The 1974 Season
The Energy Shortage, Multiple Rules Changes -- and Petty Wins 5th Title
by Greg Fielden
In the autumn of 1973, the oil exporting nations (OPEC) announced a general boycott on oil exports to Europe, Japan and the United States. The goal was to raise oil prices. Virtually overnight, supplies of crude oil were drying up.
An Energy Crisis
On Thursday November 15, 1973, auto racing executives launched a campaign aimed to keep the sport alive. Representatives of five major sanctioning bodies – NASCAR, USAC, SCCA, IMSA and NHRA, met in Chicago to pool their ideas. All big wheels attending the meeting were well aware that auto racing was the only sport that had gotten the ax during World War II. Other major league sporting activities continued merrily on, but auto racing was given the black flag early in 1942. Bill Smyth, Executive Director of USAC, said, “We’re naturally concerned about that possibility if the fuel crisis worsens.”
Offspring of the Chicago meeting was the National Motorsports Committee. Executive Director was John Cooper, former President of Ontario Motor Speedway and a close associate of the Bill France family.
President Richard M. Nixon mad a statement before a national television audience on November 25, 1973. Nixon said that all gas stations from coast to coast will be closed between 9:00 pm Saturday and midnight Sunday until further notice in an effort to conserve energy.
That was anything but good news for auto racing promoters. The immediate concern among NASCAR promoters was the possibility of being forced to reschedule their events for Saturday rather than Sunday. “We fought (South Carolina Blue Laws) for years to get Sunday racing and we’d had it for three years,” said Darlington Raceway President Barney Wallace. “If we went back to Saturday racing for the spring event (April 7, 1974), we would kill all we fought for. But we’d do that before we would close our doors.”
NASCAR promoters wanted to explore all other possibilities rather than shift to Saturday race dates. “We don’t want to be singled out for massive reductions,” said Larry Carrier, President of Bristol International Speedway. “Those of us in the automobile racing fraternity ask for no special favors – only equal rights.”
While the auto racing promoters were mapping out their own course, the Government took some steps of its own.
The Federal Energy Office was originated to monitor the usage of fuel nationwide.
Within a week, the National Motorsports Committee had released figured on petroleum consumption by various sporting associations and leisure time activities. According to the in-depth study, auto racing ranked a distant seventh in fuel consumption. Vacation travel, not surprisingly, ranked first with 5,416,140,827 gallons of fuel consumed annually. In comparison, auto racing consumed 93,639,696 gallons each year. Among the sports using more fuel than auto racing, basketball and football. Movie theaters and non scheduled aviation also consumed more fuel annually than auto racing, the study said.
The figures for the other sports included spectator travel and chartered flights carrying reams across the country.
Practically speaking, it would be impossible to gather such precise statistics in only a few days, but the figures greatly helped auto racing’s cause.
The National Motorsports Committee’s finding were delivered to the Federal Energy Office.
All major sports groups were asked to find ways to reduce fuel consumption by 25%.
On January 3, 1974, the Federal Energy Office reported it had received general agreement from representatives of major sports in the United States as a voluntary goal of reducing the energy usage. John C. Sawhill, Deputy Energy Administrator, singled out three entertainment entities for tribute.
* The National Football League for donating valuable television commercial time to public service announcements.
* The Motion Picture Association for similar contributions.
* Auto racing for “having the foresight to compile figures on energy consumption in the sports and leisure time areas”.
Sawhill added that the National Motorsports Committee’s findings were “the best figures the government has on the subject.”
Sawhill said the wanted each sports representative to deliver itemized methods to reduce fuel consumption by January 31, 1974. “We want your plans by the end of the month and we want to know how to intend to police the,” he said.
Texas World Speedway, which had hosted Winston Cup Grand National races off and on since 1969, threw in the towel without a fight. Track President Dan W. Holloway said the doors of his financially troubled facility would remain closed “until the end of the energy crisis”. But nobody else in the racing fraternity was willing to give up.
Bill France, Sr., who stepped down as President of NASCAR in 1972, took the bull by the horns. Cleverly groomed in the world of politics, Big Bill had represented the entire auto racing fraternity in a meeting with Sawhill and the Federal Energy Office authorities. “While auto racing uses a minimal amount of fuel in contrast to other leisure time activities, we are anxious to cooperate in the overall curtailment of the use of fuel,” said France. “Auto racing is a highly visible sport and it has a public relations problem inasmuch as we are very vulnerable. We feel it is important to cooperate with the government’s request to exceed the 25% overall cut if possible. I am sure the quality of NASCAR racing for our fans and competitors will be unaffected.”
John Cooper said he wanted all track operators to send their energy reduction proposals to his office by January 25. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to establish our own guidelines, free of government control ,” said Cooper. “The sport should act quickly and forcibly to formulate such plans and formulate them to the Committee by the deadline of January 25.”
France, Sr., Chairman of the Board at International Speedway Corp., took the first step. He canceled the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car event.
France also said there would be reduction in other areas. Racing distances would be cut by 10% -- or 50 miles for the Daytona 500. France strongly urged other tracks to do the same. In addition to reduction of race distance, practice days would be cut from eight to five during Speedweeks. And a 30-gallon limit of fuel to drivers for practice sessions would be enforced. By using France’s methods, figured released by Daytona International Speedway revealed they used 30.1% less fuel in 1974 (18,009 gallons) than they did in 1973 (23,964 gallons). France proved that NASCAR intended to deliver on its promises made to the Federal Energy Office – and then some.
“As far as the government is concerned,” said France, Sr., it is looking at all sports with one eye. All sports have agreed to cut energy usage by 25% across the board and we will gladly comply with this requirement.”
Other tracks along the Winston Cup Grand National tour would adopt similar reductions. The starting fields were reduced in most other events.
Point System Overhaul
Another noteworthy change on the NASCAR scene was a major overhaul in the championship point system. It would be the fourth procedure used in determining the national champion in the last eight years.
The big change was a return to the general philosophy that NASCAR had in its pioneering days – basing point awards on prize money.
Money winnings from track purses (qualifying and contingency awards didn’t count), in dollars, multiplied by the number of races started, and the resulting figure divided by 1,000 would get the number of points earned.
Publisher Hank Schoolfield said, “The new point system will cause more head scratching than a swarm of gnats on Labor Day at Darlington”
He was right about that.
Bu Bill France, Jr. said it would be beneficial. “We feel that both the sport and fans will benefit from the dollar formula,” he said. “Winning or finishing high in an event will be the prime importance to the Winston Cup competitors. And every race on the 1974 schedule will now have a marked effect in contributing points toward the championship.”
Actually, the new point system rewarded drivers who would run up front in big money races. The basic prize money accumulated during the season would be multiplied by the number of starts a driver made. No race offered any specific schedule of point awards. The points which could be won would vary with each driver.
And, a driver who won a bundle in a major race (i.e. the Daytona 500) would recap the benefits when he merely started the next race.
The point system was a complete flop. Midway through the year, NASCAR knew it was going to have to be changed again.
Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, one-two finishers in the Daytona 500, ran away from all others in the point race. Petty, who would win his fifth title, had over twice as many points a third place finisher David Pearson. That’s because with every race Petty started, he again got his Daytona 500 point total figured in the new updates.
The eye-stabbing drawbacks of the point system occurred in the fall. Petty crashed early in the Southern 500, winding up 35th in the final rundown. Darrell Waltrip finished second in the race. However, when the points were tallied following the Darlington event, Petty’s point total increased by 160 points, while Waltrip only boosted his point total by 95 points. Petty received more points at Darlington that 33 of the 34 drivers who finished in front of him.
Then at Martinsville, Petty’s car succumbed after just 22 laps. Yarborough, his closest adversary in the point battle, drove a total of 421 laps before his engine blew. He finished 11th, while Petty was 20th. Still, Petty increased his point lead by 10 point over Yarborough that day.
“This whole point deal has got me confused,” admitted Petty.
Petty won 10 races in 30 starts in 1974 and fully deserved being crowned champion. And Yarborough, who also won 10 races, fittingly wound up in runner-up spot in the final Winston Cup standings. But the route by which they did so confused everyone, including the contestants.
Once the season ended, NASCAR did not hesitate to change the point system again. Most observers felt the general principle of the 1974 point structure was a good one – for a change it rewarded drivers for winning races. But the complicated intricacies of it created controversy and confusion.
Rule Changes – Again
Unfortunately, controversy and confusion were not limited to the point system in 1974. No less that five major rule changes went into effect during the year.
The season started out with the same specifications as when the 1973 season ended. NASCAR Executive Vice President Lin Kuchler said NASCAR had been prepared to make a rule change at the start of the 1974 season, “but the petroleum shortage hit us and we wanted to concentrate all our efforts on weathering that problem.”
Keeping the 1973 specs disenchanted the K&K Insurance Dodge team – owned by Nord Krauskopf and driven by Buddy Baker. During the winter, Krauskopf and crew chief Harry Hyde insisted they would not compete in NASCAR events unless the controversial carburetor plate and its varying sizes for different types of engines we scrapped. The highly regarded team boycotted the Daytona 500. “We are not competitive under the existing rules and do not plan to compete in the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit until they are changed,” said Krauskopf.
The fuel shortage had a marked effect on the spectator turnout at Daytona. Only 85,000 spectators were on hand in 1974 whereas 103,500 had paid their way in a year earlier. But no one was complaining. It could have been much worse. And there were a few gas stations open along I-95 Sunday after the race to accommodate the race fans.
Seven days before the Daytona 500 was held, ABC Sports made an announcement that the second half of the event would be televised live for the first time in its 16 year history. The network planned to pick up the telecast at 2:00 pm – two hours after it started – and stay on the air until 3:30 pm when it ended. ABC had paid $300,000 in TV rights. The Daytona International Speedway received 55%, 25% went to the drivers ($1,800 apiece), and 20% went to track operators who did not have televised events in 1974.
NASCAR and ABC kept the lid on the agreement until the week of the race because Speedway officials felt an earlier announcement would deter the trackside crowd.
Twenty-four hours before the Daytona 500 got the green flag, NASCAR released a statement that said as of March 18, the rules would be changed. It was supposed to be the only rule change of the year.
The controversial carburetor plates would be removed from all cars. A new Holley carburetor especially built for the Winston Cup Grand National cars, would be placed on all engines larger than 366 cubic inched. “We are phasing out the high performance big engines primarily because the Detroit manufacturers have done so,” said Bill France, Sr. “We are sort of governed by the size they make and sell to the public.”
The first race under the new rules was the Atlanta 500.
Teams running the small engines approved of the rule change. “This is what we’ve been looking for,” said owner Bud Moore, who had tried for two seasons to field a competitive small-engine Ford. “This will put us back in the ball park.”
Glen Wood carefully studied the written rules. “Looks like they put the big engine out of business. We may have to go to Atlanta with a small motor if we can get one put together in time.”
The Wood Brothers and engine builder Tommy Turner came to Atlanta with a 366 c.i. Ford engine. They promptly ran a lap of 159.160 mph. That was better than a three mph spread.
Benny Parsons qualified third in a small engine Chevrolet.
The K&K Insurance team, as promised, returned with a big block Hemi and ran the fourth fastest time. Jody Ridley timed Junie Donlavey’s small block Ford fifth. The small engines took four of the top five spots. Cal Yarborough and Richard Petty, who stuck with the big motors, qualified five mph off the pace. “If NASCAR wants to get rid of the big engine, it’s a good rule,” said Petty. “If they want to equalize competition, it’s a bad rule.”
Pearson led most of the way, but an extra pit stop cost him a certain victory as Yarborough won the race.
Pearson won the Rebel 450 at Darlington two weeks later. Virtually all the front runners had switched to the small motors.
Then came the second rule change. “We feel the larger engine could use more help,” said Lin Kuchler. “so we’re giving it a little more carburetor to intensify competition.
The second rule change, which allowed the bigger engines to breathe more air, went into effect on April 22.
Petty felt the frequency of the rule changes was unnecessary. “You have winners and losers every week,” said the King. “no matter what the rules are, he same teams are going to win. The only difference is it costs everybody more money to make all the changes.”
The Virginia 500 at Martinsville was the first race under the new rules. Yarborough, whose Richard Howard-owned team switched to a small motor for the short track event, lead a 1-2-3-4-5-6 sweep for cars equipped with the little engine. The nearest big block car was 13 laps off the pace. The petty Enterprises beefed up a 340 c.i. Chrysler motor and finished second. He had won the previous week at North Wilkesboro. “This (small engine) project has cost us $50,000,” declared Petty.
At Talladega, the separation between the big and little engines grew even more. Pearson logged a 186.086 mph lap to take the pole for the Winston 500. Baker was the quickest of the big engines at 179.060 mph in his 426 c.i. Hemi. Petty, back to the big engine for durability on the superspeedways, lumbered around at 172.767 mph in qualifying. He was 14 mph off the pace.
Pearson and Benny parsons finished 1-2 in small engine cars.
Following the Winston 500, two cars engaged in private tests to assist NASCAR in formulating some equitable rules. The Richard Howard-Junior Johnson Chevrolet and the K&K Insurance Dodge, and their drivers Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker tested many different set-ups. David Pearson appeared at NASCAR’s request to drive each of the cars. NASCAR was wary that Yarborough and/or Baker just might be sandbagging during the tests.
“NASCAR has been operating blind-folded,” said Johnson. “Their intentions are good. NASCAR has got the big engine where they want it, but the other motor has gotten away from them.”
After a number of runs at Talladega, the teams tested at Atlanta. NASCAR took the findings back to Daytona for study.
More rule changes were on the way. Following the Martinsville event NASCAR said that effective May 20, two different size carburetors would be placed on big engines depending on the size of the track they were racing on. At the same time, NASCAR announced that as of June 24, the maximum cubic inch displacement for small engines would be reduced from 366 to 358 c.i.
When the rules were announced, K&K Insurance quit again. Crew chief Harry Hyde said, “NASCAR has made it both unrealistic and virtually impossible for us to compete with a chance to win. The tests accomplished nothing because the disadvantage of the big bore the tests showed and what NASCAR gave up wasn’t even close. Nord (Krauskipf) can’t see embarrassing Buddy any longer.” Baker would later team with Bud Moore, who fire Gorge Follmer after 11 races.
All the juggling around frustrated many drivers. “It’s getting worse instead of better,” said Dave Marcis.
“It’s a joke,” commented Benny Parsons.
“NASCAR has things so screwed up now I don’t know what’s fair and what isn’t,” said Richard Petty.
“I don’t care what they do,” said Junior Johnson. “But they ought to make rules and then stick to them.”
The rule changes began taking a toll on the independent drivers. “I got home from Martinsville and found another rule change in the mail,” said Richard Childress. “A few hours before I opened the mail, I spent $70 for a carburetor change that was obsolete before I ever used it.”
NASCAR President Bill France, Jr. made a public statement in the face of all the complaints. “We catch a lot of criticism for constantly changing the rules,” he said. “But if you’ve made a mistake and you have a bad rule and you know it, why stick with it?”
In July, NASCASR made its fifth – and final – rule change for the season. This one singled out the Ford products. There were new limitations on cylinder head modifications which mechanics could do to the Ford Cleveland 351 c.i. engine. Glen Wood said it cost them 20-25 horsepower.
During the summer, NASCAR announced that no engine over 358 c.i. would be allowed on the Winston Cup Grand National tour in 1975, although that would be altered to let the big engines compete again the following season.
The Sponsor Merry-go-round
In July, the Carling Brewing Co. made a big splash into the NASCAR circles. The Toronto, Canada based company had backed rookie Earl Ross, of Alsa Craig, Ontario, on the Winston Cup Grand National tour early in the year with modest financing. Carling had dabbled in the sport as early as 1972 when they joined leading Rookie of the Year candidate Larry Smith. Smith went on to win the 1972 award for freshman drivers, but he was killed in 1973 at Talladega. Carling backed out of NASCAR and concentrated on supporting Canadian drivers Ross and Norm Lelliott in north of the border Sportsman racing.
With Yarborough leading the Winston Cup standings in June, Carling was putting the finishing touches on a deal to “acquire” the Richard Howard-Junior Johnson stable. Howard, owner of the Chevrolets Johnson had built and prepared since 1971, would bow out. Carling said they had “purchased” the Howard organization – purchased was a popular term in those days which actually meant sponsorship – and Johnson would field two cars. Yarborough would continue his bid to win the Winston cup championship and Ross, driving the second Johnson car, would step up his efforts in the 1974 Rookie of the Year race.
Carling like the idea of jumping on board during the middle of the season – provided the team they were eyeing was doing well.
Carling’s deal was to sponsor Johnson for 1974 and at least the first part of 1975, with options for another three years. Howard, General Manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, was the man who bought the Chevrolet nameplate back into the sport three years earlier. In the face of the factory cutback in 1971, crowds at stock car races were on the decline. Howard put up the money to bring a competitive Chevrolet back for the 1971 World 600 at Howard’s track – and he hired Johnson to build it.
From May 1971 through June of 1974, Howard-owned, Johnson-engineered cars entered 87 Winston Cup Grand National events and won 21 times. “Carling has bought my cars,” Howard revealed in late June of 1974. “They have put together one of the most attractive sponsorships in racing. I’ve made some money by selling you, but Junior and racing will be the big winners. The day that one man can afford a first class team is about over. That is why it is so vital to have big company in our sport”
Yarborough lost his bid for the 1974 Winston Cup title, finishing second to Richard Petty. Ross won the Martinsville Old Dominion 500 in September and captured the Rookie of the Year honors.
Petty clinched the championship in the next to last race at Rockingham. Within two weeks, Carling Brewing Co. dropped a bombshell. They announced that all sponsorship in the Winston Cup Grand national ranks would be discontinued after the 1974 season. They sponsored Johnson for four months when they had agreed to for up to four years.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Johnson. “They called and said they were dropping out of Grand National racing. It’s one of the biggest disappointments in my career. It was really a big letdown.”
Don Duncan, promotional director for Carling, said, “We ae going to withdraw with the 1975 season. The decision was predicated on rising costs of the beer industry and that we don’t sell that much beer in the Southeast where the Grand Nationals race.”
Johnson said that whe he inked the deal with Carling in June of 1974, “they indicated Carling would be in Grand National racing for at least three years. They went so far as to say that ‘we are in it for good’.
“They hurt us more than they did us good,“ added Johnson. “They were only around four or five months.”
Many observers felt that since the Carling-sponsored car did not win the NASCAR championship, they no longer wanted to be associated with the sport.
Johnson said he would likely have to rely on appearance money to make some of the gig races in 1975, unless a sponsor could be located. “I won’t spend a dime of my own money to race,” he stressed.
Winding Down the Year
The first 15 events on the 1974 Winston Cup Grand National tour were reduced 10% -- as France, Sr. had requested at the beginning of the year. But as of the July 4 Firecracker 400 at Daytona, the full distance was restored. “We have complied with all conservation requests and are meeting our target on fuel saving,” Bill France, Jr. said in a prepared statement. “NASCAR will continue to be prepared to meet andy adverse changes in the national energy situation and we will continue to allocate fuel to contestants, closely regulate and condense practice and qualifying periods, and retain our carburetor limitations. This will enable us to meet the requests of the Federal Energy Office and still conduct the events at full distance.”
Despite all the rule changes design to equalize competition, only three teams won 28 of the 30 races. Petty and Yarborough won 10 races each, with David Pearson winning seven superspeedway events for the Wood Brothers. Ross, in the second Johnson Chevrolet, won at Martinsville after mechanical problems sidelined Petty and Yarborough. Pearson was not entered.
Bobby Allison was the only driver to beat the big guns heads up. He won the first short track race at Richmond in his own Chevrolet, and he finished first in the season finale at Ontario, CA. In that race, NASCAR officials found illegal roller tappets in Allison’s Roger Penske-owned Matador. The sanctioning body allowed him to keep first place, but they fined him a record $9,100.
As Pearson, Petty and Yarborough were taking most of the headlines in the major leagues, a couple of aspiring youngsters were beginning to make waves on the weekly short track Sportsman tour. Dale Earnhardt, 22 year-old son of the late Ralph Earnhardt, won his first Sportsman race on July 19, 1974 at Metrolina Speedway in Charlotte. Earnhardt drove his Chevrolet past Tommy Houston in the 41st lap and went on to win the 55 lapper in the Ned Jarrett promoted event.
And there was a lanky red-head in Georgia by the name of Bill Elliott. The 18 year-old youngster drove his Ford around Larry Lancaster in the final lap to win the September 7, 1974 50 lap feature at Dixie Speedway in Woodstock, GA. Elliott won $660 for his first career win in the Sportsman ranks.
There was yet another budding success story happening in the Midwest. Fifteen year-old Mark Martin of Batesville, AR, who barely looked 12, won the 6-Cylinder championship at Benton Speedbowl in Arkansas. He captured the title in a September 12, 1974 50 –lap contest. He made a bold charge from 10th starting spot to win the race and the championship.