#63 - The Luck of the Irish
(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
Nestled in the scenic Irish Hills of Michigan, Michigan Speedway is one that certainly seems almost too bucolic a place to hold a race. But the on track racing at Michigan is anything but serene, with cars three-wide at close to 200 miles per hour, a place where heroes are made and dreams are dashed in less time than it takes to write those words. Lately, the races at Michigan often seem to be decided on fuel mileage, but that had not always been the case and there have been some wild finishes at Michigan. And certainly the track's troubled first years were anything but peaceful.
The brainchild of one Larry LoPatin, CEO of American Racing International… Michigan was the first of what LoPatin hoped would be a number of superspeedways under that company's umbrella. While LoPatin was a financial genius, he turned out to be socially retarded and decided to cross swords with Bill France Senior… not a good career move for someone in the racing industry. What France didn't take from him, foul weather did.
Bill France attended the first IndyCar race at Michigan in 1968. He was impressed enough to offer LoPatin an unprecedented ten year, two races a year contract with NASCAR. For LoPatin and ARI it was beneficial in that the guaranteed races would help yield a nice return for the investors, while for Bill France it was a chance to get a foot in the door of a major market in the Midwest... which also happened to be the car manufacturers that supported the sport's backyard.
Chrysler and Ford executives turned out in droves to see the inaugural Grand National race at Michigan June 15th, 1969, and they were treated to a thrilling race. Nine different drivers swapped the lead 35 times and the outcome of the race was not decided until the last lap. Cale Yarborough and LeeRoy Yarbrough were fighting tooth and nail over the lead as they entered turn one for the final time, having taken the white flag. LeeRoy tried to go high and Cale slipped up the track into him. Both cars got sideways and LeeRoy slapped the wall. Cale managed to catch his car and get going as David Pearson made a desperate attempt to catch up. LeeRoy had broken something in the steering system and was unable to get the car off the wall, so he just floored it and rode around the track, grinding against the outside wall. Cale took the win, with Pearson second and Richard Petty (in a Ford that year) claiming third spot. LeeRoy was credited with fourth after his battered car finally ground a halt about a hundred yards shy of the start finish line.
What a difference two moths can make. The August race at Michigan that year was a complete debacle, with Mother Nature the lead villain pelting the area with rain. Bad weather seemed to plague a lot of ARI events. The race was scheduled for 600 miles, but could not run the full distance because of two red flags for rain lasting over four hours between them. Of the 165 laps actually run, 78 were under the caution flag, mostly for rain. Only 87 laps of green flag racing took place that day, and much of it, including the last 20 laps, was held on a track too wet to race on safely. David Pearson took his first of nine wins at Michigan that day, before a sparse crowd, most of whom had filed out long before darkness ended the event.
ARI collapsed and Roger Penske wound up owning the Michigan track, which he still holds title to, to this day.
There was no little controversy during the June race of 1975 at Michigan. Brash upstart Darrell Waltrip lost an engine on each of his two qualifying attempts, and missed making the field, but bought the car of Jabe Thomas, who had qualified 35th, to gain entry into the race. Most of the usual suspects of the era, Petty, Pearson and Bobby Allison and Darrell took their turns at the point that afternoon. Yarborough lost a lap in the pits under yellow because of a botched pit stop. In an attempt to edge out the pace car, he ran the Stop paddle at the end of the pits and was black flagged. It was NASCAR's decision to hold him until he was back a lap down, but Cale thought he was being penalized a second lap and was so furious he got out of the car, threw his crash helmet and stormed off. A pit reporter had to explain what was actually happening to Cale, who almost fainted, then hurried back to his car and hopped back in. Despite the comedy of errors, Cale went on to finish fourth. The event came down to a spirited battle between the two big track stars of the day, David Pearson and the King, with Pearson taking command with 17 laps to go and holding off numerous spirited passes to retake the lead from Richard, beating Petty to the line by two car lengths. Darrell came home fifth in his rent-a-racer.
Another bizarre ending to a Michigan race also involved Cale and Darrell, and there was no love lost between those two drivers. On June 20th, 1982, foul weather and heavy rains once again delayed the start of the Michigan race. There was thunder and lightning, but it was nothing compared to the last-lap fireworks. Waltrip had managed to get by Yarborough twice late in the going, but each time Cale was able to return the favor. Cale took the lead with 35 to go, and Darrell did everything but pay a hit man to shoot Cale, trying to repass him. The crowd was on its feet as the white flag flew. Darrell bumped Cale trying to get him sideways, and Cale responded in kind, and then some. Darrell got out of shape and by the time he recovered the cause was lost. Cale prevailed by three car lengths. That didn't sit too well with old DW, who expressed his displeasure by ramming Cale after the checkered flag. The move backfired and Darrell went spinning down in the boggy grass and wound sliding into and getting stuck in a big mud puddle while the crowd cheered. Darrell was apoplectic, saying Cale had all but lynched him on the white flag lap. Cale just grinned and said "I reckon I gotta meet him in the Big K parking lot now", alluding to Darrell's notorious comment at the Charlotte event when he had called out all the spectators who booed him, challenging them to a fist fight in the discount store's parking lot. To rub a little dirt in the wound, Cale cracked up and added, "I bet he felt pretty silly getting stuck in the mud like that."
Another legend of Michigan asserted himself on June 17th 1984, and it turned out to be one of the early contests between two drivers who were rivals throughout the 80's. Bill Elliott seemed to have the advantage that day, but a late race caution forced a restart with six laps to go, with Bill leading and Dale Earnhardt right on his rear bumper chomping at the bit. When the green dropped, Bill checked out and left it to the other five cars on the lead lap to fight over second. Elliott took the win by two seconds over Dale. It was just the second win of Elliott's career, and the first on a Superspeedway. A lot of people thought Bill's win at the Riverside road course the previous year was a fluke, but he proved he was for real that day, and settled any unanswered questions the next year, winning 11 big track wins, including both events at Michigan. In all, Elliott would claim the chrome hardware seven times at Michigan.
Bill Elliott was involved in another exciting finish at the June 1988 race in Michigan. That day it seemed to be a battle between friendly rivals Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt, with Rusty leading most of the laps. At one point, Dale wasn't satisfied to pass Rusty. He ran into Wallace's rear bumper a couple times to get his attention and when Rusty looked in the rearview mirror, Dale waved at him and mouthed " See ya" then pulled off a pass, pretty as you please. Even Rusty seemed amused after the race. With 29 laps to go Rusty retook the lead, (Without the courtesy of letting Dale know what he had in mind presumably and headed for the checkers) Bill Elliott was also able to bypass Earnhardt and took off in hot pursuit of Wallace. Elliott gave Wallace all he could handle, but Rusty edged him out by less than three tenths of a second to the line. Of course, Wallace and Elliott staged an equally fierce battle for the Cup Championship that year, and in that contest Bill edged out Rusty. In victory lane, Rusty thanked the track owner, Roger Penske, who had given him his first Winston cup ride way back in 1980. A few years down the road Penske and Wallace would pair up again, an association that lasts 'til this day.
What had to be the most exciting and bizarre finish at Michigan occurred at the Spring race of 1981. It was a fiercely fought battle and in the closing laps, 10 cars were fighting for position that included such notables as Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons and Dale Earnhardt. All those drivers had led laps somewhere during the event. Kyle Petty popped an engine and oiled down the track but NASCAR was slow throwing the caution flag and the lead pack swept by the flag tower with the race still green. At that point Bobby Allison was mired in seventh place. The first and second turns were covered in oil and engine parts. The results were predictable. Leader Darrell Waltrip managed to get through the mess, but Cale, who was in second and trying to get around DW, hit the oil and took off sideways. Dale Earnhardt ducked low and got around Cale's car, but Harry Gant nailed Yarborough's spinning car, and Baker and Parsons spun when they tried to take evasive action. Darrell was still leading, with Dale coming up to try to pass him. Allison survived the melee and hit the back straight in third. Earnhardt went to pass for the lead, knowing the race would probably end under caution. Darrell didn't want to give up the lead and came down the track to block Dale. Dale didn't want to be blocked and never lifted off the throttle. The results were predictable, if exciting. A moment later DW and Earnhardt were spinning, and once again Bobby Allison managed to avoid the carnage and went into the lead. Allison won the race back to the yellow flag and the race ended under caution. Harry Gant and Benny Parsons recovered quickly enough to take second and third. Earnhardt limped to a fifth place finish, two spots ahead of DW. Ironically, Darrell had been leading the last green flag lap and had to settle for seventh, while Bobby Allison had been seventh at that point and came home the winner. In the Irish Hills of Michigan, it ain't over until the fat lady sings, and that day she missed her cue.
*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.