The 1977 Season
Cale Repeats As Champ
By Greg Fielden
Scrambling for Seats
As soon as the curtain closed on the 1976 NASCAR season, Bobby Allison announced that he would not be returning to the Roger Penske team in 1977. Allison's statement was a surprise to most
|Cale Yarborough won his second straight WC championship in 1977 with Junior Johnson (foreground, R). Both were outspoken, even with each other, but always competitive.|
observers -- including Penske himself. The Allison-Penske unit had gone winless in 1976 -- the first time Allison had failed to crack victory circle in Winston Cup Grand National competition since 1965. "It's the first time in 10 or 11 years that I haven't won a race," said Allison. "I've made a lot of mistakes before, but I have always put competitiveness first."
Penske, who was only days from a scheduled test session, let Allison out of his contract. "I don't want a driver racing for me who doesn't want to," said Penske. "So I let him go. Now we have to go find another driver." As far as Allison's plans went, he said he could always "run my Chevy that I have sitting here," but that he would let his fans decide on which make of car he raced in 1977. Fan mail poured into Hueytown, Ala. "The mail was heavily in favor of my returning to the series in a Matador," said Allison.
So, following a few meetings with American Motors Company officials, Allison had factory participation. He also acquired the season sponsorship of Citicorp and First National City Travelers Checks. Penske hired Dave Marcis to drive his cars in 1977. Marcis left the highly successful K&K Insurance Dodge ride owned by Nord Krauskopf to join Penske. "It's the deal of a lifetime," said Marcis.
On the heels of Marcis' switch came word that Krauskopf's K&K Insurance would not finance the racing operation any longer. It would be up to crew chief Harry Hyde and new driver Neil Bonnett to locate enough sponsorship dollars to keep running. They landed Citicorp for two races only.
Allison suffered through a miserable year in 1977, going winless for the second year in a row. Marcis and Penske didn't win either -- and Penske left NASCAR racing after the 1977 season. Bonnett and Hyde paddled their way through the first half of the year, struggling with race-to-race sponsorships. Krauskopf put the team up for sale in June.
Most of the contending teams sailed right into 1977 with high hopes -- and very few shake-ups. David Pearson and the Wood Brothers renewed their sponsorship with Purolator; Richard Petty was aligned with STP; Buddy Baker and Bud Moore were firmly set with Norris Industries; Benny Parsons and L.G. DeWitt picked up Citicorp's third team sponsorship; and Donnie Allison and Hoss Ellington united for good after their 1976 Charlotte National 500 victory.
Cale Yarborough would open his title defense with Junior Johnson and Holly Farms, and Darrell Waltrip would challenge in his DiGard-Gatorade team. Waltrip went into the 1977 season having won three short track races in his five year career. The brash Franklin, Tenn., driver wanted to win on the superspeedways in the worst way. The DiGard operation had suffered internal problems since its inception in 1973. Waltrip had given them their first two wins -- once each in 1975 and 1976. By the time 1977 got underway, crew chief and engine builder Mario Rossi, who had been with the team for four years, was gone. He had problems getting along with Waltrip. At the tail end of the 1976 season, Waltrip was quoted in the media, "I don't know whether I can make 500 miles myself if the car ever does." The team failed to finish 16 of the 30 events in 1976.
Yarborough and Johnson looked toward 1977 with optimism. With the slope-nosed Laguna S-3, the Chevrolets were termed the car to beat in 1977. And they had sponsor Holly Farms returning to pick up the expenses.
Bickering in the Family
Cale led most of the way at Riverside but lost due to a late race spinout. Waltrip wound up in ninth place. Yarborough captured the Daytona 500 and Richmond 400 in February, and won at North Wilkesboro in March. DiGard Racing Team hired Darel Dieringer as Coordinator in April. Presto, Waltrip won his first superspeedway race at Darlington -- coming from fourth to first in one lap as he carved his way through a late race crash. Yarborough stormed back and won the short track races at Bristol and Martinsville; Waltrip bounced back to win the Winston 500 at Talladega. Through the first 10 races of the 1977 Winston Cup Grand National season, Yarborough and Waltrip had won seven of them.
But there were internal problems cropping up again at DiGard again. Crew chief David Ifft quit a month after Dieringer came on board, saying he couldn't communicate with the former driver. Waltrip somewhat questioned Dieringer's appointment, saying, "We don't need a full time baby sitter." Regardless, the team was 2-for-2 on the superspeedways with Dieringer pulling the strings. Buddy Parrott was soon hired to fill the vacancy left by Ifft.
Cale led the Winston Cup point standings for the first 17 races. He won at Dover in May and finished first in the June contest at Michigan. Waltrip didn't scratch the victory column for eight weeks. On June 21, Dieringer was let go by DiGard. "We decided our operation hasn't been going in the direction we had hoped," explained DiGard's Jim Gardner.
Waltrip won at Nashville on July 16 to gain his third win of the year. The next week, Yarborough lost the point lead to Richard Petty. Yarborough suddenly began complaining about the lack of power from his Junior Johnson Chevrolets. Yarborough and Johnson got into a verbal war at Talladega. After finishing second in the Talladega 500, Yarborough said he was driving "the sorriest Chevrolet on the track -- barring none." He added that if he had won the race, he would likely be "in court Monday morning for stealing."
Johnson, never one to mince words, advised Cale to keep his opinions to himself. "If he keeps running his mouth, he'll be looking for another car. We don't need a bunch of lip off of him," said Johnson. Yarborough regained the point lead for keeps at Talladega. Waltrip relief-drove for heat-stricken Donnie Allison and took Hoss Ellington's Chevrolet across the finish line first. He won in his DiGard mount the following week at Michigan. Despite in-house bickering, the Johnson-Yarborough and DiGard-Waltrip teams were winning the most races.
Waltrip won the pole for Darlington Raceway's Southern 500 on Labor Day. Yarborough qualified fourth. The two drivers put on one of the finest two-car duels in the fabled Raceway's history. Waltrip led on 11 occasions and Cale led nine times -- most of the time they passed each other for the lead. With just over 100 laps to go, the two were waging a ferocious battle in thick traffic. Cale passed Waltrip going into the first turn, but Waltrip swooped under his rival coming off the second turn. Three lapped cars were just ahead. Somebody needed to back off -- but neither of the leaders cracked the throttle. Result: a five car crash in the third turn. Yarborough and Waltrip's Chevrolets became crunched, smoking automobiles. Terry Bivins, D.K. Ulrich and Janet Guthrie were also involved. Miraculously, Yarborough and Waltrip both continued and finished fifth and sixth.
After the race, Ulrich walked over to Cale. The conversations went like this:
Ulrich: "Cale, you knocked the hell out of me over in turn three. Was I in the high speed groove? I thought there was plenty of room above me."
Yarborough: "I didn't touch you. Jaws hit you."
Yarborough: "Jaws. Jaws Waltrip hit you and knocked you into the wall. You came off the wall and hit me. That's what happened. It was totally uncalled for."
When questioned, Waltrip said, "That's what Darlington is all about. I tried to be careful, but I made a mistake and was out of it. I should have backed off." But what about this Jaws thing? "Well," replied Waltrip. "I know about the Jaws in the movie about sharks, and there was a Jaws in a James Bond movie. But they were killers. I haven't killed anybody."
Yarborough continued his championship drive with a win at Martinsville on a terribly hot and muggy afternoon. In Victory Lane, Cale looked exhausted. "I'm damn tired," admitted Yarborough. "Something has got to be done. The length of these races has got to be cut. It's getting to where driver fatigue is more dangerous than the actual racing. This is the absolute worst -- with respect to physical punishment -- that I have ever endured." Martinsville promoter Clay Earles said he had no intention of cutting the length of his 500 lap events.
Waltrip won the next week at North Wilkesboro. In Victory Lane, he referred to the Cale Scale -- a self-made measuring device on the degree of difficulty. "On the Cale Scale," said Waltrip, "this was only about a one-and-a-half or two. I wish there were another 100 laps in this race. I guess Cale is getting too old."
Eleven days after his North Wilkesboro triumph, Waltrip was at Riverside International Raceway practicing for a pair of IROC events. On Thursday, October 13, Waltrip stuffed one of the Camaros into the wall in the "esses" -- a series of right and left hand turns. He suffered two cracked ribs in the mishap. The car was towed back and placed in the corner of the pit area. Spectators placed a banner on the car which read "Jaws Strikes IROC."
Two weeks after that, Waltrip was riding a burrow in a parade in Winston-Salem -- two days before the American 500 at Rockingham. The burrow tossed Waltrip into the street and kicked him in the chest. On the morning of the race, Waltrip explained to reporters why he looked so banged up. "I ran into a wall and got stepped on by a mule," he remarked.
Fully recovered from the embarrassing injuries, Waltrip won the rain-shortened Dixie 500 at Atlanta International Raceway with a nifty last lap pass. "I snatched this win from the jaws of defeat," Waltrip said with a big grin. "I understand Cale's sense of humor. I hope he understands mine."
At the end of the year, Yarborough bagged his second straight Winston Cup Grand National championship by 86 points over Richard Petty. Waltrip ranked fourth in the final tally, 502 points behind Yarborough. Cale's Holly Farms Chevrolet managed to finish all 30 races. He became the first driver to finish all the races he started in a single season since Herman Beam finished all 51 of his starts in 1962. Beam eventually completed 84 consecutive races from 1961-1963.
Yarborough won the Olsonite National Driver of the Year award for 1977. Ten of the nation's most respected motorsports reporters did the voting. "It's a big honor to be No. 1 in your division of racing," said the humble Yarborough. "But it means a lot more to be No. 1 in America. I knew it was going to be tough to win it after (A.J.) Foyt took Indianapolis for the fourth time." It was the third time a Junior Johnson driver had won the prestigious award. LeeRoy Yarbrough had won it in 1969 and Bobby Allison captured the honor in 1972. Waltrip won a similar honor presented by the National Motorsports Press Association. Yarborough was a close second in the voting.
After the close of the 1977 season, nine of NASCAR's top drivers, team owners and sponsor representatives went to New York City for a press conference. The Southern stars swapped their jeans and boots for a coat and tie -- and they made a marked impression on the sports journalists who had come to the Big Apple. One of them said, "This is the greatest transition the sport has ever gone through -- having drivers with the ability to speak."
Waltrip was one of the speakers that afternoon. "When I started growing up, this is what I thought racing was all about," he said. "The bringing together of people from the North and South with common interests in auto racing. We can make this sport stay on top for a long time."