The 1965 Season, Part 2
Chrysler Cuts Out, Curtis Comes Home
By Greg Fielden
|Richard Petty's attempt to race dragsters had tragic results in 1965.|
The Motor Trend 500 at Riverside was run on January 17--with no factory backed Plymouths or Dodges in the field. Ford products swept the first eight positions. With Daytona's Speedweeks just over two weeks away, it was clear that Chrysler was prepared to sit out the entire year. France's hopes of a General Motors return were fleeing quickly. A GM representative squelched all existing rumors in late January: "The handwriting is on the wall," the high-ranking GM official stated. "The back door is not only not open, but it is being closely guarded. If there were any plans of racing through the back door, they have been changed. Anybody caught trying it would get their head chopped off."
France had one last gasp. He still thought General Motors cars could grace the NASCAR tracks in 1965, but he changed his angle. "I think our new rules will make it possible for dealer participation in racing," he said. "They can modify the GM cars and be very competitive. I don't anticipate any all-out factory support like Ford and Chrysler, but individuals can compete in their cars under the new rules."
Supporting France's statement was word that Buck Baker would drive Oldsmobiles on the Grand National circuit in 1965. "We will have up to four new Oldsmobiles, each with a 425 c.i. engine," said Baker. Sponsorship was coming from the Hoff Cadillac-Olds dealership in Norfolk, VA.
It was also reported that France had purchased a 1965 Plymouth Fury that had ended up in Baker's garage in Charlotte. And wealthy sportsman Sam Fletcher of Ft. Wayne, IN had entered a 1965 Plymouth Fury in the Daytona 500 with Johnny Allen listed as driver. Famed mechanic Red Vogt was tabbed as crewchief. But the heavy hitters in Chrysler's camp were set to race elsewhere. Defending Grand National champ Richard Petty was going to do some drag racing in the South. "I'd be like a fish out of water anywhere other than the South," said Petty. "Neither Dad nor I like to travel. We'll be racing a Plymouth Barracuda on the quarter-mile."
Paul Goldsmith, David Pearson and Bobby Isaac would race on the USAC trail. Jim Paschal went back to chicken farming. LeeRoy Yarbrough and Earl Balmer went looking for rides anywhere. When the Grand Nationals began checking into Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500, France saw the Fords were there en masse. But virtually everyone else was missing. "What this boils down to is that the Chrysler people are a bunch of lousy sports," France said angrily. "I think NASCAR should be complimented for setting up the rules and sticking by them."
In the rain-shortened Daytona 500, Ford Motor Co. vehicles took the first 13 spots. Baker's Oldsmobile had been demolished in a first lap crash in the 100-mile qualifying race. Johnny Allen drove his big Fury to a 23rd place finish--having been lapped 19 times in the 114 laps he completed. The few independent Dodge and Plymouth cars and the General Motors vehicles were rendered non-competitive.
During Speedweeks, Bill France eased up slightly on his rules stance--the first hint that he might back down. "If Chrysler makes a production line HEMI engine that is optional equipment for Plymouth Furys and Dodges Polaras and makes it reasonably priced, then it will be approved for racing in NASCAR." Although France took one step back, Chrysler's Ronney Householder stood firm. "The HEMI engine will not fit in a Fury or Polara," he insisted. "We designed the Belvederes and Coronets for the HEMI engines in 1965. This was done long before the rules came out. It is physically impossible for us to install a HEMI in those big cars. You can't just push a button on the assembly line and expect things to come out like they do in a popcorn machine."
Attendance for the Daytona 500 was 58,682--down from 69,738 in 1964. However, attendance was booming where Richard Petty showed up with his hopped-up Barracuda. On Sunday, February 28, 1965, Petty pulled his car into the Southeastern Dragway in Dallas, GA. A crowd of 10,000 was on hand, well beyond capacity. The largest throng before Petty had agreed to come was about 2,500. Southeastern Dragway was a typical small operation. There were no bleachers or grandstands. The crowd lined up elbow-to-elbow on the edge of the strip. A dirt embankment and a wire fence was all that protected the spectators.
Petty lined his car up in the right lane for a duel with Arnie Beswick of Morrison, IL. When the green lights flashed, Beswick peeled out of the starting blocks. Petty's car stuttered with a transmission problem. "The transmission was loaded up so bad it wouldn't go," Petty said later. "He had me beat. When I finally got it started, it took off in low gear." Just as Petty slapped his car into second gear, a wheel leaned badly and the car veered toward the middle of the track. Petty fought the wheel and the car swerved back toward the crowd. The bright blue car slammed into the dirt embankment, went straight up in the air, jumped the wire fence where the crowd was standing and landed on its nose among the spectators.
Rescue workers rushed to the panic stricken area. They reached Petty, who was badly shaken. The first words from Petty were, "Never mind about me. Look after the people I've hit." A wheel flew off Petty's car and struck eight year-old Wayne Dye of Austell, GA. The child was dead on arrival at Paulding Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Seven other people were injured in the crash. Emory Allen, 24, of Blueridge, GA, was transported to University Hospital in Atlanta with critical head injuries.
Petty, who suffered from shock, later pieced the tragic events together. "I guess it was up to about 60 (mph) when I went from low gear to second. When you run in low (gear), there's not a lot of weight on the front wheels. When I changed gears, the wheels came down strong. I felt something give and I let off the gas, but I couldn't hold it."
|After a four year ban by NASCAR President Bill France Sr., Curtis Turner was reinstated and allowed to race.|
In the early season Grand National events, spectators were merely trickling through the turnstiles. Attendance was off at virtually all the speedways. Nelson Weaver, President of Atlanta International Raceway, said his track planned to "remain neutral" in the disagreement between NASCAR and Chrysler, but issued an ultimatum as well. "We are in the final year of a five year contract with NASCAR," said Weaver. "We will not enter a new one until we have reached a decision about this matter. Our commitments are made through June 13 and we cannot change them. But our first responsibility is to our fans--to give them the best racing that is possible. If our evaluation of the current situation indicates we might better serve our fans by making changes, then we shall give serious consideration to making these changes after June 13."
"Any announcement Mr. Weaver might have at this time is a little premature," replied France. "I still feel that the move I made was necessary to eliminate the high cost, low volume engine. I'm sure no other association could field as fine an array of cars as NASCAR. Chrysler could have a competitive car in our races, but they won't do it. They're trying to hurt us."
Whether or not the hurt was intended, nearly all the promoters felt the sting of half empty grandstands and uncontested Ford shows. Bob Colvin, Darlington Raceway: "We have to slow the cars down some. They are too fast for the drivers and too fast for the tracks. The method of slowing them down must come from NASCAR. But it would be my thinking that cutting displacement would be the best way."
Carl Moore, Vice President, Bristol International Speedway: "I've got to think that racing is suffering because of the Chrysler pull out.We've been selling out at our track in past years, but our advance sales are way down." France informed the restless promoters that relief would come by spring--and that relief was spelled C-h-e-v-r-o-l-e-t. Big Bill had one last card to play.
News leaked out of Daytona Beach that respected car builder Ray Fox was going to put a pair of 1965 Chevrolets on the NASCAR Grand National circuit. Reports said that Jim Rathmann, winner of the 1960 Indianapolis 500 and owner of a large Florida Chevrolet dealership, was the financial source for the project. Rathmann reportedly sent out 700 inquiries seeking other dealership support. Response was, however, weak.
"The factory isn't going to help us one bit," Fox confessed. "One dealer we wrote in North Carolina--I believe it was in Charlotte--wrote that he wasn't interested in racing. They are selling plenty of cars, so they apparently don't care for the publicity racing can provide. "I don't know how many races we will be able to run," Fox added. "I'll tell you one thing, we will run with anything on the track. We'll run the new 396 c.i. engine bored out to 427 c.i. And that engine will send Ford back to the drawing board. In order to run though, we may have to pass the hat through the stands."
Jim Rathmann ruffled some feathers in a prepared statement: "The only reason Fords are winning races is that they don't run fast enough to blow up. We wouldn't be getting in this business if we couldn't run faster than Fords." The first Chevrolet was delivered to Fox on March 24. It was 11 days before the Atlanta 500 was scheduled. "I couldn't get it ready in time for Atlanta," said Fox. "The publicity people at Atlanta said I'd have it there, but I never said that. That was their way of just selling tickets."
Other news from Atlanta during the rain-out (it was eventually run on April 11) was that Buck Baker was ditching his Oldsmobile, another dealership backed entry. "We just can't do enough with this car," said the two-time Grand National champ. "I think I'll get a Chevy and let this buffalo roam on its own. It won't run worth a lick." It wasn't until May 8 at Darlington that the new Chevrolets hit the track. There were two entered, but neither one was the Fox car. Baker had his new Chevy ready, and Jim Paschal, a defector from the Plymouth ranks, showed up in a Friedkin Enterprises Chevy wrenched by Bill Thomas.
In qualifying, the Chevys faded poorly. Paschal started 25th and Baker lined up 27th. Both were lapped twice in the first 37 laps, moments before a pit reporter for the Darlington Raceway radio network interviewed Bill France. "I'm real pleased to see these Chevrolets doing so well," said France. "Buck Baker and Jim Paschal are doing a fine job out there."
Paschal was running in eighth place when a broken crankshaft put him out on lap 195. Baker finished 10th, 11 laps behind winner Junior Johnson. Richard Petty had been a trackside spectator at Darlington. In a pre-race introduction, he received the biggest ovation from the crowd of 15,000--half what it was in 1964. "Those stands are practically empty," said Richard. Lee Petty had an observation; "Racing is worse now than ever before," he said. "It's obvious that the attendance is hurting at all the major tracks this year because of the lack of competition." One promoter who requested anonymity, said, "We might as well face it. This is going to be a bad year. We might as well write it off right now."
The Chevrolets did not offer Ford any competition in the Rebel 300. The last hope for France was that when the Ray Fox car arrived, it would crowd the Fords toward the front of the pack. However, funds were short. One source said, "What Rathmann got from the Chevy dealers wouldn't buy you lunch." The Fox Chevy finally arrived trackside at Charlotte the week of the World 600. In fact, it was accompanied by three others--the Paschal and Baker cars, plus another one slated to be driven by Sportsman driver Ned Setzer. LeeRoy Yarbrough was tabbed to drive the Fox car.
LeeRoy got in a couple of practice laps, but it failed to make it through inspection. NASCAR Chief Inspector Norris Friel determined that the Fox car did not pass the ground clearance rule of 6 1/2 inches. "It's been in the rules for years," said Friel. "Everybody else gets their cars up to where they are supposed to be. They all come down the pike and I treat them all the same. I don't give a damn what kind of car the man has."
Fox, angry at being turned away, argued, "If they wanted to go by the books so close, they would not allow a single one of those factory Fords to race." After qualifying had closed, Richard Howard and A.C. Goines of Charlotte Motor Speedway met behind closed doors with Bill France. At that meeting, it was decided that Yarbrough would be allowed to start the race even though he had not made a qualification attempt. He started 44th in the World 600, ahead of three other drivers who had qualified but failed to earn a starting berth.
The other Chevrolets started 13th, 17th and 19th. "I hope and pray the Chevys run well," said Ford driver Fred Lorenzen. "They mean so much to NASCAR racing right now." None of the Chevrolets led the World 600. Yarbrough made a crowd-pleasing charge from the rear of the field into the Top 10, but engine problems kayoed him after 309 laps. Paschal and Baker also fell out with blown engines. Setzer finished sixth, 18 laps behind winner Lorenzen.
Bill France's last hope had fizzled. The Chevrolets, even with expert mechanic Ray Fox turning the wrenches, were not competitive. The Fords were sweeping the top spot in NASCAR and the Plymouths and Dodges reigned supreme in USAC. The Chevrolets were not competitive with either sanctioning body. Les Richter, General Manager of Riverside International Raceway, had watched the proceedings with a close eye. In the late spring, he threw a gauntlet. "First, the auto moguls of Daytona Beach and Indianapolis should get together and cut out this bickering," said Richter. "The United States Auto Club has the Indy Car image and the Daytona Beach people are the championship form of stock car racing. There is friction between them. But if they bury the hatchet, they could have mutual benefits."
A few days after the World 600, Bill France met with USAC's Henry Banks in New York. There they resolved their long standing differences and adopted similar rules for their stock car racing divisions. The closer the specifications were in NASCAR and USAC, the less vulnerable they would be to the whims of the auto industry. The rule changes, announced on June 21 were:
1. A minimum weight limit of 9.36 pounds per cubic inch displacement for a car ready to run with a full load of fuel, oil and water (i.e., a 427 c.i. car must weigh 3,996.7 pounds).
2. The HEMI engine will be permitted on NASCAR tracks of over one mile in the Plymouth Fury, the Dodge 880 and Dodge Polara.
3. The HEMI engine will be permitted in the Plymouth Belvedere and Dodge Coronet on all USAC tracks and on NASCAR tracks of one mile or less and road courses.
Favorable reaction was heard from the auto makers. Robert M. Rodger, Special Car Manager for Chrysler, said, "We regard the recent agreement by NASCAR and USAC as commendable and we congratulate them. However, no HEMI powered '65 Fury or Polara has ever been built in production nor have such cars received design, tooling or testing programs to make them suitable for safe high speeds of NASCAR superspeedways. For these reasons, Chrysler Corporation does not plan to enter factory supported Furys or Polaras in these events."
Leo C. Beebe of Ford commented, "we have always encouraged NASCAR and USAC to provide similar specifications. We are encouraged." The second half of the 1965 NASCAR Grand National season got underway at Daytona for the annual Firecracker 400. Although Chrysler's head men said it was "impossible" to fit a HEMI engine in a Plymouth Fury, Buck Baker did it. He bolted a HEMI engine in the Plymouth that Bill France had bought him back in the winter and put son Buddy in it. Young Baker did a masterful job--finishing second to A.J. Foyt. None of the factory supported Chrysler cars entered the race.
It wasn't until July 25 at Bristol that the Chrysler factory cars were back in force. For the remainder of the year, they entered 18 short track races and won six of them; Petty won four times and Pearson twice. While the NASCAR-USAC agreement was a step in the right direction, the superspeedway promoters still were mired in the dilemma of an all Ford show. They were faced with the perplexity that the race fans just might save their spending dollars and attend the short tracks. Bill France had changed the rules, but Chrysler wasn't biting on the big tracks.
On Saturday July 31, 1965, Bill France was in Atlanta to keep an eye on the USAC Indy Car proceedings at Atlanta International Raceway. Nelson Weaver, President of the track, had said publicly that he might not sign with NASCAR in 1966. Weaver had booked an Indy Car event at his facility. Interestingly, there were a number of other gentlemen in Atlanta. Bob Colvin of Darlington Raceway and A.C. Goines and Richard Howard of Charlotte Motor Speedway were also in town. So was Bill France, Jr. and Pat Purcell of NASCAR.
Something was cooking. The six men met in downtown Atlanta. At the meeting, Colvin, Goines and Howard convinced Big Bill that only one measure could be taken this late in the year to salvage most of the ill feelings. The fans had been unhappy; so were the promoters and track officials. There was an immensely popular man who had been tucked safely away in suspension for four years--Curtis Turner. And he just might be the savior of 1965.
The meeting was electric and tense. Turner was still a sore spot with Bill France. In 1961, Turner had led the Federation of Professional Athletes, an organization affiliated with the Teamsters Union. France emerged victorious in the dispute. Turner and Tim Flock lost all driving rights within the boundaries of the NASCAR sanction. A couple hundred miles up the road, Concord Speedway was hosting a 100-mile stock car race sanctioned by Grand American Racing Association, a fledgling operation who had perhaps the biggest drawing card in the South--Curtis Morton Turner.
Turner was in the infield of the half mile dirt track a few hours before race time--relaxing in his air-conditioned, telephone-equipped Lincoln Continental. The phone rang and Colvin delivered the message that Turner had been hoping to hear for four years. Purcell spoke briefly with Turner, assuring him that he had been reinstated by NASCAR. Turner packed away his helmet and loaded up the Continental. "Let's get out of here," he said to his companions. "This is not a NASCAR track and from now on, I'm legal."
France issued an official statement from Atlanta. "We feel that Curtis Turner has paid the penalty for his activities by sitting out four years of NASCAR racing," said France. "We welcome him back." "I feel like a man who just got out of jail," said Turner. Turner felt Ford's welcome mat would be out for him. However, Ford said there would not be room for a one team expansion for the remainder of 1965. Talks with John Holman and Ford's John Cowley didn't generate a ride. "They think I'm too old," Turner said dejectedly. "They think I'm washed up."
With no Ford ride available, Turner went looking elsewhere. With the help of Joe Littlejohn, promoter at Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg, SC, Turner was seated in the Petty Engineering Plymouth for a 100-miler on August 14. Turner was one of the quickest in pre-race practice sessions. The wall-to-wall crowd of 8,000 cheered their approval.
As qualifying got underway, Turner was one of the favorites for the pole. As he whipped off the fourth turn to take the green flag, the throng rose to their feet. Going into the first turn, the rear end broke loose on the Plymouth and smashed the wall - rear end first. He was out for the evening. It was a tremendous disappointment for the fans--and Turner.
Turner's next effort was at Darlington, where he was slated to drive a Plymouth owned by Sam Fletcher. The car had run poorly twice at Daytona and had been parked ever since. Turner started eighth but couldn't keep up with the leading Fords. He retired on lap 51 with wheel bearing failure. After Turner departed, he was greeted by Ford's Jacque Passino and John Cowley. There they informed Turner that a Wood Brothers Ford would be at his disposal for the remaining big races in 1965. Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Charlotte and the inaugural event at Rockingham were on the schedule.
For two races, Turner drove a back-up Junior Johnson Ford. He qualified second at Hickory, but fell out after just 22 laps with overheating problems. He started fourth at Richmond, but once again overheating troubles put him out early. Turner crashed with Bobby Isaac in the early going at Martinsville, then finished fifth at North Wilkesboro.
In the National 400 at Charlotte, Turner led for 13 laps and eventually finished third behind Fred Lorenzen and Dick Hutcherson. He had been engaged in a monumental struggle in the late stages. With just over a lap to go, Turner got caught in a squeeze with A.J. Foyt and spun out. The unveiling of the North Carolina Motor Speedway at Rockingham had a full field of cars. The Chrysler factory cars were back in force, along with all the strong Ford teams. Turner started sixth on the grid and scrambled to victory. He led 239 of the 500 laps. The 41 year-old veteran passed upstart Cale Yarborough with 27 laps to go and picked up first place money of $13,090. "There's no question about it," said Cale, "he can still drive a race car. He proved that out there today."
NASCAR Grand National racing, which suffered dearly in 1965, ended the year on a high note. Two other important developments came in 1965. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. came out with a new tire--the Goodyear Lifesaver Inner Tire. "We want a tire for race cars that will insure the driver of some measure of control if he blows a tire," said Goodyear Racing Division Field Manager Chuck Blanchard. "This new tire is not the answer to a dream, but it does have many distinct advantages." And that rubber lined fuel tank which NASCAR was studying closely, became mandatory within a year.
The Firestone fuel cell was designed to cut down on fires in accidents where fuel tanks were split. "I think you should always be interested in new things," said Harvey S. Firestone, company President. "For instance, we're always interested in the safety of our race drivers. We have set up a special research department now to develop an indestructible gas tank for race cars. There is no profit in this but we're sincerely interested in giving more protection to our good friends so we don't lose fellows like Fireball Roberts and Eddie Sachs."
During the 1965 season, Ford set a record which may never be approached. Cars with the Ford nameplate won 32 consecutive Grand National races from February 12 through July 25. For the year, they won 48 out of the 55 races.
Photo credits from top: All CMS