The Frontstretch: Driven To The Past: Bobby Isaac by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday April 5, 2007

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Driven To The Past: Bobby Isaac

Vito Pugliese · Thursday April 5, 2007

 

Born: August 1st, 1932
Hometown: Catawba, North Carolina
Starts: 308
Wins: 37 (15th All-Time)
Top 5s: 134
Top 10s: 170
Pole Positions: 49 (20 in 1969 – series record)
Winnings: $778,052
Championships: 1970

Bobby Isaac is perhaps one of the most intriguing figures in the history of NASCAR. A championship driver, with an impressive winning percentage, Issac lived in relative obscurity for most of his career. From his inauspicious beginnings as a middle-school dropout working in a saw mill, to a record setting September afternoon at the Bonneville Salt Flats, he embodied the inscription that he had engraved on the back of his watch: "Winners Never Quit, and Quitters Never Win".

Isaac was born August 1st, 1932 in Catawba, North Carolina. The second oldest of nine children, Bobby's father died when he was all of six years old. His mother having to support the family, worked nights at a nearby furniture factory. Without much supervision, Bobby was left to his own devices, and by the time he had completed sixth grade, felt he had his fill of education. He quit school to work in a sawmill so he could afford to buy himself a new pair of shoes. When his mother died a few years later, Bobby was forced to become the family provider, working odd jobs to make ends meet. From working at a sawmill, to a gas station, a farm, and to an ice truck, it wasn't obvious that he would one day achieve crowning glory in the highest echelon of motorsports. These humble beginnings weren't really to his liking either, and Bobby tried to hightail it out of town. Without a car or bus fare, he opted to use his thumb. The one car that stopped just happened to be Bobby's older sister. He moved in with her for a few years, until one day he got the urge to check out the new racetrack that was recently constructed in Hickory, North Carolina.

About the same time as he had his epiphany, Bobby had endured another loss in his life, that of a failed marriage. Like many guys going through a divorce, he did the only thing that can pull a man back from the edge: he bought himself a hot rod. Saving all of the money he could from whatever job he could land, he purchased a 1937 Ford Coupe, and hastily welded in some door bars that could loosely be considered a roll cage. His first race at Hickory ended about as quickly as it began after he rolled the car on the second lap. The car was mangled, but at long last, Bobby Isaac had found his calling. A lifetime spent running in circles, trying to find whatever job he could, the one that found him was one of…well, driving in circles.

Bobby kept a day job to help supplant his racing fix. His fortunes took a turn for the better in 1956 when he was hired to drive a car in the sportsman division owned by a man named Frank Hefner. Two years later he joined forces with Ralph Earnhardt, winning 28 times against the best in the business. Life was good for young Isaac, who was suddenly earning more money racing than he ever had working a normal day job.

It was around this time that he earned a reputation as a bit of a scrapper as racing journalist Benny Phillips recalls. With the words "Love" tattooed on his left hand, and "Hate" across his right, Bobby received the call one day from NASCAR. It was the same message that has been delivered to Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, and countless others. "NASCAR can get along with out you, but can you get along without NASCAR?" The message was received.

He got his first turn at wheeling a Grand National car (now Nextel Cup) in the 100 mile qualifying race for the World 600 at Charlotte. Junior Johnson wanted him to shake down his car and let him turn two laps in the race, before retiring with a “failed coil”. His real shot at the big time came in 1963, driving an ex-Petty Enterprises Plymouth Belvedere for owner Bondy Long. Later that year he would drive for Smokey Yunick, who said of Isaac, "He's a race driver. I know that."

In 1964 Bobby's stock rose higher, and he was blessed doubly with two of the best things a man could ask for: a new wife in Patty Ann, and a factory Chrysler ride in a new 426 Hemi powered Dodge. Speedweeks got off to a good start, with a three-wide photo finish in his preliminary qualifying race for the Daytona 500, next to Richard Petty and Jimmy Pardue. In the Daytona 500, Bobby would lead for three laps, but was relegated to a third place finish after the thirsty elephant motor gasped for fuel with all of three laps to go.

In 1965, NASCAR legislated the Hemi out of competition, and Chrysler in effect boycotted NASCAR. Being a factory driver, this meant he had to tow the company line. Like many other Chrysler drivers who saught alternative forms of competition, Bobby went USAC racing and won two races that year. Bobby later bailed on the Chrysler backed effort, rejoining Johnson for the 1966 season with Ford factory backing. Unfortunately for Bobby, nine races into the season, Ford boycotted NASCAR and he was on the outside once again. He would make the fall race at Rockingham that season, starting in a Cotton Owens Dodge, the manufacturer he would find himself making his mark in, over the next seven seasons.

In 1967 he would begin his tenure with Nord Krauskopf in the legendary #71 K&K Insurance Dodge Charger. It wouldn't be until 1968, when Bobby won his first Cup race at Columbia, South Carolina. It would be his first of three victories that year, and paved the way for an even better 1969 season.

1969 was the year the aero-wars were heating up between Ford and Chrysler on the superspeedways. The Ford Gran Torino and Mercury Cyclone were suddenly the cars to chase on the big tracks. Dodge's swoopy Charger looked fast, but it's open mouthed grille and flying-buttress recessed rear window made it an aerodynamic disaster. Help was on the way however, as first the Charger 500 was introduced. This was a prelude of things to come, as the next shot to be fired across the Blue Oval's bow, was the radical Dodge Charger Daytona. Bobby flew his Chargers to an amazing 17 victories in 50 starts that year, compiling 29 Top 5s, 33 Top 10s, and 20 pole positions, a record still stands to this day. This set the stage for his next accomplishment a year later.

In 1970, Bobby and the Harry Hyde led team didn't miss a beat. Winning 11 races in 47 starts, he amassed an incredible 32 Top 5 finishes, and 37 Top 10 finishes. Petty was back with Chrysler in a Plymouth Superbird for 1970, but Bobby Isaac was the Mopar Man, taking the 1970 NASCAR Championship, with nearly $200,000 in race winnings that year alone. He was awarded the keys to the new for 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T as a present from Chrysler for contributing over half of the points that won them the Manufacturer's Championship. The boy who was once in a heap of trouble with NASCAR over fighting with drivers after the race, was suddenly in one of the Big Three's good graces. He capped off the year by setting a closed course record at Alabama Superspeedway (Talladega) in his winged Charger Daytona at 201.104mph. Kind of beats driving an ice truck.

In 1971 the K&K team would not run the bulk of schedule due to Chrysler scaling back it's factory efforts to just the two Petty Enterprises entries, but he still won four races in 25 starts. Their accomplishments didn't stop there, the K&K team had world records in mind. At the Bonneville Salt Flats, the team, which included Hyde and Buddy Parrot, would notch 28 world speed records. Owner Krauskopf rewarded Bobby with $8,000 in bonuses for his efforts that day, in cash. Soon after, things would begin to take a turn for the worse with the No. 71 team. Bobby would make it through only the Southern 500 in 1972. After Labor Day, he finished out the season with Banjo Matthews and Junie Donleavy, after being replaced by Buddy Baker.

1973 would see him with another legendary owner, this time long time Ford associate Bud Moore. It wasn't for long though. During the second race at Talladega, Bobby began to hear something. The motor in his car went silent. The car was still up to speed and under power, but as he was traveling down the backstretch, Bobby heard a voice. It wasn't a spotter or his crew chief. It was a voice telling him to get out of the car. Calling it "as clear as anything I've ever heard", he radioed the team and requested they find a relief driver. He pulled the car into the pits, handed the reins over to Coo Coo Marlin, and retired from NASCAR, just past the halfway point of the race. Bobby fell away from racing, and was not seen by many in the racing community following that afternoon at Talladega.

He would show up running some local tracks in the late 70's. While competing at the same track where it all began over 20 years earlier, on August 14th, 1977 he again pulled the car in the pits halfway through the race. This time it wasn't so much the voices telling him to get out, as it was the Lord calling him home. He exited his car, stumbled over to a nearby truck, and collapsed. He died later that evening of a heart attack at the age of 45.

In 1979, Bobby was inducted in the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1996. In 1998 he was named to NASCAR's list of the 50 Greatest Drivers of All Time. Although Bobby never had formal higher education, he often lamented over leaving school early, and said if he had to do it over again would have pursued an engineering degree. In that spirit, Catawba Community College offers a motorsports program that carries the name Bobby Isaac Motorsports. Today, Bobby still can be found at Hickory. He was laid to rest on a cemetery that over looks the racetrack where his career and legend were born.

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falcon325
04/06/2007 09:50 AM
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“The motor in his car went silent. The car was still up to speed and under power, but as he was traveling down the backstretch, Bobby heard a voice. It wasn’t a spotter or his crew chief. It was a voice telling him to get out of the car. Calling it “as clear as anything I’ve ever heard”, he radioed the team and requested they find a relief driver.”

Ever since I heard Robert Duvall’s “Harry Hyde” character say that line in “Days of Thunder,” I’ve been trying to recall which old-time driver had heard “The Voice.”

Thanks for the history lesson, Vito.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
04/06/2007 02:58 PM
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Hey, no problem. It’s one of the few things I didn’t get mixed up this week!

Bobby really was an enigma. He was friends with guys like Ned Jarrett and David Pearson (David not exactly a houndog for the spotlight either), .....yet no one really heard or saw much of him after that little episode at Talladega in ’73

Robert Eastman
04/10/2007 03:03 AM
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Thanks for a great article! What’s amazing about what Bobby heard and did at Talladega that day, was the fact that Larry Smith, a previous NASCAR Rookie of the Year, was killed in that race in a “strange” accident.
A “fan” threw a can of beer (?) over the fence that struck Smith’s windshield, that caused Smith to brush the wall. Even though this was racing before “restricter plates” and the lap speed averages were over 200 MPH, the damage done to Smith’s car was so minimal that it looked like a “parking lot fender bender.” What killed Larry was the fact that his “shoulder harness reel” failed and his chest was crushed into the steering wheel, which caused his death. NASCAR immediately “outlawed” harness reels.
I sat next to Larry at breakfast that morning, so obviously I was shocked at what happened.
I was not aware of what happened to Bobby Isaac that day, but he must have been a man that was “spiritually sensitive” and “something/someone” told him that tragedy was going to strike that day. As the saying goes, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

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