The Southeastern 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 1977, has gone into lore as one of the most boring, lop-sided and uncompetitive races in NASCAR Winston Cup history. It was won by seven — yes, seven — laps by Cale Yarborough, who drove for Junior Johnson and was on his way to a second consecutive championship.
As unremarkable as that race was, what happened afterward is very remarkable. It was a mysterious, unexplainable incident that occurred after the grandstands had been vacated. Only a few individuals remained to tell the tale. I am one of them.
Yarborough teamed up with Johnson in 1973, two years after Johnson had united with Charlotte Motor Speedway promoter Richard Howard to bring Chevrolet back into the NASCAR fold.
They were enormously successful. Fans were enthusiastic supporters, which wasn’t a surprise since Chevy was No.1 in American car sales.
In 1972, Bobby Allison won 10 races during a season-long scrap with Richard Petty, who went on to narrowly win the championship. Allison had a contentious relationship with Johnson which came to a head at the end of the year.
Johnson gave Allison the opportunity to race again in 1973. But he had a plan.
“If you are not going to drive for us, we’ve got one of the best drivers in the world ready,” he said to Allison.
Perturbed, Allison responded: “Then go get him.”
That driver was Yarborough. And from 1973 to the start of the 1977 season, he won 26 races and a championship.
Bristol was the eighth race of the season, and by the time it rolled around, Yarborough had won three races. He would go on to win nine that year.
He was heavily favored to win at Bristol, if for no other reason that Johnson’s Chevys were powerhouses on the short tracks. But no one could have predicted Yarborough’s dominance. His car ran like it was on rails. He gave up the lead only when he pitted.
You can imagine how the fans in attendance responded. There weren’t that many of them. Both grandstands — on the frontstretch and down the backstretch — were about half full. The crowd was generously estimated at 30,000.
As the race worn on, attendance fell, largely because bored fans packed up and left.
If they could have, many members of the media would have done the same. As the laps added to the boredom, some of them found other pursuits — such as reading a book, word games or a nap or two.
A pane of glass separated the press from the radio booth, where announcer Hal Hamrick of the Universal Radio Network talked incessantly.
“What on earth can he be talking about?” I asked my buddy Tom Higgins of the Charlotte Observer. “Is he watching the same race as we are?”
“Watch this,” Higgins answered. He grabbed a piece of paper, scribbled something on it and held it on the glass so Hamrick could read the message.
Hamrick saw it and immediately started laughing. He tried to stop and resume talking but all he could do was sputter.
“What in the world did you write?” I asked Higgins.
He showed me the piece of paper, on which he had written:
“This race is about as exciting as artificial insemination!”
A rather apt analysis, in my opinion.
And when it was over, Bristol was empty, totally empty, less than one hour later. There wasn’t a soul in the grandstands, and the team haulers had rolled out. Only Johnson’s team remained, and it would have also been gone if not for post-race press briefings and inspection.
Of the media, only Higgins and I remained. It only took me about 30 minutes to write my piece — not much to report, after all — but Higgins had to do more for the Observer, considered the leader in NASCAR coverage.
To fully appreciate the rest of the story, I introduce you to Johnson crewman Henry Benfield, easily the most animated character on the team. Hugely popular, Benfield knew how to have a good time and provide one for everyone else. He had a tall, lanky frame, and his appearance was highlighted by his large pompadour.
He did multiple odd jobs for Johnson, but his main responsibility was to drive the hauler.
Benfield was front and center as the team readied its departure from Bristol. He stood out. You couldn’t miss him.
And then it happened.
A deep bass voice, seemingly out of nowhere, boomed out. It echoed mightily across the entire bowl-shaped track.
“HENRY … BENFIELD!”
The voice’s power was awesome. Everyone heard it, and the reaction was the same: The Johnson crewmen stopped what they were doing. Benfield turned his head left and right to locate it. Johnson heard it, looked up and promptly walked into the side of a van.
Higgins and I heard it and looked at each other.
“Who the heck is that?” I asked.
Higgins said he certainly didn’t know. He wondered where it came from since he and I were the only ones in the press box and Hamrick had long since left the radio booth.
I told him the public address announcer’s booth was in another building high at the center of the frontstretch. But it had been silent for quite a while. Besides, who would be in there?
Then it happened again.
“HHHEEEENNNRRRYY … BENNNNFIELD!’
This time the voice was more forceful and louder. It seemed to convey the message that we had all pay close attention.
And, again, everyone was frozen except for their heads, which turned rapidly to find the source.
Then came this:
“THIS … IS …. GOD, HENRY!”
This time the crewmen, Higgins and I didn’t freeze. We all broke out in animated laughter. Whoever was pulling this stunt was doing a mighty good job.
“YOU NEED TO CLOSE THE CURTAINS IN YOUR MOTEL ROOM, HENRY! I SAW WHAT YOU DID, AND I’M TICKED OFF!”
The crewmen were howling in laughter, as were Johnson, Higgins and I. Benfield was pointing upward toward the press box, as if he had located the voice’s source.
“YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO LOOK HIGHER THAN THAT TO SEE ME, HENRY!”
After all these years, Benfield is still in racing. He continues to do odd jobs for people and teams. I haven’t seen him in quite a while, but the last time I met him he looked pretty much the same — except his hair is now silver.
Ever since we heard the voice in Bristol, I have greeted him the same way:
“The Lord is looking for you, Henry!”
As for the voice, I think I have good idea of whose it was and how he pulled off the stunt.
But I’m not talking.
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