The Good Old Days - Part 4
As NASCAR approached it's 20th anniversary, most of the sports' early superstars had either retired or perished. Gone were guys like the Flock Brothers, Herb Thomas, Lee Petty, Curtis Turner and Buck Baker (although Baker did come back for one, last hurrah in the 1976 Southern 500) The names Allison, Hamilton, Yarborough and Isaac were now in the forefront of the action. The new crop of superstars were just as mischievous as those in generations past. Only the names changed. Some of these guys were outright pranksters, while a few others were so superstitious that sometimes they wouldn't even race on a particular day if they felt there was "bad karma" present.
Bobby Isaac, who was part American Indian, was a very superstitious fellow. Soon after Talladega was completed in 1969, rumors began to circulate that the track was built atop the site of an ancient Indian burial ground. This didn't sit well with Isaac, who immediately took a disliking to the place. Things came to a head in 1972 when, during a race at Talladega, Isaac claimed he heard "voices" in the car telling him he should get out. Isaac pulled into the garage, parked the car, and walked away, never to return. To this day, some drivers (and fans) still believe that Talladega is "haunted." The late Davey Allison recalled many times, as a child, that he and his family would be awakened at night by 'strange noises' when they stayed in the paddock area at Talladega during race weekends. But these were never taken seriously, and certainly never reported. Then again, when you are camping with 20,000 or so other people in the infield of a speedway, you're bound to hear a lot of 'strange noises.'
If Bobby Isaac is remembered for anything other than leaving the race at Talladega, and his 1970 national championship, it would be for his violent temper. Isaac was the King of street-fighters in the NASCAR garage. He didn't care who you were, or how big you were. If you drew his ire, he would serve you a knuckle sandwich in no time. After one race, Isaac walked up to a competitor who had leaned on him pretty hard, and demanded an explanation. Instead, the driver cursed Isaac. It was a big mistake. Isaac drew back his fist and just cold-conked the guy ----- laid him out flat as a pancake. He was fined so often by NASCAR for fighting in the garage, that many remarked that Isaac drove just so he could pay his fines and break even.
Joe Weatherly, the "Clown Prince" of NASCAR, was also a very superstitious. He refused to associate himself with, dress in, or drive a car that had any shade of Green upon it. Boiled Peanuts are a familiar snack at race tracks in the south, and Weatherly had an aversion to those, too. If he saw anyone eating peanuts, or even walk by with a bag of them, he would dart out of the way. A few drivers once played a joke on Joe, and scattered peanut shells in his car prior to a race. Joe would not get into that car unless they were removed. And to make matters worse, Joe crashed during that race. Superstitions aside, NASCAR was starting to grow up in the 70's. So did many of the drivers. Racers became more serious, and began to police their own conduct off the track. Sponsors were now eyeing the drivers during this time, and a bad reputation could cost you a lot of sponsorship dollars. With nowhere else to vent, the drivers took to waxing their rough and tumble reputation strictly on the race track, or in the garage. The rivalries that evolved are legendary.
One of the biggest rivals in racing at this time was the ongoing feud between Richard Petty and the Allisons --- Bobby and Donnie. They'd beat and bang on each other out on the track constantly. At Darlington one year, Petty had been squeezing Bobby against the wall, and causing him to make contact. Allison wouldn't lift. He stayed right there with Petty, and then passed to the outside going into turn one. They were door to door. Allison laid into Petty so hard that he actually pushed The King up the banking, and into the wall. And after another race, an angry Bobby Allison even knocked Petty's car off of a trailer.
Of course, we all know what happened on the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500. After a heated battle on the track that culminated in a crash, Donnie and Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough slugged it out between turns three and four --- right in front of a live, televised audience. The fight began and ended a new era for NASCAR. And it was certainly the last big event of NASCAR's Good Old Days.
Oftentimes, rivalries would revolve around a driver who sported a particular personality that irked other drivers, and the fans. In the 70's, it was Darrell Waltrip. When Waltrip, who had quite a reputation as track champion at the Nashville Speedway, burst upon the scene, he immediately asserted himself as a daring, young-buck who wasn't afraid of anything or anyone. And he wasn't shy about speaking his mind. Waltrip would walk into a Nashville-area lounge, sit at the bar, and start telling any patron who would listen, "I'm Darrell Waltrip. You just watch me next Sunday when I blow these old-timers' doors off..... etc" The same procedure would be repeated just about everywhere he went. And to the chagrin of many drivers, Waltrip would go out there on the track, methodically whip the veterans, and then go home. Waltrip backed up everything he said. On a radio show, Waltrip told people that he was going to be the next 'King,' and that he was going to sit upon Richard Petty's throne some day soon.' Well, that went over like a turd in a punch bowl, and it earned Waltrip a resounding chorus of jeers when he was introduced at every race. And those jeers continued for many years. It was Cale Yarborough that coined Waltrip's nickname: Jaws. Waltrip made as many enemies on the track as he did off. His chief rival was Bobby Allison. During a race at North Wilkesboro, Waltrip had been agitating Allison by hitting his rear bumper over and over, lap after lap, in an attempt to get him to move over, despite Allison's overwhelmingly superior car. D.W.'s crew urged him to back off and leave Allison alone, but Darrell was determined to do it his way. Allison had enough, backed off the gas, and Waltrip, with nowhere to go, cut his wheel and slammed hard into the wall. It was poetic justice. The two drivers never did get along. Even today, neither are on speaking terms with each other. It's unlikely that any Allison will be present when Waltrip is inducted into the NMPA Hall-of-Fame. Had D.W. began driving today, and carried on like he did, he wouldn't even make it through his rookie season.
As NASCAR sprinted into the 80's, the pressure of representing the sponsors, and the sport itself, all but ground a halt to the drivers off-track antics. The days of drag races down public roads and crashes into motel swimming pools were over. Nobody was throwing rattlesnakes in cars, or stealing gearshift knobs. And you'd never find a driver in a Bar at one AM the night before a race. NASCAR wanted to clean it's image, and keep it clean. There was no place for the Curtis Turners, the Joe Weatherlys, or the Fonty Flocks anymore. NASCAR began to sanitize it's series in preparation for it's next giant leap into the 80's --- the start of it's most explosive growth.
The Good Old Days, had come to an end. Next week, the final installment of the series will focus on those people who worked behind the scenes, and who never drove anything but wrenches and people. They too were a colorful cast of characters who added flavor to the NASCAR garage with innovative and downright ingenious methods of cheating, which were far more prevalent in The Good Old Days. The Good Old Days - Part 5 (Final in the Series) The Good Old Days - Part 5 Many of NASCAR's colorful characters were not drivers, but mechanics, crew chiefs, owners and engine builders. These folks didn't make their marks with harmless pranks. Instead, they ended up frustrating only the NASCAR technical inspectors who would toil for hours trying to find their stealthy, albeit illegal, alterations.
We end this five-part series with a look at some of the ingenious innovators and their innovations that continue to be passed along from team to team in the NASCAR garage.
One of NASCAR's most prolific car builders was "Smokey" Yunick. He built some of the fastest, sleekest race cars that ever flew the NASCAR banner. And the `incident´ he is most famous for may have never even happened. It´s one of those legendary tales that is still kept alive.
The story was that, just before the Daytona 500, inspectors found a dozen instances of non-conforming parts or alterations that had to be rectified before his car would pass inspection. In the process, they removed the fuel tank. Frustrated, the inspectors told Yunick to get his car out of there. Yunick climbed into the car, fired the engine, and drove away with the fuel tank still lying on the floor of the garage.
Whether it really happened or not, Yunick can still be credited with creating some of the most innovative racecars on the circuit. Yunick is reputed to have had a hand in a car built for Cotton Owens at Daytona that was dramatically faster than any of the other cars. The engine was torn apart, and the car was weighed. NASCAR could not find any satisfactory explanation for the cars' performance. Still, there was something that just didn't look right about the car. Finally, an alert inspector brought in a showroom model of the car. It turned out that Yunick had built a car to 7/8 scale, allowing it to be aerodynamically superior than it's showroom counterpart, or any other car on the track, for that matter. This "innovation" gave birth to the Template that NASCAR henceforth used to check the legal dimensions of the cars.
For many years, Yunick operated a garage in Daytona Beach. It was probably the first `speed shop´ in Florida at the time it opened for business. Yunick already had a reputation as a master mechanic, and when they ran the old Beach races, his garage was packed with would-be hopefuls looking for a little extra edge. Sometimes, winning cars would pull into "The best damn garage in Town." and have illegal parts removed before inspectors checked it over.
In NASCAR's Good Old Days, cheating was rampant, and few were caught. The car builders and mechanics knew more about a car than any NASCAR inspector. They knew how to hide things, and keep them hidden. They knew how to outsmart the fox. But it was pretty hard to hide things in the days when the cars had to be "showroom" or "strictly" stock. It was a simple matter of going over the car with factory specs. And what didn't comply, was judged illegal, and had to be fixed before you could go on the track. Still, a few found ways to avoid detection. But it wasn't because of expert engineering. One time, Lee Petty drove a car that had a heavy-duty rear end, and an illegal carburetor. When he was called for inspection after the race, he parked the car outside the NASCAR garage and raised the hood. Richard was already turning the bolts to take the old carb off when a couple of inspectors came out and curtly inquired as to why he had the hood up, and that he'd better close it in a hurry. The elder Petty told the inspectors that the radiator was being drained, and that "this boy was new, and has never done this before."
Somehow, the inspectors bought the excuse, went back inside, and left Petty to not only change the carb, but the rear end as well. The car passed inspection with the illegal rear-end and the carburetor sitting right in the trunk. The Petty family, despite their beloved image, could bend the rules as much as anyone. And when it came time to cheat, their handiwork remained hidden from inspectors because the Petty's were always one step ahead of NASCAR.
An exception to this was Charlotte, 1983. There are two stories to this saga. Which one to believe is up to you. But we all have heard that Richard Petty was caught with an "oversized" engine after the race. Petty was fined, and points were taken away.
But another story that floated around at the time bespoke of the brilliance of Richard's engine builder, his brother, Maurice. The rumor had it that Petty was not found to have an illegal engine, and that the infraction was, in fact, something infinitely more diabolical. During post-race inspection, a hidden compartment was supposedly found in the radiator. In that compartment was a bottle of Nitrous Oxide. The story goes on to tell us that Maurice had rigged this bottle to inject Nitrous into the combustion chamber of the motor via a small hose disguised as the fuel line. The driver could activate the Nitrous from the cockpit, thus giving him 25-30 more horsepower down the straights.
Could it have happened? Of course. Did it? Nobody will tell. Petty won't, and NASCAR sure isn't interested. Both parties are perfectly content to stay with the `oversized engine´ theory. And why not? After all, had it been publicly revealed that Petty had driven a car so blatantly illegal, NASCAR would have had no choice but to disqualify the car´s run altogether to appease the outrage from the drivers, sponsors, and other fans. And that would have meant that Richard Petty would have never attained the record of 200 wins. The win he was allowed to keep was # 199.
Junior Johnson is often times credited for bending NASCAR's rules. Actually, Johnson was an innovator. Many of his techniques simply made his cars run so fast that many accused him of cheating. But even Junior Johnson ----- the man whom the factories came to when they needed advice --- was caught with illegal parts in 1991, and was suspended for several races.
Still, without any doubt, the most brilliant bender of the rules was today's current NASCAR technical director, Gary Nelson. Nelson took the word cheating and turned it into an art form. Cars that he wrenched were the ones' to beat. In a 1987 interview, Nelson revealed some of his more innovative tactics. One involved the cars driven by Darrell Waltrip during one of his championship seasons. Nelson found a way to fill the entire roll-cage of the car with several hundred pounds of buckshot. The car was weighed before the race, and found legal. But when Waltrip went onto the track during pace laps, and reached the banking, he'd pull a hidden lever which allowed the lead to pour from under the car and roll harmlessly down the banking. On the radio, Waltrip would indicate a successful drop by yelling "Bombs Away!" Then, with the car weighing considerably less than the mandated weight, Waltrip would proceed to blow away the field.
NASCAR never discovered this trick. Nelson ingeniously located the exit spout where the jack was positioned. When NASCAR inspectors raised the car with a jack, they concealed the evidence, and cleared the car to qualify and run.
There was a rumor that circulated a few years back that Nelson also engineered a hidden system that injected Nitrous Oxide in the Engines that Darrell Waltrip used at Daytona one year. When Nelson was working for DiGard, he built a "prototype" car to be entered in the upcoming Firecracker 400 at Daytona. A little-known driver named Greg Sacks took the car and blew away the field. The car was torn apart following the race, but nothing was found --- nothing reported, anyway. Nelson's contemporaries still insist today that something was "not right" about that car, and that NASCAR wasn't smart enough to find out why.
It's little wonder that NASCAR tabbed Nelson to replace Dick Beatty. In fact, when the announcement was made, Richard Childress was forced to remark "About 99 percent of the cheating in this sport has just stopped." And it did.
While improvements in components and speed will still continue to be a part of NASCAR, the wild days of NASCAR are forever silenced. Corporate dollars and worldwide attention force today's Winston-Cup drivers to live as Prisoners in their own country. Some are afraid of even being seen in public, with their families, having a few beers with dinner.
But, as you have experienced over the past five weeks, there was a time of day when drivers could be themselves ---- off the track. They could party with the best of them. They lived life to the fullest. Even better, the stories that have survived the years to be handed down to future generations will insure that new fans will always hear about The Good Old Days.
During the time I was researching and preparing this series, I had to review many published works to clarify some of the details in the stories. But in doing so, I discovered that time had eroded the accuracy of those stories. For example; I researched a particular incident and found that three different drivers --- two of which were directly involved --- had three different versions of the same tale. In these cases, I was forced to use the "version" that came from the person most directly involved. Should you find any contradictions to any story you've read in this series, please bear that in mind.
When I first heard some of these wild tales, I made it a point to confirm them with those who were close to, or involved in them, whenever I saw them in the garage area, or away from the track. I was very fortunate to meet and speak with Tim Flock in 1991. Our chat only lasted about 10 minutes, but he was able to confirm much of what was included in this series. I also met Chris Economaki many years ago, and he too confirmed these, and other stories, and even proffered a few of his own. Over the years, I have been able to get first-hand accounts of some of these stories from folks like Buck Baker, Richard Petty, Bobby and Donnie Allison. Without their candid remarks, these tales would be forever buried in their souls. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Lonnie LeeRoy Yarbrough was born September 17, 1938 growing up on the tough side of Jacksonville, Florida. At the age of 19, he began racing on the local dirt track in Jacksonville winning his first time out in 1957. Yarbrough began racing in the Sportsman Division where he won 11 times. He moved up to the Modified Division and won 83 events in three years. In 1960, at the age of 21, Yarbrough made his first NASCAR Grand National Division start at the season's final event, the Atlanta 500 driving the #82 Chevrolet where he finished 33rd after being involved in a crash. Yarbrough returned to the Grand National Division in 1962 competing in 12 of the season's 53 events. Yarbrough drove car owner Lewis Osborne's #97 Chevrolet, Ray Nichels #39 Pontiac, Ralph Smith's #179 Chevrolet, Worth McMillion's #83 Pontiac, and Jimmy Baker's #81 Mercury. His best finish of the year came in Smith's #179 Chevrolet on the ˝-mile dirt Valdosta Speedway in Valdosta, GA where he finished 5th. In 1963, Yarbrough was again the driver of several different cars driving Jimmy Baker's #81 Mercury, E. A. McQuaig's #30 and #39 Pontiac, Lou Sidoit's ##69 Mercury, Lyle Stelter's #55 Mercury, W. M. Harrison's #71 Chevrolet, Don Harrison's #92 Ford, and Ray Osborne's #92 Ford. On the ˝-mile dirt Augusta Speedway in Augusta, Georgia, Yarbrough scored his first pole position driving Lyle Stelter's #55 Mercury. In 1964, Yarbrough competed in 34 of the season's 62 scheduled events. Yarbrough scored his first win in the seat of Louis Weathersbee's #45 Plymouth in the Savannah 200 on the ˝-mile dirt Savannah Speedway. Yarbrough won again in the 1964 Pickens 200 at Greenville-Pickens Speedway, Greenville, South Carolina driving Wathersbee's Plymouth. Besides the 2 wins, Yarbrough recorded 11 top-5s and 15 top-10s. In 1965, Yarbrough was behind the wheel of Ray Fox's #3 Dodge, Gary Weaver's #10 Ford, Gene Hobby's #99 Dodge, Sam Fogle's #31 Ford, and Petty Enterprises #43 Plymouth. He scored 2 top-5s and 3 top-10s in 14 starts. In 1966, Yarbrough drove John Thorne's #12 Dodge in 9 of the season's scheduled 49 events. He qualified on the pole for the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. He qualified on the pole again for the Southern 500 at Darlington and he won the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In 1967, Yarbrough won his 100 mile qualifier race for the Daytona 500 driving Thorne's #12 Dodge but lost and engine during the Daytona 500 and finished 34th. He finished 3rd driving Bud Moore's #16 Mercury in the Dixie 500 at Atlanta and again driving Junior Johnson's #26 Ford in the Wilkes 400 at North Wilkesboro. In 1968, Yarbrough divided his time between Junior Johnson's #26 Ford and #98 Ford/Mercury and Lyle Stelter's #55 and #56 Ford. Yarbrough qualified on the pole for the season opening Middle Georgia 500 at the .534-mile paved Middle Georgia Raceway, at Macon, Georgia. He grabbed the pole for the Atlanta 500, the Rebel 400 at Darlington, the Carolina 500 at Rockingham, and for the Volunteer 500 at Bristol. He qualified on the pole and won the Northern 300 on the 1-mile asphalt Trenton Speedway in Trenton, New Jersey, and he won the Dixie 500 when the series returned to Atlanta in August. All told he accumulated 6 poles, 2 wins, 15 top-5s, and 16-top10s in 26 starts in the 49-race 1968 season. In 1969, Yarbrough competed in 30 of the years 54 events. Driving Junior Johnson's #98 Ford, he won the Daytona 500, the Rebel 400 at Darlington, the World 600 at Charlotte (where he lapped the field twice), the Firecracker 400 at Daytona, the Dixie 500 at Atlanta, the Southern 500 at Darlington, and the American 500 at Rockingham winning by a lap over the field despite suffering a flat tire. In 30 starts, Yarbrough composed an impressive 7 wins, 16 top-5s, and 21 top-10s. In 1970, Yarbrough qualified on the pole for the Virginia 500 at Martinsville driving Banjo Matthew's #27 Ford. He sat on the pole for the Nashville 420 in Junior Johnson's #98 Ford and won the National 500 at Charlotte behind the wheel of Johnson's #98 Mercury. Yarbrough recorded 2 poles, 1 win, 8 top-5s, and 11 top-10s in 19 starts. In 1971, Yarbrough started in only 6 events for the year posting 1 top-5 and 3 top-10s. In 1972, he made 18 events recording 5 top-5s and 9 top-10s. After failing to qualify for the 1973 Daytona 500, Yarbrough retired from the sport. His NASCAR career consisted of 198 starts, 11 poles, 14 wins, 65 top-5s, and 92 top-10s. Yarbrough died after a lengthy illness on December 7, 1984. In 1990, he was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame.