A Little Ramble in Delaware
There have been 94 Grand National/Cup/Monster/NASCAR races in Delaware, and every one of them has been at Dover Downs Int’l Speedway. That’s a shame; Delaware Int’l Raceway and Georgetown Speedway are both big and fast dirt half-miles that would separate the adults from the adolescents among current Cup competitors. In an earlier day, the Delaware State Fairgrounds at Harrington would have accomplished the same thing (it was used for horses, cars and motorcycles but is just for the ponies these days.) If only . . .
Dover is unique among NASCAR tracks in that it was built for horses and cars from the beginning, although each had its own racing surface. Cars were somewhat secondary in the early days (and might be headed that way again), but the whole enterprise is anchored to a casino now.
Here’s Petty in a Chevy; he also won in a Ford, a Dodge and a Plymouth. Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison dominated Dover’s early days.
The first auto race was held in 1969, a 300-lapper held two days after the Firecracker 400 at Daytona (ask the engineers to pull that off today). Not surprisingly, since there was no time to fix anything after Daytona, the starting lineup was filled with make-do entries:
Virginian Jabe Thomas’ car owner had two entries, but Thomas drove neither, choosing instead a backup Bill Champion Ford (which he wrecked). Jabe’s car owner Don Robertson’s cars were both in the garage by lap 10. Tour regular Ed Negre drove a backup car for tour regular Neil Castles, and Elmo Langley hopped into his own backup car, leaving his regular #64 to substitute driver Dub Simpson, who lasted but 64 laps. Elmo finished fifth.
Most of the big teams skipped the race, so pole-sitter David Pearson (Holman-Moody Ford #17), outside front-row starter LeeRoy Yarbrough (Junior Johnson Ford #98) and Richard Petty (the year back then when #43 was a Ford) dominated, and when both Pearson and Yarbrough wrecked, Petty cruised home with the win by six laps over Richmond’s Sonny Hutchins in Junie Donlavey’s Ford. Hutchins had qualified fourth, with veteran G.C. Spencer and Northern Virginia late model hopeful Buddy Young making up the third row. All those guys were good, but they lacked the engine/tire/pit crew money to compete over the length of a race. The rest of the field, mostly the classic NASCAR “independent” drivers, fell even farther behind: Langley was 13 laps behind in fifth, and Cecil Gordon finished 27 laps back in 10th.
Petty led 150 laps to 124 for Yarbrough and 26 to Pearson.
Just for reference purposes, at Charlotte for the 600, 17 drivers finished on the lead lap and there were 23 lead changes among 10 different drivers. (Oh, yeah, there were stages and playoff points, too.) At Dover in 1969, there were seven lead changes among three drivers, and the winner won by six laps.
Yet Dover, after another 300-lapper in 1970 (and another Petty win), went to two 500-lap races in 1971 and has had two races a year ever since. Why was it easy to see things as looking UP back then and hard not to consider them looking DOWN today? I think we’ve been over that territory before.
Here’s one difference between then and now that appeals to me - and I’ve mentioned it before, so forgive the repeat. I love to cheer for an underdog. Dover was always one of those races that had a tough time filling its field, and you’d get some unusual competitors. In 1970, John Kenney, a guy Dave Fulton and I had seen race on the local late model tour (usually closer to the back of the pack than the front), got into the race. OK, he only ran six laps, but he was there.
Kenny Brightbill made several Dover starts, but as the photo below shows, this one definitely didn’t end well. That’s Jim Hurtubise in the #0, by the way.
For several years Junie Donlavey put local short track stars in his #90; Eddie Pettyjohn was one of them. I think his kid races today. Modified aces Maynard Troyer and Kenny Brightbill ran. Donlavey once ran English road racing standout Jackie Oliver, who finished fourth in 1972 (albeit 14 laps back). Canadian drivers sometimes showed up because - well - Dover is closer to Canada than Charlotte.
These days, unless somebody buys the seat in one of the four slowest cars in the field, you see the same troupe every week.
“Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to Dover, Del., in 1974. I want to see Brightbill and Pettyjohn show their chops to NASCAR’s best, even though they’ll spend the rest of their careers on the dirt. It’ll be fun, for sure.”
(Editorial Comment – The race that Jody Ridley won at Dover on May 17, 1981 was the only win ever scored by any of the 72 different drivers that piloted Junie’s #90 in the Cup Series. Ridley had been laps down, but when Neil Bonnett and Cale Yarborough both blew engines within 40 laps of the end, he inherited the lead and kept it. Junie expressed thoughts on the win this way. "That took the edge off of us winning, to tell you the truth. I understand you take a win any way you can get it, but I didn't enjoy it."
Junie Donlavey April 8, 1924 – June 9, 2014)