The 1976 Season
A Tale of Rule Bending
By Greg Fielden
|A hearty Cale Yarborough won his first WC championship in 1976, but he didn't win the most races. Who did? David Pearson earned 10 wins but ran a partial season. Cale won nine but ran all 30 races for more points.|
Sunday, February 8, 1976, dawned sunny, breezy and cool over the gigantic Daytona International Speedway. A relatively slim crowd of 20,000 -- huddled in blankets to thwart off the upper 30-degree temperatures and the chilling 20 mph wind -- dotted the massive grandstands in anticipation of the run for the Daytona 500 pole position. Thirty-seven cars were lined up to make a two lap run against the electric eye timer. At stake were the front row starting positions for the 500 and a $5,000 cash award for the quickest of them all.
Many on the qualifying line were out to impress new sponsors. Darrell Waltrip and his DiGard team had received financial backing from Gatorade for the 1976 NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National season. Lennie Pond, the man who beat Waltrip for the 1973 Rookie of the Year award, was on hand in a Pepsi-Cola sponsored Chevrolet owned by Ronnie Elder. Rookie Neil Bonnett had landed Armor-All and Bobby Allison's Roger Penske team was aligned with Cam 2 Motor Oil. Plus the regular front-runners were ready to go -- Richard Petty's STP Dodge, David Pearson in the Wood Brothers Purolator Mercury, Buddy Baker in Bud Moore's Norris Industries Ford, Cale Yarborough's Junior Johnson Holly Farms mount, Dave Marcis' K&K Insurance Dodge wrenched by Harry Hyde and A.J. Foyt in Hoss Ellington's Chevrolet.
Yarborough was the first to make his qualifying run. He turned only a 178.352 mph lap -- seven and a half mph slower than the 1975 pole speed. Pearson was the next potential pole threat to make his run. He qualified at 183.079 mph. Next front-runner out was Benny Parsons, but he failed to complete a lap. "Fouled plugs, I guess," said the defending Daytona 500 champ. Bobby Allison then turned in a 180.083 mph lap. Speeds were well below what had been expected, particularly with cool track conditions which usually breed high speeds.
Then three quickies lit up the scoreboard. Marcis whipped his Dodge around the Big D at 186.548 and 186.431 mph in his two laps against the clock -- very fast and very consistent. Waltrip's two laps were 186.617 and 184.173 mph. Then it was A.J. Foyt's turn. He pierced the electric eye at 187.477 and 185.259 mph. NASCAR officials were curious about the wide separation of Waltrip's and Foyt's fast and slow laps.
Other interesting times were turned in by Petty (179.903), Baker (172.652), Frank Warren (180.701), Terry Ryan (182.109) and Ramo Stott (183.456). Pond was unable to make a run due to ignition problems. Bonnett also had engine problems. Baker blamed his poor showing on "fouled plugs." More fouled plugs -- on Daytona 500 pole day? Stott, Ryan and Warren out qualifying Petty, Yarborough, Allison and Baker? Just what was going on?
NASCAR's Technical Director, Bill Gazaway, wanted to take a peek under the hood of the Chevrolets manned by Foyt and Waltrip, who had apparently earned the front row spots for the 500. Gazaway said he had "reason to be suspicious." Crew chiefs Hoss Ellington and Mario Rossi were reluctant to oblige. They said the cars were inspected minutes before they qualified, and NASCAR didn't need to look at them again so soon. Faced with a "let's see it or else" ultimatum, they grudgingly allowed Gazaway and his troops put a fine-toothed comb through the engines in question. Gazaway said he also wanted to look at the Marcis-Hyde car. "They can cut my car in half if they want to," said Hyde. "We've got nothing to hide."
For nearly seven hours, NASCAR officials studied the findings. In the meantime, NASCAR called in their attorney to assist in drawing up a prepared written draft. Final verdict: The times of Foyt, Waltrip and Marcis were "disallowed." The attorney advised that the words cheating and disqualified had better not be used in this situation.
Gazaway said the Foyt and Waltrip cars "were set up for use of fuel pressure assists which are not allowed." Apparently, some suspicious fuel lines had been discovered by NASCAR's snoopers -- lines that could have contained nitrous oxide, or more commonly known as 'laughing gas.' Nitrous oxide had been used on occasion for quick, sudden bursts of horsepower. It was strictly a short-term method of attaining as much as 50 extra horsepower -- and it was commonly used in qualifying.
Marcis was stripped of his qualification because his car was equipped with a "moveable air deflector device in front of its radiator, which is against the rules," according to NASCAR. A fourth driver, 1975 Rookie of the Year Bruce Hill, saw his time of 180.513 (ninth fastest), disallowed for the same reasons as Foyt and Waltrip. Ellington, the mischievous owner and mechanic who had felt the sting of NASCAR disqualifications in the past, told Gazaway, "Golly, I forgot about that (nitrous oxide bottle). I put it in there three years ago at Trenton and it's been there ever since." Foyt said he didn't know anything about the contents of the Ellington car. "I just drive it," said A.J.
Waltrip accepted NASCAR's penalty with a set of quotes which would get headlines nationwide for the better part of a week. "In Grand National racing," said Waltrip, "there are a lot of things you have to do to keep up with the competition. It's common knowledge that cheating in one form or another is part of it." "If you don't cheat," Waltrip continued, "You look like an idiot. If you do it and don't get caught, you look like a hero. If you do it and get caught, you look like a dope. Put me in the category where I belong."
The Waltrip quip was not exactly what the executives in Daytona Beach wanted to hear. "We only know what we find," explained NASCAR President Bill France Jr. "We don't operate on hearsay. It's easy for others to sit around and talk like that, but we go only on facts. We always try to run inspections to the best of our ability. It's just that some days there's a little more controversy than others."
Marcis' crew chief Harry Hyde, was livid at having his car's time disallowed. "My car sat on the pole, fair and square," said the veteran mechanic. "We were allowed to cover up half the radiator area, and that's what we did. NASCAR approved it when they inspected the car. I don't know why Billy France did this to me. The way the publicity went, people all across the country think we were using the bottle. I'm branded nationally as a cheater and all we were doing was what they said was okay." Marcis admitted that a little over half the radiator was blocked -- for better aerodynamic features -- when he took his qualifying run. "It was about three-quarters blocked," said Marcis. "But that isn't a big deal."
The disqualifications produced a most unlikely front row for the 18th annual Daytona 500 -- Ramo Stott and Terry Ryan. Stott, of Keokuk, Iowa, was a veteran of USAC and ARCA competition. He had competed in 29 previous NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National events. Second place in the 1972 Talladega 500 had been his best effort. Ryan, of Davenport, Iowa, had never competed in a big league NASCAR race. Dick Hutcherson, crew chief for Stott's Norris Reed-owned Chevrolet, said NASCAR looked over their car pretty closely. "They gave our car a very thorough inspection," said Hutcherson, who won nine races as a rookie on the NASCAR Grand National circuit in 1965. "They checked everything, including the roll cage bars and the door panels. I wouldn't have Bill Gazaway's job for anything. NASCAR has really become proficient in keeping this an honest ball game."
Smokey Yunick, the Daytona Beach based former mechanic who prepared the 1961 and 1962 Daytona 500 winners, was solicited for his opinions on the much publicized episode. "What those guys did wasn't anything brilliant," said Yunick. "I was using nitrous oxide back in the '40s and early '50s. But one thing about it back then, it wasn't spelled out in the rule book, and therefore it wasn't illegal. It is now. What those guys did was downright cheating. As for the other car (Marcis' Dodge), I'm not so sure that wasn't legal," added Yunick. "That (deflector) device is debatable."
One thing very few people could explain was why so many top name drivers took a back seat to little known privateers and rookies. There was a reason for that, according to independent driver Ed Negre. Negre's sponsor for the past few seasons had been 10,000 RPM Speed Shop, a California based company who specializes in distributing nitrous oxide. "I've used the stuff many times," said Negre. "But not today. I didn't even make a run. I just wanted to watch what was going to happen.
"Most of the guys in the garage thought NASCAR needed some help in this case," Negre continued. "There was sort of a conspiracy. All the big guys got together and decided that the only way for NASCAR to catch those other guys (Foyt and Waltrip) was to run a lot slower than they were capable of going. That way, NASCAR could see that just two cars were going a whole lot faster than anybody else.
"That might explain why so many good cars were having some sort of trouble -- and why guys like Terry Ryan and Frank Warren ran so much faster than Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. It was all a plan. I didn't run because my bottle was hooked up and I didn't want NASCAR to find it," said Negre.
Foyt, Waltrip, Marcis and Hill were permitted to requalify later in the week. Waltrip and Marcis bounced back and won the 125-mile qualifying races on Thursday. Headlines in National Speed Sport News read "Two Cheaters Win 125-mile Qualifiers." NASCAR officials secretly hoped that something would happen to get everyone's attention away from the pole day shenanigans. They only had to wait until Sunday, February 15.
The Greatest Finish
ABC Sports geared up for its third live presentation of the conclusion of the Daytona 500. There was no flag-to-flag television coverage in 1976. The final 22 laps were a green flag trophy dash between headliners Pearson and Petty. Pearson held the lead until Petty shot past with 13 laps to go. The two rode in nose-to-tail formation for 12 laps. On the backstretch of the final lap, Pearson shot his Mercury around Petty. Pearson, in the lead, drifted high in the third turn. Petty took the opening to duck under Pearson -- and the two came off the fourth turn door-to-door. In an instant, the two cars slapped together. Pearson and Petty both wobbled. Then Pearson went nose first into the wall, clipping Petty's rear bumper in the process. Both cars spun crazily out of control.
Petty's Dodge ground to a halt in the infield 100 feet short of the finish line. Pearson bounced into the path of Joe Frasson and twirled to a stop at the foot of pit road. Pearson was able to knock his car into gear and cross the finish line at 20 mph. Petty's engine had died. Pearson won his first Daytona 500, denying Petty his sixth. Everybody offered opinions of the final lap entanglement, but the principles refrained from criticizing each other. With the country looking on, the two most respected Stock car racers had represented their sport well.
News reporters were awed at what they had witnessed.
Bob Hoffman, Southern Motorsports Journal: "It was the most dramatic finish in NASCAR history." Bob Moore, Charlotte Observer: "It was a classic confrontation between the two greatest Stock car drivers in the world." Randy Laney, Columbia State: "... the most spectacular superspeedway finish in the history of NASCAR's Grand National division." Fred Seeley, Jacksonville Times-Union: "What was supposed to be a great race on asphalt ended with a wild finish on dirt like a half-mile bull ring." Tim Carlson, Daytona Beach News-Journal: "It was magnificent, heart-stopping and just a shade ridiculous." Frank Blunk, New York Times: "What can they do to top that?"
Reporters crowded Petty moments after the crash had occurred. They wanted to know what was going through his mind while the crash was taking place. "Well," drawled Petty. "I wasn't exactly hollering, 'Hooray for me.'"
The Lady Guthrie
Three months later, a new face in the racing game was gathering loads of publicity. Easily the most media coverage ever for a virtually unknown rookie. The driver's name happened to be Janet Guthrie. Guthrie, 38, was born in Iowa and became a physics major at the University of Michigan. She had competed in sports car racing events for 13 years. Now, she wanted a crack at the big time. Female drivers had been active on NASCAR's Grand National tour in the '40s, '50s and '60s. In fact, a dozen had been active in the NASCAR major leagues. Ten had actually driven in competition.
Guthrie was going for the biggie -- the Indianapolis 500. After lining up a ride in Rolla Vollstedt's Bryant Heating and Cooling Special, Guthrie first practiced at the Brickyard on Monday, May 10, 1976. After just seven laps, the engine developed problems. She got in another 20 laps on May 11 before the engine once again came apart. By May 13, she had posted a top speed of 168.2 mph. It was generally regarded that a speed of over 181 mph would be needed to get in the field. A week later, Guthrie got her tired mount up to a speed of 173.611 mph -- still well short of what would be needed to make the line-up. The day before the last weekend of qualifications, Guthrie's car was pulled out of the qualifications.
A.J. Foyt, who always entered back-up cars at Indy, brought his unqualified No. 1 Coyote out of the Gasoline Alley on the morning of the final round of time trials. After a consultation with Foyt, Guthrie hopped in A.J.'s car and turned in a respectable 180.796 mph lap. The car had been driven at 190 mph by Foyt in routine practice sessions earlier in the month. After the widely publicized shake-down session, Foyt withdrew the car from the 500. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said he wanted to concentrate solely on winning his fourth title at the Speedway and not worry about a second car.
Janet Guthrie would have to wait until 1977 to make her debut in the Indy 500. The disappointing Indianapolis experience was behind her, but the World 600 at Charlotte was still a week away. Humpy Wheeler, recently appointed general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway and a promoter par excellence, figured it would be a big boon to the box office if Guthrie was in the 600 field. A hasty but carefully arranged deal was made in the next 48 hours. Lynda Ferreri, vice president of First Union National Bank in Charlotte, paid $21,000 via cashier's check and suddenly became a Winston Cup car owner. The car just happened to be the Hoss Ellington Chevrolet that had been disqualified from the Daytona 500 pole position in February. There was one provision that could possibly spoil the deal. If the car didn't pass NASCAR inspection, the sale was off. It was legal when it arrived at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday, May 25.
It seemed nobody had ever heard of Lynda Ferreri. Most observers said she was just a front for the CMS-owned Chevrolet. Ferreri, 32, said she was the sole owner of the car. "About a week ago when Janet was still trying to qualify for the Indianapolis 500," explained Ferreri, "a friend of mine said, 'she's a hoax'. Well, I didn't like that and I got on the phone to see what I'd have to do to put her in this race at Charlotte. I'm personally responsible for it. I bought the car." Ralph Moody was hired to set up the car and Will Cronkrite tuned the engine. Regal Ride shock absorbers sponsored the car. Guthrie was under the microscope at Charlotte.
The pole was up for grabs on Wednesday, but Guthrie made no attempt to qualify. The next day, she turned in a time of 152.797 mph to earn the 27th starting spot. In the race, Guthrie persevered and finished 15th, 21 laps behind winner David Pearson. Bruce Jacobi had been brought in as a possible relief driver, but she made it the entire way. "After three hours, I knew I could make it all the way," said Guthrie. "I was perhaps a bit more conservative than I would have been if I were a male rookie." For her efforts, she received the Curtis Turner Achievement Award for outstanding accomplishment in the race.
More Rule Bending
In the summer months, isolated incidents of cheating surfaced. NASCAR found Ed Negre's bottle of nitrous oxide at one race. He was fined $500. Henley Gray, another little known independent, was caught with the laughing gas hook-up at Talladega. Gray admitted freely that he had been using it "a long time. It's the cheapest horsepower you can buy," said Gray. Bill Gazaway said the nitrous oxide was "cleverly hidden under the right rear wheel. It's one of the best concealed we've ever seen," he said.
When the tour returned to Charlotte for the October 10 National 500, Hoss Ellington had two cars in the field. One to be driven by A.J. Foyt and the other by Donnie Allison, who hadn't won a Winston Cup Grand National race since 1971. Janet Guthrie was back and so were all the big guns. Foyt put Ellington's primary entry in the 11th starting position. Donnie started 15th. Foyt withdrew his car in the 59th lap, saying the car "was not prepared" and that he "couldn't keep it in a 10 acre briar patch."
Allison took the back-up car to Victory Lane. It was the first Winston Cup Grand National win for Ellington, a former driver who hung up his goggles in 1970. With Ellington's checkered past at the NASCAR inspection station, Bill Gazaway wanted to have another look at the engine after the race -- just to make sure it was within specifications.
Asked if he had anything to worry about, Ellington responded, "No problem. This one's legal. We left all our cheater stuff at Darlington (five weeks earlier)." Gazaway wasn't so sure. His initial post-race inspection -- conducted immediately after the race -- revealed that the engine was "slightly" over the 358 cubic inch limit. "It was less than one cubic inch over," said Gazaway.
After a heated argument between Gazaway, Ellington and Allison, NASCAR's technical director allowed the engine to cool down before checking the measurements again. This time, it registered legal, Gazaway said. Allison and Ellington were able to keep the $22,435 first prize.
Humpy Wheeler Takes Over At Charlotte
The 1976 season was a successful one for NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Howard Augustus "Humpy" Wheeler had just completed his first year as vice president and general manager of the 1.5-mile tri-oval. Bruton Smith, co-founder of the track with Curtis Turner during its formative years, had been locked in a power struggle with Richard Howard for two years. In late 1975, Howard, who had helped get the speedway out of bankruptcy, sold nearly 80,000 shares of stock to Smith, who gained controlling interest with the purchase.
Howard resigned from his post on January 29, 1976. Smith appointed Wheeler as general manager. "I don't want to see Charlotte Motor Speedway take a back seat to anyone," said Smith. "I can see in the future where 150,000 will see a race at CMS. We can provide for that many. It will take time and lots of money, but it can be done. I want the speedway to have national significance and impact."
Wheeler, former Southeastern Field Representative for Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., accepted the post -- but only after Smith and Howard buried the hatchet. "I didn't join the speedway or think about taking the general manager's job until I was assured there was not going to be a blood-bath between Richard and Bruton," said Wheeler. "Following Richard and implementing the plans of Bruton represent the greatest challenge of my life.
"My first priority is to give the fans a competitive show," he continued. "High on the list is the comfort and easy access to the facility for the fans. We want to make the speedway the center of Stock car racing -- to make the World 600 the biggest Stock car race. In order to do this, we'll have to have massive crowds and a lot of television revenues in the future."
The 1976 season produced eight different winners. Pearson won 10 times -- eight on superspeedways and two on road courses. Cale Yarborough grabbed his first Winston Cup championship. It also gave car owner Junior Johnson his first title. Additional corporate sponsors and better television coverage -- from all three major networks -- helped Stock car racing make headlines in the sports world.
"Over the years the public, which only buys that which is consistently good, had judged Grand National racing to be the most competitive in the world," observed Wheeler. "The competitors have finally recovered from the tremendous economic impact of the factory pull-out of 1969-1970. NASCAR Vice-President for Marketing, John Cooper, has done an excellent job in finding first-rate sponsors for the top teams. And with the substantial backing, the run for the lead has been ferocious."