#61 - Richmond, the Pettys, and the Evolution of NASCAR
(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 story of NASCAR racing at Richmond is a story of how things have changed in the sport's top division, and the story includes the reign of the Petty family at that track. Of all the race tracks the Winston Cup series currently runs on, Richmond is the only one where all three Pettys, Lee, Richard and Kyle have won an event.
Richmond originally opened in 1946, though the track did not host its first Grand National event until April 19, 1953. Over the years the facility has had many different names, and configurations as well. Richmond started as a dirt half-mile oval, was paved between the two races in 1968, and was lengthened and improved into its current ¾ mile D shaped oval between the two races held in 1988.
As fine a facility as the Sawyers run today, it is hard to imagine but the inaugural Richmond race that day in April 1953 was a disaster. The track was in terrible condition; deeply rutted to the point cars were scraping their undercarriages and dust hung heavy in the air. A lot of the drivers were saying the track was not suitable for a race, and two of the Flock Brothers held out to qualify late in the session hoping the surface would improve. When the track officials closed the track before they could make their runs, Tim and Fonty Flock were told they could start the race at the rear of the field. They packed up their cars and left in protest. 27 cars went out to race in the deplorable conditions and Lee Petty was lucky enough to have his Dodge survive and get to the line first. He earned $1000 for the win. Herb Thomas got $50 for 10th place and everyone below him received $25 bucks for their efforts. The average speed for the event was only a tick above 48 miles per hour. While no records were kept of attendance in those days, contemporary estimates, notoriously optimistic, put the crowd at about 5,000 souls. Lee Petty would go on to score another win and two second places before his career was cut short by injuries sustained in a crash in a qualifying race for the Daytona 500 in 1961.
Richard Petty's first win at Richmond came under trying circumstances. As noted above, his father had been critically injured at Daytona and was still hospitalized. Richard had become the primary driver for Petty Enterprises, and the weight of keeping the business alive and his family fed fell on his 23-year old shoulders. Richard had yet to win a race since assuming the mantle, and a lot of people felt he wasn't half the driver his old man, an early legend of the sport and three time champion, had been. Only 12 cars started the race that day, April 23rd, 1961. Much of the reason for the small field can be blamed on the Richmond event being the third race in four days. Drivers who had torn up their cars at Columbia or Hickory simply hadn't had time to repair them yet. 7,000 folks were on hand to watch the slim field take the green. Petty passed Ned Jarrett for the lead on lap 19 and led the race the rest of the way, averaging about 62.5 miles per hour. Only six cars were listed as running at the finish. 10th place Rex White, the point leader at that point, earned $230 after parking his car with a bad fuel pump. For his achievement, Petty was able to add $950 to the Petty Enterprises bank account. It was one of only two wins for Richard that year. Of course, Richard won a few more races after 1961, and holds the record for most wins at Richmond with 13.
Fast forward a decade to 1971. Richmond in the spring was one of the early stops on the new Winston Cup tour. Richard Petty had established himself as the King of stock car racing, and was a crowd favorite. But there were problems during tech inspection leading up to the event, which was to start 25 cars. NASCAR inspectors found that Richard's car was blatantly illegal, with the engine set back, the wheelbase altered and the gas tank positioned too low. Compounding the headaches for the promoters was that the cars of James Hylton and Benny Parsons had similar illegal modifications. Suspiciously, the Dodge Bobby Allison was to drive failed to show up in time for tech inspection, perhaps because that team knew their car would be flagged as well in tech. In those days, races never sold out and promoters counted on walk up ticket sales on race day to turn a profit. Paul Sawyer was facing holding a race with four of the most popular drivers having gone home. He sat down with NASCAR and in an unprecedented move, a joint press release was issued; the field would be expanded to 30 cars, and Petty, Allison, Parsons and Hylton would start in the rear of the field despite having taken no timed laps in qualifying. And people thought this year's skullduggery to get Craven into the field at Phoenix was underhanded? Anyway, NASCAR's tech director told the racers involved they would have to make their cars legal. You'd have thought Richard wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, and would hurry home to get another car from the shop. No such luck. He said there were no legal cars and no time to modify one to comply with the rules. So NASCAR went back into its bag of tricks and decided the illegal cars could run but they would have to run restrictor plates to slow them down. Meanwhile, in a post qualifying inspection it was learned that Bobby Isaac's K and K Dodge also had the gas tank lowered. While the lowered tank would not give the car the same advantage as a setback engine, NASCAR decided Isaac, who was leading in the championship points at that time, would also have to run the small restrictor plate. Crew chief Harry Hyde was enraged by what he saw as blatant favoritism on NASCAR's part towards Petty. Isaac led early, but it was clear from the outset that even with the restrictor plate, Petty's illegal car was blindingly quick. He made it from last to fifth in 30 laps, and swept into the lead on lap 135. Isaac retook the point for a while, but late in the race it appeared Petty had been sandbagging, as not only did he retake the lead, he put two laps on Isaac before the checkers, averaging just under 80 miles per hour. Benny Parsons, in third place, was eight laps down. While his driver still had the points lead, Isaac's car owner, Norm Krauskopf, was so enraged he announced his team was quitting the circuit effective immediately. 14,500 spectators were on hand to watch the controversial race. Petty earned $4,425 for the victory. James Hylton, running in tenth, 37 laps off the pace earned $525. Walter Ballard who finished dead last, 30th, after crashing on the second lap got $355. Factor in the amount it would have cost him in tires to run most of the race and Ballard was ahead of the game, compared to Hylton.
By 1975, the Winston Cup championship was on firmer footing, though during the 70's, three or four teams dominated the sport, including Petty Enterprises. A lot of the smaller teams had folded for want of sponsorship. Only 22 cars started the 1975 February race at Richmond. Among the missing faces were point leader Bobby Allison, who was only running a limited schedule for Roger Penske. Likewise, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker and David Pearson were only running the bigger events and their car owners decided Richmond's purse wasn't worth the effort. Thus Petty was a heavy favorite going into the event. The weather was miserable, rainy and cold, which helps explain why only 14,000 fans showed up. Still, the fall race at Richmond that same year drew only 20,000 fans despite near perfect weather and all the big names showing up because the purse had been upped. The race was delayed over two hours by rain, but once the green dropped, the King reigned as expected. Petty most likely would have led every lap, but he made contact with a lapped car and spun on lap 158, handing the lead to Benny Parsons. Despite the unplanned pit stop and damage, Petty reassumed the lead on lap 214 and led the rest of the event, winding up six laps ahead of Parsons who finished second. For his troubles the King earned $8,265 including appearance money. 10th place Ed Negre, 56 laps behind Petty won $1,225. Last place Rick Newsome ran only five laps before popping an engine and got $545. 89 laps were run under caution and the average speed for the race was just under 75 miles per hour. Certainly it wasn't one of the most competitive events in NASCAR history, but it was typical of those times. Despite Petty's dominance that day, it was his last win at Richmond.
The February race of 1979 had to be postponed because of heavy snow in the Richmond area. Richard Petty was coming off a disastrous 1978 season that saw him go winless for the first time in his career, and brought a Chevy not a Dodge to the track that day. But all eyes were on Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison. Those two drivers were involved in the memorable last lap wreck and post-race fist fight at Daytona, handing the win to Richard. The next race, Yarborough and Allison got into it on the track again, wrecked, and took out Richard and rising star Darrell Waltrip as well. Donnie Allison was on probation. Cale Yarborough's straight shooting car owner said rather testily he was of the mind to start paying the fines NASCAR issued his driver and let Cale pay for the race cars he tore up. 21,000 fans showed up to see if there would be a round three in the Allison/Yarborough feud, and more tried to get in but there were no more seats. Thirty cars were in the field. It was the first sell out in Richmond history. Richard Petty never led a lap. Cale decided if he was to have a hope of repeating as champion he would have to cool it a bit and save the car. He laid back early, letting Bobby Allison lead, then came on strong a little after the halfway point and led the rest of the race. There were only two leaders and four lead changes, and only those two drivers finished on the lead lap. Yarborough averaged 83.6 MPH in the relatively caution free event. He earned $16,275. Petty wound up fifth, a lap down and made $4,800. Tenth place went to DK Ulrich, nine laps off the pace, but $2,405 richer. Roger Hamby dropped out after 68 laps with an overheating problem and finished dead last with a check for $650 for his troubles. Also in the field that day was rookie Dale Earnhardt, who settled for 13th. He was one of four drivers racing that day who are still running in Cup racing this year. (The others were Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte and Ricky Rudd)
Kyle Petty ran his first February Richmond race in 1981, but had a rough time of it, finishing 24th in the family team Buick. His dad did a bit better coming home third and earning $9,775. Kyle's day in the sun came in the winter race of 1986 at Richmond where he won his first Winston Cup event. Frankly no one was more surprised to be in victory lane than Kyle, who had been handed the lead after one of the most controversial races in NASCAR history. Kyle had led only one lap in to that point in the race, and that was under caution. He was running in fifth place, a lap down to the leader, Dale Earnhardt. He was no longer driving for Petty Enterprises, but for the Wood Brothers, ironic perhaps in light of the way his dad used to battle with David Pearson in that same team's cars. Earnhardt had earned a reputation as an aggressive driver, and a championship to boot. But that had been five long years before and Dale was hungry. A bit too hungry to suit some folks. Darrell Waltrip ducked low on Dale on the back straight and got around him three laps from the checkers. A stunned crowd of 25,000 watched as Earnhardt tried to take back the lead with an extremely questionable kamikaze pass in turn three. It didn't work. Earnhardt got into Waltrip and both cars went hard into the fence. The ensuing wreck also caught up the other two cars on the lead lap, Joe Ruttman and Geoff Bodine. Kyle was able to duck past while the drivers that had been running first through fourth tried to refire their machines and get going in the right direction. Ruttman managed to finish second, while Dale came home third. For his first win, Kyle received $37,880, a whole bunch more than his daddy or granddaddy had for their first wins at the track. Tenth place Rusty Wallace, five laps behind Kyle, got $6,530 bucks. Richard wound up a disappointing 20th and made only $1,615. Eddie Bierschwale finished thirty first, dead last and won $2,515 due to appearance money. Dale Earnhardt earned himself a good scolding, and was originally fined five grand and placed on a year's probation, with a warning any further questionable stunts like that one would have him suspended for the rest of the probationary period. At first Dale was defiant but his PR man (a new innovation in that era) got Dale calmed down enough to apologize, and the fine was reduced to three grand, and the probation lifted, later that week. Owing to all the caution flags, Kyle averaged only 71 MPH.
What most people recall about the spring race of 1989 at Richmond was for the first time in the modern era, Richard Petty failed to qualify for a starting berth in the event. The King's career was in its twilight, and it was a hard thing for longtime fans to accept that come Sunday the familiar number 43 wouldn't be running out there. Two drivers, Rodney Combs and Jim Sauter, even offered to let Richard drive their cars so he would be in the race, but the King smiled, thanked them and left with his pride intact. As a footnote, Kyle Petty also failed to qualify for the race. Rusty Wallace won that race, after Alan Kulwicki saw a comfortable lead he had built up vanish owing to two late caution flags. Wallace averaged just under 90 miles per hour on the new track layout, that had seen the track grow to ¾ s of a mile between the spring and Fall races in 1988. The new layout allowed 60,000 plus fans to pack the track, and the Sawyers pumped a bunch of that new ticket revenue back into the purse with Wallace earning just over $63,000 for his victory. Defending Winston Cup champ Bill Elliott had an off day and finished 10th, three laps off the pace, but thanks to appearance and bonus money still pocketed over $14,000. Last place finisher Jay Sauter went only one lap before losing an engine but still earned $1,400, more than the King got for his first win at Richmond.
1992 bought an end to an era as Richard Petty's "Fan Appreciation" farewell tour began at Daytona that year. Richmond was the third tour of the stop, and 65,200 standing room only fans turned out to see the last spring race Richard would compete in. The King and his fans were disappointed by his 21st position finish (one spot behind Kyle)in a field of 36 cars, five laps off the pace, but still running. The King's accountants couldn't have been too displeased with the close to $10,000 pay day even such a sub-average finish was worth. Race fans were however, treated to the most thrilling finish in Richmond history. Bill Elliott, hot off a win at Rockingham, took the pole position and dominated most of the race. But in the late stages Alan Kulwicki mounted a determined charge and began reeling Bill in. Fans were watching their stop watches and the laps remaining and saw it was going to be close. On the last lap the two Fords were side by side, racing hard, but racing clean. The finish was too close to be called by eye, but a photo finish camera shot revealed Bill had won by 18 inches over his friendly rival, having averaged over 104 MPH for the event. Both drivers complimented the other for a fair fight and clean driving. For Elliott it was an especially sweet win, because included in the purse was a nice little $197,600 bonus check for claiming the UNOCAL bonus prize for starting from the pole and winning the race. To put that number is perspective, Richard Petty won 27 races in 1967 and collected about three quarters of that amount in prize money all year. Elliott's total winnings came to a record $272,700. But after the race Bill admitted it hadn't been the money that had him driving so hard for the win, it was the victory. "I'd have run just as hard for a dollar" Elliott assured reporters, and it was apparent the same competitive fire that had been the King's was still alive and well, at least in some drivers' hearts. Kulwicki collected $36,525 for second. Morgan Shepherd finished tenth, only one lap off the pace and got a check for 13,600 dollars. Last place Jimmy Means drove 93 laps before losing an engine and got $4,400 towards repairs.
To show how far the sport has come, consider the 1997 spring race at Richmond. (The last February event. The Sawyers finally got NASCAR to move the spring race to June when the weather should be better, after yet another rain-plagued weekend.) Both the Pettys had a good showing. Kyle got his first top-ten finish for his new Hot Wheels team. Bobby Hamilton bought the King's car home in fifth and earned a none-too-shabby $28,945. Rusty Wallace won the event, though the victory remained in question until the next day because a post-race inspection seemed to indicate his engine had too much compression. He was allowed to keep the victory and the $86,775 top prize. Kyle got $18,545 for coming home tenth, two laps off the pace. Morgan Shepherd was relegated to a last place finish after losing an engine on lap 34. He still earned a few dollars short of $12,000 for his efforts, almost $4000 more than the King got for his last win at Richmond. The average speed for the race was a tick over 108 miles per hour. Incredibly, almost 95,000 paying fans watched the event, and many, many more were turned away because they could not get seats. The Sawyer family's Plan 2001 calls for there to be 125,000 (!!!!!) seats in time for that year's event, and even that might not satisfy the demand.
Things at Richmond have come a long way since that 1953 event was run on the horribly rutted track for a $1000 prize. In fact, had anyone suggested that one day a driver might win more than a quarter million dollars in a race, or 125,000 people might go to a stock car race, they'd probably have wound up in the drunk tank. But with all the changes, one thing has remained the same. The Petty family will still be at the track, and one day Kyle's boy, Adam, just might end up adding his name to the record book as well.
*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.