50 Years of nascar racing ~ Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction: Part 2 (Post 101)
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.
Once again travel back to the days of yore, and recall some of the stranger occurrences that have taken place in NASCAR's storied history. All the stories below are true and verifiable…..believe it or don't!
August 11th a night race was held at the International Raceway Park in Ona, West Virginia. Richard Petty was leading the event when a sudden power outage on the 45th lap plunged the racers and 8,600 fans in the stands into complete blackness. Speeds at that track were in excess of 100 MPH so you can imagine the power failure got the drivers' attention. Petty recalls getting on the brakes and sideswiping another race car, but to this day he doesn't know who it was. Once power was restored, Richard went on to win the race by over eight laps, and the King pocketed the princely $1,700 first place check.
Road America in Elkhart Lake Wisconsin is one of this country's most beautiful road race circuits, and at 4.1 miles in length, one of the most challenging ones as well. The CART series still runs at this facility. But did you know that the Grand National (Now Winston Cup) circuit once raced at that track? The date was August 12th 1956, and it was raining that day as well. So the event was postponed, right? Nope. In those days the stock cars still ran on the same treaded tires anyone could buy at Sears or the local filling station, complete with tread. The cars were still equipped with windshield wipers as well, so the event went on as scheduled. Tim Flock won his first Grand National event, edging out his Bill Stroppe teammate by 17 seconds in his 56 Mercury.
NASCAR drivers survived the rain and dark of night and they've also raced at tracks that were on fire. On Easter Sunday, 1959, the Grand National drivers were at Wilson Speedway in Wilson, North Carolina practicing for that day's event when the main grandstands caught on fire. The crowd was evacuated to the back grandstands as the main stands burned to the ground. Though qualifying had to be canceled, the event went on as scheduled and Junior Johnson edged out Curtis Turner for the win. Fortunately the race wasn't a sell out or a lot of ticket holders would have gotten burned. A fire at Asheville-Weaverville, February 28th, 1965 broke out in the middle of the race along the backstretch. The caution flag was thrown while the local volunteer fire company extinguished the grass fire, and racing resumed. Unfortunately, all the wind generated by the race cars roaring by re-ignited the blaze, which quickly became worse than the first fire and threatened the grandstands. Many spectators actually helped the firemen contain the blaze. Ned Jarrett held on to win the race that day en route to his second championship.
At what price sportsmanship? At the spring race in Bristol in 1970, Jabe Thomas was over a hundred laps behind leader Donnie Allison, apparently got bored just cruising around and decided to have a little fun. He roared into the pits and stopped in Donnie Allison's pits to have a chat with Banjo Matthews, who owned Allison's car. "How much will you pay me not to spin Donnie out?" Thomas hollered at Banjo. Banjo waved Jabe out of the pit stall. In those days, two way radios were not in common use. To communicate with the driver pit crews used large chalkboards they held over the pit wall as their driver flashed by. The next time Thomas came by Banjo was holding out a pit board that read "50 cents ". Thomas dashed back into the pits, put out his hand and collected two shiny new quarters as Allison's ransom. Jabe didn't spin out Donnie, who went on to win the race.
Speaking of pit boards, Buddy Baker gave NASCAR fans a stunning example of why radios are in use these days to talk to the driver. The last race of the 1969 season was held December 7th, and was the first race at the new College Station, Texas track. For Buddy, that's a date that will live in infamy. He clearly was the class of the field that day, starting from the pole and dominating most of the event in a Cotton Owens owned Dodge Daytona. The caution flag flew on lap 228 with Baker leading the race. His crew held up a pit board telling Buddy to take it easy and he grinned and gave a thumbs up. While he was busy reading the sign and looking at his pit crew he rear ended James Hylton, destroying the nose piece and radiator of his Dodge, and was eliminated from the race. Cotton was so furious he threw the sign board Frisbee style at Baker as he limped into the pits.
Jimmy Spencer has earned the nickname " Mr. Excitement" but rarely has he ever been as exciting to watch as on the last lap of the DieHard 500 in 1990. As a pack of cars roared down the back straight, Michael Waltrip, who had been gambling on fuel mileage, lost his bet and slowed suddenly. Kenny Schrader slammed into the rear of the Waltrip car and then Spencer came roaring into the mess. His car got sideways and rolled down the back straight before finally settling down on all four wheels. Mr. Excitement calmly re-fired the car and completed the lap finishing 26th that day.
Another hard hit a driver endured actually took place off the track. Fireball Roberts was Pontiac's golden boy in 1963, winning 4 of the 20 races he entered in a Banjo Matthews' owned Pontiac. Pontiac was so pleased they gave him a flashy new car, painted in the same black with a gold roof paint scheme of his race car, and powered by a big block engine. Fireball was justifiably proud of his fine new car. According to legend, Joe Weatherly challenged Fireball to a drag race one night, a drag race with an odd twist. The race would be held in reverse. Humpy Wheeler, now the promoter at Charlotte, rode along in the back seat of Fireball's car to call the winner. What neither Roberts or Wheeler noticed was near the end of the course there were a couple three foot high telephone pole stumps. Of course they would have had to look hard to see them because Joe had painted them black to disguise them. The impact was said to have sent the rear bumper of that car clear into the back seat.
Another jester of the sport's early days was Curtis Turner. While some stories about Curtis can't be told in polite company, there is a classic that took place August 18th ,1966 at the dirt track in Columbia, South Carolina. Turner was competing in Junior Johnson's Ford, which was sponsored by Holly Farms Chicken. Well aware of Turner's outlandish behavior, the Holly Farms folks told Curtis they wanted him to "clean up his act". For instance they wanted him to wear a driver's suit, not dungarees and t shirts. So Curtis showed up at a race wearing a three-piece suit. Turner finished third in his Sunday best, which was thoroughly ruined by all that dirt and dust. Said Curtis, "They didn't specify what sort of suit they wanted me to wear so I wore my best. You gotta look good, you know?"
This final story has been told and retold so many times , no one knows exactly what date the breakfast occurred or where, but it does give a glimpse of the wit and wisdom of the legendary Junior Johnson. Junior had decided to retire as a driver (he would retire and un-retire numerous times) as there had been a frightening amount of fatalities and hard crashes in stock car racing at that point. But Junior had legions of fans and Bill France was concerned his retiring would hurt the tracks at the turnstiles. Thus he invited Junior to breakfast to try to convince him to change his mind. It was France's contention that Junior couldn't retire because he was "committed" to racing. Johnson retorted he was not "committed" to racing, only "involved." France asked Junior what the difference was. Motioning at his bacon and egg breakfast Junior explained, "The chicken was involved with this breakfast. The pig is committed."
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