Looking Back to Look Forward
There are some races from the early years of my NASCAR fandom that stick out for various reasons as particularly memorable, and I thought maybe a look back at those might shed light on why my memories of those events are so much more positive than for many of today’s seemingly much more competitive Cup events.
For this little experiment, I chose the 1966 Peach Blossom 500 at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. This was Rockingham’s second Grand National event, and using the year is redundant, because that was the only year the spring event carried the “Peach Blossom” name.
One thing you learn early as a journalist is that “first annual” is NEVER correct – it’s not “annual” until it has been held more than once. In this case, there was no “second annual,” which proves that point.
So here’s the scenario: Paul Goldsmith, driving a year-old Ray Nichols Plymouth won the event by nearly four seconds over Cale Yarborough in Banjo Matthews’ Ford, and they were the only cars on the lead lap.
Bobby Allison in Betty Lilly’s “independent” Ford was third, 12 laps back, but that put him 8 laps ahead of fourth and 10 ahead of fifth. Virginia’s memorable part-timer Worth McMillion finished 48 laps behind in 10th. (McMillion was memorable in part because, in a sport with current and former moonshiners, he worked for the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.)
The Winner. (Clipping from the former Southern MotorSports Journal via the always-worth-reading TMC Chase)
Thirteen of the 44 starters finished the race, which lasted five seconds less than exactly FIVE HOURS!
So what made the Peach Blossom 500 so great?
Try this: There were quite a few lead changes in the Rockingham race – Yarborough and Jim Paschal had one particularly memorable side-by-side duel – but there also were long periods during those five hours when nothing much was happening up front.
This is where being there in person makes a difference. Plenty was going on back in the field. There were occasional battles for positions and other drama: one Grand National part-timer, in a nice-looking new ride, smacked the fence in the third and fourth turns three times, a bit harder each time, until the last contact totaled the car – all this happened before the race’s halfway mark.
In those days, mechanical failure was more common among top runners, and watching those favorites struggle maintained interest. Bobby Isaac, in Junior Johnson’s Ford, took the lead from pole-sitter Goldsmith on lap 25, then wrecked 10 laps later. Ned Jarrett retired with engine failure at almost the same time, and less than 20 laps later Darel Dieringer, in Richard Petty’s car (see explanation below), wrecked. LeeRoy Yarbrough, Goldsmith’s teammate Sam McQuagg, and Holman-Moody teammates Dick Hutcherson and Fred Lorenzen were all gone before the halfway mark. All but Hutcherson had taken a turn at leading the race.
You didn’t see Lorenzen wreck often, but Rockingham was a brutal place to race for 500 laps
Paschal was the next to go (engine), but there were still several strong contenders in this battle of attrition, including Wood Brothers teammates Marvin Panch and Curtis Turner. Then the latter crashed with 124 laps to go, and the former lost an engine 26 laps later. In the meantime, David Pearson’s Cotton Owens Dodge made an extended pit stop that removed him from contention.
That left it to Goldsmith and Yarborough, who between them would end up leading two-thirds of the race, and it was former motorcycle racer (and Indy driver) Goldsmith who prevailed.
So it was a pretty good race up front, but maybe an even more interesting one away from the lead, and that’s what I pick out of all this to bring forward to today.
“Big John” Sears was just getting his nearly decade-long Grand National career underway that day at Rockingham, and he would go on to post the first of his 48 Top-5 finishes, albeit 22 miles behind winner Goldsmith. Sears’ car owner L.G. DeWitt also was an investor in the speedway, which advertised on the car at Daytona two weeks earlier.
I’m not sure the “things to watch” away from the lead are as good today as they were 50 years ago, but I know that, because most fans are watching on TV and not in person, they don’t really have the opportunity to see any of that, regardless. As we all know, most of TV race coverage is of the lead (long-time fans complain about this continuously), so when that’s not the point of excitement on the track, why watch at all?
It’s a two-stage problem: TV limits how much of the overall racing a fan can experience, and modern rules – especially aero-related – make it harder to pass for the lead or elsewhere. The result is that all the cars are running on the lead lap – much closer together than in 1966 – but they can’t pass one another as much, so the excitement is reduced.
When I compare 1966 and 2019, that’s what I get, and it takes me back to my oft-yelled prescription for better racing today: dumb down and slow down the cars, eliminate aero as the major factor it has become, and watch people pass each other more, creating more exciting racing.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
The Richard Petty Rockingham Story
Richard Petty was replaced in the field for the Peach Blossom 500 because he had undergone surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left hand that had been injured in a touch football game. Dieringer was his replacement for the race.
It’s particularly interesting – and different from today – that the Petty pit crew moved to Jim Paschal’s pit after Dieringer exited the race early and offered their services to Petty’s former crew member. Paschal’s Friedkin Enterprises Plymouth was a first-rate ride, but apparently its pit crew wasn’t up to the standards of Petty’s team.
Richard with his football injury. Kyle Petty was quarterback at Randleman H.S. about a decade later, but both probably made the right career choices.
Riding the Rails
This also was the first of several races I attended at Rockingham via a unique promotion where the Seaboard Coastline Railroad added cars to its overnight train to Florida and picked up race fans from Washington to Raleigh and delivered them to the track, which was across the highway from the train tracks. Lifelong friend Dave Fulton tells better than I ever could.
Although I can’t pick myself out of the crowd anymore, that crowd standing at the start-finish line for as Paul Goldsmith took the Peach Blossom 500 checkered flag includes this writer.
Like a lot of you, I was saddened by Jayski’s Silly Season being dropped from ESPN’s website last week. My guess is that I’ve accessed that site somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 times over the last two decades, and I’ll miss it.
I’m glad that Race Fans Forever has stepped in to fill part of that void, though, offering over the years. Please use it and keep informed.
Jay, thanks for a lot of good reading.