The 1970 Season
American Raceways Empire Crumbles and the New Carburetor Plate
By Greg Fielden
|Buddy Baker broke the 200 mph barrier at Talladega Superspeedway on March 24, 1970.|
Shortly after the infamous boycott of the inaugural Talladega 500 by the Professional Drivers Association, Larry LoPatin publicly criticized NASCAR President Bill France. "This may be the end of an era," barked LoPatin, a Detroit financier who was elbowing his way into prominence as head of the multi speedway franchise American Raceways, Inc. "You can't run an organization without order. The Ford Tiny Lund drove at Talladega was illegal. The GT (Grand Touring) cars aren't eligible in Grand National racing. Would the same decision have been made if the NASCAR President was not the president of the track?"
LoPatin's American Raceways operated four tracks--Michigan International Speedway, Atlanta International Raceway, Riverside International Raceway and Texas International Speedway. Work was underway on a fifth plant in New Jersey. Within six weeks after the Talladega boycott, LoPatin removed Les Richter from his Executive Vice President position at ARI. Richter, a former All-Pro linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams, had openly sided with France and the drivers in separate areas during the dispute at Talladega. His services at ARI were terminated on October 29, 1969. "As a promoter," said LoPatin, "I felt he was off base in both areas. He involved himself in areas that were not his responsibility."
Richter's resignation, under pressure, was a signal that the long-predicted confrontation between Stock car racing's established impresario France and the Johnny-come-lately LoPatin, was about to surface. "It is unfortunate that my association with American Raceways has not been a happy one," remarked Richter. "But there was simply a conflict of objectives over the future of auto racing in the country and ARI's involvement in it."
In no time, France removed the December 7, 1969 season-ending Texas 500 from the Grand National schedule. NASCAR felt the $75,000 total purse posted by American Raceways, Inc. was far too low for a 500-miler on a two-mile superspeedway. Although no general rules regulated purses on big tracks, France said LoPatin would have to put up $100,000 in order to secure the event. "The Texas 500 is temporarily off the Grand National schedule until this difference is resolved," read NASCAR's official statement.
LoPatin reluctantly agreed to post awards of $93,150 for the event. With the contingency awards from accessory firms, the total purse was $100,000. Three days of torrential rains just before the Texas 500 caused a major headache for track officials. The infield was virtually under water, and it had to be closed to the public. No vehicles other than emergency trucks were allowed in. A slim crowd of 23,500, all of them sitting in the main grandstand, turned out for the inaugural event. It was the fourth time in 1969 that a race staged by American Raceways, Inc. had been hit hard by foul weather. The Motor Trend 500 at Riverside had been rained out twice and finally staged before 46,300 spectators. It was a far cry from the 73,000 who attended the event in 1968.
The Dixie 500 at Atlanta was delayed a week by rain and finally presented under a dark, gray sky. Only 27,300 showed up. The Yankee 600 at Michigan was called off after 330 miles. Despite the poor weather, the attendance figure released by the Speedway was 52,237. LoPatin was being gripped by severe money problems. "We cannot stand another year like we experienced in 1969," admitted LoPatin. The first face-to-face meeting between LoPatin and France following the Talladega boycott was at the annual Ford Motorsports Banquet at Dearborn in late November. France and LoPatin were seen in a verbal, finger-pointing episode during a break in the ceremonies. France stormed out of the gala affair as dinner was being served. He was not present for the awards presentation which followed.
On December 17, 1969, NASCAR signed a pact with ABC-Sports. The contract called for the American Broadcasting Co. to televise nine races in 1970--five of them live--with options for 26 more in 1971 and 1972. Stipulations of the $1,365,000 contract were that payments totaling $275,000 would be divided between the tracks hosting the televised event, the drivers, and a special fund to some of the tracks holding "major" events which were not televised. A notable exception were all of the events operated by American Raceways. No races were slated to be televised at any ARI facility--and more importantly, they would not share in the money set aside to the other tracks.
Richard Howard, Chairman of the NASCAR Television Committee and ABC-Sports President Roone Arledge made the joint announcement. "This is certainly a major breakthrough for Stock car racing," said Howard. "The popularity of the sport has risen tremendously in the last few years and now people all over the country will be able to enjoy NASCAR racing. This is a very substantial agreement. It will benefit the sport in many ways." Arledge said that ABC-Sports was willing to gamble on Stock car racing. "Auto racing has been one of the mainstays of ABC's Wide World of Sports since the program debuted nine years ago," said Arledge. "It has continued to be one of the best rated shows. Viewer interests in the sport confirm our belief that the time is ripe for automobile racing's expansion on television. We are confident of the success of our new package."
|Richard Petty returned to Chrysler in 1970 and quickly resumed his winning ways, capturing 18 victories that season.|
Bill France said there could be drawbacks to NASCAR on the network airwaves. "The problem for us is to condense a four hour event into a one and one-half hour program," said France. "The first portion of a race will be taped and a half hour or so of the highlights will be shown. Then it will cut to live coverage." None of the races would be shown flag-to-flag, ABC said.
The same day the TV pact was signed, Richard Petty returned to Chrysler after a one year stint with Ford. "Guess you can say that we're headed back home," drawled Petty. "It'll be like rejoining family. The big reason is the new SuperBird (a virtual copy of the shark-nosed, high-winged Dodge Daytona, which debuted in late 1969). We feel Plymouth now has a car that will get the job done on the big tracks. Before, we felt like we were at a big disadvantage on the superspeedways. "We had a one year contract with Ford which was renewable," continued Petty. "We chose not to renew it. The deal we have with Chrysler calls for us to run two cars on the superspeedways and one car on all the smaller tracks. I will run the car on the short tracks and go for the point title."
Glenn E. White, general manager of the Chrysler-Plymouth Division, said his company was delighted to have Petty back in the fold. "Flags at over 3,400 dealer showrooms have been flying at half-staff since Petty left us a year ago," said White. "Now they are at full staff." As Petty was putting the final touches on the contract with Chrysler, France was finalizing an attack on his new nemesis, the Professional Drivers Association. He challenged them to sign an entry blank, which had a re-worked Good Faith to the Public Pledge. Rather than just pointing out the unwritten obligations the drivers had to the public, France spiced up the entry blanks with an ultimatum. And the first entry blank that went in the mail was for the Motor Trend 500 at Riverside, a la American Raceways.
The entry blank read: "In consideration of the approval and acceptance by NASCAR and Riverside International Raceway of this entry and entry fee for the 1970 Motor Trend 500, and in consideration of the promises made by Riverside International Raceway with respect to, among other things, awards and promotions, the undersigned car owner of the described car further agrees with NASCAR and Riverside International Raceway: (1)-to start the described car in the 1970 Motor Trend 500 and qualifying events provided the described car qualifies or the appropriate NASCAR officials assign it a starting position, and (2)-to utilize, if necessary, a substitute driver for the described car if the driver executing the entry blank is for any reason unable or unwilling to drive this car in the 1970 Motor Trend 500 and qualifying events without the consent of the NASCAR Competition Director."
|Pete Hamilton won the inaugural Talladega race in 1970, an event that saw him pit 14 times and use 28 tires.|
That meant that once the entry blank was signed, NASCAR had complete control of the race car until the event was over. If there was another boycott, NASCAR could appoint a person of its choice to drive the car in the race. Richard Petty, President of the PDA, Elmo Langley, Vice-President of the association, James Hylton and E.J. Trivette mailed in the entry blanks with the Good Faith to the Public Pledge scratched out. "France wants to keep control of 110 percent of racing," declared Petty, "and it can't be done. The sport has outgrown a one man operation."
"We disagree with the pledge," said Langley. "If this is binding, then NASCAR could put anyone in the car--even an unqualified driver. I'm not going to let anybody else drive my car if I can't." France stated the purpose behind the pledge. "NASCAR guarantees the money and the race," he said. "We have to guarantee the driver something. They should have to guarantee us something. We owe that much to the race promoter and to the fans who may purchase tickets months in advance. Somebody has to protect the public. Without the public, we have no sport." The altered entry forms were not accepted. They were sent back to the four drivers.
Petty and Chrysler conferred about the situation. "Chrysler's advice was to go ahead and sign the blank since no one had any sort of intention of not racing," said Petty. "So, that's what we did." It was a strategic victory for France. The unyielding position of France had been that he would not recognize or negotiate with the PDA. His contention was that the drivers are not employees of NASCAR and that there were no grounds for NASCAR to negotiate with a driver's union. France still held the PDA's motives in high suspicion--and he felt another boycott was entirely possible, particularly at his new Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega.
A series of tire tests were scheduled at Talladega throughout the winter months. In January, several of the tests were frozen out; temperatures were in the single digits. LeeRoy Yarbrough was able to turn a lap of 199.916 mph during a three day test in late February. On March 24, 1970, Buddy Baker went to Talladega to test Goodyear tires. He was driving a Chrysler- owned Dodge Daytona. On his 30th lap, Baker was clocked at 200.096 mph. After a 40 minute break, the Charlotte driver went back out and turned in a 200.336 mph lap. The very next time around, the electric timer caught him at 200.447 mph.
It was widely acclaimed as the first time a car had been driven past the 200 mph barrier on a closed course. "It's hard to explain exactly what your train of thought does in a situation like this," said Baker. "You have to completely divorce yourself of any other thoughts--you become part of the race car. It surprised me that a car running that fast could be as stable as ours was. I was in the bottom lane all the way around. "I have the satisfaction of knowing I'm the first to crack 200," he added. "Nobody can take that away from me."
There was no mention--from Baker or anybody else for that matter--of a testing session which took place six and a half years earlier on October 9, 1963 at Goodyear's test track in San Angelo, TX. A.J. Foyt took his Sheraton-Thompson Indy Car to the giant five-mile facility and was timed at 200.4 mph by an electric eye timing devise. It broke the existing record of 186.329 mph held by Jim McElreath.
Foyt and chief mechanic George Bignotti snipped off part of the plexiglass windshield in order to reduce wind drag. "That made a difference," said Foyt. "In earlier runs that morning, we were running only 191-192 mph. We cut the windshield down and hit 200." All of the Goodyear tests at Talladega in the early winter of 1970 seemed to indicate the tire problems had been licked. The turns had been repaved and every driver who tested had kind remarks about the new track. "I'm actually looking forward to running here in April," said Yarbrough.
The inaugural Alabama 500 was scheduled for Talladega on April 12. It also happened to be the first of the live presentations by ABC-Sports. Written at the bottom of the NASCAR-ABC pact was a guard against another boycott. It said that if fewer than 10 of the preceding year's top 20 NASCAR drivers failed to compete, ABC's payment would be substantially reduced.
Although the Professional Drivers Association had assured everyone there would be no boycott of this event, France wasn't taking any chances. On Saturday, April 11, 1970, France booked a 50-lap, 133-mile "qualifying" race for ARCA cars. The event would determine starting positions for a 500-mile ARCA event slated for the 2.66-mile oval on June 14. Just in case the PDA had anything up their sleeve, France wanted some additional cars on site which he could substitute at the last moment if he had to.
A relatively small audience of 36,000 dotted the massive grandstands for the first Alabama 500. It was unclear how many of those exchanged the Talladega 500 ticket stubs from the year before and were admitted free. It was also unclear how much effect the live television coverage had on the trackside attendance. ABC plugged into New York when the race was already half over. The highly competitive first half of the race was not aired. Few highlights were shown.
Goodyear introduced a new treadless tire, and there was a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety under the Goodyear tent. The lead changed hands five times in the first 10 laps. Buddy Baker averaged 195.030 mph through the opening 10 laps--an all-time record. Cale Yarborough, who started back in 21st after his Wood Brothers team lost three engines during qualifying, roared through the pack. He took the lead on lap 16. While leading, Cale was clocked at 199.060 mph in the 22nd lap. Before he had completed another lap, the right rear tire peeled off a strip of rubber down the middle of the tire. He pitted and got fresh rubber. Instructions from the Wood Brothers were to "slow down".
Charlie Glotzbach blew a tire--but he said it was caused by running over a can thrown onto the track by a spectator. Bobby Allison said his front windshield had been broken by a foreign object that came from the grandstand. Yarborough nearly "had my head taken off" when a beer bottle exploded against his front windshield as he motored down the backstretch."They ought to arrest that guy and give him a jail sentence to quit trying to kill people," Cale said angrily. "I'll tell you one thing, it wasn't a kid who did something like that. They've got more sense. It was some drunk."
In the late stages, Pete Hamilton, who was assigned to drive the back-up Petty Enterprises Plymouth SuperBird, picked up the lead when Baker pitted. Baker got back onto the track and was closing in on Hamilton when his left front tire ripped apart with 13 laps left. Large chunks of rubber severed the oil cooler, spraying hot oil onto the engine. The car became engulfed in flames.
Baker spun the car in front of the main grandstand. The flames blew out during the long slide. All of this was happening when ABC was in a commercial. A number of replays were shown when the network returned to the air. Hamilton went on to win the Alabama 500 at an average speed of 152.321 mph. He had made 14 pit stops and used 28 tires.
A week later, the Gwyn Staley Memorial was televised live from North Wilkesboro Speedway. There was only one lead change during the entire 400 lapper, and it occurred long before the ABC cameras picked up the action. Richard Petty led every lap shown on TV, and most of the time, he was better than a lap up on the field. The other three live televised races were the Rebel 400 at Darlington, Charlotte's World 600 and the Nashville 420. Richard Petty survived a nasty tumble at Darlington moments after ABC began it's live coverage. David Pearson went onto win by three laps.
Donnie Allison won the World 600 by two laps; and Bobby Isaac was two laps up on the field in the Nashville 420. All of the televised races events were runaways. Meanwhile, attendance figures at the American Raceways tracks were reaching new lows. The Atlanta 500, rained out once again, drew only 22,000 on Easter Sunday. The two races at Riverside had drawn 43,200 and 18,500 respectively. The turnout for the June 14 event at Riverside was the most embarrassing figure in the track's history.
The Motor State 400 at Michigan attracted 47,600--a respectable figure. LoPatin had said earlier that the Michigan event was a "make or break" race for his company. On June 21, 1970, the Lone Star 400 scheduled for Texas International Speedway was cancelled. It was publicly announced that the reason it was taken off the schedule was because of the Goodyear tire strike. Goodyear had not had time to conduct tests.
The next American Raceways, Inc. event was August 2 at Atlanta. But there were rumblings going on at ARI, and there was no money. The board of directors at Atlanta and Riverside had been trying to get LoPatin removed. The political maneuvers in the organization came to a head with the failure of American Raceways, Inc. to post the prize money for the August 2 Dixie 500, which ARI operated under a management contract that was tied to a loan agreement.
ARI had been unable to pay Investors Diversified Services a quarterly note of $100,000. LoPatin had wired Bill France with the message, "I might not be running things come Sunday (Aug. 2)." LoPatin had not posted ARI's $89,600 portion of the $103,000 purse. Four days before the Dixie 500 was scheduled to run, France removed it from the slate. NASCAR guaranteed that a purse would be paid in full. If for any reason the track operators failed to post the prize money, NASCAR would then have to pay it.
Richard Howard, General Manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, stepped in and posted the purse. "It would have been a black eye on the sport of NASCAR Stock car racing to have this major event cancelled," said Howard. "It was in the best interests of the sport to have the money posted. So I did it." The Dixie 500 went on schedule. On Friday, July 31, Larry LoPatin resigned as President of American Raceways, Inc. Leslie Share, Executive Vice-President, LoPatin's closest aide, and Leo Margolian, Operating Manager, resigned under pressure.
"Michigan had been our money maker," said LoPatin. "Unfortunately, the weather has contributed to our losing money at other tracks. I feel that we built speedways which were real competition tracks and not just high speed ovals. I feel our pluses in auto racing were far over our negatives. I know my concept was right. The question is was my personality right for it." Texas Real Estate developer Ben Parks was elected board chairman, and Les Richter president and chief operating manager.
As LoPatin fell from grace, Bernard Kahn, Sports Editor of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, offered another epitaph on LoPatin's tombstone: "His fall was long overdue. The Detroit promoter came in racing as a fast mouth looking for a fast buck." During the summer months additional Goodyear tire tests were conducted at Alabama International Motor Speedway. The weather conditions at Talladega had been ideal in April during the Alabama 500. Yet there had been a few blow-outs and several blistered tires during the race. The second annual Talladega 500 was scheduled for August 23--in the height of the sweltering Alabama summer. Less than a month before the race, David Pearson and Charlie Glotzbach had tested Goodyear tires at Talladega. During one of the opening segments, Glotzbach's Dodge had worn out two right side tires in just nine laps. Pearson had even greater problems. After just two and a half laps, both right side tires blew simultaneously as he sped into the third turn. The Ford lifted on two wheels and slid backwards into the wall. Miraculously, the car stayed upright and Pearson was not hurt. He was only going 192 mph at the time of the wreck. Speeds would be much greater in the qualifications and the race.
|Bobby Isaac broke Buddy Baker's speed record in late 1970, taking his Dodge Daytona to 201.104 mph at the Talladega Superspeedway.|
NASCAR issued a statement immediately after the tire test results. "Goodyear was using an experimental tire," they said. "Proven products aren't tested." Bill France didn't believe there would be a problem. "If Goodyear has the same tires they had when Buddy Baker ran 200 mph, then there won't be any problems," said Big Bill.
Car owners Junior Johnson and Banjo Matthews said they were not going to enter the Talladega 500. "I have three cars in my shop," said Johnson. "If I went to Talladega, I'd probably need all three." Neither Johnson nor Matthews entered their Fords. They had not entered the April 16 Alabama 500 either. Two of the most respected car builders had never run a lap in competition at Talladega. Goodyear's Dick Ralstin acknowledged that there were problems. "The extra 10 mph (above speeds at Daytona) is the only factor we never have had before," he said. "It is critical. We are in a new era--and it is experimental. This time we've got the heat to deal with."
After his wreck, Pearson delivered an outcry. "Something's got to be done before we race down there again," said the three-time Grand National champion. "The tire people have done a lot for racing and in time, I'm sure they'll whip this problem, too. But until they do, something's got to be done. If there's not a suitable tire or something isn't done to cut the speeds, I'm going to ask John Holman (co-owner of his car) to withdraw our entry." Goodyear came back for more tests a few weeks later. "There is a problem," admitted Ralstin. "If there wasn't, we wouldn't be going back to conduct further tests."
Glotzbach whipped his Dodge Daytona around the track at a speed of 198 mph on a relatively cool August afternoon. No problems were reported. The tests were jointly conducted by Goodyear and Dow Chemical Co. Dow, Glotzbach's sponsor, was testing engine coolants and anti-freeze. Bobby Isaac and Bobby Allison had also conducted tire tests. The two veteran drivers along with Pearson suggested some sort of carburetor restrictor plate. Mario Rossi, Allison's car owner, agreed. "Horsepower is directly associated with the size of the carburetor," said Rossi. We can figure out almost to the mile per hour how fast we'll run if they would make us use a smaller carburetor."
On Saturday August 8, NASCAR announced that beginning with the Yankee 400 at Michigan International Speedway (August 16), all Grand National cars would be required to use a plate between the carburetor and intake manifold with a maximum 1-1/4 inch venturi opening. Prior to these changes, the venturi opening on the single four barrel carburetor allowed a maximum 1-11/16 inches. NASCAR's Lin Kuchler and Bill Gazaway conferred with drivers, mechanics and manufacturer representatives for two weeks before announcing the changes.
"Drivers and car owners have told us that they have been on the ragged edge at most of the races this year and have had trouble keeping their equipment together," said Kuchler. "These changes should provide closer competition." Cotton Owens, owner of the Dodge driven by Buddy Baker, spoke favorably about the new rules. "The change is the best thing that has happened to racing in a long time. Those guys have been over the ragged edge. This new ruling will give them a margin of safety."
Top speeds at Michigan during the Yankee 400 were in the 157 mph range--a drop of over 5 mph from the highest speeds recorded in the Motor State 400 two months earlier. Only five cars suffered engine failure--one-third the number in the June race. Speeds dropped even more at Talladega. Bobby Isaac had established the all-time NASCAR qualifying record of 199.658 mph for the April 12 Alabama 500. Isaac was again on the pole for the Talladega 500, but his speed was 186.834 mph--a drop of 13 mph. There were two fewer engine failures in the August event.
The Professional Drivers Association released a written statement that it supported NASCAR's latest rules. Back in May, the PDA hired L&M Enterprises--a corporation formed by Carolina sports writer Leonard Laye and pro basketball star Larry Miller--to handle the managerial duties. "We don't have the time and facilities needed," said Petty. "We are at an important stage in the progress of the PDA. We haven't had regular meetings and haven't kept things up."
Laye remarked, "The first thing we want is recognition. The first objective is to get through to Bill France--but it's a long range objective." It was in 1970 that the Automobile Research Corp. first came on the scene. Newspaper publisher Hank Schoolfield said, "It has a lot to do with racing and not so much to do with research." By any name, the company was NASCAR President France's answer to the political threat of another driver boycott--an arrangement to chop off some of the potential boycotting powers.
The Automobile Research Corp. set up a plan to pay each of the "top Grand National drivers", numbering from 20-25, $500 each to drive in selected superspeedway events. The contract stipulated that the cars must compete in at least half of each race unless a serious mechanical problem takes them out. The five tracks covered under the contract were Darlington, Talladega, Charlotte, Rockingham and Daytona. Twenty-two drivers signed up and guaranteed their participation in each of those 10 superspeedway events.
"I don't think this is intended to help the PDA," said Petty. There was not much noise heard from the PDA the rest of the year. On December 28, 1970, L. Mendel Rivers, NASCAR's National Commissioner, passed away in Birmingham, AL. He was 65.
Rivers, a veteran United States Congressman, was chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services. Rivers accepted the post as NASCAR Commissioner on July 15, 1969, and was the third man to serve in that capacity. He followed Harley Earl, a retired General Motors vice president, and Cannonball Baker, a legendary racing figure. Near the end of the year, Chrysler announced that it was cutting back its racing effort. For 1971, they would only sponsor Petty Enterprises. Richard Petty would race a factory Plymouth and Buddy Baker would move from Cotton Owens' outfit to a Petty Dodge.
Left out of the picture was the K&K Insurance team and driver Bobby Isaac, who won the 1970 Grand National championship. Also cut off was Bobby Allison, who finished second in the point race. Pete Hamilton, who won three superspeedway races for Petty Enterprises in 1970, got the ax. "We would like to keep Pete," said Petty. "But the word came from Chrysler.
Part of the bargain was that all of Chrysler's racing equipment would be moved from Nichels Engineering in Highland, IN to the Petty establishment in Level Cross, NC. The announcement by Chrysler didn't set too well with Nord Krauskopf, owner of the K&K Insurance Co. He sent his team, headed by Harry Hyde and Isaac, to Talladega on November 24. Order of the day was to top the all-time closed course record of 200.447 mph which Baker set in March.
Temperatures were in the 'teens the night before. Winds were howling up to 18 mph, and the mercury never got above 36 degrees. Nevertheless, Isaac took his Dodge Daytona onto the high banks, chasing after the elusive world record. Isaac wheeled his high-winged Dodge Daytona 24 times around the Alabama International Speedway. In the 22nd lap, he clocked in at 201.104 mph. Four of his laps were faster than Baker's former record. "Under the existing weather conditions," said Isaac, "I think it was about as fast as any human could drive a machine. Setting this record is the pinnacle of my career."
Hyde, who said team owner Krauskopf wanted the record because Chrysler had selected Baker to drive the only factory backed Dodge in 1971, "and he wanted to let someone know who the best Dodge team was this year. You've got to give credit to Isaac," added Hyde. "That little guy braved it pretty good out there today."
Photo credits from top: All NCMS