Tuesday, April 10, 2012

1977 - Slicing the wind with Janet, Ramo, Ron, and Terry

Ramo Stott (83) and rookie Terry Ryan (61) were the unlikely front-row starters in the 1976 Daytona 500. Ryan, making his NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National debut, became the first rookie to start on the front row at Daytona. Stott retired with engine problems shortly after the halfway point, while Ryan finished sixth.

Daytona, Fla. (April 10, 1977) - A loud speaker blared, “The garages are closed for the night. Drop your tools, and go home.”

Dick Hutcherson ripped off a two-inch length of adhesive tape and carefully affixed one end to the rear fender of his car and the other end to the underside of a tarpaulin draped over it. He repeated the procedure on the other fenders.

It was a finishing touch to a tense, hectic day of tuning, testing, tightening - It was the final few hours before the nineteenth running of the Daytona 500, the super bowl of late-model stock car racing.

Hutcherson’s tape job was a precaution. Later, if he found the tape had been peeled away, he would know the tarp had been lifted - perhaps for someone to tamper with the car - the car that his brother, Ron, would be driving the next day. If everything went perfectly, Ron would pilot the Camaro around the 2.5-mile track 200 times to finish in the No. 1 spot.

Forty-two drivers were entered. Hutcherson, from Keokuk, was one of those with Iowa connections. Ramo Stott, also of Keokuk, was another Iowan entered. So was Terry Ryan of Davenport.

The fourth Iowa driver had to crash a barrier to get into the race. The sex barrier…

That was Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete with the likes of A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, David Pearson and other titans of auto racing. Guthrie’s Iowa link is tenuous. She was born in Iowa City, but moved out of the state 35 years ago at age three.

Ultimately, she and her supped-up Chevrolet Camaro would become Iowa’s last hope in the 1977 Daytona. Someone had given her a sign that said, “A woman’s place is everywhere.”

She wanted to put it on the car before the race started, but she either didn’t have time or she forgot. Some of the big-name drivers got into a 200-mile Saturday romp, but most - including all of the Iowans - chose to spend the day gearing up for the 500-mile grind.

“I want to be as fresh as I can for the 500 tomorrow," said Ryan. During the race, you’re going the length of a football field every second, so you don’t have any time to relax.”

To win, he would have to average at least 150 miles an hour, including time consumed in pit stops.

“A blink of the eye,” said Stott, “and you can be up against a wall.”

Ron Hutcherson - Daytona - 1977

Ron Hutcherson, 33, lanky and soft spoken, was entering his fourth Daytona 500. He runs a paint and wallpaper store in Keokuk. Like all drivers, he has absolute faith in his car and crew.

“There’s no one here that we can’t run with,” he declared, thus putting his car and team right up there with the Yarborough – Foyt – Pearson - Petty clan.

If fear exists in the hearts of race car drivers, it's hard to find. That was a natural question for Guthrie, and one she’s obviously had to answer many times.

“Scared? Not on the track. I wouldn’t belong out there if I was,” she replied. There are those who still don’t think she belongs “out there” - fear or no fear.

“Breaking the sex barrier in auto racing really hasn't been completed. One woman can't change all the attitudes,” she said. “But there’s been progress. I’m told that, even David Pearson has said some good things about me. Yarborough and Petty are the last major holdouts. When they finally accept me, then the battle will be pretty well won,” Guthrie said.

Janet Guthrie

At 38 and single, Guthrie has run in 145 races. She has been in a few track smash-ups, but has never been hospitalized. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in physics. She worked seven years in the aerospace industry as a physicist before her love of automobiles lured her into racing.

Guthrie caught the nation’s eye last year when she became the first woman to pass rookie tests for the famous Indianapolis 500 Memorial Day race, but then failed to qualify for the prestigious event.

“There’s a recurring theme that I don’t deserve the shot I’m getting in racing,” she said. “I’ve built my own engines since 1964, and I've done without as much sleep and spent as much money on racing as anyone here at Daytona. But there are some who think I just waltzed in here because I’m a woman,” she snapped.

For Ryan, the brief Saturday afternoon trial run confirmed a nagging suspicion among his crew that something was amiss. There was. A bent push rod in his Camaro's engine broke during the run. But with 20 hours to go before the start of Sunday’s 500, there was plenty of time for the Iowan’s mechanics to tear apart the engine and repair it.

There are various estimates as to what it costs to run a late model stock car on the NASCAR circuit. Hutcherson said it would range from $200,000 to $300,000 a year. A car owner pays the bills, such as the $1,200 worth of tires that Stott said be would expend at Daytona alone. A sponsor, such as Jack Housby (Housby Mack) of Des Moines, antes up some cash just to have his name printed on the auto. He sponsors Stott’s car. Drivers make their own deals with the car owners.

Stott had one word for his car’s trial performance in Saturday's test: “Decent.” The 42-year-old veteran was about to go into his twelfth Daytona 500.

“I think about the glory things of racing, not crashing,” be said. “All I worry about is how I can get up to the front of the pack. Some nights I get to thinking, ‘Can I draft up to Petty?’ or something like that.”

Drafting is a popular maneuver in auto racing. It’s nothing more than following bumper-to-bumper to a car in front, taking advantage of the lead car’s vacuum effect as it slices the wind. Some drivers settle for this tailgate position for many laps until they have an opportunity late in the race to “slingshot” around the car ahead.

Over at the Hutcherson stall in the rows of open garages in the speedway’s infield, Leon Hutcherson of Keokuk, father of mechanic Dick and driver Ron, watched as Dick and other pit crewmen “applied security” to their car.

Inside its trunk they disconnected the pipes to the gas tank and sealed them with tape. On the car’s exterior, the gas tank opening was taped shut, and wire seals were affixed to the trunk and hood lids. Then Dick taped the underside of the tarp to the car’s fenders, the final touch.

“They put guards out here at night, but they can’t see everything,” explained the elder Hutcherson. “We can’t prove it, but on Thursday, we had an oil leak in the car, and we think someone might have been messing around because we found a loose nut on the motor. Johnny Rutherford had the same thing happen,” he said.

For the fifth time, the public address announcer ordered everyone out of the garages, and some of the mechanics even made moves as if they might obey.

Daytona 500 race day dawned cool, cloudy and unruly. The clouds and coolness eventually faded, but the wind didn’t. It later was to whip what some drivers said were “tons of trash” - hot dog wrappers, cups and other paper items - out of the vast grandstands onto the track. It was sucked into the speeding cars, clogging radiators and overheating engines. Two-thirds of the cars starting the race failed to finish, many because of the “trashing.”

More than 135,000 people converged that day on the Daytona Speedway, creating traffic jams that lasted longer than the race itself. The week before the race, the Daytona Speedway became a hub of madness. More than 6,000 persons flew into nearby Orlando, Fla., on the Friday before race day, setting a one-day record for that city's international airport. There wasn’t a motel room available within 100 miles of Daytona.

Among the fans was none other than Billy Carter, who out-drawled everyone when he told the throng how much he liked stock car racing. Oakland Raider quarterback Kenny “Snake” Stabler was there. He said he admired the courage of anyone who would drive a car at 180 miles an hour.

The speedway infield looked like a rock festival with Winnebago’s. Jeans clad youngsters toted coolers of beer to the tops of the campers and settled in for the day. A few thousand transistor radios blared forth constant country-western. Pretty girls hawked souvenir programs and Cale Yarborough T-shirts. Young boys raced toy cars in the dust outside their parents’ RVs. Girls in backless blouses mingled among people huddled over hand warming campfires.

The band from Daytona’s Seabreeze High School performed in front of the grandstand during the pre-race hoopla. Someone in the infield shot aerial bomb fireworks at an ABC-TV helicopter. The Goodyear blimp lolled overhead. The race drivers were introduced individually as they climbed onto a reviewing stand then descended to a good-luck kiss from a Southern belle decked out in a Winston cigarette uniform.

Ryan stumbled on the stand. Stott tried to kiss the girl with his brimmed hat on, but it got in the way. He took it off. Guthrie didn’t kiss the Winston girl.

Then it was time…

“We have something new this year,” mentioned the race announcer. “For the first time ... LADY and gentlemen! (Dramatic pause) START YOUR ENGINES!”

The roar of 42 un-muffled, hyped-up engines was deafening. Ron Hutcherson had said earlier that he is unable to hear for a full day after be races.

The cars loom away, committed to an afternoon of chase. Pit crews stood by nervously the first few laps of the race, then began edging around, building up for their eye popping performances.

Refueling, a change of four tires, a windshield cleaning, a check under the hood and a drink of water or juice for the driver - all in less than 30 seconds.

For Iowans Ron, Ramo and Terry, it was not a good day. Hutcherson’s engine blew up before the race was half over. He was out. Stott hit a wall He was out Ryan blew a tire on the 168th lap and smashed up. He was out. Stott and Ryan had been close to the leaders. Observers said Ryan did a superb driving job to prevent a more serious accident that would have involved other cars.

That left Janet Guthrie as the only native Iowan still in the race. Her car ran “beautifully” for the first 100 laps, she said later. “Then, the engine went sour, probably due to some sort of ignition problem.”

“They called me into the pit, looked under the hood, and sent me back out,” she said.

Guthrie’s machine putt-putted around the track as her nervous crew counted down the laps and flashed the number remaining on a blackboard. Her car started to smoke. A NASCAR official raced on foot to the Guthrie pit shook his finger at the crew and told them angrily to wave the Guthrie car in. They ignored him. Janet kept driving.

Initially, she was listed as finishing ninth. A later recount of the laps, however, dropped her to twelfth, still good for $17,390 in prize money for her first Daytona 500. For winning it, Cale Yarborough picked up $163,700.

An hour later, Guthrie was still besieged by autograph seekers - men autograph seekers. “Ya’ll one hell of a woman,” one of them drawled. “Hang in there, Janet. Next year, ya’ll gonna win it.”

Winner Yarborough was asked if Guthrie was improving. His off-color reply, which had nothing to do with auto racing - broke up a gallery of reporters.

The Iowa men drivers were considerably more gracious. “Janet has as much right on the track as I do. She does a good job, keeps a cool head,” Ryan said. Hutcherson and Stott agreed.

“But,” added Ryan, “she’s coming into our world; we’re not going into hers, so I don’t feel that we have to do anything differently just because she’s around.”

Guthrie no doubt would agree.

1 comment:

  1. Brings back memories. Only significant error: my engine dropped acylinder or two just ten laps freom the end--not at lap 100.

    Thanks for the nostalgia trip!