#71 - Close But No Cigar
(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
Throughout NASCAR's storied 50-year history there have been great drivers, loyal campaigners, and battle scarred veterans who just never managed to win a single Grand National or Winston Cup race. In some cases it was because they always drove as independents or badly under-funded teams; in some cases they just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, such as most any other driver trying to beat Richard Petty in 1967, and in some cases it was a dark cloud of bad luck that seemed to constantly hover over them. Whatever the reason, they just never made it to Winner's Circle, but some have come tantalizingly close. Here are some of their stories of near misses. (Please note this story is being written in late May. If any driver I mention has won since then, trust me I am thrilled for him! )
Michael Waltrip - Though I doubt he much cares for the title, Michael Waltrip is first on the list of "All Time Losingest Active Drivers" having yet to score a points race victory in 13 years of trying. True, he won the Winston, which only goes to prove the point that Waltrip is a decent driver, but as of yet, he hasn't tasted the champagne in a points race. But Michael must still be groaning over "the One that Got Away" back in 1991. That year at the spring race in Darlington, Michael asserted himself as a contender, leading early and often, to become a strong favorite for the victory late in the race. In fact, Waltrip ducked his Bahari Pontiac onto pit road on lap 299 with a comfortable lead. That's when his day went to hell. An air wrench went bad, and a stunned Waltrip was forced to endure a 35-second pit stop that left him hopelessly behind the leaders. Waltrip did manage to recover to finish third, but fate had thrown a wrench in his plans to win that race.
Ralph Earnhardt- Newer fans may only know Ralph Earnhardt as the father of the Intimidator, but in his day there was no finer or tougher racer. Ralph earned his reputation in the Sportsman ranks, and dominated at tough tracks like Hickory for a decade. No less an authority than Ned Jarrett, who raced against all the greats of that era, said Ralph Earnhardt was the toughest driver to beat he had ever run against. Many feel that the crowning achievement of the elder Earnhardt's career was winning the Sportsman (equivalent of today's Busch series) championship in 1956, but along the way, Ralph won more races than most of today's drivers will ever run. Also during his career, Ralph Earnhardt made a total of 51 Grand National (the equivalent of today's Winston Cup) starts. While Earnhardt never won a Grand National race, he did finish second twice.
Ralph Earnhardt's first second place finish came in his very first Grand National race, in November of 1956 at Hickory. Carl Kiekhaefer and his fleet of white Chrysler 300s had dominated the Grand National circuit that year in a manner no team ever had before. Ford was desperate to put an end to the Chrysler rout. At the Hickory Speedway, there was no driver who knew his way around the track as well as Ralph Earnhardt. Thus, he was loaned a car normally driven by Fred Lorenzen, who did not compete at the short tracks as a rule. Despite being badly outclassed as far as horsepower and experience, Earnhardt and another local favorite, Junior Johnson, gave the Kiekhaefer team all they could handle and then some. Junior was eventually slowed by vapor lock problems, but Earnhardt led 15 laps in his first Grand National race, before Speedy Thompson got around him. Ralph continued to scrap like a pit bull, and was only four seconds behind the Chrysler that was thought to be unbeatable at the checkers. In fact, a good part of the crowd felt Ralph had actually been on a lap to himself and booed Thompson with a bloodlust. The promoter actually sat down with both drivers and reviewed the score cards right on the spot. After checking things over, Earnhardt had the class to agree he had been beat, and made an announcement over the PA system that he was satisfied the race was fair, to keep the crowd from trashing the place.
Dick Trickle- Dick Trickle is purported to have won over 2000 feature races on Midwest short tracks in his storied career, and those who watched him run back in those days don't doubt the number is correct. He also won a Busch series race last year, but as of yet, Trickle has not won a Winston Cup race. He too has come tantalizingly close, finishing third four times in his career. In fact, in 1989 he led eight separate races. Perhaps his best run came that year at Martinsville, while driving for the Stavola Brothers in place of an injured Mike Alexander. On lap 442 of 500 Dick passed Dale Earnhardt to take the lead of the race. Darrell Waltrip got around Trickle eight laps later, but Trickle had shown he had what it took to lead in the big leagues. Eventually Dale passed Trickle as well. After the race, NASCAR noticed Earnhardt's Chevy was missing a pair of lug nuts. Had that infraction been caught in the pits, Dale would have been forced to stop again to have the lug nuts installed, which almost certainly would have given Trickle second. Will Dick Trickle win before he retires? I sure hope so. I think they get champagne.
Buddy Arrington - In an era where the factory teams dominated the sport, it was the loyal independents like Buddy Arrington who served as cannon fodder for the big boys, week after week, just because they loved racing. Hopelessly outgunned, the independents would show up week in and week out, and hope some strange combination of wrecks and mechanical failures would open the door to victory lane for them. In 560 starts over the course of 28 year career, Buddy never won a Winston Cup race, but he sure did have fun trying, and managed to come home third twice. Buddy also finished as high as seventh in the points in 1982, and flirted with the top ten in points year after year. Perhaps the highlight of his career was the 1979 Winston 500 at Talladega. Arrington managed to qualify fourth for the event, which raised a few eyebrows and set a few tongues a wagging. Persistent rumors continue to this day there was a load of nitrous aboard the car that day. Buddy will just smile and say, if he was running it, so were a lot of the big dogs in those days. Not saying he was of course. That fourth place starting spot proved to be a Godsend. On the fourth lap, Buddy Baker's car got out from under him and headed for the wall. Because he was near the front of the pack, Buddy was able to maneuver his way through the wreck, which began piling up in his rearview mirror. Eventually seventeen cars were involved, including those of pre-race favorites, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, and Dale Earnhardt. True, there were fewer cars to wage battle against, but Arrington drove a hard race, and bought his car home third, good enough for an $18,000 payday, which was manna from Heaven for an independent driver. When the corporate pressure came for drivers to conform to NASCAR's clean cut image, and the game got too expensive to play without a sponsor, Buddy Arrington walked away grinning. Many drivers have had more success, but few enjoyed failure so much. A line attributed to Buddy goes, "We never came in second at a party."
Ramo Stott - Stott was another of the sport's great independents, who ran whenever money would allow him to make an occasional Winston Cup start. Though he made only 35 career starts, Ramo came very close to winning one of the biggest races of the 1972 season. In fact, that year's August race at Talladega might go down in history as "Independent's Day." Goodyear had developed a new tire for the notoriously fast track, but there were only enough to go around for the top running teams. The independents and smaller teams were going to have to make do with the older design tire, in what was thought to be yet another case of the rich getting richer (including Richard), and the poor getting the shaft (including poor Ramo). Well, as it turned out, Goodyear's engineers had made one of their rare blunders. The new tires just weren't going to last under the brutal speed and heat of the race. By the time everyone figured that out, they tried to scrounge up some of the older tires, but the grinning independents said they would just as soon hang onto to what they had, thank you. Thus, the name drivers were forced to drive slowly and conservatively, while drivers like Ramo Stott and James Hylton got a chance to strut their stuff. Those two drivers emerged as the class of the field, and had a battle of their own for the win, with the nearest challenger a mere five laps behind them. Stott drove his heart out, but in the end Hylton held on for the win by just over a car length. Among the other lesser known drivers enjoying career days that afternoon were Alabama's own Red Farmer, Buddy Arrington, and Ben Arnold, all of whom came away with top ten finishes.
JD McDuffie- Another of the legendary independents, JD McDuffie would make 653 starts during his Grand National/Winston Cup career (1963-1991), despite having to drop out of races sometimes because he lacked the money for another set of tires. But he would be there, week in and week out, chomping on his trademark cigar, and treating everyone in the garage area like a friend. More than a few of the sport's famous crew people got their start working for JD McDuffie, living in an old pop up trailer behind the shop until they proved themselves enough to move on up the ladder. At Dover in 1978, JD was offered free McCreary tires, as that manufacturer attempted to break into the Winston Cup ranks. Naturally, the perpetually cash-strapped McDuffie jumped at the chance. In one of the greatest surprises in the sport's history, he took his Chevy out on qualifying day and grabbed the pole. Unfortunately, while the McCrearys were fast for the short term, they wore out too quickly during the race, and a combination of frequent pit stops for tires, and a blown engine on lap 80 ruined JD's day. Perhaps McDuffie's finest day in racing came during the Malta event, part of the Northern Tour for the newly renamed Winston Cup cars in 1971. JD qualified 6th that day, and on lap 58 he passed no less a driver than Richard Petty to take the lead. Eventually he lost top spot to Pete Hamilton, and Dave Marcis took his turn at the front as well, before Richard Petty came storming back and took the win. Still, JD McDuffie had his career best finish that day, a third. Tragically, JD McDuffie was killed in a fifth lap crash at Watkins Glen in 1991. JD had sacrificed much to participate in the sport he loved, and in the end he gave up even his life. But the night before the tragic accident, JD participated in a celebrity race at a local short track, racing several members of Dale Earnhardt's pit crew. JD won that race, and was grinning ear to ear as he climbed in his Pontiac the next morning at Watkins Glen. JD McDuffie died doing what he loved, and he left us a winner, statistics be damned.
*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.