50 Years of nascar racing ~ MPH, Not MPG~ The Michigan of Old (Post 79)
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 ultra-wide, ultra-fast Michigan Speedway is perfect for high-speed three-wide racing with the outcome of the event seemingly always in doubt until the final lap. By the time the Winston Cup circuit returns to the Irish Hill's for their second annual visit in August the summertime sun is typically baking the area, but the action is even hotter on the track. Though a good number of races there as of late have featured less than exciting finishes based on fuel economy, there have been a number of memorable events through the years.
More than perhaps any other race track, there seems to be some secret to Michigan that once a team had mastered it, they are always in the hunt there. From the August race of 1972 until after the June race of 1977, Richard Petty finished in the top five every visit to the track. Bill Elliott won four straight races at Michigan from June of 1985 until August of 1986, and from 1983 until 1988 he always finished in the top five there. David Pearson was the Master of Michigan, with a record nine wins there, and a top five streak from 1973 until 1979 that also saw him chalk up six of those nine wins.
The 1971 running of the late summer race at Michigan was marred by no little controversy. As they usually were that year, Bobby Allison and Richard Petty were the cream of the crop that day. The King assumed the lead on lap 49 and either he or Allison led the rest of the event, exchanging the lead 15 times between them. Buddy Baker was a lap down running in third, driving the Petty Enterprises Dodge and trying to pass the fleet pair to get his lap back. Richard angrily motioned for him to back off to give him room to fight for the lead with Allison. Baker refused and kept right in there. A few laps later, Baker got a pit signboard message that said in no uncertain terms, "BACK OFF!" He shot the bird at Maurice Petty but finally complied with the request. Meanwhile up front, Richard decided he didn't have anything for Allison and with three laps to go simply backed off and broke contact with Allison and his Mercury. It was the King's way of protesting rules changes he felt gave the Ford products an advantage over the Mopars.
Richard Petty was involved in another exciting duel in the 1975 August Michigan race, but it was with David Pearson that year. Bobby Allison had made one of those odd decisions that sometimes had fans scratching their heads wondering what he was thinking, by agreeing to drive part time that year for Roger Penske in a less than lovely and not all that fleet AMC Matador that belonged in a circus as a monkey hut. Petty in his Petty Enterprises Dodge, and Pearson in his Wood Bothers Mercury were the stars on the superspeedways throughout the middle part of the 70's and they staged a fine duel for top honors that day. In the last five laps they swapped the lead between them five times, with Petty making the crucial pass for the win when Pearson got a little high coming out of the fourth corner. The King held David off by about four feet at the flag.
The 1979 summer race at Michigan once again saw Richard Petty involved in a frantic last lap battle to the checkers. The running of that day's race was marred by one of the worst wrecks during a race in the Speedway's decade of existence. Sometimes racer Blackie Wangerin got the worst of the frightening third lap mishap. H.B. Bailey skidded in some oil in the third turn and spun. Wangerin hit Bailey's car so hard it flew up and over it, and barreled into
the retaining fence upside down. The errant Mercury tore down 17 fence posts before finally going out of the ball park, bouncing once on a service road and tumbling down an embankment. The race had to be red flagged as the unconscious driver was cut out of what was left of his vehicle. In light of the severity of the accident, he was lucky to escape with two broken bones in his shoulder and bruises and cuts all over his body. Buddy Baker, long since departed from the Petty organization, tried to pay back his ex-boss, and heavy pre-race favorite, Richard Petty, for the incident in 1971. Baker and Petty battled over the lead but Buddy seemed to have the advantage, leading from lap 116 through lap 199. Knowing Richard would try to use the slingshot to pass him coming out of the final corner, Baker dove down low to block the move. The King made a daring high side pass that would have put most drivers into the wall, but Petty's Charger took that corner like a cat on cut pile carpet and continued carrying him to the checkers, two car lengths ahead of Baker.
Once again Richard Petty found himself right in the thick of things as the laps wound down in the August Michigan event of 1981. Though the King's glory days were behind him, that afternoon he showed he still knew a thing or two about driving. That day it wasn't a two-car shoot-out however. In the waning laps there were seven cars all in contention for the win and seven drivers battling to do just that. While Petty was not involved in the points battle, the two drivers who were having a whale of a wrangle for the Winston Cup, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison, were right in the mix. To show how much more competitive stock car racing had become since the three or four teams dominated the seventies, 14 different drivers led that race, swapping the lead 63 times. Richard Petty passed Bobby Allison, who had long since departed Penske and retired those Matadors to the Ugly Farm, with five laps to go. Ricky Rudd scooted into second at the white flag, but "Not Quite So Old as He is Today" DW was hot on Rudd's tail. In fact, there was a stampeding group of seven stock cars slugging it out for top honors. Petty took advantage of Waltrip's battle with Rudd to open up a couple car length lead and took the win, but all seven cars crossed the stripe within one second of the King's Buick.
Bill Elliott's day at Michigan was indicative of the dream season he was having that year, but the ending foreshadowed its nightmarish ending. Elliott took the pole and clearly had the fastest car on the track. Darrell Waltrip was also a rocket in Junior Johnson's Chevy and actually led a few more laps than Bill, but in the end he had nothing to offer for the fleet Ford driver, and Elliott cruised home to an easy 4-second win, one of a record eleven superspeedway wins he posted that year. But by finishing second and leading the most laps Darrell Waltrip scored the same amount of points as Bill, and thus despite winning Elliott made up no ground in his quest to catch Darrell. After the race, no less an expert than Darrell Waltrip weighed in as saying that the points system was ridiculous and the winner should receive a bonus. Of course, at the end of the year DW was a bit more circumspect as he accepted his Winston Cup championship trophy despite winning only three races to Elliott's eleven.
Awesome Bill's 1986 season was a real letdown after his performance in 1985, and he scored only two victories that year, both at Michigan. In doing so, he established a record for most consecutive wins at any superspeedway. The win was not as easy as it looked on paper, as a determined Tim Richmond was coming on hard at the end. In the final fifteen laps Richmond charged from 14th to second, but Bill held him off by a second and a half at the line.
The finish of the 1987 August Michigan race was a real barnburner, with some of the track's favorite sons having a chance to shine. Winless in over three years, Richard Petty got the crowd on its feet by forcing his way past another storied veteran, Bobby Allison, with 37 laps to go. Petty remained in the lead until the caution flag flew with just 12 laps left in the race. Unfortunately, his tires were badly worn after a gas and go on the previous stop and all those hard laps, and the King had to pit, handing the lead to Rusty Wallace. While attempting to fight his way back to the front after the green flag dropped, part of an 11-car scramble, Richard and Davey Allison made contact; Richard headed for the wall, and dropped to eleventh in the final running order. Back up front, Dale Earnhardt shoved his way past Rusty to retake the lead, with Bill Elliott hot on his tail. With three laps to go Dale's car bobbled and Elliott took command of the race. Earnhardt had a tire going down, but despite that handicap he never lifted and gave Bill all he could handle for the last three laps. Elliott held on to win by three quarters of a second over Earnhardt, but those two positions were reversed in the end of the year Winston Cup points rundown.
The closest and most memorable finish at Michigan occurred in August 1991, and involved two second generation drivers from legendary racing families. Davey Allison had asserted himself all day and was dominating late in the race with a four-second lead. Meanwhile, Dale Jarrett had been mired back in the pack most of the event. A caution flag flew with 12 laps left to go and most of the lead pack ducked into the pits to get fresh rubber for the final laps showdown. Dale Jarrett's Wood Brothers crew elected to roll the dice and go with a gas only stop. Thus Jarrett returned to the track in the lead. Allison on fresh rubber had no problem catching DJ, but he had all sorts of problems passing him as Jarrett struggled to make that Thunderbird as wide as he could. The two cars ran side by side for the final two laps, with DJ having the preferred line, but Allison having those fresh tires. Contact was made between the two cars several times, and some of it was heavy. Coming out the final corner, the two cars were still side by side and were beating and banging for real as they headed for the stripe. The race was too close to call but the photo finish cameras revealed Jarrett had a ten-inch advantage over Allison at the line. It was the first victory of his career for Jarrett, who was able to add his name to the same illustrious roll call of NASCAR winners as his father Ned, who called that race from the booth.
Harry Gant is credited with developing the fuel economy strategy at Michigan with his 1992 victory at the track and other teams have used the same stunt since. But to real race fans the only factor gas mileage should play in a race is whether you make it to the driveway or end up hoofing it home after the event.
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