During the decade of the 1970s, NASCAR was a much smaller, less complicated regional sport confined, mostly, to its birthplace south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Stock car racing certainly did not have the coast-to-coast recognition it has today. Fans were far fewer in number, although intensely loyal, and media presence was sparse. Prior to the 1979 Daytona 500, there was no live television coverage. In fact, about the only time NASCAR was a part of any network program was when a race – very often the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway – was granted 20 minutes of airtime on ABC’s “Wide, Wide World of Sports.”
But NASCAR’s cadre of fans didn’t really care. They loved the sport. It was all theirs and many of them thought nothing of driving hundreds of miles to see a race on one of their favorite tracks. Tickets weren’t that expensive, motel prices were reasonable and at some places, camping was free.
A person took a measure of pride in saying, “I know my racin’.”
Many of them certainly did. And there were many things they knew to be uncontested facts:
- At any superspeedway race, look for the Wood Brothers to be up front and, most likely, first at the checkered flag – especially if David Pearson was at the wheel.
- Speaking of Pearson, if someone else won the pole for any Charlotte Motor Speedway race, why, that would be big news indeed.
- The good thing about any Talladega Superspeedway race was that you never knew who was going to win it – and there was a decent chance the winner had never won a race in his career.
- If you could spare the money and take time off work, you had to be at Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500 and the several other accompanying events. It was a NASCAR fan’s heaven. As the Rev. Hal Marchman once said, Speedweeks were the “Redneck High Holy Days.”
- Say a bad word about team owner Bud Moore and you were certain to feel a fan’s wrath. Moore was a war hero who, in his youth, had landed at Normandy on D-Day and fought his way across Europe.
- This kid Darrell Waltrip needs to shut his mouth and show respect for his elders. However, he can flat drive a racecar.
- Superspeedways are entertaining, but the lifeblood of NASCAR is its short tracks.
This was especially true in the ’70s. Although NASCAR added big speedways in the ’60s, short tracks were the staple. There weren’t nearly as many of them as there were in decades past, but they were the bedrock.
Make no mistake, NASCAR knew this. During this time, reports started swirling that the sanctioning body at some point needed to do away with short tracks and compete only on speedways one mile or more in distance.
Once asked about such a move, NASCAR President Bill France Jr. flatly said: “Oh, no. You are not going to get us involved in any of that. No.”
One other thing fans knew for a fact: It didn’t matter if a race was held at Martinsville Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway or North Wilkesboro Speedway, the odds were strong the winner would be driving a car built by Junior Johnson & Associates out of Ronda, N.C.
It was the same for NASCAR’s most unique short track, the 0.533-mile, high-banked facility known today as Bristol Motor Speedway.
Johnson’s cars, mostly Chevrolets, were dominant at Bristol, and it didn’t make any difference who was behind the wheel.
It started in 1972. That was only the second year after Johnson had spearheaded Chevy’s return to racing after a long absence. His driver was Bobby Allison from Hueytown, Ala., a hard-headed competitor eager to win his first championship.
To do that Allison figured he had to beat Richard Petty, who had already won three titles and was no slouch on the short tracks – not by any means.
They went to war. And that was clearly obvious on the short tracks, where they beat and banged on each other mercilessly. Fans were thrilled and split into two camps – one for Allison and one for Petty.
“Bobby figured the only way he was going to win was to beat that red-and-blue Petty car,” Johnson once said.
Allison did so a few times, perhaps most notably so at Bristol, where he won both Winston Cup races in 1972.
Allison spent only a single season with Johnson and was replaced in 1973 by Cale Yarborough, who picked up at Bristol where Allison left off.
Yarborough won at Bristol in 1973 and swept both races in 1974. Then, from 1976-77, Yarborough put together a string of four consecutive victories, something never achieved before.
Yarborough left Johnson after the 1980 season after winning three consecutive championships from 1976-78, which again, at the time, was unprecedented.
Waltrip took the ride at Johnson’s in 1981. He had coveted the job for quite some time and even battled DiGard Racing team owner Bill Gardner to be free of his contract. That happened only after Gardner was paid a very tidy sum.
Johnson’s team dominance on the short tracks roared on, especially at Bristol. Starting in ’81, Waltrip won an astonishing seven consecutive races at the track, a feat unmatched to this day.
Beyond the ’70s and well into the ’80s, Johnson cars were superior on short tracks. As true as this trend was at Bristol, it was also the same at other places, too. For example, at North Wilkesboro, Johnson’s “home” track, victories were so routine that Buddy Baker, perhaps one of the wittiest drivers in NASCAR’s history, once said:
“At North Wilkesboro, you could put a monkey in Junior’s car and it would still win.”
Perhaps no better example of Johnson’s dominance at Bristol came in the Southeastern 500 on April 17, 1977. Yarborough won the race by seven — that’s right, seven — laps over Dick Brooks, who said, “I was in a different area code.”
But it was after the race was over that there occurred something remarkable and strange — even mystical. It has gone into NASCAR lore as a tale few would ever believe. But it happened. And nothing like it has happened since. Nor will it.
However, that is a story for another day.
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