhardt took to the grass and held his lead on Elliott in a move no one could believe he pulled off without wrecking. [No, there never was a pass, but the name remains] But Dale wasn't happy Bill had pinched him off and on the back straight he slowed and when Bill pulled alongside him, Dale cut the wheel hard right and sent Elliott into the wall. After the race, the normally laid back Dawsonville resident came roaring out of pit lane and delivered a solid shot to Earnhardt's car on the cool down lap. Bodine thought that looked like fun and did the same. All three were fined by NASCAR.
1992 marked the first Winston run under the lights. In fact the owner and promoter of Charlotte would have you believe it was the first NASCAR sanctioned event on a super speedway run under the lights. They were off by about four decades. The Raleigh Speedway, a paved mile oval, started running under the lights in 1955. During the 92 Winston, billed "One Hot Night", it seemed to be a battle between Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who were going at it tooth and nail, but lurking just behind them was the winner of the previous year's event, Davey Allison, biding his time. After a restart late in the event, Dale and Kyle really had at it. Dale slipped by Kyle, but coming into the final corner Kyle had the momentum on Dale and went low. Dale moved down the track to block the pass as they entered the dog leg and ran Kyle onto the grass. But in doing so Dale lost control himself and went spinning. Kyle had to get off the gas and cut hard right to avoid Earnhardt and Davey swept by them both for a win. But before the fireworks even went off in the night time North Carolina sky there were plenty on the track. Kyle was completely out of control and wound up nailing Davey Allison's 28 car just past the finish line and putting him hard into the wall. Allison was knocked unconscious and never got to celebrate in victory lane. Chillingly, in light of his tragic demise the next year, he was taken by helicopter to the hospital with a bad concussion and a bruised lung. Most of you have probably seen that incident on the commercial for "NASCAR's Greatest Finishes and Closest Calls" that runs on ESPN2 about every five minutes. Now the newer fans among you know what happened. Davey's favorite car, the infamous 007 was wiped out in that wreck, and it was the very car he had intended to drive the next weekend at the 600 in an attempt to win the Winston Million. Still banged up, and in a backup car Davey Allison gave his all in the 600, leading twice, but fell short, finishing fourth. The ground beneath the first turn of Charlotte isn't the only thing that's tough as granite. The men who have been running there since 1960 are every bit as tough, and sometimes their luck is as well.
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