The National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway ended in thrilling fashion after what had appeared to be a ho-hum finish with Bobby Allison holding a 15 second lead over Richard Petty when Petty's tire blew coming down the backstraight, putting the red and blue Dodge into a spin ending on the inside retaining wall. Then, as they say, the race was on when the green waved again. But let's go back for qualifying.
David Pearson put the Wood Brothers Mercury on the pole, a very familiar position for Pearson and the number 21 at Charlotte. Buddy Baker, in the K&K Insurance Dodge would roll off second. A.J. Foyt, just one of a number of USAC drivers entered, would start a second Wood Brothers entry third. Bobby Allison in the Richard Howard Chevrolet would go off fourth and Bobby Isaac in a Banjo Matthews Chevy started fifth. Sixth place starter WAS to have been Fred Lorenzen but the night before the race, Hoss Ellington, the car owner, walked into his motel room to find a handwritten not from Freddie advising him that he (Freddie) was leaving and was, in fact, gone, disappeared. In a last minute rush to find a driver, Hoss called on Cale Yarborough who accepted the ride and would start the race in sixth. There are no details available as to what the note from Freddie expressed.
While having mentioned the USAC drivers entered along with A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock Butch Hartman and Roger McCluskey competed that October afternoon.
Pearson would lead the first three laps, but the heavy footed charger, Buddy Baker, would take over on lap 4. Baker and Pearson swapped the lead back and forth for several laps before Bobby Isaac slipped into the lead. Literally, from lap 10, Baker, Pearson and Isaac ran door-to-door and bumper to bumper, sometimes trading the lead two or three times a lap, and those three were dominating the front positions. Hanging just car lengths back was Bobby Allison who finally pushed his way into the lead the first time on lap 97.
While Charlotte Motor Speedway was known for competitive events, this 500 miler was a barnburner. After lap 97, the lead was up for grabs every lap between Baker, Allison, Petty, Isaac, Pearson and A. J. Foyt. Side-by-side racing was the norm and was seen almost every lap, if not for the lead, for most other positions through the field.
After the Petty blown tire with 16 laps to go, the green flew with 10 laps to go. The crowd of 73,000 were on their collective feet cheering their favorite as Allison and Baker fought it out for the win. The lead changed between those two on every lap until, with four to go, Allison moved out front and stayed there to win by less than a car length. Baker tried to move on Allison coming off turn four for the checkers, but Cecel Gordon, running 29 laps down, was in the lane Buddy needed. That sealed the Allison win.
After the race, Buddy said Bobby "tapped him" to make the pass. Buddy went on to say "I'm not going to talk about it, but I can pretty well understand why Bobby and Richard got into it at Martinsville and Wilkesboro". Allison stated that he never touched Baker. "The only person I tapped was Pearson earlier in the race. I passed Baker clean".
Top five finishers were:
1. Bobby Allison, Richard Howard Chevrolet, winning $21,450.00
2. Buddy Baker, K&K Insurance Dodge, winning $12,400.00 (less than a car length)
3. David Pearson, Wood Brothers Mercury, winning $6815.00 (2 laps down)
4.A. J. Foyt, Wood Brothers Mercury, winning $4,090.00 (2 laps down)
5. Butch Hartman, Junie Donlevey Ford, winning $3,570.00 (5 laps down)
Sixth through tenth were Darrell Waltrip, James Hylton, Buddy Arrington, Joe Frasson and Richard Petty. Although Petty was out of the race at the end, he left the track with the points lead over Allison. The lead was 127.9 points with two races left in the season.
Ron Keselowski (Uncle to Brad) was 11th, Neil Castles 15th, John Sears 16th, Cecil Gordon 17th, with Bill Champion 18th.Frank Warren was 21st, Donnie Allison 25th, Dave Marcis 26th,Bobby Isaac 28th, and Pete Hamilton 22nd.
Finishing 33rd was Jim Vandiver, with Coo Coo Marlin 34th, Elmo Langley 35th, G.C. Spencer 36th, Jabe Thomas 37th, Benny Parsons 38th, Cale Yarborough 39th.
USAC drivers finished 4th with A.J. Foyt, 5th with Butch Hartman, 27th with Roger McCluskey, 42nd with Gordon Johncock, and 43rd with Bobby Unser. Oh, and as for the Chevrolet Cale took over after Lorenzen bailed, he was running a competitve race when a mishap on pit road on lap 82 sidelined the Chevrolet.
PERSONAL NOTE ON THIS RACE. Several of my friends and I watched this race from the depression in turns three and four where you could park at a certain level and have a very good view of more than half of the back straight, and all of turns three and four with no obstructions. It was an incredibly exciting race for the most part and we enjoyed it.
Long after the race, after we had spent our time in the pits with Richard Petty and other drivers who would hang around the pit wall back in those days, we went out over the back stretch gate as you enter turn four. As the traffic moved along slowly, I looked in the mirror and right behind me was Cecil Gordon, all alone, driving his flat bed tow truck with his number 24 Mercury on the back. I put my Plymouth in park and told David to drive and I got out and went and climbed on the running board of Cecil's tow truck. He and I talked for more than 30 minutes as the traffic inched along the dirt road behind the track. I don't recall the topic of conversation but I NEVER passed up an opportunity to talk with any race driver. I'm still about as bad today.
Two years ago, at Stocks for Tots at the NASCAR Institute, I was sitting next to Cecil signing autographs and mentioned that day in Charlotte. He gave me a hearty laugh and said he remembered that event. He said he had just finished a pretty good race (8th place) and he was feeling good. He said having a fan hang onto his running board and talk in all that traffic just topped off a pretty good day for him. Whether he truly remembered that or not, I can't be sure. But I am sure that Cecil Gordon was a true journeyman race drive and a fine gentleman. He and I encountered each other often during his career because he was always working on his car and was easily approached. What a truly class act Cecil was.
As he and I were signing autographs and talking, he mentioned to me that he rarely did something like that as he was a little "shy". While I did not remember that about him, I did notice he was a little more quiet that most of the folks there. But about 20 minutes into the event, he was very touched when a fan showed up with an old "hero card" which was that Mercury in which he finished 8th at Charlotte. He held the card and looked at it long and hard. He asked the guy where he had found that and the guy told Cecil that he actually got the card at Charlotte that day but Cecil was too young to know to ask for it to be autographed. I think you could feel the vibes from Cecil as he could hardly accept that a fan had kept his hero card for 39 years waiting for an autograph. That was the humble and kind Cecil Gordon. We need more like him in today's racing. Rest in Peace Cecil. You are missed.
Honor the past, embrace the present, dream for the future.
updated by @tim-leeming: 12/05/16 04:00:58PM