It seems like the only inalterable rule in life is that change is inevitable — and I very much doubt that will ever change. Though if in fact change is inalterable inevitably, then someday that must in fact change as well.
Only some of you were around this grand blue marble we share back in the 1960s in general or 1968 in particular. Numerous jokes have been made along the lines of, “If you recall 1968 clearly you either weren’t there or you weren’t living right.”
Of course, my own recollections of 1968 are suspect in that that I was nine years old at the time. As such, I never burned my draft card, caught Jim Morrison and the Doors at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go or dropped by the local Ford agency to pick up a newly released Shelby GT500 ragtop (a car model that by coincidence is being re-released as we speak). But as a person of principal, I have steadfastly refused to wear a bra. “Up against the wall, Moth …. um, helpful Social-Security-question-line bureaucrat. I’d rate my hold time as unacceptable, but you’ve been so much more than kind. You can keep the dime. To reiterate the purpose of my call, ‘Send lawyers, guns and money…'”
Earth Day was still two years off in 1968. I suppose the globe was already warming, though it wasn’t quite as warm as it is today. Most days. Still, there was a comforting familiarity in watching young people storm off college and high school campuses last week to block the streets and wave their hastily-made and often poorly-spelled signs around.
Here’s a hint, my young friends. We already tried that. It didn’t work. Yeah, it’s fun to blow off school on a nice afternoon, and there’s a certain dynamic to group-chanting and an art to sign-waving. But here’s a few reminders: when you see the National Guard deploy, RUN! And when you do in fact meet the new boss inevitably, he’ll be the same as the old boss. He’ll just be a few years younger and you’ll be a few years older.
So most of my recollections of 1968 are those of a child. But if I did have anything borderline-hip going on in my life, I’d already started a record collection and I had a pretty loud stereo in the detached oversized two-car garage that my friends and I could loudly listen to without suffering the wrath of my parents. I mean, it’s not like any of us had the talent to play little league ball or much interest in anything other than minibikes.
If you were listening to WFIL out of Philadelphia in 1968, you doubtlessly know the lyrics to “Hey Jude” by some band called The Beatles. The Stones also had a bit of a hit with “Jumping Jack Flash,” as did Otis Redding with “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” The Doors with “Hello, I Love You” and Simon & Garfunkel with “Mrs. Robinson” (Let’s not leave out “Love is Blue” by Paul Mauriat, which has been playing in various elevators ever since or the Ohio Express with their utterly loathsome “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy”). Even back in 1968, it didn’t rain rainbow-colored candy drops on unicorns in the enchanted forests. Often.
1968 in NASCAR? What’s that? Oh, right, right. Back to the topic at hand. 1968 is perhaps best recalled as the year that Richard Petty didn’t win the title despite running the full slate of races in a non-boycott season. David Pearson won the first of two consecutive titles in 1968. Pearson won 16 races that year and had 36 top-five finishes in 48 starts (Kyle who?). Petty also won 16 races that year (down a bunch from 27 in 1967) but “only” 31 top fives. But neither driver won any of the big four races on the ’68 schedule. Cale Yarborough won the Daytona 500, the Firecracker 400 and the Southern 500 at the wheel of the Wood Brothers Racing Mercury. Buddy Baker won the other crown-jewel race of the season, the World 600, in a Dodge.
Those big four races were hugely important in 1968. Two of the Big Three U.S. automakers were spending a huge chunk of their marketing and advertising dollars annually on NASCAR racing. Big wins were celebrated with full-page ads in mainstream magazines and newspapers. Top drivers from rival teams were lured away with promises of huge paychecks.
Most notably, Petty left his longtime supporters at Chrysler to drive for Ford in 1969. It wasn’t just the big checks that lured the King to the Dark Side. Petty was convinced the more aerodynamic Torino and the Boss 429 engine were going to be the new combination to beat. In 1969, Ford would introduce the Torino Talladega and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler in street-legal versions made to homologate them for NASCAR racing, costs be damned. Mopar would go on to respond with the outrageous Dodge Daytona Charger winged-wonder in ’69 and the Plymouth Superbird to lure Petty back into the fold in 1970.
And despite all that money dumped into the sport and all the effort, within a couple years, Ford and Chrysler took their balls and bats and went home — causing a seismic shift in stock car racing worthy of a meteor strike. As Bob Dylan might of put it, “the times, they are a-changing.”
Despite winning titles in 1968 and 1969, Holman-Moody, the de facto Ford factory team, was shut down and its assets sold off. Chrysler stuck around another year but backed only two drivers, the King and Baker, who’s car also ran out of Petty Enterprises’s shop that year. By 1979, Chrysler was basically out of the sport and didn’t return until 2001, before leaving the sport again after 2012.
The Wood Brothers continued on with Ford- and Mercury-based race cars without factory help. Purolator stepped in with sponsorship money, and the team’s success continued. But Fords continued to be outliers in what it now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for a while until the Elliott brothers out of Georgia and Robert Yates with rookie sensation Davey Allison stepped up to the plate. Roger Penske switched his teams and Rusty Wallace over to Ford in 1994.
But Ford’s big-dog team came to be Roush Racing (now Roush Fenway Racing). Roush, an engineer by trade, first became associated with Ford as a drag racing team and continued on with road racing teams in Trans Am and other series. In 1988, Roush entered his first Cup Series car with longtime Roush stalwart Mark Martin at the wheel. The team won their first Cup event in 1989 at Rockingham Speedway. Roush Racing expanded to a two-car team in 1992 and began competing in what was then the Busch Series (now the NASCAR Xfinity Series) the same year (Also with Martin at the wheel).
Over time, Roush Racing expanded to four and eventually five teams occasionally before NASCAR set the limit at four teams. And at its peak, the Roush teams enjoyed a great deal of success. In 3649 Cup starts, Roush-owned entries won 137 times. In the NXS series, Roush teams won 138 races. In the Gander Outdoors Truck Series (which Roush left after the 2009 season), the stats are 50 wins in 712 starts.
Martin never won a Cup title during his storied career. Arguably, he was the best modern-era driver never to do so. He did become NASCAR’s version of Charlie Brown trying to kick a field goal, finishing second in the Cup points three times for Roush and once for Rick Hendrick. Martin also finished third in the points four times.
Matt Kenseth won a Cup title for Roush in 2003, and Kurt Busch drove a Roush entry to the 2004 championship. On the Busch/NXS side of the garage, Roush won championships with Greg Biffle (2002), Carl Edwards (2007), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2011, 2012) and Chris Buescher (2015). Biffle also won the Truck Series title for Roush in 2000.
A ride with a Jack Roush team used to be among the most coveted in the garage area. If things went the way they were planned, that young driver would work his way up the ladder — moving from Trucks, to NXS, and when a seat opened with the team, into the Cup series collecting wins and perhaps championships along the way.
But those days are through. NASCAR racing in the modern era is a high-stakes game of “What have you done for me lately?” Roush’s last two wins came in 2017 at Talladega Superspeedway in May and Daytona International Speedway in July. Ironically, those were won by Stenhouse Jr. — this year’s top victim of the “What have you done for me lately … besides wreck a lot of cars?” mentality. Prior to the Talladega win, Roush’s previous victory came at Sonoma Raceway on May 22, 2014. Things have changed. And change is inevitable.
Way back in 1968, one of my favorite tunes was “Time of the Season” by The Zombies. And it is in fact that right now is the time of the season in NASCAR called awkwardly enough, “Silly Season.” Another 45 I about played into dust as a nine-year-old in 1968 was “Lady Will Power” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. I can hear a bunch of you muttering, “What by who now?” In the wake of the British Invasion, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap was one of the hottest bands in the U.S. (though out of political correctness, let me hasten to add that the lyrics to “Lady Will Power,” as well as “Time of the Season” and “More Than This” would likely give members of the “Me Too” movement conniption fits if played in a safe space. In my defense, I was nine at the time and had no idea what sex was.
But back in the days, both bands were doing very well. My friend Mark, who wanted to be a drummer someday, had a fanboy’s fondness for the Union Gap’s drummer Paul Wheatbread. Mark’s last name was Lipschitz, and he was openly envious of a guy with such a cool last name. Besides, Wheatbread looked more like John Lennon than John Lennon. Members of both bands were all guilty of grotesquely-bad lapses of judgement in grooming and wardrobe not limited to those aqua double-breasted Nehru jackets worn with black turtlenecks on the Ed Sullivan Show. I read an interview with Wheatbread a while ago.
Both the Zombies and the Union Gap had good runs. They played and sold out a lot of big shows at increasingly large venues. I believe both ended up playing the Ed Sullivan Show just like The Beatles had. “Time of the Season” was actually recorded at the Abbey Road (yes, that Abbey Road studio where a year later those Beatle guys would record one of the most enduring of all classic rock albums). Their hit tunes roared up both the Billboard and the old Cashbox charts. Groupies were banging on members of both bands’ front doors at night. They could not venture out in public without being recognized and mobbed. The money rolled in for a while. But then the success stopped, and thanks to profligate spending habits, most of the members of both bands ended up broke. Some of them worked multiple jobs just to pay their living expenses.
Members of both bands say they were poorly-managed and often ripped off because of their business naiveté — young men suddenly rich and thinking they always would be. The same things have happened multiple times (that I know of) to race car drivers. Money earned quickly and at a young age tends to disappear just as quickly.
So this week it was Stenhouse’s turn to find himself on the outside looking in after a somewhat-surprising announcement that Buescher would replace Stenhouse in the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 next season. Buescher, you’ll recall, has one career Cup victory. He won at Pocono Raceway back in 2016 on a Monday after the race was rained out on Sunday. That race ended 22 laps early after having fog roll onto the track property and it became clear the fog wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Buescher’s had two top-five finishes since.
Exchanging a driver with two career Cup wins for one with one career win may seem a lateral move at best. But with Ryan Newman showing some signs of life as of late in an RFR Ford, the driver swap is hoped to be another step in returning Roush, if not to prominence, at least to respectability.
As I see it, pairing a driver who hasn’t been running up to expectations for years with a team that hasn’t been running up to expectations for years isn’t a sure-fire proposition. For Buescher, it may be a matter of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” That’s another one of those adages that may get lost in translation to people who have always had electric appliances and microwaves. I wish all involved the best mainly because by nature I tend to wish everyone the best — part of that old hippie mindset from 1968. More driver changes in the Cup series are doubtlessly coming. As Bob Dylan wrote (way before 1968):
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’