#37 - Atlanta Motor Speedway
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
The Atlanta Motor Speedway was originally slated to hold its inaugural event in 1959, but a combination of construction delays and bad weather pushed the opening date back to July 31st of 1960. Still, Atlanta was one of the crown jewels of the new superspeedways popping up all over, and over the years there have been some memorable finishes there in the spring race.
Bobby Allison performed a miraculous comeback in the Atlanta 500 in March of 1970, aboard one of those high-winged Dodge Daytonas. With only 10 laps left to run in the event, Cale Yarborough in a Mercury was leading comfortably and Allison was a full lap down, despite a determined charge to the front. On lap 318, Yarborough ducked into the pits for a "splash and go" stop to get him to the finish. Just as Cale stopped in his pit stall, the yellow flag flew when Bobby's brother Donnie blew an engine, dropping him out of second place. The resultant caution allowed Bobby to make up his lap and then charge into the pits for fuel and right side tires. Bobby Allison lined up directly behind Yarborough for the restart with two laps to go, and just plain out-gutted Yarborough, diving into the first turn hard and low, the tortured tires of his Dodge shrieking in protest. Yarborough had a strong car and made several determined attempts to retake the lead but Allison clung to the point with the tenacity of a terrier with a rat in its jaws, and managed to cross the stripe 50 feet ahead of his rival.
The 1975 Atlanta 500 was a bit unusual in that thanks to a scoring miscue, the two leaders had to run two extra laps, making the event a 503.44 mile race. Richard Petty had built up a comfortable 30-second lead when a late caution flag put Buddy Baker right on his rear bumper. Lap 328, the scheduled distance, came and went but the checkered flag never flew. A problem in the scoring tower led officials to believe there was still a lap to go when they threw the green and white flag simultaneously. The King managed to hold off Buddy Baker's best efforts to get around him in that one lap dash, fortunately for NASCAR, because had Baker managed to pass Richard, the debate over the scoring cards could have gone on all night. The press and Petty's daughter, Sharon, both claimed the race had finished under yellow. NASCAR promised to get the glitch in the electronics worked out before the next race.
Some races serve, at least in retrospect, as notice that the changing of the guard from one generation to the next is underway. Such was the case at the spring race in Atlanta in 1980. Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough had dominated the sport as far as championships in the seventies, claiming 8 titles between them. David Pearson and Bobby Allison were the other big names of the time and those four drivers were always heavy favorites everywhere they ran, despite the inroads being made by Darrell Waltrip in the previous couple years. But none of NASCAR's Senior Statesman won that day in Atlanta. That honor went to the 1979 Rookie Of the Year, Dale Earnhardt, who took his first Superspeedway win at that event, only the second win of his career. Earnhardt muscled past Allison with 29 laps to go and never looked back. "This I could get used to." Dale was quoted as saying, grinning in victory lane. As we all know, it was not his last visit to victory lane at a track where Earnhardt has enjoyed some of his greatest successes including a record eight victories. Another rookie was entered in that event as well, making his very first Winston Cup start. A fuzzy haired kid from Missouri by the name of Rusty Wallace drove a Chevy for Roger Penske, the first start for the Penske team in three years. Rusty stunned everyone in attendance by finishing second that day. Other relative newcomers in the field who didn't fare so well that day included Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd and Kyle Petty, the King's boy, all of whom were destined for success a little further down the road. Dale Earnhardt went on to win the Winston Cup Championship that year. Despite his remarkable success in his first Winston Cup start, it was a few years before Rusty landed a full time ride. Since then, the (usually) friendly rivals, Wallace and Earnhardt, have treated fans to many close one-two battles including the March Atlanta race in 88.
The March event of 1991 was won rather easily by Ken Schrader, thanks to a heads up bit of pit strategy by his crew chief Richard Broome. The first 47 laps were run on Sunday, but rain forced the rest of the race to be postponed until Monday. Broome had Schrader pit under the yellow flag laps at the beginning of Monday's resumption of the race, which allowed him to make one less pit stop than the rest of the field, and take a comfortable three second lead over Bill Elliott. What's most memorable about that race is all the off track fireworks. Cale Yarborough, who was displeased with Dick Trickle's run that day, fired him shortly afterwards and put Lake Speed in the car. Jack Roush was so displeased with a bungled pit stop that cost Mark Martin several on track positions, he grabbed his crew chief Robin Pemberton and began strangling him, then shoved Ryan Pemberton aside when he tried to intervene. Hooters had been sponsoring a young man by the name of Mark Stahl up until that race, but he failed to qualify for the field. Hooters CEO, Robert Brooks, quickly made arrangements with Alan Kulwicki, who despite struggling financially to race without a sponsor, had taken the pole position for the event, to carry the restaurant's logo during the event. Brooks was impressed enough by Kulwicki's eighth place run, he agreed to sponsor the team full time shortly thereafter. Davey Allison had a far less successful day, finishing dead last after crashing on lap 56. Allison was incensed with the way his car had been handling and blamed it on crew chief "Suitcase" Jake Elder. The two had been at odds before, and both men blamed the other for their failure to communicate about how the car had to be set up. To show his displeasure, Davey jumped in the car afterwards and began doing smoking doughnuts until he blew the engine up. Robert Yates was forced to decide whether to keep Allison or Elder, and in the end sent Jake packing. Elder's replacement turned out to be one Larry McReynolds, who of course, bought the struggling 28 team to the top ranks of the sport.
One of the most exciting finishes ever at Atlanta's spring event took place in March of 1984. The entire race was a thriller, with perennial rivals Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough, along with Benny Parsons, driving for the new Johnny Hayes team, scrapping like pit bulls over the lead for most of the event. Both Yarborough and Earnhardt were well known for their willingness to swap a little paint in the late stages of a race to get the win, but it was Benny Parsons, who surprised a lot of people that day by showing when he was pushed he didn't mind pushing back. Benny took the lead on lap 322 and held onto for all he was worth, while his two rivals tried every trick in the book, including a few that should have sent Parsons for an up close and personal view of the wall. In the end, Benny prevailed, beating Earnhardt to the line by less than a second, with Cale still trying to shove his way past both of them as the three cars came to the line.
Sometimes, in addition to racing the other drivers, a competitor needs to battle the elements as well at Atlanta. The spring race of 1982 was held under threatening skies with heavy rains in the forecast. Any conservative strategy had to be thrown out the window as the race approached halfway and the drivers were aware the event would probably not go its full distance. Dale Earnhardt was well suited for the "take no prisoners" style of racing, leading 155 of the first 202 laps, but the rain didn't arrive soon enough for him. The engine in the Bud Moore Ford he was driving protested the abuse by expiring on lap 211. As the skies grew darker, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip scrapped over the lead. Petty retook the point on lap 275 just as the rain began to fall. Both drivers knew they were racing back to the caution flag that would most likely signal the end of the race. As the rain began falling hard enough the drivers could barely see, Waltrip made a desperate move and charged into the rain slick third corner, foot denting the floorboards. Petty tried to hold him off but slipped up the slick track, allowing Waltrip to get a nose past him. As the two drivers crossed the finish line in a driving rain, Waltrip had a two-foot advantage on the King. But perhaps that's appropriate. After all, in 1982, Darrell Waltrip was the "raining" Winston Cup Champion.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.