50 Years of nascar racing ~ The World 600 (Post 56)
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.
There may be a race more prestigious, a race that is faster and a race that is older, but there are none longer than the traditional Memorial Day weekend World 600. First staged in 1960, the event has been always been a challenge of survival to man and machine, and a crowning achievement in any driver's resume.
The 600-mile length of the inaugural event was an attempt to upstage the Daytona 500 by Curtis Turner and perpetual showman Bruton Smith. To put it kindly, the first running of the classic race was an unmitigated disaster. The date had to be pushed back June 19th, 1960, when the race track was not completed in time, and the asphalt did not have time to cure properly. Shortly after the cars took to the track in practice, the asphalt began coming up, leaving deep potholes and spraying the cars with fist-sized clumps of the track surface. The situation got so bad the three Petty cars (driven by Lee, Richard and Bobby Johns) were equipped with protective screens over the radiator area and windshields soon thereafter. In a feat of sheer guts, Fireball Roberts set a pole speed of close to 134 MPH on the pockmarked surface. While the owners announced the crowd as 70,000 plus, less than half that were actually on hand, and the inflated number was a ruse to try to calm anxious creditors clamoring to be paid by the financially troubled facility. During the race, Fireball Roberts charged into an early lead, only to be eliminated in a crash before one third of the event was run, when he got out of shape in the "marbles" that littered the track. Tom Pistone took his turn at the front but was slowed and eventually eliminated by brake failure. Jack Smith took the point and led for 193 laps. He had actually built up a five lap lead over second place runner Joe Lee Johnson when a chunk of asphalt punched a hole in Smith's fuel tank. Johnson went on to lead the final 72 laps and had a four-lap advantage over Johnny Beauchamp when the race ended. 24 of the 60 cars were officially listed as running after the brutal race, with the three Petty cars flagged as finishing in positions three through five. Of those 24 cars, six were disqualified days later, including Richard and Lee Petty, for making improper entrances to the poorly designed pit road.
The winner of the 1967 event was another great driver whose name has almost been lost to history, and he overcame some long odds to hang onto his victory. Firestone had a new tire available to the drivers that day, and as they were extremely quick in qualification and practice, most of the field mounted up that particular compound for the race. Unfortunately, under race conditions the tires wore out quickly and began falling apart, forcing those drivers to make frequent pit stops. Jim Paschal, his '67 Plymouth shod with Goodyears, played tortoise to the Firestone hares and took advantage of superior tire life to build up a comfortable 3-lap lead, turning laps in the 150 MPH range. Paschal seemed to be on his way to an easy victory when he got high off a corner, into the marbles and slid sideways into the wall. The big Plymouth rode 300 feet down the wall with sparks flying as the right side sheet metal was ground away. The caution flew and Paschal limped to the pits to have his Friedkin Enterprises crew attempt to repair the car. They used sledge hammers and crowbars to get the sheetmetal off the tires but there was no way to repair the suspension or the toe-out that was knocked into left field. Paschal returned to the track, having lost his entire three lap advantage and manhandled the ill handling Plymouth around the track, his speed down to 141 MPH average laps. When Bobby Allison and David Pearson began closing on him, Paschal took the bit in his teeth, and even knowing something could break at any moment, he upped his speed to a 148 MPH average to hold on and win by five seconds over Pearson in one of the most awesome displays of guts and determination in our sport ever. As a side note, Neil Castles drove an odd looking Dodge that day. There was a movie camera on the rear deck being used to shoot footage for the Elvis Presley flick, "Speedway." Castles had to pit frequently to let the camera crews change film reels.
The promoters at Charlotte have always seemed to have a great love of publicity stunts, and Richard Howard was no exception. He came up with an idea where fans got to vote for their favorite locals drivers in the "Big Chance Special" contest , with the winners receiving the chance to drive in the 600 in one of two cars, one prepared by Junior Johnson, and the other an entry belonging to Doc Fuastina. Charlie Blanton won the Faustina ride and actually made it into the top ten for a while before dropping out with mechanical failure. Buddy Baker dominated much of the race, but blew a tire and spun his car on lap 264. Undeterred, Baker charged into the pits, got fresh rubber and launched a determined effort to get back to the front, retaking the lead from Richard Petty five laps later. David Pearson challenged late in the event, but on the final caution flag pit stops, the Wood Brothers elected to replace just two tires, while Baker's crew went all the way around his car. The extra traction of the fresh left hand tires proved to be the advantage Baker needed to overhaul his swift rival and hang on to win the race by 1.8 seconds over David.
Pearson was back in 1974 with a score to settle. That year's race was shortened to 540 miles due to the Energy Crisis, but there was no shortage of energy under the hood of Pearson's Wood Brothers Mercury. Other drivers showing considerable muscle included perennial 70's front runners, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, the new kid on the block. With 18 laps to go, David and Cale were battling for second while Richard Petty was leading. The pursuing pair got into some oil in a turn and made contact. Yarborough bought the wall while Pearson sped on in pursuit of Petty. Soon after the restart, Pearson muscled his way past the King with nine laps remaining and the two waged a spirited battle until the King decided he had nothing for David and eased off a bit to bring home a second rather than a wreck. Still, the margin of victory was only .6 seconds when Pearson took the flag. Allison grabbed third with Darrell Waltrip right on his rear bumper.
The 1978 running of the World 600 provided what is arguably the most exciting finish in the history of the event. Darrell Waltrip had the lead when Dale Earnhardt, making only his fifth Winston Cup start in a car Richard Howard had arranged for the popular local to drive, spun with four laps to go and brought out the caution flag, bunching up the field for a two-lap dash for all the marbles. Waltrip was at the point, with Donnie Allison and Benny Parsons behind him. Going into turn one just after the green flag flew, Benny tried passing Allison on the high side and the two cars hit. Allison managed to stay out of the wall, but Parsons went spinning and nailed David Pearson. The dramatic shuffling of the deck left Waltrip in first at the stripe, with Donnie Allison second, his brother Bobby having slipped into third, Yarborough fourth, and Pearson and Parsons recovering to hang onto fifth and sixth, Benny piloting a badly mangled Olds to the line.
Dale Earnhardt is a three time winner at the World 600, but those wins have not always been without controversy. Such was the case in the 1992 event. That particular race was dominated by Kyle Petty, though Ernie Irvan had made an outstanding charge from two laps down to harass Kyle from a close second place position. Both drivers had close to a four-second advantage over third place Earnhardt who had not yet led a single lap the that day, but all three drivers still needed to make a final pit stop. Petty and Irvan pitted together, slowing carefully to the 55 MPH pit road speed to avoid a penalty. Petty's pit crew was three tenths of a second faster on that round of stops and he returned to the track just ahead of Ernie. The next time by, Earnhardt came roaring into the pits, seemingly heedless of the pit road speed limit, and in a nifty if frightening bit of driving, locked up his brakes and skidded thirty feet, but wound up dead center in his pit stall. Earnhardt's crew did indeed beat Petty's by eight tenths of a second, but still considering he had been 3 seconds behind before the pit stops, many people were shocked to see Dale take the lead after his stop, and the only logical explanation was he had violated the pit road speed limit. Earnhardt tactfully said later maybe he "fudged it just a little." Irvan managed to grab second from Petty, but he had nothing for the 3 car. After the race, both Kyle and Ernie were incensed, but there was no way to alter the outcome. To rub a little salt in the wound, Earnhardt paid Irvan a backhanded compliment in victory lane, saying "He (Irvan) raced me hard but clean", then added "I was a little surprised by that."
Dale Earnhardt's performance in the 1993 World 600 seemed his answer to his critics who had accused him of cheating in the previous year's event. The cards seemed to be stacked against the Intimidator that day. He made a routine pit stop and lost a lap when the caution flew before the other leaders stopped. Dale calmly worked his way back into the lead lap in five laps. He was penalized for speeding on pit road and held in the pits. The next stop he was penalized yet again for too many men over the wall. At that point he was nearly a lap down. Fighting to stay on the lead lap, Earnhardt ran into Greg Sacks and Sacks went spinning. That spin bought out the caution flag. NASCAR had been listening-in to Dale's radio frequency shortly before the incident and heard Earnhardt tell his crew he needed a yellow to avoid going a lap down... and he added he was going to see to it there was a caution period soon. That was all the smoking gun NASCAR needed and they black-flagged Dale and held him a lap for rough driving. That third penalty of the day seemed to incense Dale and from that point forward he drove like a man possessed, charging through traffic with a reckless abandon that is still the stuff of legends, picking off car after car. Rusty Wallace spun on lap 350 and Dale was back on the lead lap. Eight laps after the green flag racing resumed, Dale swept past Ernie Irvan to take the lead. Irvan loudly complained that Dale had knocked him out of the way, but perhaps NASCAR was too afraid to see how hard Earnhardt was going to drive if they penalized him a fourth time. He probably would have set the track ablaze. Dale Earnhardt won the race by almost four seconds over rookie Jeff Gordon that day, and another page was written in the history of the legendary driver from Kannapolis.
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