#66 - You Never Forget Your First ~ Part 1 of 3
(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
Preface: This is the first part of a three-installment look back at the first wins and early careers of some of NASCAR's greatest drivers. It will be followed by a two part installment on drivers who managed to score but a single win, and conclude with an article on some of the great drivers who never quite managed to find their way to victory lane, but came close.
There are some firsts in life you never forget. Who among us can forget our first kiss, the first time we drove a car, or the first time we got… well you get the picture. Few of us will ever have the chance to win a stock car race, but for those individuals so blessed, it is a memory they carry with them the rest of their lives. Ride along down memory lane, and recall the circumstances behind some of NASCAR's top driver's first wins.
Richard Petty- Hard as it may be to believe, the King was a mere prince in the family racing dynasty. His father Lee was already a three time Grand National champion. Richard started racing sporadically in 1958, and competed in only 21 races in 1959, many driving a convertible rather than a Grand National hardtop. It did appear Richard had won one of those races in 1959 at the Lakewood dirt track outside of Atlanta. The second place finisher angrily demanded a recount of the lap charts, and was indeed found to have beat Richard. That driver was Lee Petty. 1960 was the first year that Richard Petty was slated to drive the entire Grand National circuit, though as a second team, not the primary Petty Enterprises entry. At that year's Daytona 500, Richard showed a lot of promise finishing third. So many cars were destroyed at Daytona the next two races on the schedule had to be scratched. The next race actually run was on the half mile dirt track oval in Charlotte, where the very first NASCAR stock car race had been held. The track was already notorious for being tough, badly rutted and dusty, a real test of driver and machine. Among the track's victims that day was Lee Petty who fell out with mechanical failure after only 38 of 200 laps. Another driver, felled by exhaustion, Doug Yates, later asked Lee to relief drive for him. Up front, young Richard was engaged in a fierce battle with Rex White for the lead. And it just so happened old Lee gave Richard a crucial assist when he knocked into White, sending him spinning. Richard went on to take his first Grand National race, while Lee bought Yates' car home third, a lap off the pace. The very next year, during a qualifier for the Daytona 500, Lee Petty was badly injured in a savage crash. The role of lead driver fell on the skinny shoulders of that lanky son of Lee's. Unlike most other teams, Petty Enterprises was only involved in racing, and had no other source of income. Many people doubted Richard had the stuff to carry on the family legacy. Of course, history proved them wrong, and the smiling young man from Level Cross and his trademark light blue cars carrying the number 43 would visit victory lane a total of 200 times. But it all started one dusty day in Charlotte, as, appropriately enough, did NASCAR.
Dale Earnhardt - Dale was another son of a famous father, Ralph, who many consider one of the best racers of all time. Tragically, Ralph Earnhardt passed away while Dale was still 19, and still trying to get a foothold in the intensely competitive Late Model circuit in North Carolina. Along the way, Dale had as many detractors as fans, and many predicted due to his aggressive driving style he would never reach the big leagues. Between 1975 and 1978 Earnhardt drove Winston Cup races sporadically, with a total of nine starts. Late in the 1978 season, Rod Osterlund selected Dale to drive a second team car, to his primary entry driven by Dave Marcis. His fourth place finish at the season finale in Atlanta that year was enough to convince Osterlund to give the rough as a cob country boy a full time ride in 1979. Dave Marcis decided he didn't want to be part of a two car team and quit. (Hard as it may be for newer fans to imagine, in those days most drivers felt a two car team could never work). Thus Dale started 1979 as Osterlund's primary driver, and a contender for rookie of the year. The spring race at Bristol that year was only Dale's 16th Winston Cup start. Bristol is tough track that pundits claim rewards experience, as shown by the three drivers who practically owned the place in that era, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, and the King. But that day in March, Dale had their number and not only beat those drivers, but dominated the event leading a 164 laps, and edging out Bobby Allison by three seconds. At times that year Earnhardt actually seemed to be a title contender, but injuries suffered at Pocono sidelined him mid-season. Still Dale was able to claim 1979 Rookie of The Year honors, and went on to take the Winston Cup title in 1980.
Bill Elliott- Bill was another driver who flirted for many years with Winston Cup racing before landing a full time ride. He drove his first Cup race in 1976, but it wasn't until 1982 he began running most of the schedule. Until the end of 1981, Bill had always driven for his father, George Elliott, in a family owned entry. The crowning achievement in his career to that point was a hard fought second to David Pearson at the 1979 Southern 500, which raised more than a few eyebrows. In 1982, Harry Melling saw enough promise in the young Georgian driver to buy the team and use it promote his line of engine components. The results were promising the first two seasons Bill and Harry were together, with no less than seven second place finishes. But Elliott was always a bridesmaid and never a bride. The last race of the 1983 season was run at the Riverside road course. Elliott was not a favorite, as he was not noted as an accomplished road racer, having cut his teeth on local short tracks. He was also driving one of the team's older cars, a square-back T Bird that looked like the box the newer model introduced that year was shipped in. Two of the best road racers of the era, Tim Richmond and Darrell Waltrip, seemed set to decide the race between themselves, when the two cars made contact, and went spinning off the track. Benny Parsons inherited the lead with Elliott in second. As the skies grew threatening Elliott bulled his way past Benny and took the lead. Soon thereafter rain began falling and the yellow flag came out. The race ended under caution and Bill Elliott was the surprise winner at Riverside that day. That win helped Bill clinch a third place finish in the Winston Cup points, the first year he ran every race of the schedule.
Rusty Wallace - Rusty came up through the ranks in a much different manner than most drivers of that era, racing in the Midwest, not the Southeast. Despite having won over 200 feature races, USAC stock car racing's Rookie of the Year Award, and finishing second in that same USAC series in 1979, Rusty was pretty much an unknown when he showed up at his first Winston Cup race in 1980 at Atlanta. The fuzzy haired stock car driver put NASCAR fans on notice by finishing second to Dale Earnhardt that day, in a car owned by none other than Roger Penske. But Penske was only flirting with Winston Cup racing at that point, and unable to secure a full time ride with a name team, Wallace returned to his Midwest roots, eventually winning the ASA championship in 1983. It wasn't until 1984 that he returned to Winston Cup full time, driving for Cliff Stewart. To put it kindly, the promising rookie didn't live up to expectations, though he earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1984. Rusty's best finish with Stewart in 58 starts was a single fourth place finish. In 1985, Wallace joined the Blue Max team owned by drag racer Raymond Beadle, who knew a thing or two about winning races. The Bristol Spring race that year was only Raymond and Rusty's fifth event together. It was a tough race, as events at Bristol normally are, with fully 12 of 32 starters eliminated by wrecks or mechanical failures. Rusty kept it out of the wall, and the team provided a car that could live up to the abuse, allowing Wallace to claim his first win that afternoon. It was one of two wins for Wallace that year, with a team that would eventually bring him to an "oh so close" second place finish in the points, just behind Bill Elliott in 1988, and a championship in 1989.
Jeff Gordon- Unlike the driver's above, Jeff Gordon competed full time in his very first year on the Winston Cup circuit in 1993. Prior to that he had only one Winston Cup start, at the Atlanta season finale in 1992. Throughout his entire career [In Winston Cup] Gordon has driven for one owner, Rick Hendrick. As dominant a force as Jeff has been in Winston Cup since 1994, many fans don't recall he struggled with the normal rookie mistakes in 1993. While showing an occasional flash of brilliance (winning his 125 qualifier at Daytona and leading the 500 before slipping to fifth in the closing laps, and a second at Charlotte) he also wrecked thirteen cars, and the low point of his season was having to bail out of two burning cars at North Wilkesboro, where he finished dead last both times. 1994 was a bit kinder to the rapidly maturing driver, and he went into the World 600 as one of the favorites that year. While Jeff did a great job of driving, it was a late race call by crew chief Ray Evernham to take two tires, rather than four, that let Jeff pull into a very emotional victory lane. In light of that call, it is almost ironic the same team won the same race this year, by deciding to go with four tires rather than two.
Darrell Waltrip- Darrell Waltrip made his first appearance in Winston Cup racing in 1972 at Talladega. After making sporadic starts in 73 and 74, including a pair of second place finishes, DW joined the circuit full time in 1975. From the very outset, Darrell was outspoken to use one of the kinder terms used to describe him. In a sport that seemed a benefit for Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson, Darrell was confident and vocal in his opinion that he could beat any of them, and one day he would beat all of them. Nashville had been Darrell's home stomping grounds during his Sportsman racing career and when the Winston Cup ranks ran there in May of 1975, he was ready to make good on his boasting. Cale Yarborough seemed ready to spoil the homecoming party, and led much of the early part of the race before blowing an engine. DW went on to win the event by over two laps over Benny Parsons. Said the ever humble Waltrip, "Actually, I figured I'd win a race a lot sooner than this." A lot of folks felt DW had only won that race because it was his home track. Later that season, Darrell would rally from three laps back to win at Richmond in the fall to silence those critics. In fact he would go on to win at least one race every year from 1975 until 1989, and won 12 races in both 1981 and 1982.
Next Time: Bobby Allison, Terry Labonte, Davey Allison, and more!
*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.