#87 - High Stakes on the High Banks
(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
Historians may point out the fall of Richmond actually took place on May 10th 1864, but on the stock car racing schedule the night race at Richmond in the Fall falls in early September, kicking off the last third of the season, the home stretch to the championship. While all the teams started the year with great optimism in Daytona in February, by the time the Winston Cup teams visit Richmond in the Fall, a select few teams have typically surged to the front to contend for the title, while the rest are still scrambling to try to get a seat at the head table in New York, to avenge earlier disappointments, or even beginning to plan the next season.
A disastrous September Sunday afternoon in Richmond almost cost NASCAR one of its heroes. Bobby Allison had had a rough season, as he struggled to find a full time ride to contend for the championship. He had already parted ways with the Ford backed team of Bud Moore's Mercurys and the Chrysler backed team of Cotton Owens, and was struggling along in a badly under-powered Chevy he co-owned with JD Bracken. As legend has it, that was Allison's only race car and it was bought from an insurance company as a total loss, flood damaged vehicle, turned into a race car in the garage on Allison's property and equipped with an engine out of a totaled Camaro. In truth, 1967 was a tough year to be anybody but Richard Petty, who was flat out dominating the Grand National scene in a season that saw him rack up 27 victories in his swift blue Hemi Plymouth, one of a full stable the King had at his beck and call. In a case of the rich getting richer(D) Petty dominated that race and took the checkers for the sixth race in a row, while Bobby caught the fence and rolled his Chevy hard down the front straight-away. The car was badly damaged and Bobby admitted he didn't know if he wanted to continue racing, much less whether he could. Bobby Allison, being the man he was, went ahead and patched up that badly trashed race car and was back at the next race five days later. Petty won again, but Allison finished second, in a car that looked like it belonged in the scrap heap. Ironically, it was Petty's domination of the series that gave Allison a big break later that year. Ford was determined to regain winning form, and one of the teams sent out to take on the King was headed by the recently retired Fred Lorenzen, who tapped Bobby to drive the car. The pair teamed up to win the last two races of the1967 season.
What a difference a couple years can make. By the time the Grand National circuit returned to Richmond on the fall of 1969, Bobby Allison was driving a powerful Mario Rossi owned Hemi, with support from Chrysler. Richard was struggling through a tough season with the unfamiliar Fords he was running that year. Once again bad luck seemed poised to strike the star crossed Allison. During Saturday happy hour, the Dodge he was driving lost an engine and the team did not have a spare. Quick phone calls were made and a truck driver drove all night to get the engine to Richmond by 10:00 the morning of the race. The team and a few friends quickly installed the engine and rolled the car out onto the track, moments before the start of the race. Once the green dropped, Allison charged through towards the front and on lap 171 he assumed the lead from Richard Petty when the King's car blew a rear differential, sidelining him for the day. Allison led the rest of the event and took the checkers three laps ahead of second place Sonny Hutchins, but even that seemingly easy romp of the field was not without drama. Allison got involved in not one, but two pit road accidents with Cale Yarborough that day.
Richard Petty was the acknowledged master of Richmond with 13 victories during his career there. In fact that race Allison won in the fall of 1969 was the only fall event at Richmond Petty didn't win from 1967 to 1974. Along the way he also piled up five wins in the spring at Richmond during the same period, for good measure. Allison was no slouch at Richmond either, accumulating six wins. Petty entered the 1971 race at Richmond poised to clinch his third championship, but what was on Richard's mind that day was winning the race, not resting on his laurels. "I've never entered a race in my life that I didn't try to win." mused the King." Winning this race is more important than winning the title." Not only did he claim his championship, but Richard showed why he deserved to be champion, by winning that race by over a lap. Some recent champions of this era would do well to note how a true champion takes a title. Second place that day went to who else... Bobby Allison. Ironically, Richard entered the fall race at Richmond in 1975, once again only needing to start the race to take the championship. That day he finished dead last after blowing an engine on lap 34.
In 1972 Richard and Bobby flat out dominated the Winston Cup series. Allison scored 10 wins that year and 27 top-10s in 31 races, while Petty won eight races and scored 28 top-10s. The pair finished one-two on thirteen different occasions, often laps ahead of the rest of the field. When you combine two drivers of such great talent, possessed with such a fiery determination to win, a tight points battle, and equal cars, there's going to be fireworks occasionally, and there was a Fourth of July's worth at Richmond that fall. As per usual that year the two drivers dominated the event, swapping the lead back and forth between themselves. Richard got into Bobby's car while muscling past on the 392nd lap, and in the next corner Allison hit Petty's Dodge to let him know he wasn't too happy about it. Petty went out of control and headed for the fence. Buddy Baker hit the 43 car and it hit the guard rail and actually went up on top of the steel in a hail of sparks. Richard's car struck an upright on the fence and was knocked back onto the track. Despite riding the guard rail, he never even lost the lead of the race. Petty went on to take the victory despite driving the final lap on a flat tire. Allison finished second.
There was a frightening wreck on the fourth lap of the fall 1973 race at Richmond. A rookie, Baxter Price, lost control and third place Darrell Waltrip nailed him a solid shot in the rear of his car. In all, 14 cars piled into the wreck. Rescue crews ran out to check on the drivers and help them out of their cars, and at that point the fuel from Baxter's car, which had spilled all over the track, ignited. While fortunately none of the track personnel were badly injured, Baxter did receive second degree burns to his face and hands. The race had to be halted for over an hour while the mess was cleaned up. Later in the race it began raining and because of the long delay earlier, NASCAR decided to leave the cars on the track for a full 86 laps, running under yellow in the rain. The track was still visibly wet and slick when racing resumed, but Richard Petty mastered the tricky surface and went onto to take the win by over two laps, whistling "Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain…" Bobby Allison had to settle for third, while Cale Yarborough, who was starting to crash the two man private party Petty and Allison had made out of stock car racing, got second place.
There was another display of hot temper at Richmond in the fall of 1978 that didn't stop even after the checkered flag dropped. While Petty and Allison both led briefly, the day seemed to belong to Neil Bonnett that afternoon and he dominated the race. Apparently someone forgot to tell Darrell Waltrip that it was Neil's day, because he fought his way up to second place and began trying to find a way to pass him. With eight laps left, having found no opportunity to make a clean pass, Waltrip simply ran into Bonnett's rear bumper and pushed him out of the way, sending Bonnett into the wall. Bobby Allison took advantage of the move by ducking underneath the battling pair and taking the lead, but DW soon ran him down and made the pass for the lead to the loud booing of the crowd. Waltrip took the win and Allison came home second, while Neil managed to recover for third. To show his irritation at Waltrip, Bonnett charged into the pits at a good clip and drove into the side of DW's Chevy while the crowd roared its approval. After the race, the track officials had to assign a police escort to Darrell, who was faced with a hail of objects thrown from the stands. An un-contrite Waltrip shrugged it off and said he won races anyway he could, adding, "I don't like being booed but I'm not going to let it bother me and it won't change the way I drive." Waltrip would give ample evidence of that statement the next couple seasons.
What a difference even a single year can make. Ask Rusty Wallace, who was involved in tight points battles when the circuit hit Richmond for the second time in both the 1988 and 1989 seasons. In 1988, Rusty was scrapping it out with Bill Elliott to be Winston Cup champion. Common wisdom was that as the season shifted to the short tracks, Wallace would have the advantage over Elliott, who was stronger at the big tracks, and could make up the ground he needed. That's not how it worked out in 1988. After a less than stellar qualifying effort started Rusty towards the back of the field, he was involved in an incident after a first lap caution for a wreck involving Richard Petty and Lake Speed. As the cars slowed to take the yellow, Geoff Bodine ran full steam into the back of Wallace crippling Rusty's car and relegating him to a miserable 35th place finish in a field of 36 cars. Bobby Allison's son Davey took the win that day, beating Dale Earnhardt to the stripe in the first race staged on the newly reconfigured three quarter mile track. Elliott managed to come home seventh and add a nice cushion to his points lead. Rusty was livid afterwards and accused Bodine of destroying his chances to be champion. When the Cup cars returned to that same race in 1989 Rusty was involved in a tight points battle with Dale Earnhardt for the title. The weather was unseasonably hot that year, with temperatures in the nineties and high humidity to boot. Both Earnhardt and Wallace admitted after the race they were badly fatigued and could not have driven much further. But despite the ill effects of heat, Wallace managed to steer around numerous wrecks that caused a record 14 caution flags to fly and stretch his fuel mileage far enough to take the victory. Earnhardt came home second so Wallace, who got the five points for leading the most laps, only gained ten points on his rival. In the end though, Wallace only edged Earnhardt out by 12 points, so that victory at Richmond loomed large, particularly since it was Rusty's last win of the year, and Earnhardt caught fire the last part of that season. While the short track races may not be as glamorous as the superspeedways in the eyes of many fans, they pay the same amount of points and in Winston Cup every race helps decide the championship.
The fall of 1991 marked the first race at Richmond run under the lights on a Saturday night, which must have made Sportsman veteran and stand out Harry Gant feel right at home. That race had all the excitement of a local track Saturday night special as well. Davey Allison overcame a mid-race penalty for speeding on pit road, and charged back into the lead. A caution flag slowed the action and with 75 laps left to run it came down to a two car duel between Gant and Allison. The duo treated the fans to a legendary battle, running side by side, inches apart, lap after lap until finally with 25 laps to go, Gant used an old short track trick and used the lapped car of Terry Labonte as a pick to block Allison and force him to back off. At that point Gant took the lead and was never headed, despite Davey's best efforts to reel him in. After the race both drivers complimented the other for running a tight but clean race. For the 51-year old Gant it was his second win in a row and the streak would grow to four consecutive races, earning Harry the nickname "Mr. September."
Those of you who recall the highly questionable (to be kind) black flag that ruined Rusty Wallace's chances of winning the rain delayed Fall race at Martinsville in 1997, may not know that it was actually the second time NASCAR gave Rusty a black flag penalty for jumping the restart while he was in the lead. The same thing happened to Wallace at the Fall race in Richmond in 1993. Rusty dominated the first 95 laps of the race, but on a restart after the caution, NASCAR officials decided he had jumped the gun. Rusty became so incensed he drove with a fire in his belly, charging through the pack like the rest of the drivers were in pedal cars. On lap 267 Rusty muscled his way past Mark Martin to take the lead, and either the other drivers didn't have the horsepower to catch him, or they knew better than to try. Wallace led Bill Elliott to the stripe by about six car lengths. As far as I know, NASCAR did not award him his $49,415 first prize money in pennies.
*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.