#94 - Charlotte in the Fall
(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
The fall event at Charlotte Motor Speedway has always lived in the shadow of the bigger Memorial Day weekend World 600 run at the same track, but the fall classic has provided many memorable moments, helped to decide several championships and unfortunately, time to time, terrible wrecks and firestorms of controversy. To this day, the aftermath of the 1983 fall event at Charlotte remains one of the darkest off track chapters in NASCAR history.
The inaugural fall event at the track was staged October 16th, 1960. The track, its owner Curtis Turner and his right hand man Olin Bruton Smith were in dire financial trouble due to the huge cost overruns in building the superspeedway. Even the 29,000 plus spectator turnout was not enough to stave off the financial ruin that wound up with Turner and Smith ousted in 1961. Speedy Thompson, driving the Wood Brothers Ford, entered that event mired in a deep slump that had seen him go winless for two years. Even before the race there was a rash of controversy. Rex White was drawing close to clinching the 1960 Grand National Championship, and decided to test at the track in the week leading up to the event, hoping to gain an edge that would allow him to leave the track as the champion. The racing surface was extremely rough, and another driver testing with White, "Tiger" Tom Pistone, crashed heavily. Rex White packed up his car and left, blaming the wreck on the lousy track conditions. Track officials (read, Bruton Smith) threatened not to let White enter the event unless he apologized. The incident bears striking similarities to the brouhaha between Rusty Wallace and the same Bruton Smith after the inaugural race at Texas in 1997. White backed down and was allowed to race. The race was marred by a terrible crash. Lennie Page put his Thunderbird hard into the wall, and bounced back into the path of Don O'Dell who struck Page's car right in the driver's side numbers. Page was knocked unconscious and had several broken ribs, but by far the most life threatening injury was a deep gash to his neck, which was bleeding profusely. A young Chris Economaki, at that point still a track side photographer for National Speed and Sport News, dropped his camera and rushed to the injured driver's aid. Economaki used his own shirt to apply direct pressure to staunch the bleeding until track rescue crews arrived, and in doing so saved Page's life. Fireball Roberts dominated most of the event but blew a tire and slammed the wall. At that point, Speedy Thompson took control of the event and led to the checkers, posting the first of six wins at Charlotte for the Wood Brothers' team. Emergent newcomer of the season, Richard Petty, came home second.
Coming into the 1961 event, Joe Weatherly had a different sort of image problem than Speedy Thompson had the previous year. While Weatherly had won his fair share of races as of late, in the eyes of many of the other drivers, fans, and even his car owner Bud Moore, Weatherly was playing "vulture", driving conservatively, waiting for wrecks and mechanical misfortune to slim the field of hard chargers, then cruising to a good finish. While that may be the norm today, in those days, when racing was racing, fans loudly booed such a strategy. That day Joe Weatherly would show what he was really made of. A long smoky slide to avoid a spinning car seemed to eliminate Weatherly from contention for the victory, but throughout the rest of the event, he put on a determined charge back towards the front. Once again the race was marred by a frightening accident. Fireball Roberts, who had dominated the race early, lost an engine, slowed dramatically and got sideways. Bill Morgan plowed into the passenger side door of Fireball's stricken Pontiac. Contemporary reports described the sound of the wreck as "like a bomb going off". The front bumper of Morgan's car wound up into the side of the driver's seat of Robert's car, though miraculously, Roberts was not hurt. He did say however, he was picking bits of glass out of his neck and back for the next two weeks. With five laps to go, Weatherly charged past his Bud Moore teammate, Bob Wellborn , but Richard Petty was right on his rear bumper and coming on hard as well. Weatherly fought off the King-To-Be's determined attempts to pass him and prevailed by little more than 12 feet at the checkers. He was presented his trophy by a teenage (well, according to her biography anyway) Miss Pontiac, later to be Miss Hurst, Linda Vaughn. Ned Jarrett, who had hoped to clinch the title with a strong run that day, lost an engine and finished a disappointing 18th, while his championship rival, Rex White, came home fifth to keep his slim hopes of repeating as champion alive. Jarrett would go on to be the 1961 champion despite only posting a single race victory.
Stock car racing was a very different sport in 1971, with the heyday of factory involvement coming to a close. Several top name drivers and car owners had left the sport and fan interest was dwindling as a result. Richard Howard, who had inherited the financial mess of the Charlotte Speedway from Turner and Smith and turned the track into a great success, was a forward thinking man, always looking for a way to sell more tickets and improve the health of the sport. As such, he contacted Junior Johnson about the possibility of preparing a Chevrolet (a brand that had been missing from the top ranks of stock car racing for close to a decade) to enter at the World 600 race in Charlotte. Junior, who had retired when he could not find sponsorship money, indicated he was interested, but only if the effort didn't cost him money. Howard staked the team. While he had hoped Junior would drive the car himself, Johnson was not interested in a return to the driver's seat, so Charlie Glotzbach was hired on to pilot the Monte Carlo. (Incidentally the first Monte to race in NASCAR and it carried the number 3). A huge crowd showed up to see the return of the Bowtie brigade and one of North Carolina's favorite sons, Junior Johnson, to racing. Glotzbach did not disappoint, putting the white Monte on the pole for the event and leading the event four times before being eliminated in a crash. The venture was so successful Howard announced Junior's Chevy would run any races that a promoter was willing to put up sufficient appearance money to make it worthwhile. Naturally Junior, Charlie, and the white Monte were back at Charlotte in the fall, looking to claim the prize that had narrowly eluded them. Once again Glotzbach showed his Chevy had a lot of muscle and led early and often, but in addition to the other cars, the drivers that day were racing bad weather. Rain had pelted the track and darkness was falling. Bobby Allison, who was leading in a Holman-Moody Mercury, was caught by surprise as much as anyone was when the starter displayed the white flag to him on lap 237. He bought it on home for the win, but there was some ill feeling amidst the other drivers as a result of the unannounced scheme to end the race early. NASCAR explained that Allison was leading comfortably, and they were afraid if they gave the "five to go" word with the track as damp as it was, the drivers might drive recklessly and there would be big wrecks. Again, there is an eerie similarity to the hastily concluded World 600 of 1997.
Bobby Allison was back for the fall race at Charlotte in 1973. Ironically enough, he had taken the place of Charlie Glotzbach in Junior Johnson's Chevy. While Junior said he would have preferred to keep Charlie on, Bobby had the sponsorship backing of Coca Cola to bring to the table with him and Junior needed that money to field a team for the full season. The combination had been quite successful, with Allison having racked up eight wins already going into that event, tying him with Richard Petty, his nemesis in the points battle for victories. Those two drivers were also embroiled in a bit of controversy, having recently done a lot of feuding, fussing and cussing on the short tracks, in one of the most storied rivalries in Winston Cup history. Both drivers were told prior to the event, the blatant sheetmetal combat from the previous race at North Wilkesboro could not be allowed to continue on the superspeedway at Charlotte, for fear someone would get hurt. In a bit of a bizarre twist prior to the race, Fred Lorenzen who was slated to drive for Hoss Ellington, up and disappeared the night before the race, leaving Hoss a note on his motel room pillow he did not feel well enough to drive. Ellington quickly contacted Cale Yarborough, who had quit the NASCAR circuit after the factory money dried up, to race Indy cars, to make a rare appearance on the Winston Cup circuit. Bobby Isaac was also trying to make a comeback, and led early, but was sidelined when a "fan" threw a beer car out onto the track and it took out his oil pan. In those days, fans frequently tried to help out their favorite drivers or penalize drivers they disliked by hurling things over the fence, in an ugly display we unfortunately don't seem to have outgrown today. The feared Allison/Petty war was by and large a non-issue. Bobby had the dominant car that day, and the King, who had refocused his attention on trying to clinch his fourth title, seemed content to cruise in second place, a good distance behind his rival. With 16 laps to go, however, Petty blew a tire and slapped the wall, bringing out a caution flag. (Though the wreck ended his day and he thus finished 16 laps off the pace, Petty had run enough laps that he was credited with 10th place in the final run down) The yellow allowed Buddy Baker to restart on Allison's rear bumper and the two waged an epic duel, swapping the lead 5 times in the final nine laps, with Allison finally reasserting himself and winning by two car lengths. The crowd was thrilled. Baker was not. He accused Bobby of dirty driving and said he understood why Petty had gone at Allison on the short tracks after the experience that day. A miffed Allison claimed he had never touched Baker.
A pre-race decision by NASCAR caused some fireworks at the fall 1974 event at Charlotte. In those days the rules stated that a driver had to start the race on the same tires he had used to qualify. Buddy Baker qualified third for the event on his first lap against the clock, but spun out on the second lap and flat spotted the tires. His car owner Bud Moore asked NASCAR's permission to replace the tires prior to the start of the race for safety's sake. NASCAR refused the request. Moore pulled out a hunting knife and slashed the tires of the car while stunned NASCAR officials looked on, then drawled it looked like he would have to replace them after all. Unamused, NASCAR let the team replace the tires all right…but added they would have to start at the back of the field. An enraged Buddy Baker told the press, "I'll be in the lead by the 10th lap, or I'll be crashed out by the tenth lap." Let's just say he never led the race. On the second lap Baker was charging through the field like a man possessed and the inevitable happened. He ran into the slower car of Ramo Scott, veteran independent driver, and set off a horrendous wreck that wound up involving seven cars. Poor Marty Robbins was faced with either hitting a car right in the driver's side door and risking badly injuring that driver or going head on into the wall. He chose the noble course of action and wound up with severe facial lacerations. Moore was told not to bother trying to repair the car to get Buddy back into the fray. All the other pre-race favorites, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, the Allison brothers, and Darrell Waltrip took their turn at the point, but in the end superspeedway legend Pearson held off Richard Petty by 1.4 seconds to score his sixth win in 17 starts. Yarborough was sidelined by an engine failure on lap 206 and handed the championship to second place finisher Richard Petty.
Nothing in NASCAR history has, or hopefully ever will, matched the uproar following the 1983 running of the fall race at Charlotte. By way of background, a very few cars were dominating the sport, and dominating it badly. Rumors were rampant a lot of those front running teams were cheating. Among the drivers being humiliated week in and week out, was the once all-conquering King of Stock Car racing, Richard Petty. He had won two races early in the season but had a terrible year after that. Petty kept telling the crew he needed more horsepower to be competitive. Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons and Tim Richmond seemed to have the cars to beat throughout most of the event. While Richard stayed on the lead lap, he was never a serious threat and led no laps. A caution flag flew on lap 293 and afterwards Richard's car all of a sudden came on strong. With 22 laps to go, the King went by Darrell Waltrip like Darrell had decided to stop the car and relax a few moments. Petty streaked to an easy victory 3.1 seconds ahead, to the stunned delight of the crowd. But from there things quickly went downhill. While Petty was busy celebrating his 198th career victory, his STP mount was rolled into the inspection garage for the normal post-race check. Immediately, a NASCAR official noticed that the car was riding on four left side tires. The left side tires in those days were of a stickier compound than the rights (which were harder for safety's sake) and it was illegal to run the left side tires on the other side of the car. In a race earlier that year at Martinsville, Tim Richmond had been caught with four left side tires, was black-flagged and held five laps. A similar penalty would have dropped Petty to 18th. The panicked official, knowing he was dealing with the popular King of the sport, called his higher-ups to ask what to do. Meanwhile in victory lane, Richard was told of the infraction by a reporter. The King seemed stunned and pointed out he just drove the car, he didn't pick the tires during pit stops. Meanwhile back in the inspection garage, things went from bad to worse. The engine in the 43 car was found to be way oversize, 382 cubic inches as opposed to the allowed 358. Petty was asked to join the growing crowd in the inspection barn, and excused himself from victory lane. After learning of the serious rules infractions, Richard admitted the tasks of team owner and meeting heavy sponsor appearance commitments had him a bit out of touch with what was going on, on his team. He had told the crew he needed more power and they had misinterpreted his wishes as being a license to cheat. He went on to say later, "Things are going to be different next year. I don't know how, but they will be different." After three hours of deliberation including all the top officials, a stunning verdict was announced. Richard Petty would be allowed to keep the victory after all. He would be fined a record $35,000 and stripped of 84 points. The decision, in the face of the blatant rules violations, bought howls of protest and allegations of favoritism. In a case of the pot calling the kettle black, the loudest voice of protest belonged to Junior Johnson, who had been known to bend a rule or two himself… including getting caught with an oversized engine at the same track in 1973. NASCAR locked the barn door after the horse was gone by announcing that in the future, anyone caught with an oversized engine would be suspended for 12 weeks or three races, whichever was longer… no matter who it was. A few days later Richard Petty stunned the racing community by announcing that in 1984 he would leave his own Petty Enterprises team to drive for Mike Curb. And with that, one of the sorriest episodes in NASCAR history came to a close… until none other than Junior Johnson got caught with an oversize engine at Charlotte during the running of the 1991 Winston. Sort of makes Tiregate seem like small potatoes, doesn't it?
*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.