NASCAR: The Evolution Of The Sport (1970-1975)
Auto racing—particularly the NASCAR Grand National tour—in the United States was billed as "The Sport of the 1970s" as the new decade approached. With new, ultra-modern facilities popping up all over the country and millions of dollars being poured into NASCAR stock racing by the automotive factories, the sport seemed to be on a roll.
Despite the overall rosy appearance, the earth was rumbling a bit within the NASCAR domain. Most of the licensed NASCAR Grand National drivers had formed a union called the Professional Drivers Association. The drivers were serious about gaining awareness from NASCAR about conditions at the speedways, including the alarmingly high speeds, the amount of time teams had to spend at a track to prepare for a race, the perceived lack of posted awards, and amenities for the competitors. Even with behind-the-scenes friction, the 1970 NASCAR tour produced many great moments.
In those days, the Daytona 500 was not the first race of the season, as the warm California sun beckoned drivers from the cold confines of the South in January, to seek out and conquer the sunny surroundings in Riverside International Raceway. A.J. Foyt's Ford nipped Roger McCluskey's Plymouth Superbird to win the season opener at Riverside. Five-time Riverside winner Dan Gurney finished sixth.
In 1970, there were a few firsts to boast about: Pete Hamilton, recently signed to drive a Petty Enterprises Plymouth, posted an upset victory in the Daytona 500. Hamilton passed Ford's David Pearson with nine laps to go and wins by three car lengths. And, James Hylton held off a furious rally by Richard Petty to win the Richmond 500. It was Hylton's first career NASCAR Grand National win and his first start in a Ford after campaigning a Dodge for four years.
In another first, Buddy Baker took Chrysler's company car, a royal blue Dodge Daytona, to Talladega for a special world record attempt for a closed circuit. In an officially timed run, Baker became the first driver to surpass the magic 200-mph barrier on a closed oval, with a best lap of 200.447 mph, making him "The Fastest Man on Four Wheels."
Bobby Isaac overtook James Hylton in late August and won the 1970 NASCAR Grand National champion ship. It was the most competitive title chase in NASCAR history, with Isaac only winning the championship by a mere 51 points. A total of seven drivers swapped the points lead on 12 occasions during the 48-race campaign, a record that still stands.
The loss of the factory-supported team in 1971 was a big blow to the NASCAR Grand Nationals. Every team in NASCAR in 1971, save Petty Enterprises, felt the pinch of the factory withdrawal. Drivers and NASCAR itself found relief in the form of a sponsorship deal with R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company (the parent company of Winston cigarettes), who in turn gained advertising and naming rights to the newly-christened NASCAR Winston Cup Grand Nationals. It was one of a handful of bright spots in an otherwise troubled season.
1971 saw Richard Petty win his third Daytona 500, while reigning NASCAR champion Bobby Isaac, who had fully intended to defend his title in 1971, was kept at bay by Nord Krauskopf, owner of the No. 71 K&K Insurance Dodge. He drastically reduced the team's schedule following a dispute with NASCAR over restrictor-plate rules. NASCAR used three different size plates in 1971, issuing more restrictive plates to teams running bigger engines. Isaac ran about half the races in 1971, winning four times.
Richard Petty won 21 races in 46 starts and breezed to his third NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National championship, in 1971. The "Randleman Rocket" assumed command of the points chase after the eighth race of the season at Hickory, N.C., in March and never trailed again. He finished 364 points ahead of runner-up James Hylton.
The early part of the 1972 NASCAR Winston Cup season was rather lethargic. Richard Petty lost a cylinder midway through the 250-miler at Martinsville in April, yet still won the race by seven laps. Fan attendance was down, and the forecast for the season was uncertain. But toward the end of the year, a feud exploded between Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, the two front-runners, that would ignite the fierce competition of the rest of the season.
A new points system had been introduced, which awarded points per lap completed. This system prevented Petty from taking the points lead until the 11th race of the season at Talladega. Petty had finished higher than James Hylton in nine of the first 10 races, including victories in four events, but Hylton maintained the points lead due to more laps completed. When Hylton was involved in a crash at Talladega, Petty claimed the lead, which he held for the balance of the season, holding off Bobby Allison by 127.5 points.
During the 1973 NASCAR Winston Cup season, NASCAR had not given up hope for small engines, though the lack of team sponsors prevented the sanctioning body from putting the heavily restricted big engines out to pasture. Although David Parsons enjoyed a record year in 1973, winning 10 of 15 starts on super speedways and 11-of-18 for the season, the unsponsored team of L.G. DeWitt and Benny Parsons won a single race and took the NASCAR Winston Cup championship trophy in a significant upset.
Parsons took the points lead with a third-place finish at Talladega in early May and never gave up the lead. He held off a late rally by Cale Yarborough to win by only 67.15 points. Under NASCAR's points system, in which points per lap completed were factored in, Parsons was unaware of what position he would have to finish in at the finale at Rockingham to seal the championship. Parsons crashed early, but his team was able to make miraculous repairs to get him back into the race. He completed enough laps to wrap up the 1973 title.
Five drivers had a mathematical chance to win the championship entering the final event of the 28-race season. Winless drivers Cecil Gordon and James Hylton finished third and fourth, while six-time winner Richard Petty placed fifth in the final standings.
The 1974 NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National season faced the threat of a shut-down when, in late 1973, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced a general boycott on oil exports to Europe, Japan, and the United States. Faced with an oil crisis, NASCAR took immediate steps to conserve fuel. Among other changes, the length of all races was cut by 10 percent, which went a long way toward the goal of reducing fuel use by 25 percent.
This included the Daytona event, as Richard Petty rallied from a flat tire to take the lead with 11 laps remaining, and drove to victory in the first, 450-mile Daytona 500. Speedway officials had decided to drop the first 20 laps from the race, and count the first lap as lap 21 to maintain the "500" in the name of NASCAR's most prestigious event. Meanwhile, NASCAR continued to move toward the use of smaller engines, and made several rule changes. Despite the rule changes, the overwhelming majority of races were won by Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and David Pearson.
In addition to the reduction in the number of laps per race, 1974 produced a couple of other interesting scenarios during the race season. Among them involved a cagey David Pearson, who outfoxed Richard Petty to win the Firecracker 400 in a puzzling finish. Pearson lead entering the final lap, but pulled down to the low groove to allow Petty to pass. Pearson regained his stride, running Petty down, and making the decisive pass just before the finish line. Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough finished in a dead heat for third place.
Another involved Canadian rookie Earl Ross, who outlasted Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough and outran Buddy Baker in the final laps to win the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville. Ross became the first Canadian driver to win a NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National race. Lastly, Bobby Allison drove a Matador to a surprise victory in the 500-miler at Ontario Motor Speedway. During the customary post race inspection, NASCAR officials discovered the Roger Penske-owned Matador is equipped with illegal roller tappets. The team was allowed to keep the win, but was fined a record $9,100. Richard Petty won his fifth championship by 567.45 points in a complicated points system used for just one year.
NASCAR drastically changed its points system for the 1974 season, and it proved to be the most confusing method ever used. Fractions of points were multiplied and remultiplied after each race. The concept was to award points in direct relation to money won. Under the peculiar system, the one-two finishers in the rich Daytona 500 were virtually assured of a one-two finish in the final standings. Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough finished first and second at Daytona and ranked one-two in the final standings.
All drama for the points chase ended in February. Petty and Yarborough had their Daytona points added to their point total after each event, making it virtually impossible for anyone to overtake them. In the Darlington Southern 500, Petty crashed early and placed 35th, yet still had more points added to his total than Darrell Waltrip, who finished second. Petty accumulated 5,037.75 points, compared to Yarborough's runner-up total of 4,470.30. David Pearson finished third with 2,389.25 points. Thankfully, the system was changed after only one year.
By the 1975 NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National season, the transition from big to small engines was complete. All cars were equipped with the same-size engines and the restrictor plates were gone. With a standard set of rules, and the fourth change in the points systems in five years, stability had gained a foothold within the NASCAR kingdom. Despite smaller fields of competition, NASCAR Winston Cup racing was getting more television time as well.
1975 saw its fair share of interesting storylines, as Benny Parsons led off the season by taking the lead three laps from the finish and winning the Daytona 500 after leader David Pearson spun out on the backstretch. Parsons came from the 32nd starting position to claim the upset win and the biggest victory of his career. Buddy Baker ended his two-year drought by winning the Winston 500 at Talladega.
Baker's Bud Moore Ford finished a car length in front of runner-up David Pearson. And a young Darrell Waltrip racked up his first career NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National victory with a two-lap triumph in the Music City USA 420 at his hometown Nashville Speedway. Benny Parsons came home second with Coo Coo Marlin third.
Tragedy also claimed an unfortunate headline in 1975, as DeWayne "Tiny" Lund lost his life at the Talladega 500. Buddy Baker nosed out Richard Petty in a photo finish to win the race, which was marred by the death Lund who was involved in a multi-car crash on the seventh lap.
Journeyman Dave Marcis drove a Dodge to his first career NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National victory in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Marcis passed Benny Parsons with 40 laps to go and scored a three-second victory. Although he only scored one win throughout the 1975 season, Marcis still managed to come within 722 points of keeping Richard Petty, who won 13 races, from taking his sixth championship.
The new points system drew mixed reviews. While it was designed to encourage more teams to commit to running the full schedule, many observers felt a greater amount of points should be awarded at the major super speedway races than the short tracks. Petty received more points for winning Richmond and leading the most laps than Benny Parsons did for winning the Daytona 500.
NASCAR officials said they approved of the way the points system worked and indicated it would likely remain unchanged for several years to come. It remained in place until 2001, when Brian France introduced the new "Chase for the Championship" format which awarded more point for wins and restarted the points count for the top 10-12 drivers for the last 10 races of the season.
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