The 1968 Season
Ford Motor Co. Flexes Muscles--NASCAR, MIS Ink Multi-Year Pact
By Greg Fielden
|John Holman, Ford's point man in the NASCAR world, helped propel the auto manufacturer back into racing prominence in 1968.|
Ford Motor Company took it on the chin during the 1967 NASCAR Grand National season. Although their talented teams and drivers won half of the ten superspeedway events, it was Richard Petty and Plymouth who grabbed virtually all the headlines. An imposing 10 race victory string, 27 wins for the year and his second championship in three full seasons had made Petty the darling of the Stock car racing world. The Ford squad was able to handle most of the other factory backed Chrysler teams, but they had run into a roadblock when it came to the Level Cross gang. "The Pettys are two years ahead of all the other Chrysler teams," reflected Dodge driver Buddy Baker. "And they are one year ahead of the Fords."
Ford entered the 1968 season determined to regain their position as top dog on NASCAR's racing circuit by sending at least one, and perhaps two teams after the championship. Ford had not previously sent their factory-backed teams into the small track events, thinking that races of 250 miles or more were the ones that got the most publicity and would therefore return them greater exposure for their money. Then, the rampaging Petty began winning superspeedway races as well as 250-milers on short tracks. His smashing 27 victories put Ford in a bad light. And Ford's top brass didn't want a repeat of that situation.
Dick Hutcherson, one of Ford's top drivers from 1965-1967, was ushered into retirement at the close of the '67 campaign. His new assignment was to head David Pearson's Holman-Moody effort to crowd Petty's quest for a third title. The immediately successful Fred Lorenzen-Bobby Allison combo shifted over to Bondy Long's outfit in Camden, SC. Their deal was to run all the races through the March 31st Atlanta 500 (the first seven races). At that time Ford would evaluate their position in the point standings. If Allison was ranking high, there would be a good chance he would get the green light to run all the races--something Allison had always wanted to do.
"I just hope to be able to run all the races," said Allison. "I want to go after the Grand National championship. Maybe we can do well enough so that Ford sends us to every race. I don't want to run just some of the races." Cale Yarborough, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Donnie Allison and a host of USACers in selected major events would make up the rest of the big-moneyed Ford team.
Chrysler, too, was busy preparing for the 1968 season. Joining Petty in all the events would be the K&K Insurance Dodge team owned by Nord Krauskopf, directed by Harry Hyde and driven by Bobby Isaac. "We've been a shoestring independent for two years now," said Hyde. "Now we're going to have some factory help, and we'll have a chance to get our operation in high gear. Nord told me when we started (in 1966) that this was a three year project. The first year would be filled with mistakes. The second year we would devote our effort to making corrections. And the third year we would be set up for winning.
"Bobby is a better driver than we've had the car prepared for," added Hyde. "He can drive a lot harder when we make it feel right for him. We'll be able to do that this year." Isaac would make a run for the title for the first time in his career. "I think we've got a good chance to win some races," he said. "Don't count us out of the championship, either." Perennial independent contender James Hylton would be getting small packages from Dodge. "We like the way James operates," said Ronney Householder, head of Chrysler's racing effort. "No more stroking for me," said a happy Hylton. "Now I can really race."
|Bobby Allison began 1968 in a Bondy-Long Ford but quit when their limited schedule didn't offer him the opportunity to run for the point championship.|
Plymouth driver Jim Paschal got the ax from Chrysler, who wanted young, aggressive drivers who were willing to push the button and run up front. Paschal had just come off one of his most productive seasons--winning four Grand National events including the World 600 at Charlotte. Bill Ellis, crew chief for the Friedkin Enterprises team which the 41 year-old High Point, NC veteran had driven for, thought Chrysler's move was surprising. "I thought we did extremely well last year for what was basically an independent team," said Ellis. "Paschal is one of the most consistent race drivers I've ever seen. And he was great to work with. I guess factory officials wanted to go with younger drivers. They want young bucks who are eager to run up front. That wasn't Jim's style. He could run with anybody when it was necessary, but he didn't punish the equipment."
Although Charlie Glotzbach was supposed to be headed to the Friedkin Enterprises team, Jerry Grant, a USAC driver out of California, filled Paschal's seat. Glotzbach shifted over to the Cotton Owens Dodge when Chrysler was unsuccessful in luring Donnie Allison off the Ford team. Darel Dieringer, 41, joined the Mario Rossi Plymouth team and planned to compete in major events.
Although Chrysler spoke in terms of hiring young drivers, Dieringer and Grant were both over 40. Isaac was 35. Ray Nichels Engineering, principle distributor of Chrysler racing parts, had announced that he might not field a car on the NASCAR trail in 1968. That might have left veteran Paul Goldsmith off the tour. However, just before the 1968 Grand National season started, Nichels and Goldsmith announced the acquisition of a pair of sponsors--Frosty Morn Meats and Valleydale Packers. The sponsorship enabled the venerable team to remain intact.
Junior Johnson, one of Ford's leading team owners, had only won one Grand National race in 1966 and 1967. LeeRoy Yarbrough was lined up to drive his car, and Johnson was happy about that. "LeeRoy is a charger," said Johnson, "and I like that. These drivers who lay back and save their equipment while waiting for the front runners to make mistakes or go out with mechanical trouble aren't my idea of real race drivers. The only way to race is get out front and stay there. There's a lot of pressure on the guy running in the lead, and a lot of guys can't take the pressure."
Across the FoMoCo hall, Lorenzen--always noted as being a thinker who enjoyed tremendous success as a driver--stood up and offered another view point. "It is the smart driver who wins races," insisted Lorenzen. "Look at Bobby Allison. He's a fine driver and he's smart. He'll be a winner."
While Ford and Chrysler were stepping up their involvement in racing, General Motors still showed no movement [toward] joining in the fun. Edward M. Cole, President of General Motors, admitted he was a reluctant party to the corporation's anti-racing policies. Cole indicated that General Motors would stay out of racing because it feared provoking federal safety standards. "It is a very difficult position, the interest the government has in safety," he said. "I don't know whether you can equate safety and racing together in the same project."
As the Ford teams began to shake down their new products at Daytona in February, speeds were spiraling upwards at an alarming rate. The new fastback Ford Torinos and Mercury Montegos were slicing through the wind--and producing speeds near 190 mph. "I blinked a bit and almost lost it," said Cale Yarborough, who was seated in the Wood Brothers Mercury. "Now I get all my blinking done on the straightaways so I can keep my eyes wide open through the turns."
Mario Andretti's Ford cut loose in a long slide in one of the opening days of practice. His Holman-Moody Ford slid up the banking and struck the retaining wall. For the Nazareth, PA star, it was the latest in a series of mishaps in NASCAR events. "I don't think I like this so much anymore," muttered Andretti. "It's not fun." Yarborough won the pole for the Daytona 500 with a speed of 189.222 mph, leading a virtual sweep for the fast Fords. Only Petty's Plymouth blocked a top seven sweep for the Ford products. Yarborough's electrifying time shattered the old record of 180.813 set by Curtis Turner in 1967 in a Smokey Yunick Chevrolet.
|LeeRoy Yarbrough (above) battled Cale Yarborough all season, scoring two wins for Ford in 1968.|
Yunick was back at Daytona in 1968 with Gordon Johncock listed as driver of a black and gold Chevelle. But the car was late in arriving and never made it through inspection. Acting Technical Director Bill Gazaway gave Yunick a list of nine items that needed surgical work. They were:
The frames did not conform to the general appearance of frames on other Chevelles.
Rocker panels cut away to make room for exhaust pipe clearance. Not allowed.
Floor area not in standard position. Floor being elevated made room for a higher driveshaft tunnel.
A-frames not properly located.
Fuel cell vent line not properly located.
Door handles not standard. Roll bar installation interferes with inner handles and non-standard handles do not protrude from car, thus offering less drag.
Screw jack covers are behind rear window allowing weight adjustments to be made during pit stops without opening trunk.
Front tread width does not conform to rules.
Doors not removable. Must be able to be removed by inspectors.
During the lengthy tear-down, Gazaway's inspectors had disassembled much of Yunick's car. Among other things, the fuel tank had been drained and removed from the car in order to measure its contents. Yunick studied the hand-written 9-item list without emotion. After a few moments, he turned and said, "Better make that 10 violations." At which point the master mechanic climbed into his car and--without a fuel tank--drove off.
Yarborough went on to lead the Fords to an impressive triumph in the Daytona 500. Only one Chrysler product finished in the top five. Cale nosed out LeeRoy Yarbrough in the exciting finish--after LeeRoy had mistakenly made a pit stop late in the race. He had misread a message from Junior Johnson's pit board.
The 'Yarbs' had another private battle in the Atlanta 500. LeeRoy had made a late race pass on a restart, but he was immediately blackflagged by NASCAR for jumping the gun. Cale won again--and LeeRoy suffered another slow burn. Yarbrough's ill-luck continued at North Wilkesboro. While holding a commanding lead with five miles remaining, his engine blew.
Within weeks, Johnson changed his number from 26 to 98. Three years earlier, Johnson had traded 27 for 26 due to bad luck he experienced in his driving days. "If you add 13 and 13," Johnson reasoned, "it makes 26. And we've been having double tough luck this season. When you aren't winning you have to make changes. Since everybody is doing a good job, it wouldn't make sense to fire anybody. So we changed the number."
Yarbrough's luck took a turn for the better. He won the Northern 300 at Trenton, NJ, and he won the Dixie 500 at Atlanta International Raceway. When Cale and LeeRoy weren't pocketing the big dollars on the superspeedways, David Pearson was racking up on the short tracks. During a 13 race span in the early spring, Pearson's Holman-Moody Ford had won seven of them.
Ford had won 12 of the first 17 Grand National races in 1968, including all on the superspeedways and road courses. Ford's power play had produced immediate results. The Chrysler teams found themselves lagging behind. "Chrysler people have got to stop singing songs (in reference to musical commercials) and start designing some parts that will get the job done," said Paul Goldsmith.
"You can't go racing when you're only half ready," said Plymouth team manager and crewchief Bill Ellis. "I can't get parts from Chrysler on time. Some owners can get parts when they need them; others can't." Even Lee Petty had something to say. "Ford is spending 10 times as much money as we (Chrysler) are, and they are winning races."
Another Chrysler team owner remarked, "Ford is improving engines and building new ones and better ones all the time. We're still working with the same stuff we had in 1964. When you talk with somebody at Chrysler about this situation, there seems to be an attitude of 'we don't need you; you need us.' It looks like a lean year for the Chrysler products."
Ford Motor Co. had done extensive engine research the past several months. One of the major changes in Ford's procedure was to create an engine department for each and every factory backed team. That had been different in 1967. Junior Johnson said Ford "blew 27 races last year." The engines would arrive at the track, Johnson pointed out, "and we would pick out the ones we wanted," Johnson said. "The engines were all built at Holman-Moody, supposedly with engineers overseeing the operation. Our engines were as fast as Chryslers, but they didn't last.
"Ford was concerned about it too," Johnson continued. "Ford is strong on performance and if something is wrong they want to know about it and correct it. That is why they spend money on competitive performance tests." Bobby Allison led the point standings after the Daytona 500. In the following event, the Southeastern 500 at Bristol, he blew an engine early and wound up last. He fell 23 points behind Richard Petty in the point standings. Ford had told Long to keep his car at home the following week. Allison was not going to be able to go for the point championship. "They pulled me out before we got to Atlanta," said Allison. "We were told that if we were doing good in the points as of Atlanta, we'd probably get to run them all. It didn't work out that way."
Allison still stood fifth in the point standings after the Atlanta 500--even though he had been forced to miss two races. Shortly after that, Lorenzen stopped showing up at the races. The crewchief had been on a leave of absence. In July, Lorenzen left the Long team. "Freddy's health has gone from bad to worse," said car owner Long in a prepared statement. "He just can't take it any longer."
Inside reports indicated that Ford released Lorenzen. And Lorenzen didn't admit to having any more problems with his ulcers. "My health is good," he said. "No more stomach problems. I'm not associated with Ford any more. I'm lonely. I don't know what to do with my time. I'd like to race again."
Before Lorenzen's departure, Allison had quit the operation. "I accepted this ride all along with the understanding that I would run all the races," said Allison. "Then I hear it's down to 22 races. Now it's down to 15. I want to race more than 15 times a year." Allison dusted off his J.D. Bracken-owned Chevrolet and went racing. He finished second in the Carolina 500 at Rockingham, and won a 300-lapper on the Islip, NY small oval. When he first brought the Chevy to the tracks, Allison mentioned a "silent sponsor," but he did not elaborate.
|After 10 years racing Plymouths, Richard Petty (#43) switched to Ford in '69. The earth stood still.|
The rumor mill said that a St. Louis Chevrolet dealership was going to pay the bills--and then be reimbursed entirely by General Motors. Smokey Yunick admitted that behind the scenes pressures were placed on him to put one of his engines in the Allison car. Yunick said one of the GM executives had said, "It would be appreciated if you can break an engine loose for Bobby." The Allison team never got one of Smokey's beefed up motors. By autumn, he had given up on the Chevrolet. "It has become impossible to field a competitive car with the Chevrolet," said Allison. "We've reached the point where we can't hope for better than fourth or fifth, and that is relying on others to fall out. That's not my kind of racing."
With that statement, Allison accepted an offer to finish out the season in Friedkin Enterprises Plymouths. Jerry Grant had been long gone. Modified and Sportsman hero Ray Hendrick drove the car in a four events; and ol' pro Curtis Turner drove the car in six races. Chrysler cars won only three of 10 superspeedway events in 1968. Cale Yarborough won four in his Mercury. LeeRoy Yarbrough, Donnie Allison and David Pearson won one each. Pearson and Petty each won 16 Grand National events in the 49-race season. Isaac won three times, all on short tracks.
But the point battle was among the closest ever. Pearson and Isaac battled nip and tuck for the championship, which Pearson wound up winning by 126 points. While the action was hot and heavy on the track, some interesting things were going on elsewhere. On May 23, 1968, ground breaking ceremonies for an elaborate speedway were taking place in Talladega, AL. Dr. James L. Hardwick, Mayor of Talladega, turned the first spade of dirt for the construction of the new Alabama International Motor Speedway. Bill France was going to build a track--a little bit bigger and a little bit faster than his Daytona International Speedway. Scheduled opening of the $5 million project was September of 1969.
There was a facility in Michigan which had already been built. Lawrence LoPatin (pronounced Lo-Pay-tin, rhymes with go scatin') formed a corporation, sold $3-million worth of public stock and got the Michigan International Speedway off and running.
LoPatin, whose self-description was "I'm a fat slob who knows how to put pieces together," was not an auto racing enthusiast. A Detroit industrialist, LoPatin saw a chance to make millions in the auto racing business. "I'm profit-oriented," he once said. "Not just dealing in fun and games." Within a few months, he was "up to my eyeballs" in the sport, and admitted that he had grown to like auto racing. His plan was to form American Raceways, Inc. and build upwards of a dozen major racing facilities all across the nation.
"Prior to my total involvement to automobile racing, my impressions of the sport were that it was highly fragmented in terms of facility ownership, extremely complex in terms of the racing establishment, and sadly lacking in approach from the fans point of view -- with the exception of Daytona International Speedway." said LoPatin. "My first prophesy regarding the super tracks, therefore, is that they will be designed, developed and constructed with the idea of accommodating, attracting and servicing the fans."
Within a year, he had owned 47 percent of Riverside International Raceway; merged with Atlanta International Raceway in which he got 19 percent of the stock with an option to buy an additional 52 percent; had begun construction on Texas International Speedway in College Station, TX; and had plans for opening a giant complex in New Jersey. LoPatin's Michigan track opened on October 13, 1968. The first race was a 250-mile USAC Indy Car race. A crowd of 55,000 turned out for the show, and he turned a profit of $94,523 in his first outing.
USAC Competition Director Henry Banks was angered when he found out that the race took in $500,000 in receipts, yet LoPatin only paid a purse of $75,000. LoPatin had been seeking a long-term contract with USAC and Banks--a multi year deal which was unheard of in auto racing. The 42 year-old LoPatin planned to develop what he called 'franchise racing.'
"Our organization will have 20-25 major races by 1971," he promised. "There are just so many Sundays in a year, so securing dates is most important. Long range contracts with sanctioning bodies will enable us to operate a more stable program. Dates are a very precious commodity in the racing industry," added LoPatin. "I want all the dates I can get."
USAC's Banks was reluctant to jump into a long term contract with someone he didn't fully understand. Bill France just happened to be at Michigan International Speedway on October 13 during the inaugural event. France wanted to check this LoPatin guy out for himself. Within 48 hours, the two made a joint announcement: Michigan International Speedway and NASCAR had signed a 10 year contract.
"We waited for months for USAC to move on dates," declared LoPatin. "Then Bill France comes to our opening race on October 13. He said he wanted to see me about some things. The first thing Monday morning he was on my doorstep. When he left Tuesday afternoon, we had fashioned one of the longest deals in racing history--two major NASCAR late model Stock car races a year for 10 years."
The contract also stated that LoPatin's Texas track would be the guaranteed site for the 1969 Grand National finale. LoPatin had gotten just what he wanted--a long term deal with a major sanctioning body.
The France-LoPatin pact was a bombshell--but not as earth shattering as the one which came out of Randleman, NC on Monday, November 25, 1968. Upon completion of the 1968 NASCAR season, Petty said he was switching to Ford after 10 years with Plymouth. "Ford has a vast storehouse of knowledge," said Petty. "Much more than Chrysler has. "The name of the game is money. If I could get a better deal, I'd take it. Even if it was working in a supermarket."
Ronney Householder, Director of Chrysler's racing efforts, said, "His leaving creates a big hole in our operation. The offer from Ford had to have been fantastic. I really didn't think Ford could afford Petty." The 31-year-old Petty said his contract with Ford was not the deciding factor. "My relationship with Ford is on a year-to-year basis," he said. "I won't be getting much more money from Ford than I was getting with Chrysler, but I honestly feel like the potential for winning more money is much, much greater with Ford.
"I want to run just as many races as I possibly can," added Petty. "But more importantly, I want to win as many races as I can. I feel like running a Ford will give me that opportunity."
Photo credits from top: NCMS, NCMS, NCMS, CMS