50 Years of nascar racing ~ You Never Forget Your First, Part 3 (Post 69)
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.
What greater thrill can a driver experience than his first Winston Cup Victory? Join us for another glance in the rearview mirror at some outstanding NASCAR driver's first wins.
Kyle Petty - What longer shadow could a young driver grow up in, than that of the King of Stock Car racing? Though he raced go-karts as a younger man, Kyle was undecided about what route his career would take, having considered trying his hand as a Country singer as well as a stock car driver. That route eventually led to Daytona. Richard had a deal with his son Kyle, just as Lee Petty had made with Richard; there would be no stock car racing before the age of 21. But just as Lee had relented and let Richard fudge a little on the age requirement, so did the King. The decision was made that much easier by the fact Petty enterprises had a bunch of butt ugly and dog slow Dodge Magnums laying around the shop, which the team had given up on in 1978 before switching to Chevys. Kyle was allowed to use one of those cars to run in the 1979 February ARCA race at Daytona. Amazingly, he won the race, the very first one he had entered. Richard also won that year's Daytona 500, making for a great human interest story. It would take a bit longer for Kyle to score a Winston Cup win. In fact Kyle had been racing on and off in the series seven years without a victory. People were beginning to question not only his talent, but how committed he was to the sport. Again, a lot of drivers go a lot longer than seven years without a Cup victory, but when your last name is Petty, you are held to a higher standard. Kyle found a way to silence his critics early in the 1986 season, but the circumstances were more than a little unusual. At the second race of the season, held at Richmond, it seemed like the contest would come down to a battle between Dale Earnhardt, who had led most of the race, and a hard charging Darrell Waltrip. Of course, with two of the most aggressive drivers in the sport contesting for a win, there was always the possibility of fireworks, and Geoff Bodine and Joe Ruttman lurked back in third and fourth ready to capitalize if DW and the Intimidator got into it. Kyle was running in fifth, a good ways back. Darrell finally managed to pass Dale on the back-straight with three laps left. Dale didn't think too much of that, and drove hard into three, trying to retake the lead. Too hard. Earnhardt got into DW's Chevy and they both headed for the wall. Bodine and Ruttman were unable to avoid the wreck and were swept up in the mess as well. A stunned Kyle Petty weaved his way through the carnage, and took the lead, going on to win the race under caution. Like that Dodge Magnum he drove in 1979, the win wasn't pretty but it got the job done.
Ned Jarrett- Ned Jarrett was born to a semi-prosperous family that owned a lumber business. His father did not want his son Ned to drive race cars, as in those days racers were still perceived as moonshiners and hooligans. But Jarrett had a burning desire to race, so he began competing, first behind his father's back, and finally with his blessing. While his goal was the Grand National circuit, Jarrett drove in the Sportsman ranks first, claiming the title in that division in both 1957 and 1958. Two championships in that highly competitive division should have been enough to get Ned a ride, but when the phone didn't ring he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Surprisingly, for a man who has a well earned reputation for moral fortitude, Jarrett's break into Grand National racing involved a bit of subterfuge. A local racer was selling a Grand National car, but Jarrett didn't have enough money to buy it. Thus he showed up at the fellow's house after the banks closed on Friday and wrote a check for the full amount. The way Ned saw it, all he had to do to make the check good was win both Grand National races that weekend, and deposit his winnings before the seller went to deposit the check Monday. With the exuberance of youth, it never occurred to Jarrett that he might not win both races, or worse, the car could get wrecked.
The race that evening was held at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Jarrett qualified mid-pack, but several of the front runners fell out with mechanical problems during the event, including Richard Petty, whose convertible Oldsmobile broke a ball joint on the rough dirt track. The Ford Jarrett was driving held together and he was able to win his first Grand National race that night. The win came with a price though. In those days, drivers used to wrap their steering wheels with electrical tape to give them more grip, and to ease some of the vibration and shock transmitted through the rim of the wheel. One of Jarrett's friends tried to be helpful and wrapped the wheel for Ned, but went clockwise with the tape, rather than counterclockwise as it was supposed to be done. Thus every time the wheel spun through Jarrett's hands coming out of the corners onto a straight, the raised edge of the tape tore away at the flesh of his palm and fingers. By the time the race was over, Jarrett had wounds in his hands so severe bone was showing in places. Despite those painful injuries, Ned had to drive in and win the next night's event to be able to make good the check. In an awesome display of guts, Jarrett started the next night's race at the Charlotte Fairgrounds, before eventually calling on relief help from Joe Weatherly, who happened to be in the pit area just watching the race. Lee Petty looked strong early but lost an engine mid-race. Weatherly eventually called for relief too, and Junior Johnson, who had lost an engine on lap 76, hopped into the car, eventually piloting Jarrett's Ford to victory lane. The winnings were enough to allow Ned to make good the check, and his career was off to a running start. Talk about a talented tag team of drivers. Jarrett, Johnson and Weatherly would eventually amass 125 wins between them, though in separate cars from that night forward.
Dale Jarrett- Dale Jarrett was another racer's son, who wasn't sure at first that he wanted to be a racer, much like Kyle Petty. DJ was a talented golfer, and many say he could easily have gone on to be a star in the PGA. Fortunately for his fans, Dale eventually decided to follow in his father's footsteps. Unlike Kyle, Dale's father had not become a car owner after retiring, preferring instead to go into broadcasting and promoting races. There was no Jarrett owned Cup team that could take in the heir apparent, and nurture him patiently along through the difficult learning process. Dale made his mark first in Late Model Sportsman and eventually in the Busch series. His Busch career was decent, if not stellar, with Dale taking 11 wins in that series. He made occasional starts in the Winston Cup series for various owners in 1984 and 1986, before joining the circuit full time in 1988. Still the line on Jarrett was he was a journeyman driver who got a ride only because of his last name, and success did not come quickly to dispel that notion. In 1990 Jarrett joined the Wood Brothers team and posted a career best finish of fourth, hardly the stuff legends are made of. 1991 started out a bit better, with a sixth at Daytona, and again at Bristol, followed by a fifth place finish in Charlotte at the 600. The team had been terribly inconsistent but things began gelling later in the season with a string of top ten finishes. Still, no one was prepared for what happened at Michigan that August. Jarrett ran well that day, but wasn't one of the drivers contending for the win. A late race caution flag changed the entire complexion of the race. While most of the lead lap cars elected to go with fresh tires for the ten lap sprint to the checkers once racing resumed, the cagey Wood Brothers decided to gamble on track position, and Dale stopped only long enough to pit for a splash and go stop. He returned to the track as the leader, but everyone behind him had fresh rubber, and there were still 20 miles to the checkers. Davey Allison, the son of another famous father and a driver who had led much of the race, was on a mission and came charging through the pack and caught Jarrett with two laps to go. Catching Dale and passing him turned out to be two different matters. The two Fords ran side by side those final two laps, swapping paint on more than one occasion as they battled for the top spot. Coming out of Turn Four for the final time, it was still either driver's race, with the cars drag racing to the finish, sheetmetal banging and clanging as they came. At the line Jarrett prevailed by less than a foot, and even NASCAR asked to see the photo finish pictures before announcing a winner. Calling the race from the booth for ESPN that day, was Dale's proud father, Ned.
Junior Johnson - If the early days of stock car racing had a face, it was that of Junior Johnson, a good old boy, unrepentant bootlegger who once did a stint in prison, and a lead foot driver who didn't know a lick about taking it easy, even when he had a big lead. Junior would go around you, through you or over you as the situation demanded out there on the track, rather than wait for you to get out of the way. Junior's first win came at the equally legendary Hickory Speedway, where his racing career had begun. In typical Junior Johnson fashion, he didn't win the easy way. Having earned the outside pole position in his Oldsmobile, Junior battled fiercely with pole sitter Tim Flock, in one of Carl Kiekhaefer's dominant Chryslers in the early going. Eventually, the two cars collided and spun out. Undeterred, Junior and Tim set their sights back on the front of the pack, and stormed off through the field. By lap 64 Junior was back in the lead, and held the point for almost 100 laps, fending off Flock. Finally he overdrove a corner and spun out yet again, giving the lead to Tim. Once again, Junior took off on a mission and with 28 laps to go, passed Flock yet again for the lead, and held on for the win. It was races like the one held that day in Hickory that would attract the interest of the fans, and help NASCAR grow into what it is today.
David Pearson- David Pearson got his start in racing the way most of his contemporaries did in those days, with a car he built himself on a dirt floor garage, racing on local dirt tracks, with sheer guts carrying him to the front despite a shoestring budget. By 1960, he was able to scrape together enough cash to buy a used Grand National car, and while David won no races, he did finish well enough to earn Rookie of the Year honors. He tried to continue running as an independent in 1961, but finally ran out of cash, and had to park the car. What initially seemed a disaster turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Pearson showed up at the World 600 in Charlotte that year, hoping to be able to find a ride. Veteran car owner Ray Fox had one of the dominating Pontiacs but no driver. A deal was struck, and Pearson had his ride for the 600. That year's 600 was a brutal affair, with fully 29 of 55 starters dropping out because of mechanical failures or wrecks. One savage wreck cost Reds Kagle his left leg. Pearson was competitive right from the outset, and waged battle with Ralph Earnhardt, before Earnhardt suffered overheating problems that hampered his finish. Pearson was able to beat pre-race favorite, Fireball Roberts to the line, and take his first victory in his first ride with Ray Fox. The win was not without some last moment drama however. Pearson blew a tire with two laps to go, but refused to pit and risk giving up the lead. By that point he was so pumped up, Pearson probably could have gotten out and carried the car those last two laps. By the time he finished the race, the tire had completely disintegrated, and David's Pontiac was trailing a line of sparks behind it as it crossed the finish line. The team would go on to post two more victories that year, before parting ways in 1962. It would be 1964 before Pearson got to enjoy the sweet taste of victory again, though his win at the 1961 Charlotte 600 was the first of an eventual 105 wins. Pearson ranks second to Richard Petty on the all time win list.
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