Racing History Minute - Daytona 500 - 1980

Tim Leeming
02/25/14 09:55:14AM
3,119 posts

The 1980 Speedweeks event was very costly to one young rookie. Ricky Knotts, at 28 year old rookie from Paw Paw, Michigan, was killed in a crash in the second 125 mile qualifying race. Richard Knotts, the father, said "My son is dead, and I cannot believe it. All he wanted was to be a Grand National Driver. He won't now. But he was never afraid...never scared". As I read that statement this morning my heart ached for the man as that had to be as painful as it gets. What made me feel even worse is that I have absolutely no recollection of the accident that took the young Ricky's life.

The first 125 miler saw Neil Bonnett, driving the Wood Brothers Mercury, go around Buddy Baker with7 laps remaining and then hold off hard-charging Cale Yarborough on the final lap, winning by six feet at the line.

The "big event" of the first 125 happened on lap 25 when Gary Baker lost control of his car and took eight other cars with him, including Kyle Petty and Buck Simmons, both of whom needed a good finish to make the 500. Both of those drivers had their 500 hopes go up in tire smoke.

Top five finishers:

1. Neil Bonnett, Wood Brothers Mercury

2. Cale Yarborough, Junior Johnson Oldsmobile

3. Buddy Baker, Harry Ranier Oldsmobile

4. Darrell Waltrip, DiGard Chevrolet

5. Bobby Allison, Bud Moore Mercury

The second 125 was dominated by Donnie Allison and ended under caution. It was on lap 14 when the Ricky Knotts Olds had the hood fly off and Ricky lost control. He hit the outside wall and then shot across the track to impact in the inside wall with tremendous force. Track physicians reported Ricky was killed instantly.

Top five finishers:

1. Donnie Allison, Hoss Ellington Oldsmobile

2. Richard Petty,Petty Enterprises Oldsmobile

3. John Anderson, Russ Draime Oldsmobile

4. Joe Millikan, L.G. DeWitt Oldsmobile

5. Harry Gant, Race Hill Farm Oldsmobile

Sunday, February 17, 1980, was a sunny but cool and windy day at Daytona International Speedway. All the flags around the track could be heard "snapping" above the noise of the crowd of 125,000 who were anticipating a great race. The black and silver Oldsmobile of Harry Ranier, to be piloted by Buddy Baker who was still seeking a win in the 500, gleamed in the sun as the drivers awaited "the most famous words in motorsports". When the command was given, 42 cars rolled out behind the pace car to compete for 500 miles to earn the title of Daytona 500 champion.

The story of the 1980 Daytona 500 is the story of Buddy Baker absolutely dominating, leading 143 laps of the 200. To rephrase that,THE story of the 1980 Daytona 500 is the story of the dedication of one Waddell Wilson to the job given him my Harry Ranier who owned Baker's ride. Waddell prepared the car, and it was with Waddell's calming influence over the excitable Baker, that they were able to do what they did.

The only car able to stay anywhere near Buddy on the track was that of the previous year's rookie, Dale Earnhardt. But Earnhardt lost a chance to compete for the win when his crew left off a lug nut on a pit stop. After the race Dale was heard to say that "Baker was fast, but we were just as fast. I wanted a chance to try him".

From Victory Lane Buddy said "I've been trying to win this race for 20 years. I want to say something a little different from what you've heard before. When a car runs that well, all I had to do was keep it between the walls. No one could touch me today. Waddell Wilson is the true reason that race car won today".

Among those who suffered various problems and fell out of the race was strong running rookie, John Anderson, who had started sixth, but departed with a vibration late in the race. Others were Joe Millikan, Richard Petty and A. J. Foyt.

Darrell Waltrip,who had "vowed" to win the Championship in 1980, had nothing but contempt for his DiGard team when he fell out after 20 laps with engine problems. D.W. said "I don't have any comment other than this team isn't a bit better than when I joined it in 1975." (Note: D.W. Finished fifth in the standings at the end of the year when Dale Earnhardt would win his first title).

Neil Bonnett blew an engine on the last lap to bring out the yellow. Even with the yellow flag waving with the checkered flag, Baker was more than 12 seconds ahead of the second place car coming under the checkers.

Finishing Order:

1. Buddy Baker, Harry Ranier Oldsmobile, winning $102,175.00

2. Bobby Allison, Bud Moore Ford, winning $54,450.00 (12 seconds back)

3. Neil Bonnett, Wood Brothers Mercury, winning $51,100.00 (1 lap down)

4. Dale Earnhardt, Rod Osterlund Oldsmobile, winning $36,350.00 (1 lap down)

5. Benny Parsons, M.C. Anderson Oldsmobile, winning $32,375.00 (3 laps down)

6. Terry Labonte

7. Donnie Allison

8. Sterling Marlin

9. Lennie Pond

10. Jody Ridley

11. Janet Guthrie

12. Bill Elliott

13. Richard Childress

14. Slick Johnson

15. Jimmy Means

16. Don Whittington

17. Joe Booher

18. John Anderson

19. Cale Yarborough

20. Tommy Gale

21. Cecil Gordon

22. Dave Marcis

23. Bill Schmidtt

24. Bill Elswick

25. Richard Petty

26. James Hylton

27.J. D. McDuffie

28.John A. Utsman

29. Ronnie Thomas

30. Kevin Housby

31. A. J. Foyt

32. Bill Whittington

33. Bruce Hill

34. Joe Millikan

35. Chuck Bown

36. Dick Brooks

37. Jim Vandiver

38. Jim Hubert

39. Tighe Scott

40. Darrell Waltrip

41. Buddy Arrington

42. Harry Gant

Baker completed the 500 miles at an average speed of 177.602 which include FIVE caution flags for 15 total laps. Remarkable speed.

PERSONAL MEMORIES: I was on top of the motor home in that "cool" wind which seemed to me to be getting colder by the minute. I watched Baker in that beautiful black and silver Oldsmobile literally fly around that track. My guy, Petty, led a couple of times for a few laps but finally went out with clutch problems about lap 157. By that time it was apparent that I was getting sick with what I thought was a cold and my Mama was telling me to get in the motorhome and get warm. I was actually shivering so hard I could hardly see the track. I did get down and lay on the bed listening on the headset radio. I heard Baker win and, quite frankly, that was about the last thing I remember until sometime Friday night of the next week.

I slept all the way home with a fever well over 100. When we got home my Mama insisted I come stay in my old room at their house (I lived just across the street) so I did that. Sometime Tuesday Mama called our doctor who, in 1980 mind you, actually made a house call. I have a very vague, clouded memory of Dr. Allen sitting next the bed discussing putting me in the hospital. After that, I truly do not remember anything until sometime Friday evening when I remember asking for something to eat. Ann will tell you in a heartbeat that my appetite NEVER suffers no matter how sick I am. Ann is a retired nurse and she has stated repeatedly that most sick people don't eat but I don't have that problem.

Anyway, Mama told me that I had pneumonia and had been sleeping around the clock with a fever of 103 to 104. Since my normal temp is just over 97 (my Daddy was like that too) anything over 100 put me under. She said they had discussed putting me in the hospital but Dr. Allen thought I could re-coop just fine if I stayed in bed and stayed warm. Dr. Allen was one of the finest doctors I've ever encountered and I hated it when he retired. When he set up his practice in 1947, I was the fifth patient he ever had. When he retired and gave me my file from all those years, it would have been impressive but there was NO way to read his handwriting.

I was well and ready to go to Rockingham in March so I recovered quite well, thank you.

Going back to Waddell Wilson, I have had the pleasure, as have many of you who attend the RacersReunion events, of hearing Waddell describe how he built that winning Olds, and how he had to hold Buddy on that last pit stop to be sure to get enough gas in the car. The story is quite entertaining and shows Waddell's total dedication to his duties.

I remember back in the late 70s when I was cruising the pits for interviews for my radio show, I approached Waddell before a race for an interview. Although he was not rude, I remember the "yes" and "no" answers to all my questions. The interview was not worth playing and I vowed to never again approach him for an interview. It was my first face-to-face meeting with Waddell at Memory Lane Museum three or four years ago that we actually talked, at length. I left that conversation with the realization that Waddell was NOT the rude, silent, type, but was so totally dedicated to his job that his train of thought was on the race. It was I the rude one, to think he had time for an interview with a small time radio show dude.

At the NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremony this year, I spent a great deal of time with Waddell, and although I thought about apologizing for my transgressions from 34 years ago, I never did. He and I just talked and enjoyed the evening. I doubt that little incident is even in his memory but when I do something so inconsiderate, it sticks with me for life.

So, folks, we are winding down in this short month of February, and we have only three more Daytona 500s to include in the History Minute before we move on to other races through April 5th when we conclude a full year of History Minutes. Tomorrow will feature the 1981 500 on which TMC Chase will present his usual outstanding report. I'm looking forward to that and believe me, I do remember that race very well. I hope everyone has enjoyed a look back on some very exciting, yet sometimes very sad events, from Daytona International Speedway over the years.

Thanks for reading.

Honor the past, embrace the present, dream for the future.

updated by @tim-leeming: 12/05/16 04:00:58PM
TMC Chase
02/25/14 01:24:48PM
3,890 posts

The first Daytona 500 for me to attend was the 1980 edition. My first trip to Florida - and first time on a plane - was about 3 months earlier when my family flew to Jacksonville for my uncle Earl's wedding. There my uncle Ronald who had intro'd me to racing about 6 years earlier committed to taking me to Daytona in February. With King Richard having won the 1979 500 AND the year's championship, I was on a high knowing he'd likely return strong in the 1980 race. Plus, simply going to Daytona was going to be huge.

As much as I love my uncle, he has always been somewhat of a free spirit. As time grew near, the plans changed a bit. Rather than have me ride with him to Jacksonville to stay with my uncle / his brother, he called my mother to say he was already IN Jacksonville and put me on a bus! Today, I'd be frustrated as hell if he pulled that stunt - but then it was simply no big deal. I kept my eye on the prize and really wasn't worried about the details - even if my parents were.

So my mother took me to the Nashville bus station, and she put me on the 'Hound - on a Friday night - for an all-night trip to Jacksonville. I naively slept pretty much the whole way. Fortunately, my uncle did at least pick me up at the station down there - well at least Earl did. Ronald, who'd promised the trip, was a no-show. All I can do now is just laugh about it.

On Saturday night, Earl surprised me with an unexpected outing. He took me to NWA wrasslin' at Jacksonville's Memorial Coliseum. Earl was very intellectual, college educated, informed of current events and opinionated about them, and a sports junkie. But professional wrestling was kind of his 'soap opera' or 'trashy novel' vice. Unlike many who immersed themselves in it, he knew what was real vs. staged. But he still enjoyed and laughed heartily at the story lines. We got to see The American Dream Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race and the largest man I've ever seen in my life Andre The Giant.

My uncle's father-in-law had a mid-size motor home - the kind with one of the bunks over the cab. Earl and my new aunt, Ronald and his girlfriend, and I left Sunday morning. As Tim said, I remember the cold morning. I was going to Florida where I thought it was always the sun always shone and was always warm. * EHHHHH, wrong answer * I had a long sleeve shirt, a denim jacket and a orange/blue Petty ball cap.

Best I can recall, I think we entered the infield from a crossover up near turn 2. As soon as I caught sight of the asphalt, banking, grandstands, the lake, the campers, and all the flag, I remember my jaw dropping and my heart pounding.

Unlike Tim's normal spot, I vaguely remember being somewhat in the center of the infield. We were in front of the lake without a really clear view of anything - not of the pits or of turns 3 and 4. I could make out the S/F line through the myriad of folks on the tops of their motorhomes and the 'roofs' covering the pit stalls. And we had a pretty good view of turns 1 and 2 as they headed down the backstretch.

With the 43 starting 4th, that dayglo red and Petty blue popped from the starting grid whereas the gray pole winning car of Baker was hard to spot anywhere on the track from where we were.

The 43 was competitive, and I remember shaking as he made lap after lap in the draft. Part of it was adrenalin - but I'm sure a lot of it was because the temps were definitely dropping as a stiff wind blew. But I simply could not believe it when Petty disappeared from the track.

Knowing I use a scanner today and that I used a Winston AM radio headset back in the late 80s/early 90s, I find it funny I didn't wear any sort of radio back then. I had no idea what had happened. By the time 43 disappeared, Ronald had already climbed down from top and disappeared into the motorhome. Partly to get warm by the interior but also to get warm with several nips from a bottle of Jack D! He had MRN on the radio, and that's where I had to learn 43 was done for the day after climbing down myself.

Either I've forgotten or perhaps didn't stay on top of it back then, but I have no memory of Kyle having missed his 1st 500 because of the wreck in the 125. But 1980 Speedweeks wasn't nearly as kind to the Petty team as the 1979 edition - or 1981.

Yet the race continued, so I went back on top. After another dozen laps, the cold got the best of the rest of 'em. One by one, my aunt, Ronald's girlfriend and then Earl all retreated to the motorhome leaving me alone up top. I shivered with hands thrust in my pockets and my collar upturned as a hedge against the wind.I know Buddy won. But try as I might to squint from our position, I simply could not see that gray Olds cross the line.

The race is one of a few where I don't have a ticket stub. I think we just paid a flat fee or maybe a per head fee to get in the infield. But my collectibles I bought - 2 of which I still have were:

The program

A patch with the old DIS logo - that I got at Stuckey's - on the way back to Jax. My mother stitched it plus multiple other racing patches to the back of that jean jacket I wore to the race.

And a DIS t-shirt. I wore that shirt until it was thread bare - well, actually until I piled on the Freshman Fifteen (and then some) in college. I'd hate to think what I'd look like if I tried to sport a shirt that small today. Ha.

The arrangement between my uncle and my parents - which I guess was written in sand I guess - was that Ronald would drive me back to Tennessee on Monday. I can't remember if the day was a holiday - President's Day maybe? - or if I simply missed school. I did, however, need to get back to return on Tuesday. But again, plans are always fluid with Ronald. Instead of driving me back, he decided he'd stay a few more days. So he took me to Jax airport and bought me a one-way ticket on Eastern Airlines to Nashville. At least he did park and wait with me at the gate until flight time. I was still relatively new to racing faces to go with names, and I certainly doubt I could pick many out of a crowd except maybe the King. While waiting at our gate, Ronald nudged me and said "you recognize those two?". I wasn't sure who he was referring to as I scanned around. Finally he pointed - "Right there. Its Junior Johnson and Cale."

Suddenly it was an "oh yeah!" moment yet I just sat there. I had the opportunity the meet them both at my first Cup race at Nashville in 1978. But because Cale dominated for the win and because I'd drawn a bead on getting to the 43 after the race (and hopefully Richard), I passed up my shot. In February 1980, I passed on opportunity #2. I still was no big fan of that 3x champion, so I let it go even though it was cool to spot them at the airport. I recall Ronald laughing as he said I may be taking being a Petty loyalist a little too far.

When the 43 returned to victory lane in 1981, I was obviously excited - especially with the way he won it vs. Bobby Allison. Yet I was frustrated a bit because I'd been to the middle year between wins in 79 and 81. The feeling subsided though. Its still fun to recall my 1st trip to the beach and only my 2nd Cup race to attend.

Schaefer: It's not just for racing anymore.
Dave Fulton
02/25/14 02:15:21PM
9,070 posts

Wonderful personal memories, Tim & Chase. Love the young TMC tee shirt photo!

"Any Day is Good for Stock Car Racing"
TMC Chase
02/25/14 03:42:00PM
3,890 posts

The average speed for the 1980 Daytona 500 of 177 remains the fastest 500 ever. Really hard to believe considering the unrestricted engines on the smaller cars from 1981 through 1988 and the aero slick but engine-restricted cars of recent years. Six Talladega races have a higher average speed - one in 1985, 2 in the 1990s, two in the early 2000s, and Jamie McMurray's win last fall. Doesn't look like Charlotte, Atlanta or Michigan had anything quicker. So it looks like Baker's race is still the 7th quickest of all time - 34 years later.

Baker was in his 2nd year with Harry Ranier and Waddell WIlson. After those many frustrating outings of having a hoss in the 500 but unable to finish the race, Baker finally won the 500 he cherished. -Robbie Solesbee

Dave Fulton and I wrote about a couple of the preliminary races of 1980 Speedweeks a year ago. Dave posted about the Busch Clash won by the 1979 Rookie Of The Year Dale Earnhardt here:

And I posted about the ARCA 200 won by John Rezek - but with strong protest by Lake Speed and Russ Thompson - here:

Jack Ingram won the Permatex 300 sportsman race for the second time. -David Hawkins

A couple of next-generation drivers attempted the 500. Sterling Marlin ran the 2nd qualifying twin in J.D. Stacy's Olds, but he failed to finish well enough to transfer to the big show. He raced in the 500, but he started in place of his father in the family's familiar #14 Cunningham-Kelly Chevrolet. - Jerry Bushmire

Kyle Petty's first Daytona start was the memorable ARCA 200 a year earlier, but he wrecked while trying to qualify for the 1979 Firecracker 400.Kyle attempted to make the 1980 500 as his first Cup start there. -TMC archives

But again, his Cup debut at Daytona would have to wait another 5 months because he was caught up in a wreck in his 125-mile twin initiated by Gary Baker in his Waylon Jennings Olds. Baker was a Nashville attorney who along with Lanny Hester assumed the lease for the Nashville fairgrounds speedway and bought Bristol. In more recent years, he and Mike Curb (who sponsored Earnhardt in 1980) bought the assets of Brewco Motorsports to form the now-defunct Baker-Curb Busch / Nationwide team.

The starting line-up for the 500...

... and the field takes the green.

Future Cup champions Earnhardt and Terry Labonte race side by side along with Janet Guthrie.

Buddy celebrates that long-awaited 500 victory and receives the Governor's Cup. With the awarding of the Harley J. Earl trophy now, does anyone know if the Governor's Cup trophy is even presented anymore? If not, I wonder when that tradition ended.

Baker's win made the cover of National Speed Sport News. - Russ Thompson

And Speedweeks in general was the cover story for the May 1980 issue of Stock Car Racing magazine.

Schaefer: It's not just for racing anymore.

updated by @tmc-chase: 02/17/17 09:39:34AM
TMC Chase
02/25/14 08:50:22PM
3,890 posts

Found a few other pics - including some in my own collection.

I'm not sure the 1980 500 was the first time I'd seen the Goodyear blimp. But it was definitely the first time I saw it that up and close and covering an event vs. just passing through Nashville on the way to somewhere else. Also, if you'll look reallllly close in the center of the pic, you should see a neon speck. That was my 43 Olds. That little GAF 110 camera didn't have much of a zoom lens or many megapixels! And you can tell I wasn't the only one favoring the jean jacket that day.

I began to realize my transition was underway between being a dopey kid and a young adult. I got to see plenty of adult things from heavy drinkin', hootin and hollerin, a portable hot tub even in the cold air, etc. (Kind of wish it'd been much warmer to have my eyes opened by the bikinis that were certainly sported under the heavy jackets. Ha.) But I remember thinking one of the neatest things I saw was this little custom roadster made to look like a Busch beer can.

Here is my uncle Earl in the UT Vols hat and flannel, my uncle Ronald's girlfriend looking stylish in her Urban Cowgirl gear, and my new aunt Debbie huddled up and with a pained look on her face as if she'd been stored in a meat freezer.

Some pics from Jerry Bushmire.

Joe Millikan in one of his last few races with the L.G. DeWitt team before it fell apart that spring.

Richie Evans - winner of the final modified race held as part of Speedweeks

The 1980 'banquet' to present awards for the 1979 season. We're accustomed to seeing the King in a cowboy hat - and even Kyle with one in the early 1980s. Not sure we've seen many of Chief sporting one. Jerry had the good fortune to attend.

Richard Childress - no way could he have foreseen how his future would unfold as he did well to patch together a sponsorship package with CRC Chemicals for the 1980 500.

Schaefer: It's not just for racing anymore.

updated by @tmc-chase: 02/14/17 05:33:38PM
TMC Chase
02/17/17 09:40:14AM
3,890 posts


Schaefer: It's not just for racing anymore.