NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: A Little History, Here…

We’re driving back more than 40 years this week.

One of my favorite sayings is attributed to Harry S. Truman – “The only thing you don’t know is the history you haven’t read yet.” Whether the late President said that or not, it’s pretty profound.

This was brought to mind by all the comments about Jimmie Johnson‘s “domination” leading up to Martinsville. Yes, the guy’s won four straight championships and won three of the first five races, but it’s not like nobody ever dominated before.

I can recall David Pearson and the Wood Brothers No. 21 being the car to beat almost every time they came to the track. On my first trip to Michigan, about halfway through the race I commented that they hadn’t impressed me. Somebody said, “We haven’t seen that Mercury run yet. Wait until the last pit stop.”

Sure enough, they ended up in victory lane.

Also, you could make a case for the days when Steve Kinser had everybody competing for second place in the World of Outlaws. (Now that he’s driving for Tony Stewart, he’s acting like he’s 30 years old again, so who knows? Maybe he’ll do it again.)

Anyway, the memory that stands out with me is the 1967 NASCAR season.

Harry Hyde and the K&K Insurance team were getting ready to make their first real drive for the championship in 1968. Standing in Harry’s transmission shop in Louisville and watching them work on the Dodge, I asked him how tough it was going to be. After all, Harry still stands out in my memory as the most inventive and talented racing mechanic I ever knew.

Harry said, “Potts, do you have any idea what you’re up against down there? That old man who is a friend of yours knows every one of those tracks like the back of his hand, and he’s got a kid driving that he brought up in his seat.”

There was no better example of that than the previous year.

NASCAR’s then Grand National division ran 49 races, 14 of them on dirt. There were 13 on superspeedways, 21 on short tracks. Bear in mind this is when anything a mile or more was considered a superspeedway. Actually, once somebody asked Big Bill France what qualified as a superspeedway, and he said, “Any place with flush toilets.”

Richard Petty started 48 of those 49 races and won 27, including a string of 10 straight near the end of the season. He had 38 top-five finishes and 18 poles.

Only four of those 27 checkered flags came on what were considered superspeedways. He got both Darlington races, and won also at Rockingham and Trenton.

His short-track wins came with two wins each at Columbia, Hickory, Martinsville and Richmond (when it was still a half-mile), and single victories at Augusta, Asheville-Weaverville, Hampton, Macon, Maryville, Greenville-Pickens, Fonda, Islip, Bristol, Nashville, Winston-Salem, Savannah, Beltsville, Hillsboro and North Wilkesboro.

He won on everything from a fifth of a mile (Islip) to what was then 1.375 miles at Darlington.

You also have to keep in mind that this was in the days when a team didn’t have a stable of cars set up in a pristine shop built for each track. Most teams, even the Pettys, had two cars, three at most. Much of the time, the same car was used on dirt and pavement.

That 1967 campaign resulted in Richard’s second championship, equaling his father’s pair of titles in 1958 and 1959.

Records show that Pearson won the title the next two years, driving the Holman-Moody No. 17, and that the K&K team succeeded in 1970.

Going to the track and thinking you know who has the best shot to win isn’t new. All of us can recall that kind of spell at our favorite short tracks.

A couple of years ago, we had a guy at Corbin Speedway named Russell Smith who was running away with practically every feature in our Sportsman series.

Another Sportsman driver told me, “I know I’m getting faster, because now I can still see Russell at the end of the race.”

In fact, one of those periods of domination involved Harry Hyde and his drivers, Jesse Baird and Andy Hampton, and a couple of Pontiacs at the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville.

General Motors ostensibly getting out of NASCAR racing after the 1962 season didn’t slow those Indians down. Harry made several trips with a truck down to North Carolina, picking up race parts from former factory teams who couldn’t use that stuff because most of them had switched to Fords. They weren’t running cookie-cutter race cars in those days – there was more involved than switching engines and decals.

Baird won the championship in 1963, and Hampton the next two years, with Baird second both times.

They were so dominating that some competitors were saying that STP stood for “Stop Those Pontiacs.”

Like the Prez said, “The only thing you don’t know is the history you haven’t read yet.”

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