Racing at a Very Different Bristol, Half a Century Ago
Hard to believe it has been more than 51 years since buddy Dave Fulton, a friend of his and I headed west from Richmond in my parents’ Chevy, picked up another friend of his in Roanoke and – fueled more by alcohol than petroleum, truth be told – made our way to what was known then as Bristol International Speedway for the 1967 Volunteer 500.
By that day’s standards, Bristol was a really nice track, although it would look like a cheap bathtub toy compared to the “coliseum” that sits on that spot today. Still, we and the other 20,000+ spectators were primed to endure a brutally hot July day to see some first-class stock car racing.
Of course, things were different: less than a third of the 36 cars in the starting field had even a remote shot at winning, and it turned out that the real number was much, MUCH smaller still.
This is not from my race, but with Petty and Pearson on the front row, it’s close enough. You saw that a lot in 1967.
Richard Petty sat on the pole – no surprise, since he was in the middle of his historic, 27-win season – and led the first 56 laps, but when he surrendered the top spot to arch-rival David Pearson in the Holman-Moody #17 Ford, it looked like things might not go Petty’s way. That all changed 58 laps later when Pearson’s power plant swallowed a valve.
At races today we see engine failures (“blown” engines in historical parlance) rarely, so it’s a big deal when a top team falls out of a race because of the motor. Wasn’t so in those days – engine failures on July 23, 1967, took out Cale Yarborough in the Wood Brothers Ford (59 laps), Pearson, Paul Goldsmith in Ray Nichols’ Plymouth (151), LeeRoy Yarbrough in Bud Moore’s Mercury (407), semi-top cars driven by “Tiger” Tom Pistone, Donnie Allison, Bobby Johns and Buddy Baker, plus a handful of lesser lights.
Speaking of Pistone, he was driving a Chevy owned by “Turkey” Minton, a mechanic once associated with Junior Johnson. This car was one of several back in those days that popped up just when a little extra excitement was needed in the build-up to races. Generally, we’d later find that either Bill France or Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Richard Howard had at least partially bankrolled the effort. At Bristol, though, the excitement was muted: Tiger Tom qualified twelfth but lasted only 14 laps and finished dead last.
Here’s Curtis Turner in what I’m pretty sure is the Minton Chevelle. It didn’t leave enough of a mark to have many photos online today.
But back to the race… after Pearson’s departure, it was all Petty and Midwestern transplant Dick Hutcherson in the Bondy Long Ford #29. The two traded the lead nearly 10 times, although Petty pulled away at the end, leading the last 62 laps and winning by a three-quarter-lap margin.
As the descriptions above should have made it clear, this was a battle of attrition. Third-place Darel Dieringer was two laps back; fourth-place Jim Paschal trailed by eight laps, and fifth-place James Hylton was 14 behind. Buck Baker finished tenth, completing just 469 laps, and our hero, commercial pilot-turned-racer J.T. Putney was the last car running, 55 laps off the pace.
J.T. Putney’s Chevelle, which didn’t have a great day at Bristol.
Somewhere I have a photo of Putney after the race, on the ground, leaning up against the garage fence in the shadow of his hauler, trying to recover. (A very thin Mr. Fulton is lighting a cigarette on the edge of the image.)
So how does that compare with today? Last year’s second Bristol race (what used to be called the Volunteer 500) had 15 cars on the lead lap, and the last car running came home 34th, completing 31 more laps that J.T. Putney did 51 years ago.
Kyle Busch’s margin of victory was less than 1.5 seconds.
So why won’t I be at Bristol this weekend, preferring to recall memories of a race that took place half a century ago and – on paper – doesn’t look like it was as exciting?
I’m going to throw a reason out this time that I don’t think we consider too often, and while I might be wrong, you might want to give it some thought. I think maybe NASCAR’s size and money works against it.
I mentioned 20,000 fans back in 1967, and while everybody’s scared to give us attendance figures anymore, it’s a good bet that Bristol this week will be three or four times that many. Yet the traffic was a pain with the smaller number.
You know everything for you, the fan, will be terribly expensive, yet what are you getting for that extra money that you can’t get watching the locals on Saturday night? I don’t think the size adds any value for fans, and the money involved in the sport makes everybody much less approachable for us. That day at Bristol, we hung out with J.T. Putney and his guys for a while, and, as tired as they were, they didn’t seem to mind.
More to the point, we identified with the racers (not necessarily Putney, who was a pilot, but the ones who were mechanics or in the construction trades or had small businesses), which has been replaced by an effort at a “star system” that seems to me not to be working.
Last weekend the Knoxville Nationals, sprint car racing’s biggest win, took over Knoxville, Iowa, and kept fans who weren’t there glued to their computers for the latest results. The same holds true for the Chili Bowl for midgets, the big asphalt late model races at Nashville, Pensacola and Martinsville, the dirt late model specials at Eldora, etc. They have the excitement that I see lacking in NASCAR these days, yet they are tremendously smaller events.
Knoxville has the excitement that NASCAR somehow seems to have lost.
Does NASCAR need its size for anything other than corporate paychecks?
I won’t be at the fall Monster/Cup race at Richmond, but I plan to be there the next month for the “Commonwealth Clash,” a super-sized version of a Saturday night at your local speedway. I have a feeling I’ll enjoy that Saturday night a lot.
One reason for my enjoyment is that I won’t have a long drive afterward, AND I won’t have to deal with my short drive under the influence of alcohol. Back in 1967, I drove from Bristol to Charlottesville after the races, and there has to have been an angel on each bumper along that trip. (In that heat, I wonder if their wings sweat.) They say it’s a four-hour drive today, but it was nearly twice that back then. Sometimes, God protects the most irresponsible of us from our actions, and I’m grateful that was one of those times.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Kyle Larson didn’t have the greatest of days at Michigan Sunday, but he was probably happier about Saturday night, when he came home third in the Knoxville Nationals. He did well all week in the preliminary events - Knoxville is a grind – and to warm up, he collected $20,000 Monday at another Iowa track’s Nationals Week special sprint race. Congratulations to a real racer.
BTW, he didn’t have as much success, but Kasey Kahne also was at Knoxville.
This is the kind of racing that makes Kyle Larson’s day, and a lot of fans follow his lead. NASCAR needs to recapture the magic that the Knoxville Nationals hold for fans there.