50 Years of nascar racing ~ You Never Forget Your First, Part 2 (Post 68)
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.
Continue stealing a glance in the rearview mirror at the first NASCAR victories for some of the sport's greatest stars.
Bobby Allison - Already a scourge of the Modified circuit up and down the East Coast, Bobby Allison had dreams of breaking into the NASCAR Grand National ranks. Unfortunately for Allison, his Alabama roots were a bit far from the Carolinas, the cradle of stock car racing, where even a Georgian was considered a "furriner" in those days. Bobby made a few sporadic starts in the big leagues, starting with the 1961 Daytona 500. While the Modified series supported his family, Allison's goal remained focused on the Grand National circuit and in 1965 he finally decided he was tired of waiting for someone to offer him an opportunity. He would have to make things happen himself. In those days, NASCAR used to have a mid-summer "Northern Tour" that paid visits to the Northeastern United States. Most teams elected to sit out that part of the tour, making it a perfect opportunity for an independent driver to be able to make the race, and earn a few bucks. But Ford and Mopar weren't going to hand Bobby one of the all-conquering factory rides of the era, so he was forced to build a car himself, with the help of his brother Eddie. The Chevelle they bought, a 1965 model, had been declared totaled by an insurance company in Louisiana. The engine, a lowly Chevy 327, was pirated out of a junker at the wrecking yard, and the speed parts were bought used at a local hot rod shop. Spotting the Goliaths of the sport 100 cubic inches, but taking advantage of a weight break that NASCAR offered small-block powered entries, Bobby Allison headed north to play the role of David. At the tiny 1/3-mile paved track in Oxford Maine, the combination proved the right one. Allison was able to manhandle his lightweight car around the track more easily than the other drivers in the heavier big-block cars could manage. Remember, this was before the advent of power steering. Bobby Allison led almost flag to flag and was leading Tiny Lund by over a lap when the checkers flew. It was the first of 86 victories for Allison, which ranks him third on the all time list.
[ Editor's note: To date, Bobby Allison's "official" win total stands at 84. He did however, win a race at Bowman Gray Stadium in 1971, but was placed behind the leader because he drove a Mustang, a Grand American car, not a Grand National car. Grand American cars were invited to participate in order to present a full field. In a race at Charlotte in 1973, the drivers placing first and second, Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty, were both found to have run oversized engines, leading to expectation that Allison, who finished third, was the race winner. After threatening to quit and sue, in no particular order, Allison was called to meet with NASCAR officials. He left, giving no comment on the outcome, that he would remain third, other than that he had “received satisfactory restitution”.]
Davey Allison- Bobby's son Davey wanted to drive race cars starting before he could walk. Of course, with his dad and his uncle two of the sport's greatest stars in that era, it may have seemed a natural dream for the young man. But Bobby never handed Davey a race car. He allowed his son to use the shop, and gave him a part time job working there to help Davey finance a Sportsman rank car. Success quickly followed and Davey got his first ride in a Cup car in 1985 at Talladega. A lot of people thought he had only gotten the ride because of his last name. A tenth place finish that day helped silence the critics. Allison drove sporadically for the next two seasons, substitute driving for an injured Neil Bonnett on Junior Johnson's team at Talladega in 1986. Davey finished seventh that day, and that finish, coupled with the nod from Junior Johnson, who had the best eye for new talent in NASCAR history, convinced Harry Ranier to hire Davey to a full time ride in 1987. Ironically, Allison was replacing Cale Yarborough, one of the most experienced and successful drivers of the era. Allison went through some of the normal steep learning curve problems early that season, but a fourth place finish at Atlanta showed he had promise. Talladega was Davey's home track, and where he had made his first start, so it was only normal he was excited about the race there that day in May, with a chance to run in front of his family, friends and long time followers. A third place starting spot seemed to indicate that Davey had a strong enough horse to go for the win. But excitement soon turned to horror, as Allison watched his father Bobby's Buick get airborne in his rearview mirror and saw it smash into the catch fence between the grandstands and the track. The car was wiped out, but Bobby was not seriously injured through the grace of God. Some fans were hurt, but again, miraculously, none of them seriously. Still, it was a tough thing for a young driver to watch, and there was even talk of finding a relief driver during the long red flag period that followed the wreck, while the track safety crew repaired the fence. But when it came time to re-fire the engines, Davey hopped back in the saddle of his Ford and took to the track. He even led a few times, before taking the lead from Dale Earnhardt with ten laps to go, and holding off a determined late-lap charge by Terry Labonte. Davey would go on to win another race that year at Dover. He was the last rookie to win even one race during his first season in Winston Cup.
Terry Labonte - Terry Labonte of Corpus Christie, Texas, was born even further from the Carolinas than the Allisons of Alabama. He got his start racing quarter midgets, and eventually moved up to the Late Model circuit in and around his Texas home. One of the team owners he drove for was Billy Hagan, a self-made millionaire in the oil drilling equipment business. When Labonte relocated to North Carolina it was not as a driver, but as a crew member for the Hagan team, which had moved up to Winston Cup by that point. After Hagan fired his driver, Labonte began campaigning to at least be given a shot at the driver's seat in the car. Finally Hagan caved in and let Terry start the 1978 Southern 500, a notoriously tough race. While a Hollywood script would have had the eager young understudy take the win, Labonte did not take the checkers that day. Still, a fourth place finish earned him a promise of a full time ride in 1979, when Labonte would campaign for Rookie of the Year Honors. Terry's first win would have to wait until 1980. At that year's Southern 500, Labonte was running a credible fourth behind David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt (who had edged him out for Rookie of the Year Honors in 1979) and Benny Parsons. With two laps to go, a lapped car blew an engine and oiled down the track just after the leaders had passed the flag stand. There were no spotters in those days, and a surprised David Pearson got caught up in the oil and slid into the wall. Dale and Benny fared even worse, banging together and spinning off the track. A surprised Labonte found himself in second place, trailing only David Pearson whose car was smoking badly with the right side sheetmetal crushed into the tires. With less than two laps to go, it was obvious the yellow and white flags would fly next time by. Labonte set sail after the wounded Pearson and caught him on the exit to turn four. Pearson tried to block the pass, but Labonte, seeing that caution flag in the starter's hand, got down onto the apron and pulled off an amazing pass to edge David to the line by inches. Labonte would go on to win the Winston Cup championships in 1984 and 1996.
Mark Martin- Mark Martin was the track champion at a short track near his Arkansas home at the tender of age of 14, driving a 6-cylinder Enduro car. He showed enough promise that his family made great sacrifices throughout his early career, eventually even buying a Winston Cup car so Martin could try to make his mark in that division. Despite a badly under-funded team, Mark made a quick impression by grabbing a pair of pole positions his first year out there. That caught the eye of one JD Stacy, who offered Martin a ride for the 1983. Stacy was throwing around money like he hated the stuff, and for a young driver, the chance to drive for a well funded team was irresistible. He sold off his own equipment and shop, laid off his few employees and signed on with Stacy. Despite making the usual noises about knowing he was hiring a rookie and it would take time for Mark to develop, JD went ahead and fired Mark after only seven races, which almost ended Martin's career. For the next several years, Mark was on the outside looking in, grabbing any chance offered to him to drive a Cup car. Then in 1988, Jack Roush, already a legend in drag racing, decided he wanted to enter the Winston Cup fracas, and hired on Mark to drive for him. The combination proved a good one and Mark ended up with 10 top ten finishes his first full season on the circuit. Martin flirted with victory, coming tantalizingly close by finishing second on six occasions during 1988 and 1989. It wasn't until the Fall race at Rockingham, in October 1989 that he finally broke the jinx. That race was a rough one, with no less than 14 caution flags, and Mark came close to be gathered up in several of the wrecks. Compounding his problems was Mark's old buddy from the ASA days, Rusty Wallace, making a determined charge to get around him in the closing laps. But in the end Mark was able to hang on to the lead and take his first checkered flag. The team would go on to finish third in the points that year and a close second to Dale Earnhardt in 1990. While Mark has won many races he is still trying to break the championship jinx.
Cale Yarborough - Despite his having gone on to enjoy one of the most storied careers in stock car racing, Cale Yarborough's racing career did not get off to an auspicious start. At the tender age of 18, Cale took the wheel of a Grand National car, lost control early in the going, flew off the track and wound up sitting in a pond, having to wade back to shore. Asked by a local reporter how he felt, Cale uttered those famous words that could probably serve as an epitaph for any race car driver; "I reckon we'll get em next week." In all actuality it actually took a bit longer than that. Back in 1965, the Grand National (now Winston Cup) schedule included 55 races. Many of them were held on tiny little dirt tracks, like the one in Valdosta, Georgia. It did not seem that the Valdosta event that June was meant to be Cale's big day. He was slated to race a car there, but a fierce storm closed the airport before he could fly to the track. The race started as scheduled, with another driver at the wheel of the entry Cale was supposed to drive, but rain began falling and forced the race to be red flagged 25 laps into the event. Everyone just assumed the next day, the action would resume where it had left off. Such was not the case. Having decided the bad weather had kept away too many fans the previous evening, NASCAR and the promoter decided to restart the race. Cale was on hand, and jumped into his Mercury. Cale did not have the strongest car that day, but two speedier rivals suffered mechanical problems, while Yarborough's car hung together, and he wound up three laps ahead of the JT Putney when the checkered flag fell. The win netted Yarborough a princely $1000, but more importantly, it earned him his first checkered flag.
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