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.
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