50 Years of nascar racing ~ Hallowed Ground (Post 74)
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 teams, trucks and drivers are slated to leave North Carolina this week and head off to New Hampshire for the second race of the year, but they are leaving behind an old friend. The historical old North Wilkesboro Speedway lies slowing decaying now, unused but not unmourned. If race tracks could talk, the stories that North Wilkesboro could tell.. stories of the best drivers, the best fans, and some of the best racing ever in NASCAR's history.
The October 20th, 1957 race marked the homecoming for a hometown hero, who had been away from racing for a year, Junior Johnson. Junior hadn't been out of competition because of injuries or the lack of a ride. The Federal government had given him an all expense paid one-year stint in a penitentiary after he got caught tending to the family moonshine still one day while his father was ill. (Junior was never caught on the road during his long career as a tripper.) He was welcomed back with open arms by the local fans, many of whom had also been customers. (As a side note, late in his presidency Ronald Reagan officially pardoned Junior Johnson to expunge his criminal record.) Tragedy marred that joyous day, when an axle snapped on Tiny Lund's car. The tire, wheel and axle stub bounced up into the stands, killing a spectator. Fireball Roberts started from the pole and led the first 61 laps before losing control and crashing through the fence, leaving the track and rolling. That set the stage for a stirring duel between Banjo Matthews in a Ford, and Jack Smith in a Chevy. The pair swapped the lead five times before Smith finally took the advantage for good. Lee Petty capitalized on the Matthews' worn tires from the prolonged battle with Smith to make a daring pass on the last lap and claim second from Banjo. Junior wound up 20th after losing an engine. Things went a little better next year, with Junior thrilling his home county fans by taking both North Wilkesboro races, two of his six victories that year.
Tiny Lund went on to win at North Wilkesboro as well, though it was some 14 years after his tragic mechanical failure in the 1957 race. The car Tiny drove to victory that year was a bit of an oddity as well. The size of the fields was down dramatically in 1971 after the factories had shut down the money spigot. In order to try to get more cars on the track, late that season NASCAR issued a rules change allowing the "Grand American" cars (A short lived series that pitted "pony cars" such as the Mustang, Firebird and Camaro) to run with the Grand National cars at the short tracks. It was a decision that caused some confusion (The Grand American cars were only allowed to have three men over the wall on pit stops as opposed to five for the Grand Nationals) and a lot of controversy. (The Grand National drivers hated the idea, and Clay Earles, the promoter at Martinsville refused to allow the "little cars" to enter his race). Lund drove a Camaro that night . Dave Marcis dominated most of the race in a full size Dodge, lapping almost the entire field. Mechanical failures foiled Dave's bid for the win. Lund assumed control and went on to win, beating the late Elmo Langley by ¾ of a lap. Richard Petty, an especially vocal critic of the Grand American cars being allowed on the track, came home third. Despite the drivers assertions that the "little" cars would have an unfair advantage, Lund's Camaro was the only Grand American car in the top ten.
The North Wilkesboro race of October, 1972 is best remembered as the fiercest battle of the Petty/Allison feud that had boiled over into open warfare that year. As they did at most races, the pair simply checked out on the rest of the field and settled the race between them. Settling matters in that case involved using a big Plymouth and Chevy as weapons. Throughout the final ten laps, the bumping and banging seemed to get more intense with each lap and both cars were trailing smoke from sheetmetal rubbing against tires. It got to the point where neither driver seemed as concerned with winning as he was with getting vengeance on the other. Allison bulled his way past Petty, but smoke was filling his car to the point he could barely see. Going into the first turn past the white flag, Petty refused to lift and the two cars clanged together and then bounced off the wall. Still both determined drivers kept their foot in it, and it was a battle to the stripe with the King prevailing by two car lengths. One intoxicated and enraged Allison fan jumped the fence around victory lane and went after Petty. One of Petty's crew members used Richard's helmet to knock the guy silly, but with other fans looking like they had a mind to try the same, Petty was whisked away to the relative safety of the press box and the post race ceremonies were held there. Both drivers had harsh words for each other after the event. Such was, and is, the nature of short track racing, that it promotes short tempers as well, and Petty and Allison were not the only two drivers to feud at North Wilkesboro.
The Fall race at North Wilkesboro pitted two legends of the track who had an ongoing battle of words (and occasionally fenders) going at that point in time. Cale Yarborough was the dominant driver of the era, collecting three consecutive champions from 1976-78, while driving for North Wilkesboro's favorite son, Junior Johnson. Cale claimed five victories at North Wilkesboro during his career. Darrell Waltrip was a hard charger who had arrived on the scene with a fast Chevy and a faster mouth, to take on the established legends of the sport. Darrell would claim 10 victories at the track, most of them, coincidentally enough, after he replaced Cale in Junior's car. That particular year, Cale Yarborough was in a tight points battle with Richard Petty when the series reached North Wilkesboro in the Fall. Petty's hopes for the title were dashed that day when he and Bobby Allison got together at the track yet again. While the King was leading the race and trying to lap Bobby, the two cars made contact and Petty was sent into the wall and back across the track into the path on Benny Parsons, who delivered Richard's Dodge a solid shot, eliminating him for the day. With Petty on the sidelines, Yarborough and his nemesis Waltrip were left to battle for the win. Darrell prevailed in the end by a little over seven seconds. In victory lane he couldn't resist yet another verbal jab at Cale, telling reporters on a degree of difficulty rating he referred to as the "Cale Scale" the race had only been a 1.5 to a 2. It was a thinly veiled reference to Yarborough's age and his complaints he was exhausted after the last race at Martinsville and his statement the short track races should be shortened. While Cale had lost the battle, he won the war and went on to be Winston Cup champion that year. These days I'd guess DW probably wishes he hadn't made all those jokes about a driver being too old to race.
The fall race at North Wilkesboro in 1986 occurred during the waning days of the association between two of the tracks favorite sons. The combination of Darrell Waltrip as driver and Junior Johnson as car owner was one of the most successful pairings in the history of our sport. Nowhere was that association any more successful than at North Wilkesboro, where Darrell won seven races for Junior at his home track in their six years together. Darrell had already announced he was moving on to Team Hendrick the next year, but that day he gave Junior a going away present. While Geoff Bodine, who would be Waltrip's teammate the next year dominated the race late in the going, DW stormed past him on lap 389 to take the lead for good, and score a highly emotional victory, as he and Junior celebrated together in victory lane for the final time on their favorite stomping grounds.
Terry Labonte took over driving chores for DW in 1987, after Waltrip left Junior's team and that association had not been as successful as had been hoped. In fact, the new team had not scored a victory and Junior Johnson looked like he might be about to go winless for an entire season for the first time in his over a decade-long stint as a car owner. When the tour reached North Wilkesboro there were only five races left on the schedule. It didn't look like it was going to be Labonte's day, when he cut a tire down early and he brushed the wall. While Terry could have limped to the pits for repair, the master tactician told him to stay put and cause NASCAR to have to throw a caution flag. Thus Terry was able to pit without going down a lap. By lap 94, Labonte was back in the lead and he fought off determined drives by Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip to take his first win driving for Junior.
There was all sorts of beating and banging going on at North Wilkesboro and another driver who has become a legend on the short tracks took advantage of other drivers tempers to score his first win at North Wilkesboro. Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd had the dominant cars that day and they gave the fans what they paid to see, good hard side by side racing, and more than a little bumping and grinding . Late in the going, Rudd tried to get around Dale and gave him a shot to the rear bumper to let Earnhardt know he was coming. Earnhardt didn't appreciate the gesture and going into turn one he ran into the back of Rudd spinning him out. NASCAR threw a caution flag and black flagged both Earnhardt and Rudd to the end of the lead lap line where they continued their bumping and banging, but were out of the way of the new leaders of the race. Geoff Bodine inherited the lead after the bumper cars game, but Rusty Wallace obviously wanted that win badly, ducking under Bodine with ten laps to go in a kamikaze style pass. On the final lap Bodine shoved Wallace out of the way in turn one to take the lead, but Rusty returned the favor in turn three and out drag raced Geoff to the line by .3 seconds.
Earnhardt and Rudd were back at it again in October of 1989 at North Wilkesboro, and it was obvious Ricky still had a grudge. Earnhardt, who was trying to chase down Rusty Wallace in the points, had had the dominant car all day, and seemed poised to take an easy victory. A caution flag late in the going bunched the field back up and Rudd restarted second behind Dale. Dale used every trick in his thick book to keep Ricky behind him for the last two laps, but Ricky had a couple tricks of his own. Going into turn one on the white flag lap, Rudd dove inside on Dale who moved down to protect his position. The two cars made heavy contact and headed for the wall. Geoff Bodine, who had been running third found himself the surprised leader of the race to the checkers, and beat Mark Martin by three seconds to the line.
When the Winston Cup drivers visited North Wilkesboro, they knew there was bound to be some banging and crashing at the tight bull ring, but during the October race there in 1993, most of the field hadn't even started the race before the sheetmetal started banging and bending. Ernie Irvan, driving for Robert Yates by that point in the season, replacing the late Davey Allison, claimed the pole position. Ricky Rudd claimed the outside pole. As they headed for the green flag, Irvan accelerated slowly and Ricky Rudd found himself pulling away in the outside lane. According to NASCAR rules the pole sitter determines the pace of the start and Rudd would have been penalized if he crossed the stripe ahead of Ernie, so he hit the brakes. Behind him were a string of drivers anticipating the start and already looking to make their move to the inside lane going into one. The results were predictable. A chain reaction crash developed in that outside lane of traffic, as the drivers to the rear were unable to check up fast enough. Among the notable drivers who found themselves in damaged race cars before even completing a lap were Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Geoff Bodine and rookie Jeff Gordon. Gordon's Dupont Chevy was forced behind the wall for lengthy repairs and he wound up finishing dead last. He had also finished in last place after a crash at the North Wilkesboro spring race, so his rookie season at the track was an unmitigated disaster. Of course, he did figure the place out further down the road. While crashing before the start is pretty embarrassing, it isn't the most embarrassing crash ever at North Wilkesboro. I would give that dubious honor to the driver of the pace car in the 1980 fall event, who spun out coming off the track and nailed a race car sitting in its pit stall. In that driver's defense, the track was falling apart that day and strewn with gravel. Cale Yarborough claimed he had raced on smoother plowed fields, the race track was so nasty that day. After the first lap carnage, title contenders Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt staged a stirring duel for top honors, with Rusty taking the trophy that day, but Earnhardt claiming the championship that year.
One of the saddest days for the fans at North Wilkesboro (and scattered across the country watching at home) was September 29th, 1991. "Handsome" Harry Gant had earned a new nickname that year. He had won four races in a row that September and had been dubbed, "Mr. September." The popular home state driver, 51 years young, was an inspiration to the more "mature" fans on hand. Gant's weekend started well when he claimed the pole position for the race, and he flat out dominated the race almost start to finish. Of course, they don't give trophies for "almost". On lap 392 Gant had the O ring between his brake hose and front brake caliper blow out, putting his brake pedal straight to the floor. While he battled gamely and finished the race, he did come second; Dale Earnhardt was able to get around him and take the win. After the race, Earnhardt told reporters he almost hated to pass Harry the way the crowd was booing the move. But of course, Dale Earnhardt doesn't do "almost" either.
Of course the saddest day for the North Wilkesboro fans was September 29th, 1996. Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre had bought the track, and sacked its dates, moving them to Texas and New Hampshire. That day marked the final race held at North Wilkesboro. Jeff Gordon, who had had such an inauspicious debut in Wilkes County, turned his fortunes around and beat Dale Earnhardt for the win that historic day.
Now North Wilkesboro lies dormant and it may be there will never be a race held there again. But for true fans of the sport, there is no more cherished piece of real estate than that half mile oval. They can take the dates, but they can not take the memories.
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