50 Years of nascar racing ~ North Wilkesboro (Post 45)
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.
This week's history column presents a bit of a problem in that there has only been one race at Texas Motor Speedway and the story hardly needs repeating. For those of you who missed it, let me sum it up. Rain, rain, rain, first corner, bang, crash, boom; not long after bang, crash, boom, DOH!!!, bonehead, crash, boom, see ya Jeff; bang, crash, boom; Jeff Burton wins his first race and the fat man runs laughing all the way to the bank.
There, then. Instead, let me recount the story of a legendary track where races were traditionally held this weekend, and where many people still feel they should be, North Wilkesboro. If that legendary speedway could talk, oh what tales it would tell. Every hero and legend of the sport competed at the half-mile bull ring in North Wilkesboro, and the select few won there. Of the tracks that were on the first year schedule in NASCAR's premiere season of 1949 only Martinsville remains, now that North Wilkesboro, where the season finale was held in 1949,has been unceremoniously dumped in favor of Texas.
The 1949 season finale in what was then called the "Strictly Stock" division, was held October 16th, back when North Wilkesboro was still a dirt half-mile oval. (The track was not paved until 1957) That day Bill Blair, driving a black 1949 Cadillac, of all things, took a commanding lead at the drop of the green and went on to lead 180 of the 200 laps. Finally, the big Caddy's engine began going away and on lap 191 Blair retired from the event. That left it to Bob Flock in a Oldsmobile, and Lee Petty in a Plymouth to decide it, and the racing was fierce by standards of the day. Most races that year had been decided by a margin of several laps, but that day Flock beat Petty by a mere 300 feet. Though he had a dismal day and wound up 16th, that finish earned Red Bryon, an injured War Veteran, enough points to become NASCAR's Strictly Stock champion.
Junior Johnson, a local boy, has made his name synonymous with North Wilkesboro, and he enjoyed a lot of success there both as a driver and a car owner, to the delight of the highly partisan crowd. One victory that stands out in his career as a driver was held May 15, 1958. Junior was in a slump, not having won a race in three years, but that day his Ford was the class of the field. Jack Smith led most of the first half of the race, but Junior stormed by him on lap 79, with the bit hard between his teeth. At one point, Junior drove so hard into a corner his big Ford went up and over the embankment and into a field of high grass. He never lifted out of the throttle as he spun the car around, charged back up the embankment and onto the track without even losing the lead. North Wilkesboro has known a lot of heroes, but there will always be just one Junior Johnson. The car he drove that day carried the number "11", which would become a trademark of winning cars stabled in Johnson's garage.
Not all the great moments at North Wilkesboro occurred during the terms of now dead presidents. Richard Petty was the most successful driver ever at the facility, chalking up 15 wins, with his first April 15, 1962 and his last April 5 1981. Another legend at North Wilkesboro is Dale Earnhardt, who scored five wins and 19 total top five finishes at the track during his career. His aggressive driving style seemed perfectly suited for one of the toughest tracks on the circuit. Earnhardt scored the first victory for Goodyear radial tires in Winston Cup racing on April 16th,1989. It seemed it didn't matter to him, radials or bias ply, he just drove the tires off the car either way. More than once, a driver who got into his way wasn't very happy with the result.
One event, held on April 18th 1993, that had its share of fiery wrecks and tempers, stands out at North Wilkesboro. The fireworks began before the race even got started. Ricky Rudd and Brett Bodine had been involved in a wreck the previous race at Bristol and Rudd placed the blame squarely on Brett. Brett managed to claim the pole, and afterwards Rudd said something to him along the lines of it was a good run, but it was too bad it wouldn't count for much because he planned to put Bodine into the wall at his earliest opportunity. More words were said and Ricky took a swing at Brett, earning them both a trip to NASCAR's trailer. Early in the race, Ernie Irvan and Geoff Bodine got together and Bodine went spinning up into the wall. As he slid back across the track, Michael Waltrip, Dick Trickle and Mark Martin all got swept up into the wreck. Martin's right front tire was torn clear off his car, and it suffered a major oil fire as well. After the race, the senior Bodine had some choice words for Irvan. He had to wait in line behind Morgan Shepherd who accused Irvan of spinning him out to keep him from passing Kenny Schrader, in a case of Chevys ganging up on Fords. Rookie Jeff Gordon backed his car hard into the wall on his first visit to North Wilkesboro and his car also erupted in flames, forcing Jeff to scramble to safety. In the end Rusty Wallace managed to prevail by a few car lengths over Kyle Petty.
The spring race of 1992 had one of the closest finishes in North Wilkesboro history. By North Wilkesboro standards the race was relatively clean, with no cars failing to finish due to crash damage. NASCAR did issue a warning to Dale Earnhardt after he bumped Rusty Wallace from behind a few times trying to get around him, but after the race even Wallace laughed and said that was just how you drive at North Wilkesboro, and he and Dale enjoyed running together like that. Davey Allison was still healing up from injuries to his shoulder and ribs from a crash at the previous race, to the point he had to have Jimmy Hensley qualify the car for him. With Allison leading in the points hunt, but a red hot Bill Elliott gobbling up his advantage, Allison was slated to start the race to get the points, then have Hensley take the wheel. As Benny Parsons is fond of pointing out, a sick or injured driver doesn't feel too bad when his car is running strong, and Allison had a stout mount that day. His race was not without incident however. While he and Kyle Petty were racing for position, the two cars made contact and Allison got the worst end of the "racing deal", spinning out. Davey managed to keep it out of the wall and get his car righted without going down a lap. Kyle was involved in a late race banging incident with Bobby Hillin that sent Kyle spinning and Hillin to the penalty box, where Felix Sabates had a few words for him that got Felix fined as well. It came down to a closing laps battle between Davey and Rusty Wallace, and while contact was made, they raced each other clean. Allison held on to win by .15 seconds.
Perhaps the most memorable finish at North Wilkesboro in the spring involved two of Junior Johnson's cars in 1985. The team cars, Darrell Waltrip in the 11 and Neil Bonnett in the 12, both sponsored by Budweiser and Kentucky Fried Chicken, wound up battling for the lead. Earlier in the race, Dale Earnhardt and Kyle Petty had gotten involved in an on track wrestling match that ended with Earnhardt putting a bumper to Petty's rear bumper and Kyle spinning into the wall. When Earnhardt came around the next lap, Kyle gave him a single finger salute that that particular day didn't mean "You're number one." Still infuriated, Kyle charged into the pits, and went roaring into Dale's pit stall, almost running over a NASCAR official trying to block his path and forcing the man to leap onto the hood of the car to avoid being crushed. Kyle parked the car so Dale couldn't pit, and exchanged some harsh words with the #3 crew. Fortunately, Darrell and Neil raced each other clean, though they made contact more than a few times in the closing laps as Darrell looked for a way around his teammate. In the end, Bonnett held on and took the victory by a car length over Waltrip. Having Junior Johnson's cars finish one-two delighted not only Junior but the local crowd, which roared its lusty approval. Short track racing at North Wilkesboro, a little beating and banging going on, Junior Johnson, Chevy, Budweiser and KFC; a true American Classic. It just doesn't get much better than that.
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