JULY 3, 2012 LEGENDTORIAL ~ Fourth of July
by: Tim Leeming
When the sun comes up in the morning, or, if it is raining where you are, the United States of America will be celebrating a birthday. July 4, 1776, when the founding fathers put everything on the line, including their lives, to establish the greatest nation the planet has ever known. Regardless of your political convictions, thanks to the sacrifices of so many men and women who wear the uniforms of our nation’s branches of the military, we enjoy the greatest freedoms ever known to humankind. Everyone living in the USA should proudly display the Red, White, and Blue tomorrow and remember to be grateful for all the freedoms we enjoy.
For many years, tomorrow also meant the faithful race fans would be journeying to Daytona Beach for the race. Beginning as the Firecracker 250 in 1959, always run on July 4th, it was stock car racing’s way of honoring the birthday of the Nation. With the sun, cookouts, beach not far away, and the competition between the best competitors in stock car racing, what more could a patriotic American desire than being there? When the 4th came in the middle of the week, it was the usual practice for fans to get off work on the 3rd, drive most of the night, watch the race, then drive home to return to work on the 5th. Sometimes that trip was 600, 700-miles or more one way. Let it never be said that race fans are not the most loyal fans of any sport. In those early days, there was no television so the fan either was there in person, listening on the radio, or, in some instances, waiting until the next day’s newspaper to see the outcome.
I was not present before 1962, but I can tell you that in 1959, Fireball Roberts beat Joe Weatherly by 57 seconds after leading all but 16 laps in a 1959 Pontiac. In 1960, Jack Smith came from 6 seconds back with 10 laps to go to beat Cotton Owens by 30 feet at the line. In 1961, Fireball drove his Pontiac past the Ford of Fred Lorenzen with 2 laps to go to win by 2 car lengths.
1962 brought another victory for Fireball Roberts in a Pontiac. This would be the last 250 mile Firecracker race. In 1963, the race length would go to 400-miles, where it remains today. The extra miles didn’t deter Fireball from winning again, this time in a Ford though. Thinking back on that race, it seems odd to me, I guess because that was the first year the race seemed to go on without end. It was hot that day, as is usually the case at Daytona in July.
1964 was the year of the Hemi. Especially at Daytona. After storming the Daytona 500 with The King’s first Daytona 500 win, the mighty Mopars returned in July and A.J. Foyt passed Bobby Isaac on the last lap to take the win. The race was very exciting but I do remember that Fireball Roberts had died on July 2nd and something about Daytona without The Fireball didn’t seem quite right.
1965 was again A.J. Foyt, in a Ford this time, beating out Buddy Baker in a Plymouth. The Hemi engine had been outlawed by NASCAR for the 1965 season but when crowds stayed away in droves, Big Bill allowed the Hemi to return if it was in the full-size Plymouth Fury rather than the intended Belvedere. Chrysler teams stayed away, but Baker took the big Fury home second. I remember thinking how close he came to winning that race but Foyt prevailed.
1966 was the year we learned about the “spoilers”. The new Dodge Charger was an aero masterpiece but the wind coming over the car caused the rear end to lift. Ray Nichels figured that out and put the strip across the back, to become known as the spoiler, to hold the car down. Sam McQuagg brought his Charger home first. Quite a race.
In 1967, it was like the race would never end. It rained very heavily and caused delays and from the green flag to the checkers took more than 8 hours. Cale Yarborough took the win, barely beating out Dick Hutcherson and Darel Dieringer. 1968 was Cale again, this time by two laps over Lee Roy Yarbrough. There were no accidents in that race and the only two cautions flew, for oil on the track from blown engines.
1969, back when the REAL mechanics and innovators could still use their imagination, a race morning move of exhaust pipes by Herb Nab on the Lee Roy Yarbrough car allowed Lee Roy to virtually be “un-draftable”. Herb moved the tail pipes from the side and ran them out under the rear bumper. It was impossible for a competitor to draft that car due to the extreme heat coming from those tailpipes.
In 1970, Donnie Allison beat Buddy Baker to the line by 15 seconds. In 1971, Bobby Issac, with two of three hood pins broken and the hood flapping the last few laps, took the win. Two interesting things about that race: Isaac was NOT entered in that race as late as two days before the event because of a dispute Nord Krauskoff was having with NASCAR over restrictor place size. Also, David Pearson was driving a Plymouth for Chris Vallo and was told by Vallo that he was NOT to win in that Plymouth. Vallo was building Pontiacs but didn’t have one of the Indians ready for the race so David was in the Mayflower. Vallo told him that if he took the lead, his crew would refuse to pit him. David finished 8th. So, you see, even 41 years ago, strange things happened in the world of NASCAR.
1972, 1973, and 1974 saw David Pearson win by very small margins over the King. 1974, especially was a difficult one as we watched the Silver Fox head into turn one on the last lap and pull to the inside as if he had problems. Richard almost hit him but recovered to take the lead. Exactly what Pearson wanted as he set up the King to blast past him on the last lap slingshot. 1975 went to the King. In 1976, Cale took David Pearson.
By now many of you are probably thinking that you’ve had enough history to last awhile. But, tomorrow is all about history. All about what it took for those men who founded this country to establish a way of life that allows us to enjoy the sport of stock car racing and to make the USA the most envied country on earth, admired, and hated by some for all we have. There are many listening to this show tonight who live in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, The UK and other great countries and this Legendtorial is not intended to slight your country in the least. It is, however, intended to honor the Country born on July 4, 1776.
But one more point of history before we close. It was July 4, 1984, when the command to start engines in the Firecracker 400 was given by President Ronald Reagan from aboard Air Force One enroute to Daytona Beach. Most of us who saw it, or saw the pictures, cannot forget the sight of Air Force One touching down at the airport in Daytona Beach just over the backstraight at Daytona. The iconic picture of that plane with the leader of the free world preparing to land and the Petty Blue and STP red Pontiac of King Richard racing down the straight.
The end of that race was something Hollywood could not have scripted as Petty raced Cale Yarborough back to the yellow flag to win the race in a side-by-side, slamming contest with President Reagan watching intently. All the hoopla afterwards was spontaneous and I’m sure, in spite of the best efforts of the Secret Service, a treat for race fans to be that close to a President and King. That day was indeed beautiful and historical. As The King said afterwards, Reagan got NASCAR on the front page of the New York Times and the win by Richard got Reagan on the sports pages everywhere.
So, as we look back on what was, let’s remember that we have much to appreciate, thanks to the patriots who fought and continue to fight for this country. We have much to appreciate as race fans for people like Fireball Roberts, Cale Yarborough, Herb Nab, David Pearson and so many more who made July 4th the race day of the summer. The race is no longer held on July 4th. That’s a pity because the Saturday “closest to the 4th” is not quite the same as the Fourth of July.
Hope you all enjoyed the little trip back in time. Please have a safe and enjoyable Fourth of July holiday tomorrow. When, and IF, you watch the 400 Saturday night, remember that once the bright sun of July 4th made the cars gleam even more than the lights around the speedway. Things were different then. Most of us, I’m thinking, wish we could see Petty and Pearson battle it out another time. Or, maybe Cale showing us just what “flat-out” racing is all about.
God bless America!!!!
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(Editor’s note: Tim Leeming is a member of the regular cast of the Tuesday evening racing show ” Racing Through History”, presented on Zeus Radio Network by RacersReunion®. Archives can be found by following the link. Live broadcasts can be heard from 7:00-9:00 PM every Tuesday. Please feel free to join us in the RacersReunion® Chat Room for the show.)