50 Years of nascar racing ~ The Rock (Post 34)
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.
Constructed in 1965, the North Carolina Motor Speedway, in Rockingham North Carolina, has become one of the premiere tracks on NASCAR's senior circuit. At just over a mile in length, it is by no means the biggest track, but it certainly is one of the toughest. A list of winners at Rockingham reads like a "Who's Who" of NASCAR racing.
Curtis Turner was the first driver to conquer the Rock, in October of 1965. Originally banned for life for his part in trying to organize the drivers for the Teamsters, Turner had been reinstated by Bill France Senior that fall. A lot of people felt Curtis was too old to make a comeback, but the cagey old veteran proved to be as tough as the track that day and took the final win of his storied career at the inaugural Rockingham race.
The North Carolina Motor Speedway has always rewarded experience and there has only been one first time winner in the track's spring race, Donnie Allison. (There have only been two first time winners in the fall race; Mark Martin and Ward Burton.) Allison won the Spring race, then held in June, in 1968, driving a Ford for Banjo Matthews. It was a brutally hot day that afternoon in North Carolina, with the mercury topping 95 degrees and the race lasted over 5 hours. The heat took its toll on man and machine, and many favorites including Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Isaac dropped out of the race with mechanical problems. Petty was at the wheel of not one, but two cars when the engine failed. The blue Petty Enterprises Plymouth was eliminated on lap 236, and Richard was asked to drive in relief of Darel Dieringer. He was leading the race when the engine began going away in Dieringer's car, handing the lead to Donnie Allison on lap 372. A few laps later, Petty once again had an engine let go on him. Donnie cruised to victory, the first of 10 in his career, by a two lap margin over his brother Bobby. Bobby had recently split with the Fred Lorenzen-Buddy Long team, after Ford had announced they would only back the team for a part time schedule. That day Bobby was driving a lightly regarded JD Bracken-owned '66 Chevrolet, well down on power to the Fords and Mopars, but the tough Alabaman behind the wheel was worth a hundred horsepower that brutally long afternoon.
Controversy often reigns in the aftermath of a race at Rockingham, and the Spring race of 1981 was one of the most hotly contested events ever. That race was slowed 14 times by caution flags for 75 laps. Some of those wrecks led to some ill feelings. Defending Winston Cup champ Dale Earnhardt was involved in wrecks with both Richard and Kyle Petty, both of whom were fielding Petty Enterprises cars that afternoon. While he wrote his tangle with the King off as "one of them racing deals", Earnhardt had some harsh words for Kyle, claiming it had been a purposeful hit to avenge his father. With Dale's reputation as an "aggressive" driver, many fans found his remarks unintentionally ironic. Richard recovered well enough from the incident to charge into the lead late in the race when Cale Yarborough was forced to pit for gas. Petty tried stretching his fuel mileage but the roll of the dice came up snake eyes and he ran out of gas with eleven laps to go. Darrell Waltrip, driving his first season for legendary car owner Junior Johnson, inherited the lead and took the win after having stretched his final tank of fuel an incredible 108 laps. Pole sitter Cale Yarborough finished second, though he clearly had the faster car. He had driven for Junior up until the previous year, and he knew a thing of two about the way Johnson sometimes bent the rules. Cale loudly proclaimed there was no way that car could have gone 108 laps with a legally sized fuel cell. NASCAR checked the tank and found something remarkable. Before the event it had held 20.6 gallons. After the race it had somehow shrunk to 20.1 gallons, which made the 108 mile plus fuel economy run all that much more remarkable. Despite the raised eyebrows over the amazing shrinking fuel cell, and allegations there was an inflatable bladder inside it, NASCAR ruled since the fuel cell was well under the legal maximum of 22 gallons the win would stand. Neil Bonnett, who wound up fourth, weighed in with his own tongue in cheek spin on the situation. "I thought when Cale left Junior he would have took the oversized fuel cell with him. I guess Junior kept it." Ironically enough, Bonnett was driving for Johnson a few years later.
The closest finish ever at Rockingham, and one of the closest anywhere for that matter, took place in the Spring race of 1985. Terry Labonte took the pole that day and led a good part of the race. Harry Gant and Neil Bonnett, in a Junior Johnson Chevy, were the other dominant cars at the event and the three of them swapped the lead over and over. Bill Elliott, who had had a career day dominating the Daytona 500 only a few weeks before, suffered a serious setback that day. A blown tire on lap 282 put Bill into the wall hard enough that he broke his leg. One of the more unusual entries at that year's Rockingham event was an unsponsored Thunderbird carrying the number "1", driven by Dick Brooks. The car was owned by Petty Enterprises, though Richard was driving for Mike Curb that year and Kyle had signed on with the Wood Brothers. The Petty Enterprises team only made four starts that year. In the closing laps of the event, Bonnett and Gant were involved in a furious fight for the lead, with Harry having the lead, and Neil all over the back of Gant's Chevy trying to wrest the point from him. Coming out of the fourth turn on the final lap, Bonnett bulled his way past Gant, and crossed the line eight inches ahead of his rival.
Kyle Petty has had a lot of success at the North Carolina Motor Speedway. Three of his eight career victories have taken place at Rockingham. While he has enjoyed many fine runs there, certainly the best day for Kyle had to be March 4th, 1990. UNOCAL had instituted a prize for any driver that won a race from the pole . The prize started at $7600 and an additional 7600 bucks was thrown into the kitty each time the prize was not claimed. No driver starting from the pole had won for the last thirty races, so the bonus stood at a staggering $228,000. Kyle was in his sophomore season with the Felix Sabates team, and the pairing had yet to win an event. They had shown some decent speed but reliability was a problem. No one was too surprised when Kyle took the pole, but at the end of the day he had bested all comers and took home $228,000 worth of UNOCAL bonus money for his efforts. Coupled with the first place prize money, Kyle earned $284,450 that day. To put that sum in perspective, Derrick Cope who had won the Daytona 500 that year received only $188,000, and Kyle had earned just over $117,000 in prize money during the entire 1989 season. In addition to the check Kyle received, yet another nice little bonus from his notoriously generous and eccentric owner, Felix Sabates, in the form of a Rolls Royce. Now if Felix had chosen to race Rolls Royces rather than those notoriously uncompetitive Pontiacs all those years, who knows how many races Kyle might have won ?
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