#83 - The Southern 500 ~ The Granddaddy of Them All - Part 4 of 6
(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
NASCAR had entered a new era in 1972, with the advent of the shortened schedule, the last of automobile manufacturers' support for the sport dried up, and Winston having taken over as the title sponsor and financial benefactor of stock car racing in those companies place. The front runners, for the most part had major financial backing from corporate America that began the transformation of race cars into rolling billboards, and even the King's once proud all blue race cars had an awkward, to be kind, mixed red and blue paint scheme in deference to his sponsor STP. Other big name sponsors included Coca Cola, sponsoring Junior Johnson's Chevy, driven by Bobby Allison, and Purolator Oil Filters, sponsoring the Wood Brothers' Mercurys, driven by David Pearson.
With all the changes to the sport, one thing had not changed. The Southern 500 trophy was still a highly coveted bit of hardware, and the best of the best dueled over it with fierce intensity. Such was the case in 1972, one of the best Southern 500s ever run. Petty's effort that day was hampered by premature tire wear and stripped lug bolts, leaving Bobby Allison and David Pearson to duke it out for the win, a full seven laps ahead of the King, who held down third place. Allison and Pearson swapped the lead 13 times, before Bobby made the decisive pass with six laps to go and held off Pearson's determined charge to regain the lead by four car lengths. For Allison it was his second consecutive Southern 500, and for Pearson it was his fourth second place finish in a race he had yet to win.
Cale Yarborough had replaced Bobby Allison in the Richard Howard owned entry masterminded by Junior Johnson for the 1973 season. The union had not been a happy one to that point, with disappointing results, and constant rumors of fighting within the team, and that Cale would be replaced soon. But at that year's Southern 500, Cale was in contention right from the drop of the green flag. David Pearson, who had won 9 of the 13 races he had entered to that point in the season, looked to be Yarborough's toughest competition and in fact led the race late in the going. With 64 laps to go, Cale muscled his way back into the lead and used his not inconsiderable skills at the wheel and a season's worth of frustration to keep Pearson behind him to the checkers. David was philosophical after his fifth second place finish at the Southern 500, admitting he has simply been outdriven. "When it was time to go, he went." Pearson told reporters. Also competing that day was Darrell Waltrip who filled in, in Bud Moore's Ford, after Bobby Isaac had stunned the racing community during the previous race at Talladega when he said he had heard a voice telling him to retire, pulled into the pits, and quit in the middle of the race. Darrell managed an eighth place finish some 16 laps behind Cale Yarborough, but a time was coming when the two of them were going to do a lot of side by side racing, and post-race grumbling.
The 1974 running of the Southern 500 came down to a battle of "Last Man Standing" with most of the pre-race favorites eliminated or hobbled by wrecks. Richard Petty was eliminated on lap 37 when Richard Childress hit him. Buddy Baker was slowing to avoid that wreck and was rear ended by another rookie driver. Benny Parsons, defending Winston Cup champion, blew an engine and spun in his own oil in a wreck that also ended David Pearson's day. By far the scariest wreck of the day took place on lap 197 when Dick May, relief driving for Elmo Langley, lost control on the front straight, hit the outside wall and wound up climbing up along the catch fence that separated the grandstands from the track, to the point he left tire tracks along it. Charlie Glotzbach seemed to have the strongest car in the middle sections of the race but his day was cut short when he lost an engine. Cale Yarborough survived the wreck-fest to take his second consecutive Southern 500, but even his day was not without incident. Yarborough made hard contact with Bobby Allison, but managed to drive away with minimal damage while Allison's toe-in was knocked out, and while he finished the race he was never again a contender for the lead. Coming home second that day was Darrell Waltrip in the most impressive run of his career to date, though he was one than a lap behind Cale.
The Southern 500 of 1975 was run under threatening skies and rain caused a two hour delay during the race. The outcome of that race was decided to a large extent by mechanical attrition and a tiny little virus. Richard Petty had a strong car but was suffering from a terrible case of the flu. While he tried to tough it out, the extended caution periods and the long red flag delay made for a long delay and he finally had to call for a relief driver. A long pit stop while Petty got out of the car and Dave Marcis climbed aboard allowed Bobby Allison to get back onto the lead lap. Allison took the lead with 78 laps to go and was never headed. The win was not without drama, in that Allison's red white and blue AMC refugee from a circus freak show Matador broke a shock late in the going and he was forced to manhandle a squirrelly car to take the victory.
The 1976 Southern 500 was once again determined to a large extent by a series of wrecks. Buddy Baker and Dave Marcis tangled in the first corner on lap 181, with Baker getting the worst of it and having to park his Bud Moore Ford for the day. In a strange but frightening incident, rookie Skip Manning lost control while the field was under caution for that wreck, and slid down the track. Joe Frasson delivered a solid blow to the driver's side door of Manning's Chevy. It took safety personnel a half hour to cut Manning out of the wreckage and he was rushed to the hospital with serious injuries to his left side. David Pearson, who was enjoying another career year, seemed off speed early in the event and in fact almost went a lap down to the leader Donnie Allison. A broken radiator hose in Donnie's car, caused him to spin into the wall while Pearson was fighting to stay on the lead lap. The caution flag flew and Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison tried to scramble back onto the track from pit road to avoid losing a lap. The two cars made contact and points leader Yarborough had the rear end assembly practically torn free from his car. While his Junior Johnson led crew was able to make hasty repairs, Cale was never a threat to win again. Ironically the same caution flag that had eliminated or hobbled so many of his competitors allowed Pearson to duck into the pits to the attention of his Wood Brothers' crew for a chassis adjustment to help get the car back up to speed. Much like the 1997 Southern 500 where Jeff Gordon's Rainbow Warriors kept chasing the chassis adjustment until they got the car right, the Wood Brothers' team, the Rainbow Warriors of that era, were able to adjust the car to Pearson's liking and with 45 laps to go David took the lead from DW. Pearson managed to hold on to take the win, while Richard Petty was able to get around Waltrip on the final lap to claim second place. For David Pearson it was an end to years of frustration as he finally added a Southern 500 trophy to his massive collection. The program was not in place yet, but had there been a Winston Million bonus in that era, David Pearson would have claimed it on the basis of his Southern 500 win that day, and his wins at the Daytona 500 and World 600.
The 1977 running of the Labor Day classic was delayed once again by rain, and by a long red flag period after a violent wreck. Lennie Pond tangled with Ralph Jones on the front straight and Jones hit the pit wall a ton, sending concrete all over and once again showing why that wall was necessary to protect those on pit road. Jones was shaken and disoriented after the wreck, but not badly hurt. Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, who had inherited the Hatfield and McCoy feud title from Richard and Bobby, were once again battling tooth and nail for the lead. On the 227th lap the inevitable happened and while the pair were fighting each other through lapped traffic DW got into a lapped car and triggered a four car wreck that eliminated both he and Cale from contention for the win. After the race, while explaining what had happened to another driver involved, D.K. Ulrich, Cale came up with a new nickname for DW, "Jaws" both because of Darrell's constantly running mouth, and his driving style that, in Yarborough's estimation, made him as dangerous as the movie shark of the same name. With Cale and Darrell hobbled, David Pearson and Donnie Allison inherited the lead positions. Allison seemed to have the faster car, but the Wood Brothers' crew did David proud with a lightning fast gas and go stop to carry him to the end. Pearson had a 4.1 second advantage over Allison's stop and held on to win the race by two and a half seconds. Rookie Bill Elliott claimed his first top ten finish that day, bringing home the family owned Ford in tenth place. Darlington would provide a lot of the highlights of Elliott's career.
The 1978 Southern 500 boiled down to another Yarborough/Waltrip battle, but it also provided a glimpse of the future of NASCAR racing. The event was also once again marred by a savage wreck, and poor D.K. Ulrich, who had been involved in the DW/Yarborough wreck the previous year found himself right in the middle of it again. On lap 166, Grant Adcox tagged the wall directly in front of Ulrich and spun into his path. Ulrich had nowhere to go and the two cars came together with a sound like a bomb going off. Coo Coo Marlin and David Pearson were also gathered up in the wreck. To add insult to injury, the sheetmetal torn away from Ulrich's car in the horrific crash revealed a hidden bottle of nitrous oxide and he was suspended for the rest of the season. Dave Marcis, who was a legitimate title contender to that point in the season, saw his hopes for the championship dashed when he got in a wreck with Bobby Wawak. Ever the good sportsman and competitor, Marcis took over as relief driver for Richard Petty who was felled by the heat, and the Petty/Marcis duo bought the 43 car home third. The battle for the win was a fierce one with Cale and DW swapping paint more than once. But the race was decided in the pits, not on the track. Junior decided on a gas and go stop for Cale, while the DiGard team put fresh rubber on Darrell's car. Few drivers have ever been able to handle a race car on worn rubber as well as Cale, and the time he made up in the pits allowed him to cruise to an easy win. After the race DW once again got some folks pretty annoyed, placing blame for the loss squarely on his DiGard team and crew chief Buddy Parrott. While Yarborough, Waltrip and Petty finishing 1-2-3 was not much of a surprise, there were some other now familiar names in the top ten that day. Terry Labonte stunned everyone by finishing fourth in his first ever Winston Cup start. Bobby Allison, another longtime driver, finished fifth, just behind Labonte, and one position ahead of part time driver Bill Elliott. Longtime independents James Hylton and Buddy Arrington had fine runs, coming home seventh and eighth, making for an interesting mix at the top of the running order. Also in the field that day, was another promising young rookie, driving a Ford owned by Will Cronkrite, Dale Earnhardt. While Earnhardt had to settle for 16th that day, he, like Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte, would return to make his mark at Darlington.
*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.