Little Joe, Junior, Gentleman Ned and Mr. Modified on Fairgrounds Dirt
Richmond (Not International) Raceway doesn’t make a big deal of its longevity anymore; there’s no “xxth Annual” before the Federated Auto Parts 400 name. I had to look it up, and the first fall race was run in 1959 (there was one Richmond race per year in 1953 and ‘55-58; none in ‘54), so this year’s is the 59th.
I can’t personally take you all the way back to the beginning, when Cotton Owens bested a 16-car field in the Capital City 200 on September 13, 1959 (Richmonder Runt Harris finished fifth in Junie Donlavey’s #90). What I can do, though, is take you back to the fifth annual race, which was up to 300 laps by then, and which was my second-ever stock car race, on Sunday, September 8, 1963. It was still a half-mile dirt track then.
Race #1 had been that spring’s Richmond 250, and it hooked me on this sport forever. For some reason, though, finances were cut for the fall and instead of sitting in the fourth-turn bleachers, I was in the infield. (At least I ended up with less dirt and tire dust covering me than I’d collected off turn four.)
The spring race had been notable for a race-long duel between Joe Weatherly, who won, and Junior Johnson, who blew up and crashed with seven laps to go. Weatherly and car owner Bud Moore had switched from Pontiac to Mercury since then, but Johnson was still in Ray Fox’s fast but fragile Holly Farms Poultry Chevy #3.
Joe Weatherly, #8 (above), and Junior Johnson, #3 (below), helped make this writer a lifelong race fan. (Notice that Weatherly’s car has a license plate!)
Weatherly took the pole, but Johnson was a disappointing 13th - no one else outside the top 10 had the remotest chance of winning. As it turned out, the #3 lasted only 62 laps and finished next-to-last.
“Little Joe,” on the other hand, had a rocket, and the Norfolk racer lead 145 of the first 165 laps, but then the #8’s engine gave up the ghost, and the home-state faithful sank lower in their seats. Little did we know that, by the time NASCAR came to town again in 1964, Weatherly would be dead.
Rex White picked up the leader’s mantle after Weatherly’s misfortune, but after controlling the event for nearly 100 laps, he faded, and Ned Jarrett ended up winning by two laps over White’s #4 Chevy. It was Gentleman Ned’s only Richmond win, although he probably spent more time there in subsequent years than anyone else in the field, because of his broadcast career.
It also was a little consolation to Virginians, because Jarrett’s Burton-Robinson Construction Company Ford #11 was a Virginia-owned team (although I think it was maintained at Ned’s shop in North Carolina).
Fifth place went to Fred Lorenzen, although he was 11 laps off the lead. Freddie only ran a handful of dirt races in NASCAR (none after 1963), but Richmond was his most frequent stop (and how Dog Track Speedway in Moyock, N.C., got onto the list I have no earthly idea).
Of more interest to me was the seventh place finisher, Ray Hendrick, who would become my short-track idol in the years to come. Driving a two-year-old Pontiac for an outfit called Rebel Racing, he ran the last couple of laps with a flat tire - pretty much no tire at all by the end - and I was much impressed by his ability to keep up speed on three wheels. Little did I know just how good a driver Mr. Hendrick in fact was.
It definitely wasn’t as exciting a race as the 250 had been in the spring, and my guy didn’t win, but it was more than enough to ensure that racing’s talons weren’t giving up their hold on this fan. I had the next spring’s race marked on my calendar (and little did I know that it would be victimized by rain and be completed “under the lights” on Tuesday night).
A note on scheduling: The Capital City 300 was Race #47 of 55 making up the 1963’s schedule, which had actually begun in November of 1962. The last ‘63 race was on the Riverside road course on November 3, and the next weekend a 250-lapper at Concord, N.C., began the 1964 season, which included three other races actually run in 1963, one in Savannah, Ga., on December 29! Got that?
This race - that’s eventual winner Fireball Roberts in the #22 - was run on the ill-fated Augusta, Ga., road course in November of 1963 but was part of the 1964 NASCAR Grand National schedule.
(Editor’s Note: The old road course at Augusta wasn’t the only one to be ill-fated here. This was Fireball’s last win, and he would suffer severe burns in a fiery crash at Charlotte the next spring. Forty days later, on July 2, 1964, we said a sad goodbye to E. Glenn Roberts.)
That’s just another example. When you see weird things coming out of Daytona Beach these days, don’t assume it’s because the current generation of “suits” somehow took perfection and ran it into the ground. History says it’s in the genes.
Frank’s Loose Lugnuts (Don’t fine me; it was an accident, I swear. I tightened every one of them.)
While wandering online looking for photos and statistics, I stumbled across materials from one of the late model races run annually on Easter Monday at Trico (now Orange County) Speedway in North Carolina. Easter Monday was a state holiday in those days, so a daytime race on a Monday wasn’t quite as weird as it sounds. Besides, with nothing else going on, you could draw an interesting field.
Bobby Allison, then at the peak of his GN/Cup career, was a frequent visitor and won the race, and top late model drivers from all over joined him at what was then a pretty run-down facility. I used to have a photo I took at one race of Ray Hendrick blowing an engine and sailing over the first-turn guardrail, taking Tommy Houston and South Carolinian Jerry Rector with him. Rector landed upside-down in the pond dating back to the raceway’s dirt track days and was actually in a little peril.
I mention this because those were the days when local racers regularly toured other tracks for big races. Although this still happens in sprint car, modified and dirt-track late model racing, it has virtually died out at NASCAR tracks, and that’s one reason “new blood” racers with pre-existing name recognition and fan appeal no longer show up at NASCAR’s top levels. It’s killing the sport, and the idiots still haven’t lifted a finger to change the status quo - guess it’s easier to constantly fiddle with the rules or point system and then claim you’ve done your job.