50 Years of NASCAR Racing ~ Post 47
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor’s note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin’s “50 Years of NASCAR Racing”, written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR ‘s 50th Anniversary celebration that year. In keeping with the RacersReunion mission of passing the history of our sport down to younger fans, Matt has kindly granted us permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Throughout the history of NASCAR there have been some peculiar happenings, memorable off track exploits and odd circumstances that have added a little color to the 50 years of the sport. Presented for your consideration; Believe it or Don’t !!!
· Who says NASCAR doesn’t have any aesthetic sense? During the 1982 season they told a driver his car was flat out ugly and they wanted it repainted. James Hylton, legendary independent driver, showed up at the Nashville race in May with a Pontiac that was green on one side, yellow on the other and had a red roof, hood and decklid. NASCAR told him to repaint the car because it might confuse score keepers, adding it was ugly to boot. Where were these same people when Bobby Labonte bought that hideous circus wagon to the inaugural race in Texas?
· Dave Marcis almost won a 125-mile qualifier race at Daytona in 1968. The day of the 125s was plagued by rainy weather, and when there was a brief lull in the rain Bill France Sr. ordered the drivers to their cars to start the qualifying race. Almost all the drivers refused to do so, saying the track was still way too wet for a safe race. Enraged, France went to the parking lot, grabbed his daily driver street car and returned to the garage area. He told the assembled drivers the race was going to be held when he said it was going to be held, and the purse would be paid even if he was the only car on the track. He asked if any of them planned to compete against him. Rookie Dave Marcis was the only driver to jump in his race car and fire it up. Unfortunately, before what would have no doubt been an interesting race could be run, the rains returned. The qualifiers were washed out that year and never run.
· Speaking of strange races, there was an interesting two-car event held at Michigan the day prior to the Winston Cup race in June of 1977. Roger Penske held a special 10-lap match race between defending Winston Cup champion Cale Yarborough, and defending USAC Indy Car champion Gordon Johncock. Cale won the race and $13,500. For comparison’s sake, Yarborough received only $20,625 for winning the next day’s 200-lap Winston Cup event.
· I’m frequently asked about the origins of the shade of blue that has become better known as Petty blue on the cars of the King. I have heard several different accounts of how the color was arrived at, but the one I believe and have heard most frequently is it was a matter of chance. Richard and Maurice were working on one of the Petty Enterprise cars that had been badly damaged in a race, for an event the next day. When it came time to repaint the car they found they didn’t have enough of any one color paint to do the entire car. In keeping with Petty Enterprises parsimonious reputation, they poured all the white paint they had left and all the blue paint they had left into one container and the resultant mixture was what we now call Petty blue. The car ran well at the race, and racers being superstitious folks, the color became their good luck charm and their trademark. Ford hired Richard Petty in 1969 and was prepared to offer “Petty Blue” paint on their performance models the next year. Richard then chose to go back to Plymouth, and thus Ford renamed the color, “Grabber Blue.”
· An argument over the greatest driver ever in NASCAR could go on forever with no agreement ever being reached, but unarguably the two greatest post race partiers were the legendary Curtis Turner and his side kick “Little” Joe Weatherly. Both men shared a great love for women, liquor, racing and flying. Unfortunately, they sometimes indulged in liquor spiking their water bottles in their race cars, in the company of their dates and even while flying. Turner was known to set the plane on autopilot and go in the back, lay down and sleep off a bender mid-flight. He finally lost his pilot’s license one Sunday when he decided to stop by a friend’s house that morning for a drink. Of course he happened to be flying at the time, but Curtis just set the plane down on the street in front of his buddy’s house, knocked up and had a couple drinks. It finally occurred to them the local police might not think too much of an airplane being parked out in the road, so after grabbing a bottle, Turner hopped in his plane and prepared to take off. His timing was terrible. Services at the local church down the street were just letting out when Turner came taxiing down the road and he was forced to make an emergency take off to avoid hitting the traffic. While he managed to get airborne the tail end of the plane caught some power lines and caused a black out. FAA officials were waiting for Turner when he landed at Charlotte. Of course the lack of a license wasn’t enough to keep Turner from flying. After a passenger panicked upon Curtis admitting his pilot’s license was revoked, Curtis looked to calm the man by drawling, “You figure they’re going to pull us over up here and make us walk?” Weatherly never quite got the hang of navigation while flying and used to follow roadways below, studying a road map in the cockpit to figure out where he was at. When he got confused he’s just drop the plane down inches from the highway and read the road signs. The trick didn’t always work. On a trip from Charlotte to Dayton, Ohio, Weatherly saw a landmark that convinced him he was going the wrong way. That landmark was the top of the Empire State building.
· Speaking of Joe Weatherly, he might have been the most superstitious man ever to live. Other racers would play on his fear, shelling peanuts or inviting woman onto pit road, and trying to add a dash of green paint to Weatherly’s car. (All considered bad luck. But Weatherly’s biggest fear was triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13). When he qualified in 13th position for the July race at Bristol, Weatherly, who was in the hunt for the title, outright refused to start the race. Finally the promoter allowed the records to show that Weatherly was starting in position 12a. That same year was the 13th running of the Southern 500. Joe refused to enter the event until promoter Bob Colvin dubbed the race “the 12th Renewal of the Southern 500″.
· We all know there used to be dirt track racing in NASCAR’s top division, and the series has, and continues to run at many road courses over the years. But as it turned out, NASCAR’s Grand National (now Winston Cup) series ran two races on a road course with a dirt surface in Willow Springs California. The course included 11 corners and several elevation changes. The November 20, 1955 race ( which actually counted as an early race in the 56 season) was won by Chuck Stevenson, while the November 11th 1956 race (first race of the 1957 season) was won by Marvin Panch. Of course, according to Buddy Baker, it took him a couple years to realize the Riverside road course was paved, he spent so much time driving off the track.
· During the course of a race, it’s commonly accepted that any car out there on the track might be involved in a wreck. But Geoff Bodine added a unique twist to the Daytona 500 of 1981 by hitting a car that wasn’t entered in the race. After losing control on lap 48, Bodine spun towards the infield, rocketed up and over an embankment and ran into a station wagon belonging to a TV crew there to cover the race. After repairs in the pits, Bodine returned to the track and finished 22nd, completing 178 laps. At the fall race at North Wilkesboro in 1980, another car not entered in the event suffered an embarrassing wreck. The track was falling apart that day and there was loose asphalt all over, making for a lot of wrecks. One of those wrecks involved the driver of the pace car losing control as he dashed onto pit road to signal a restart, losing control and hitting a race car parked in its pit stall. As Homer Simpson might say, “DOH!!!”.
· Speaking of alcohol and flying, (Bad idea! Kids don’t try this at home!) the combination almost cost Cale Yarborough his life. But it wasn’t Cale who was drinking. It seems that Cale had mentioned one day to Junior Johnson and his crew that he would like to have a bear. Well, the way Cale was winning races for Junior in those days, it must have seemed a reasonable request ( yes, it’s lost on me too.) so they went about trapping a small adolescent bear. The problem was how Cale was going to get his new pet home. Being a bit short on animal tranquilizer, the group decided to get the bear to pass out drunk and poured a bottle of whiskey (some versions of the story say moonshine) down the animal’s throat. Once the bear passed out, the crew helped load the bear on Cale’s plane and he took off for home. Unfortunately, they hadn’t used enough liquor and somewhere in the course of the flight that bear woke up, no doubt with a nasty hang over… in a less than pleasant mood as a result, and began chewing through its restraints. Cale was alone aboard the plane, and had to split his time between guiding the plane in for an emergency landing and keeping an eye to be sure the bear wasn’t free yet. Yarborough is also the only living race car driver (and one must guess, a member of a very small part of the population as a whole) that can truthfully report he has been struck by lightning twice… fortunately not while in the company of a hung-over bear.
Stay tuned for Part II
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