The Ole Days
Anytime you see something by Tom Higgins READ IT. One of the best in this sport
I remember Cale Yarborough's fiery anger.
I remember Richard Petty biting his lips to maintain characteristic composure.
I remember Big Bill France standing as solid and firm as a granite boulder.
But most of all I remember LeeRoy Yarbrough's classic, cutting comeback of a comment.
These common-thread recollections roll into mind every time the NASCAR schedule takes its top tour to Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. That's where the major teams will be racing this week in the UAW-Ford 500.
The event marks the 36th anniversary of the track's 1969 opening. Simultaneously it marks the same anniversary of one of the most intriguing incidents in the sport's history.
The race, then known as the Talladega 500 at the facility then named Alabama International Motor Speedway, produced the first and only mass boycott among the sanctioning body's top drivers. Thirty-seven of them withdrew and did not race.
The competitors pulled out, most taking their cars with them, because neither Goodyear nor Firestone had developed tires to handle the near-200 mph speeds attained at the awesome, high-banked new race track, which at 2.66-miles was the biggest oval-type speedway in the nation. The tires came apart--shredding like black strands of smoking spaghetti--after only four laps at 195 mph.
Further charging emotions with an undercurrent of high voltage electricity was the existence of the Professional Drivers Association, a union that had been formed only weeks earlier with Petty as its president.
France, the NASCAR founder/president and also president/developer of the Talladega track, was suspicious that the union wanted to wrest control of the sanctioning body, or at least have a say in its operation. He wasn't about to yield a bit of the power he'd amassed over 22 years in bringing NASCAR from its rustic beginning on the dusty short tracks of the South.
This was the high-tension situation that sweltering Sept. 13-14 weekend in Talladega's garage area as the disgruntled drivers and an inwardly furious France came to a face-to-face confrontation on Saturday, the eve of the 500.
I luckily was able to elbow my way almost to France's side and, jotting furiously, wrote in my notepad what was said. Here's partially how the jaw-to-jaw exchange went three dozen years ago between France, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Petty, Yarborough and Yarbrough:
France: "This race can be run with a minimum of danger. I remember the first race at Darlington (the Southern 500 in 1950). Every man in the field blew 25 tires."
Yarborough:"Yeah, Bill, but those guys were running only 65 miles an hour. We're running 200."
Pearson: "Why can't we simply postpone this thing and come back later when they get a good tire built?"
France: "We run tomorrow. If you don't want to run, then load your car and go home."
Petty: "It's loaded."
Yarbrough: "Why would you even consider letting us run on a track that isn't safe?"
France: "You say it's unsafe. I say you can run."
Petty: "We don't want to just run. We want to race."
Allison: "Can we start on foot and get paid by position? Wait, I take that back. The track is so rough we'd probably trip and fall before we got to the first turn."
France: "LeeRoy, you're a pilot who flies his own plane. Consider your car an airplane and this track the weather--a storm. When you're in your plane and you encounter bad weather, you adjust. You slow down, and go around it or over it. Do the same in your race car here. Slow down and adjust to conditions."
Yarbrough: "Bill, when the weather is as bad as this damn race track is, I don't even take off!"
The mass of drivers ringing France whooped with laughter at Yarbrough's zinger.
France's face flushed with anger.
The exchanges then continued:
France:"What you hot dogs do is your business. But quit threatening the boys that want to race."
Petty: "Wait a minute. That threatening can go both ways. Don't threaten us...OK, drivers' meeting in the compound right over here!"
The drivers headed to a fenced area indicated by Petty. France and his son, Bill, Jr., followed.
Yarborough: "Where do you think you're going?"
France: "Inside, I'm a NASCAR member, just like you."
Yarborough: "This is a drivers' meeting only."
France: "Is it a PDA union meeting or a drivers' meeting?"
Yarborough: "A drivers' meeting, and you ain't comin' in!"
The two eyed each other angrily, then turned and went in opposite directions.
I remember making a note, wondering when NASCAR and the drivers
might go in the same direction again, if ever.
After a brief conference, the drivers went to their trucks and with race cars in tow left the garage area and the track in a caravan.
"I hate to do this," Buddy Baker said as he departed.
"But I like me. I've grown accustomed to living."
France, meanwhile, left to hurriedly patch together a field. And, waiving the rules to include Grand Touring Division cars and even ARCA machinery, he did just that. France was able to act because of a clause in the NASCAR rule book known simply as "E.I.R.I." That's essentially an asterisk notation that stands for "Except In Rare Instances." Basically this gave France the power to do whatever he wished.
Somewhere deep in the present day NASCAR rule book, incidentally, "E.I.R.I." still exists.
But back to 1969...
On a sunny Sunday before a crowd estimated at 62,000, the Talladega 500 started on time.
The best-known drivers in a field of 36 were Bobby Isaac, Tiny Lund, Dick Brooks and Buck Baker, Buddy's dad who was in the twilight of a great career that had produced two championships. Also lining up to race were NASCAR journeymen Coo Coo Marlin, Earl Brooks, Earle Canavan, Roy Tyner and Richard Childress, who was destined to gain fame and glory by fielding the cars in which Dale Earnhardt won six of his seven Winston Cup championships.
The field included two doctors--Don Tarr and Wilbur Pickett--and sports car drivers Billy Hagan and Amos Johnson.
Mixed in with sleek, needle-nosed, winged Dodges and the major NASCAR circuit's Chevys and Fords were smaller Camaros, Cougars, Firebirds, Javelins and Mustangs.
Also among the mix of drivers was a young PDA recruit, Richard Brickhouse, an Eastern North Carolina farmboy who was a relative newcomer to the NASCAR big time.
In a tense meeting that lasted until midnight on Saturday in the garage area, Brickhouse finally was enticed into breaking with the PDA by being given the chance to drive a factory-backed Dodge, a car given up by Chargin' Charlie Glotzbach.
"When I joined the PDA I didn't expect anything like this walkout," said Brickhouse, who outwardly agonized before making his decision. "I don't want to make anybody mad, but I do want to race."
It had been feared that fans might riot when they arrived at the track and found that the stars were really gone. Some advisors even encourged France to ask that the Alabama National Guard be called out to keep order.
However, the crowd generally was well behaved, even though it quickly became obvious that the race was being staged in a contrived way. Although the cars were capable of running much faster, the race pace was held to around 175 mph to keep the tires from tearing apart. And approximately every 25 laps the yellow flag was shown, ostensibly for debris on the track, but in reality to give the teams a chance to change tires.
With 11 of the 188 laps remaining, Brickhouse could restrain himself no longer. He hit full throttle on his purple Dodge, a car nicknamed "Plum Crazy" because of its paint scheme. With astonishing ease he whipped past Jim Vandiver, a Grand Touring Division driver from Charlotte who had led 13 times for 102 laps. Brickhouse charged to a whopping seven-second lead, prompting his crew chief to walk well out from pit road with a chalked message on a pit board imploring him to slow down.
Brickhouse complied, and maintained the spread to win by seven seconds.
Vandiver was listed as the runnerup, but to this day he insists that a scoring error amidst all the pitting cost him the victory.
ARCA's Ramo Stott finished third, the only other driver on the lead lap.
Isaac, NASCAR major championship winner in 1970, finished fourth a lap down in the Dodge he'd started on the pole after qualifying at 196.386 mph. For reasons never made quite clear, Isaac hadn't been invited to join the PDA. Understandably irked, he defiantly refused to join the boycott.
Dick Brooks placed fifth, eight laps behind.
Indicating just how uncompetitive the race really was is the fact that sixth-place finisher Earl Brooks was 24 laps down to Brickhouse.
Only 15 of the 36 starters were running at the finish.
Nevertheless, France was euphoric in Victory Lane as he placed a wreath of roses around the neck of Brickhouse, declaring, "Winners never quit and quitters never win!"
It was to prove the only time that Brickhouse ever smelled the roses. He never won again and just a few years later essentially was gone from NASCAR's major tours.
France had said there would be "no penalties" against the drivers who withdrew from the first 500-miler at Talladega. His tone and words seemed ominous, though, as he stood in Victory Lane and declared, "The boys who pulled out owe their future to the drivers who ran today--if they have a future."
However, just four nights later, on Sept. 18, 1969, both Petty and Pearson entered and ran in a 100-miler at Columbia Speedway, a dirt track in South Carolina. Petty finished second to Isaac as Pearson fell out because of a broken axle.
And on Sept. 28, practically all the boycotters were back behind the steering wheels of their race cars in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. Petty, Pearson and Buddy Baker finished 1-2-3.
Within weeks the PDA ceased to exist. France had prevailed.
Of all those most significantly involved in Talladega's inaugural race 36 autumns ago, only Petty and Childress continue with NASCAR in a major way, both fielding teams on what is now the Nextel Cup circuit.
Bill France Sr., Isaac, Tyner, Coo Coo Marlin and Buck Baker are among those now deceased. Tiny Lund lost his life in a crash at Talladega in 1975.
In the intervening years the Talladega speedway has become known as one of the world's fastest, a track producing close, thrilling finishes. More darkly, it's also known as a home of "The Big Ones," multi-car crashes that seem to occur almost every race as 43 drivers run so very, very fast in packs, maneuvering for position while only inches apart.
"Everything has worked out, I guess," Petty now says, looking back on the controversy in 1969. "It was strictly the tire danger, not a PDA deal, that led to the boycott.
"There was some fallout--backdoor politics--from it against the boys that left that weekend. But nothing that has kept the world from going around."