#72 - Hotter Than the Fourth of July
(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
Author's Note: This story was obviously prepared back in July before the Florida Wildfires forced postponement of the Firecracker 400. You'll note out of date references to the Independence Day holiday in the beginning and end but the meat of the story, the part about the racing, is still the same. Two notes; the freedoms we enjoy as Americans are too precious to only celebrate one day a year. Also, to all those victims of the Florida Wildfires, while you are no longer the lead story on the news, be assured my thoughts and prayers, and those of the Speedworld staff are still with you. I hope the difficult process of putting your lives back together is going well, and that Saturday night's race will be a welcome break from the sadness, not a painful reminder of this summer's tragedy. - Matt
One of the great American traditions is the annual stock car race on the Fourth of July weekend at Daytona. If there's one thing that's hotter than the weather in Florida in July, it's the on-track action as the stars of NASCAR return to the hallowed Daytona Speedway for the second time each year, and quite often there's fireworks on the track, even in broad daylight. (As a side note, yes I know some big company has added its name to the race, the latest of several, but for longtime fans, the race will always be called the "Firecracker".)
The Independence Day classic started out as a 250 mile event, hastily added to the schedule in place of a scheduled IndyCar race that was canceled after tragedy struck during the USAC Indy car race held at the track in April of 1959, the first of a double header of races that day, and George Amick was killed racing towards the checkers. It was decided the Daytona Speedway was not suitable for the open wheel cars and they never returned, but of course the stock cars have every year since.
It was during the first Firecracker 250 that Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly perfected that trick that has won so many races at Daytona since, the draft, and the slingshot pass riding in the draft allows. Fireball Roberts won the first running of the Firecracker 250, and indeed the July classic almost seemed a benefit race for Roberts those first few years, with Fireball taking that race three times. Tragically, Fireball Roberts succumbed to injuries suffered at Charlotte in the World 600 just days before the 1964 running of the Firecracker.
Fireball's last victory at the Firecracker came the year before, and of course he used the trick he had invented to take the win. Fred Lorenzen, Roberts' teammate, and no slouch on the big tracks himself, knew what was coming and did his damnedest to thwart the move. In fact, in his eagerness to be in second rather than third going into the last lap, Lorenzen lifted off the throttle and ducked low, hoping Roberts' momentum would carry him past, but Fireball had seen that trick before and got on the brakes to avoid passing him. Marvin Panch was right on the lead twosome's tail, the third driver in a high speed game of "After you…" On the last lap, Roberts waited until the final corner to perform his slingshot stunt and the three cars crossed the line side by side, with Roberts ahead by a nose, Lorenzen second and Panch third.
It is perhaps fitting that at the 1964 event, days after Fireball's demise, that his greatest trick once again came into play, coincidentally enough with two teammates trying desperately to get behind one another for the final lap again. That year it was the Ray Nichels' teammates, NASCAR regular Bobby Isaac, and USAC interloper AJ Foyt. Richard Petty dominated the early stages of the race but succumbed to engine failure a little after halfway. That left it to the teammates in their Hemi Dodges to decide it between themselves and the pair swapped the lead 16 times in the final 56 laps of the race. As paradoxical as it sounds, Isaac had the disadvantage on the last lap, as he was leading. Foyt chose the backstretch to slingshot by Bobby, a bit earlier perhaps than a NASCAR regular would have chosen, which gave Isaac one last chance to return the favor going through turns three and four. He gave it his all coming out of turn four, but Foyt drifted up to block him and at the line AJ took the win by about ten feet. Had the finish line been another ten feet down the track the positions might have been reversed.
The slingshot pass is not the only trick that's ever been utilized to win the Firecracker. A bunch of folks were scratching their heads prior to 1969 running of the event looking at LeeRoy Yarbrough's Junior Johnson prepared Ford Talladega. Rather than exiting in front of the rear wheels, as was the normal way of doing things, the exhaust pipes exited under the rear bumper. During the race it became obvious what Junior's thinking was. When any car tried to draft LeeRoy's Ford, the hot exhaust started making the trailing car overheat, and the carbon monoxide started making the driver of that car sick and woozy. Needless to say, nobody was much for drafting Yarbrough's car, and he went on to win over Buddy Baker who wisely hung about a car length back. After the event, NASCAR officials apparently took Junior aside, congratulated him on his ingenuity, then told him to get those pipes off the car and quickly amended the rules book to disallow tailpipes that exited under the rear bumper. Junior had probably expected that, but it was worth it to him to have his car win one of the biggest events of the year.
One of the best Firecracker 400s, and certainly the longest, took place in 1967. Bad weather set into the Daytona area, and the race had to be red flagged twice for rain, on the second occasion for a full hour and a half. Only the most diehard fans were on hand to see the conclusion of the race and it was a doozy. Once again the top drivers knew the best place to be on the last lap at Daytona was in second place. Cale Yarborough was leading with four laps to go and lifted out of the gas on the back stretch to try to get the cars behind him to pass, so confident was he in his abilities as a driver and the horsepower under the hood of his Wood Brothers Ford. As Cale put it, "I'd have stopped if that's what it took to let them by." Dick Hutcherson was carried past Cale by his momentum while the other drivers in the hunt were able to get on their brakes in time. Hutcherson took the white flag in the lead, and he also tried to slow up on the back straight to get Yarborough to pass him so he could try the slingshot out of four. Cale eased up off the gas himself, anticipating the move, waited until the third corner and rode on past Hutcherson. Hutcherson gave it his all out of turn four, but Cale blocked his move expertly and the two cars headed for the start finish line inches apart. In the end the crafty old South Carolina native prevailed over Hutcherson, leading a 1-2-3-4 Ford parade across the line. As an example of how far things have come in NASCAR, tech inspectors used their new-fangled body templates prior to that race, and 49 of 50 cars had to have corrections made to fit the templates. One furious mechanic, Mario Rossi, complained that just because it was an eighth of an inch off the templates mechanics were expected to "get a hammer and beat on a $20,000 race car." Of course, the only car you can bring to Daytona worth 20 grand these days is the rental Cavalier you leave in the parking lot.
Certainly one of the most impressive feats at the Firecracker 400 was Bill Elliott's charge through the pack in the 1988 event. Elliott started 38th after a uncharacteristically poor qualifying effort, and for the first half of the race he seemed to be hopelessly outgunned. Surprise leader of the event, Rick Wilson, driving for the Morgan-McClure team which would go on to enjoy much success at Daytona in later years, almost lapped Elliott, but a caution flag saved Awesome Bill. The caution allowed Elliott, who was the last of 16 cars on the lead lap to restart at the end of the lead lap line, and at that point his number 9 Ford just seemed to come to life. He charged through the field and wound up battling with Wilson, who wisely decided to tuck in behind Elliott and draft away from the pack on the rear bumper of the swift Ford. Elliott did not lead the race until lap 137 of 160, and Wilson apparently hoped to use the draft to get around him towards the end of the race. Unfortunately for Rick, with restrictor plates the old trick was no longer so effective and despite a determined effort, he came up three feet short at the stripe. For Elliott it was the beginning of a second half charge in his efforts to reel in points leader Rusty Wallace in the title chase. While that day could have easily been a disaster for Elliott, the points he gained over twelfth place Rusty Wallace that day were more than the final margin of victory when Bill won his championship that year.
Sometimes a driver can experience great luck and lousy luck in the same day, and such was the case at the 1989 Firecracker 400. Mark Martin was running in the lead pack when Dale Earnhardt hit Geoff Bodine trying to make a pass, and sent Bodine's Chevy into Martin's Ford. Mark spun out and there was a pack of traffic bearing down on him, but he managed to get the car low and avoided being clobbered. A determined effort and frequent caution flags (a race record 12) helped Mark make up the lost ground. One of those cautions flew with 15 laps, for an incident frightfully like Dale's tumble at Talladega in 96. On a restart, Lake Speed and Sterling Marlin made heavy contact and Speed's car slammed the outside wall almost head on, became airborne and landed in a pack of traffic. Dave Marcis claimed it looked like Speed's car had fallen out of the air in front of him and he never had a chance to lift off the gas before nailing Lake's Oldsmobile. Derrike Cope and Jimmy Spencer also got caught up in the ensuing melee. At that point Martin, who was still seeking his first Winston Cup win, could very easily have stopped for a splash and go in the pits under yellow, but with all those cars still on the lead lap he would have given up a lot of track position. His car owner, Jack Roush calculated Mark should have enough gas on board to go the distance and left him out on the track. Roush's calculation were off…way off. With five laps still remaining Mark's car began sputtering as he crossed the start finish line and he had to limp all the way around that big track to reach the pits. Meanwhile Davey Allison swept into the lead with a tight formation of three more cars nipping at his rear bumper like the hounds of hell, including defending champion Bill Elliott, Phil Parsons and Morgan Shepherd. All tried desperately to catch the fleet Allison in that final five-lap shoot out, but Allison edged Shepherd by about a car length, Parsons took third and Elliott came home fourth.
The 1990 running of the Firecracker 400 featured more fireworks than the nighttime sky, coast to coast, on Independence Day, and there was a short fuse on that particular stick of dynamite. On the very first lap of the event there was contact throughout the field as everyone tried to fight their way to the front to join in the six car breakaway that was checking out, despite it being so early in the event. There were several instances of contact throughout the field, and finally the inevitable happened. Towards the front of that second pack Greg Sacks, who may have had his spoiler at way too shallow an angle trying to pick up speed, hit the King, who in turn hit Derrike Cope and at that point all bets were off. With the field that tightly bunched together 24 cars total became involved in the wreck. The track was completely blocked with wrecked race cars, and the red flag had to be thrown for over a half hour while wreckers towed away what was left of the mangled cars. Dale Earnhardt had the good fortune (and great Chevy) to be in that lead six-car pack when the wreck occurred behind him, and he went on to dominate the race and take the victory that afternoon.
You'll note one name that usually features prominently in these racing retrospectives notably absent by and large in the above article. Despite being the all-time record holder for Daytona 500’s, Richard Petty never enjoyed much luck, relatively speaking, in the July event at the same track. He in fact skipped the 1961 running of the event to participate in a late model race in Pennsylvania, where he was offered a nice sum to appear and virtually guaranteed a win. (Recall Richard had become the primary breadwinner for the dependents of Petty Enterprises earlier that season, and it had not been a stellar year to date. A bird in the hand, it seems beat two in the bush) Petty wrecked hard at the 1962 running of the Firecracker and in one of the great comments in NASCAR history, when asked what happened, Petty replied, "I got a little behind in my steering." The normally reliable Petty Hemis always seemed to blow up at the Firecracker. In 1966 Richard lost one in a big way and crashed. As he described it, the entire crankshaft was blown right out of the bottom of the oil pan (!!!!!) and got tangled up in the steering linkage locking it in place, while a connecting rod punctured a front tire, and the oil spraying on the rear tires caused him to spin. If you know anything about engines, that's a right proper job of blowing a motor. As a side note, a gentleman by the name of Sam McQuagg won his first and only event in his Grand National career that day, with the help of a new innovation, a rear deck spoiler on the back of his Dodge. In 1967 when Richard Petty won almost everything in a record breaking year, the Firecracker 400 was the big one that got away during his midseason rampage.
The King finally managed to add a Firecracker 400 win to his resume in 1975, by which point he had already won the Daytona 500 five times. Even that win didn't come easy as Petty went a lap down early with an ill handling race car early in the going. His crew managed to straighten out the King's horse and with 13 laps to go he bypassed Buddy Baker for the lead and held on to win his first Firecracker. Richard won the Firecracker again in 1977, but it was his third and final Firecracker 400 win that is featured in the history books. Besides the King being on hand, looking for the 200th victory of his career, the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, arrived late in the event to watch a thrilling conclusion. The President had also given the command to fire the engines that day, over the loudspeakers at the track via a hook up on Air Force One. Richard and perennial rival Cale Yarborough took command of the race around lap 14 and for the rest of the distance one of those two drivers led. Cale was no doubt planning a last lap slingshot, a trick Roberts patented but Yarborough perfected, but fate intervened. With three laps to go, Doug Heveron managed to flip his car, come down on the roof and then bounce back onto its wheels. But owing to debris on the track, the caution flag was going to fly when the leaders reached the start finish line and they were already in turn two. Both driver's spotters were screaming that the race back to the flag was going to be for the win, as the race would end under caution. Cale gave it everything he had and the two cars swapped paint several times down the back straight and through three and four. As they came to the line at almost 200 miles per hour the two cars touched again and tire smoke filled the air. Petty beat Yarborough across the line by inches. The next time around Yarborough, dejected by losing and apparently thinking the event was over, pulled into the pits with one lap still to go, and gave up second place as well before storming back onto the track. "I guess my brain just blew up." was Cale's memorable comment describing the mistake. Rather than victory lane, Richard was taken up to the VIP suite to meet the president, and the winner's circle ceremonies were broadcast from there. Most folks in the South deeply respected their president, but they loved the King. It was Richard's 200th and, as it turns out, final victory.
And so we approach the running of one of the most exciting events of the year again, the Firecracker 400. There have been some memorable races held at Daytona in July even in recent times, hotter than the Fourth of July (remember Mr. Excitement and Swervin Irvan's last lap duel in 94, a race decided by .008 seconds!) and loaded with fireworks. (Like last year's last lap wreck). We'll just have to wait to see whose name gets added to the history books this year. Happy Independence Day everyone!
I'm Uncle Sam
That's who I am,
been hiding out,
in a rock and roll band,
shake the hand,
that shook the hand,
of PT Barnum, and Charlie Chan,
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high……
-The Grateful Dead-
*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.