Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Nashville 420

Darrell Waltrip of Franklin, Tenn., waits for the start of the 1976 Nashville 420 - David Allio photo

by Kyle Ealy
Nashville, Tenn. – While I’m not a fan of the modern day NASCAR, there are certain drivers, events and racetracks from the 1960’s and 70’s that appeal to my historical curiosity.

The Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is the second oldest operating racetrack in the United States, constructed in 1904. Only the Milwaukee Mile, built in 1903, is older and still active.

It was initially a one and eighth mile dirt oval, but the track was reconfigured into a half-mile paved oval in 1958. That same year, NASCAR came calling, staging a 200-lap Grand National event. A capacity crowd of 13,998 watched Joe Weatherly win the first NASCAR race on August 10. It would be the beginning of a love affair between the city and the premier racing sanction in the United States.

In 1969, the track was reconfigured for a second time; a 5/8-mile oval with 35 degree banking. The track’s steep banking would generate a great deal of speed for the next few years.

To showcase the track’s new configuration, the promoters put together a 420-lap, 250-mile NASCAR Grand National event. The race was called the Nashville 420 and for the next 15 years, sell-out crowds would watch some of the biggest stars in racing compete against each other.

Bobby Isaac in victory lane after winning the 1970 Nashville 420.

Before a record crowd of 17,000 and a nationally televised audience on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Bobby Isaac of Catawba, N.C., would drive his 1969 Dodge to victory on July 25, 1970 with an average speed of 87.830 miles per hour. Isaac survived the race that saw a starting field of 36 reduced to nine at the finish because of extreme heat and a rough track that knocked many cars out with blown tires. Isaac collected $3,310 for his eighth victory of the season, and his 29th career Grand National victory. The time of the race was two hours, 60 minutes and 47 seconds.

Lee Roy Yarbrough of Columbia, S.C., and Richard Petty of Randleman, N.C., were co-favorites going into the race, but neither was a factor at the end. Yarbrough, who qualified at 116.618 miles per hour to grab the pole, jumped into the early lead. Petty overtook Yarbrough after 17 laps, and both of them held wide margins over the rest of the field until misfortune hit both of them. Lee Roy completed 45 laps when his right front tire blew and be hit the northeast wall, putting him out of the race. Petty lasted through 154 laps, when the same thing happened to him and he bent the front end of 1970 Plymouth so badly he could not continue.

Petty would get his revenge the next year and dominate in a way that only “King Richard” could. Leading all but 20 laps, Petty would earn his 132nd career NASCAR victory as his 1971 Plymouth passed cars effortlessly.

Winning $4,025 to boost his career earnings to about $2,500 short of the $1 million career mark, Petty held 60-second plus leads throughout most of the race at the 5/8-mile track.

Bobby Allison was the only other leader, darting ahead on the second lap and holding the lead until the 22nd lap when he went out with a broken torsion bar.

Petty finished about 40 seconds ahead of second place James Hylton of Inman, S.C. in a Ford. Hylton, who ran second throughout the second half of the race, won $2,375. Benny Parsons, of Ellerbe, N.C. was third in a Ford and won $1,525. Like the year before, heat and a rough track took its toll as only 13 of 29 starters finished.

Bobby Allison set a new track record in qualifying en route to winning the 1972 Nashville 420. He's shown here with car owner Junior Johnson and mechanic Herb Nab. 


An error by “The King” would prove costly during the third annual Nashville 420 on August 26, 1972.  A one-lap penalty against Petty would provide the necessary margin of victory for Bobby Allison.

Allison would take the pole position, setting a new track record in qualifying at a blistering 116.932 miles per hour. Petty, would qualify second fastest and start alongside Allison on the front row. With 19,500 enthusiastic race fans on the edge of their seats, a two-man duel between Allison and Petty would ensue, with both drivers going neck and-neck for the top spot for three-quarters of the race.

Petty would have to make a pit stop on the 327th lap to change tires. The all-time NASCAR money winner would gun it back onto the track coming out of the pits and according to officials; “was going too fast to obey a ‘stop’ flag that was being waved because of congestion at the pit exit.”

Two laps later, Petty was halted and handed the penalty which gave the race to Allison. The Hueytown, Ala., racer put it on cruise control after that and won by little less than a lap. Finishing in third place was Darrell Waltrip of Franklin, Tenn.

While 35 degree banking provided high speeds, it also proved to be too treacherous for the local weekend racers and for a third time, the track was once again modified; this time to its current day 18 degree banking.

On Saturday, August 25, 1973, another record crowd of 25,000 would watch Buddy Baker win the Nashville 420 without any strategy and Cale Yarborough lose it by wrecking during a caution light.

Baker, of Charlotte, N.C., led the last third of the race after Yarborough threatened to make it a runaway earlier.

“I didn’t really have a strategy,” Baker said afterwards. “Luck was on my side.”

Yarborough, the pole sitter, wrecked while leading on the 258th lap when his Chevrolet skidded down the front straightaway and smacked the retaining wall. He would make repairs and return to the race 14 laps later but was never a factor again. He finished 14th.

Baker, who started seventh, said he was right behind Yarborough when he wrecked. “He just came in too fast,” said Baker, who led the rest of the way and pocketed $5,200 of the $43,000 purse.

Petty would finish second, five laps behind Baker when the checkers waved. Coo Coo Marlin, David Sisco and Ed Negre would round out the top five.

Who won? Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough made victory lane a bit crowded after their controversial race in 1974.

Every annual racing event has its one moment of controversy and on Saturday, July 20, 1974, the Nashville 420 ended in confusion with Bobby Allison challenging Cale Yarborough’s apparent victory.

Yarborough, of Timmonsville, S. C., driving a Chevrolet took the checkered flag ahead of Allison, also in a Chevrolet, but it was both drivers who headed for victory lane afterwards, both claiming they had won the race.

“I showed them where he (Yarborough) lost two laps,” Allison told newspaper reporters after the race. He said the pace car was put in front of the wrong car after an early accident, allowing Yarborough to make up one lap.

“They (Yarborough) sat in the corner for a lap after the wreck near the end,” added Allison. “NASCAR didn't notice that.”

“Bobby is making claims that aren’t true,” replied a hot Yarborough.

Allison immediately filed a challenge, claiming Yarborough lost two laps which officials failed to detect.

Two days later, Bill France Jr. and officials ruled in favor of Yarborough. NASCAR officials said Yarborough was probably credited with an extra lap, but added that penalties must be assessed during the race, not after it is over. In reviewing the tape, not only was Yarborough awarded the win, but NASCAR scorers also gave Darrell Waltrip an extra lap, which moved him from fifth to third, followed by David Sisco and Alton Jones.

Yarborough would become the first two-time winner of the Nashville 420 Grand National race on July 20, 1975, and this time without controversy.

But he would have to spin out intentionally in order to win it…

On lap 307, Yarborough was leading when David Sisco spun in front of him on the fourth turn. "I spun intentionally to keep from hitting him," Yarborough said afterwards. "I would have T-boned him."

Yarborough, of Timmonsville, S.C., hit nothing, sped on and was able to maintain his lead the rest of the race. He would lead 385 of the 420 laps and earn a nice $6,235 payday.

Richard Petty was second, a lap behind, and won $3,805, including qualifying and appearance money, to push his 17-year career earnings to within some $6,400 of the $2 million mark.

Historically a Saturday night event, the race was postponed because of showers and moved to Sunday afternoon. Over 21,000 race fans braved a hot, humid day and witnessed a Yarborough-Petty duel in the early going that lasted until the midpoint of the long grind. Yarborough would eventually extend his lead by eight seconds after the halfway point and lap Petty on lap 365.

Dave Marcis of Skyline, N.C., finished third two laps back and Benny Parsons, the pole sitter, took fourth eight laps back although Coo Coo Marlin drove the last fourth of the race for him because of the 95-degree heat.

Benny Parsons would win the 1976 Nashville 420.

Benny Parsons, who had been a strong contender at the 5/8-mile track the past few years, finally got over the hump, winning the Nashville 420 on July 20, 1976. Parsons beat Richard Petty by 15 seconds for his second victory NASCAR victory of the year.

Parsons, who started from the sixth position, took the lead for good on lap 330 when Buddy Baker’s car dropped a valve. Baker had led most of the race, usually by a comfortable 20 seconds.

Darrell Waltrip would finish third, right behind Petty. Lennie Pond and two-time winner Cale Yarborough rounded out the top five.

Parsons, driving a 1976 Chevrolet, won $6,615 and Petty in his Dodge earned $4,065.

The previous weekend, Bobby Allison had suffered multiple injuries during a race in Elko, Minn., and had spent several days in the hospital. But you can’t keep a good racer down for long. Neil Bonnett would put Allison’s Mercury on the pole during Friday qualifying and on Saturday night, Allison, released from the hospital less than 24 hours, would slip behind the wheel, complete 415 laps, and finish seventh.

On July 16, 1977, hometown favorite Darrell Waltrip would overcome 90 degree plus temperatures, open up a 40-second lead at the halfway point and hold on to capture his first career Nashville 420. Waltrip, who started his Chevrolet from the sixth position, won $9,415 of the $62,000 purse.

Bobby Allison grabbed second place and Richard Petty finished third. Both were some 25 seconds behind Waltrip.

The race developed into a Waltrip - Allison duel at the midway point after earlier leaders fell out of competition because of either wrecks or mechanical troubles.

Pole-sitter and defending champion Benny Parsons led the first 32 laps until losing a wheel during a caution lap. He was never a threat thereafter. National point leader Cale Yarborough fell out of the race shortly afterwards when he lost four laps because of a cut tire. Nevertheless, he finished fourth.

Janet Guthrie, the first woman driving in the Indianapolis 500, started 15th and finished in the same spot in the 30-car field with relief driving from Richard Childress for the last two-thirds of the race.

As soon as the checkers waved, rumors going around mentioned that this was possibly the last Nashville 420 at the Fairgrounds. A new super speedway was being built across town and consensus was the race would move there. It didn’t happen…yet.
Cale Yarborough was king of the NASCAR mountain in 1978. Pulling into Nashville on July 14, he had won six of 12 races on the circuit and was well on his way to defending his Winston Cup championship.

After qualifying for the front row in his Buick, Yarborough made short work of the field, leading 411 of 420 laps and winning by a full two laps over his nearest competitor, defending race winner Darrell Waltrip. It was Yarborough’s third career Nashville 420 win.

Waltrip, who was driving a Chevrolet, survived a two-car pileup with O.K. Ulrich on the 259th lap. Ulrich also continued in the race to finish 20th.

Taking the checkered flag behind Yarborough and Waltrip were Richard Childress, Dave Marcis, J.D. McDuffie, Benny Parsons, Bobby Allison, Dick Brooks and rookie Ronnie Thomas.

Lennie Pond of Chester, Va., had won the pole position Friday by pushing his 1975 Chevrolet around the 5/8-mile oval in an average time of 104.009 miles per hour. Yarborough drove at an average of 103.938 mph to gain the number two spot.

Just before climbing into the cockpit of his race car on July 14, 1979, Darrell Waltrip told a track official he was going to win. Waltrip, 32, the hometown favorite from suburban Franklin, would make good on his promise and snare his fifth victory of the Grand National season on the 5/8-mile winning by a lap and two seconds over Yarborough.

Waltrip, who began the race from the pole position, led for all but five laps of the 250-mile event. A broken valve during the last 20 laps, however, gave him some anxious moments

“I heard the valve go - I heard it on the pipes,” Waltrip said. “I was heartbroken. The car was missing, it was firing on seven cylinders, but it was still going. The gauges were okay. Nobody was catching me so I kept going. Luckily, so did the car.”

Despite the engine problems, Yarborough, like Waltrip, driving a Monte Carlo, was able to make up only one second on the leader during the final 20 laps.

“Darrell could outrun me down the straights, I just couldn't stay with him,” Yarborough said after the race.

In the battle for third, Dale Earnhardt from Kannapolis, N.C., took the flag ahead of Benny Parsons from Ellerbe, N.C.

Rising star Dale Earnhardt won his first Nashville 420 in 1980. - Bobby Jones Photo

Dale Earnhardt practiced while most drivers sought a cool spot to escape 101-degree heat the day of the 1980 Nashville 420 on July 12. Earnhardt said his Saturday afternoon practice prepared him for the 150-degree temperature in his car on Saturday night.

“It set the car up for real hot temperatures that we encountered - tires heating up real hot. We got an idea of what the heat was going to be and it helped us.”

Earnhardt edged polesitter Cale Yarborough by two car lengths to win the Grand National stock car race before a near-capacity crowd of 16,700. The 29-year-old driver from Kannapolis, N.C., set a race record, averaging 93.811 miles per hour on the 5/8-mile oval. Bobby Allison, who finished sixth, set the old record of 92.240 mph in 1972.

Richard Petty was not so lucky. He pitted on the 347th lap and collapsed. His crew gave him oxygen as relief driver Harry Gant took the wheel, finishing fifth.

The race's only caution flag came on the 384th lap, when Allison spun on the front straightaway. That set up a three-way race between Earnhardt, Yarborough and Benny Parsons.

With Earnhardt and Yarborough running on four new tires, Parsons couldn't keep pace with the bumper-to bumper racing. Yarborough tried bump-and-run tactics as well to slip around Earnhardt, but he couldn't get past the 1979 Rookie of the Year.

"That was one of the best races I ever won," Earnhardt said. "If Benny had changed all four tires like Cale and I did, I think he would have been in the battle for the lead."

The race was the first since NASCAR dropped a rule penalizing drivers for changing tires during a caution period on a short track. Earnhardt said changing the rule “kept it a competitive race. It wasn’t a runaway.”

Yarborough picked up $10,160 for his second-place finish. Parsons trailed by a half lap and received $7,910. Waltrip, the defending race winner, was one lap back and got $5,750 for fourth.

Mark Martin (02) and Dale Earnhardt (2) battle during the 1981 Nashville 420. - David Allio Photo

The newly-renamed Busch Nashville 420 would see a dogfight between NASCAR point’s leader, Bobby Allison, and the hometown hero Darrell Waltrip on Saturday, July 11, 1981.

Waltrip would hold off Allison's late charge to win a nearly race-long duel between the two veteran speedsters as Waltrip picked up his third career Nashville 420 victory, crossing the finish line on the 420th lap around the high-banked 5/8-mile track just one car length ahead of Allison.

Allison, the NASCAR season point leader, kept trying to go past Waltrip on the outside in the turns on the final few laps. But Waltrip managed to stay in front, then finally moved up higher on the track for the last lap and simply outran Allison to the finish.

The 34-year-old driver, piloting a Buick Regal prepared by Junior Johnson, picked up first-place money of $14,700 from the $130,000 purse.

Waltrip was holding a lead of about four seconds over Allison as the third and final caution flag of the 250-mile race came on lap 346 when Tommy Houston spun between turns one and two.

That gave Waltrip and Allison an opportunity to make their final pit stops under the yellow flag. Both took on fuel and changed all four tires and Allison was in front when the green flag fell on lap 351. But it took Waltrip just four laps to move past.

From that point on, it was a bumper-to-bumper battle between the two Buicks, with the Nashville crowd, estimated at more than 20,000, on its feet much of the time.

Benny Parsons was a distant third in a Ford Thunderbird, with Ricky Rudd's Oldsmobile Cutlass fourth and Terry Labonte's Buick fifth. Both Rudd and Labonte were a lap behind the leaders.

Quickly becoming known as the “King of Short Tracks”, Waltrip would continue to make the speedway his own personal stomping ground as he would grab his fourth career Nashville 420 on July 10, 1982. Starting third, the brash 35-year-old driver would lead 400 of the 420 circuits, lapping the star-studded field by lap 151.

Waltrip won $22,025 from the total purse of $158,075 as he averaged 86.524 miles per hour.

Terry Labonte, driving a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, wound up second, about five seconds behind Waltrip on the track and more than a lap behind in the race.

Harry Gant, in a Buick, made a valiant effort shortly after the halfway point of the 420-lap event to get back onto the same lap with the leader. But he never was able to get past and eventually slipped to third. He was followed by Ricky Rudd in a Pontiac Grand Prix, and Tim Richmond in a Buick.

Dale Earnhardt celebrates after winning the 1983 Nashville 420.

Dale Earnhardt would prove that the rest of NASCAR's drivers were starting to catch up with Darrell Waltrip. On July 16, 1983, Earnhardt would guide his Bud Moore-prepared Ford to a one-half lap victory over Waltrip's Chevrolet in the Saturday night special.

In the process, Earnhardt snapped Waltrip's four-race win streak at Nashville and broke his own personal string of 39 consecutive Grand National starts without a victory. Earnhardt had last entered the winner's circle in 1982 at the TransSouth 500 at Darlington, S.C., while Waltrip last tasted defeat on his home track in the 1981 Cracker Barrel 420.

"I knew he'd (Waltrip) be the one to beat," said Earnhardt, who averaged 85.726 miles per hour around the 5/8-mile oval. "Darrell was a little off, but he was still the one to beat. It's always hard to beat Darrell on the short tracks, but there are a lot of guys that are tough to beat.”

"This year we changed our car around to run on the bottom of the track. We didn't run too hard at first. We wanted to save the car for the end of the race, and it just kept getting better and better," explained Earnhardt.

Waltrip, who had led 1,201 of the last 1,260 laps he had run at Nashville, appeared ready to make a shambles of the race when the green flag dropped on the field. He jumped ahead of polesitter Ron Bouchard and held a three-length lead after only one lap.

But the two-time defending Winston Cup points champion found challengers everywhere he looked. The race saw 12 lead changes with Earnhardt, Waltrip, Neil Bonnett, Bobby Allison and Dave Marcis all in front of the pack at least once.

Earnhardt's Ford took the lead for the third and final time when it beat Bonnett's Chevrolet out of the pits during the race's fourth caution flag.

Earnhardt first subdued a challenge by Tim Richmond and then held off Waltrip over the race's final 72 miles.

Richmond finished third, just ahead of Allison, the series point’s leader. Both were one lap behind the leader. Ricky Rudd was fifth, three laps behind Earnhardt.

One more name change was in store for the 420-lap race; it would be called the Nashville Pepsi 420 and sadly, it would be the last Grand National race at the speedway.
After a five-year Earnhardt-Waltrip stranglehold on victory lane, a new winner would emerge in former East Coast modified star Geoff Bodine. The race was watched by an all-time record crowd of 25,150.

Geoff Bodine won the 1984 Nashville 420, the last Winston Cup race to be run at Fairgrounds Speedway. 

Bodine, the New York transplant now living in North Carolina, spent the closing laps of the race watching his rearview mirror and hoping he wouldn’t make a mistake. Looming large in that mirror was none other than Darrell Waltrip.

But Bodine never slipped, beating Waltrip by about two car-lengths for his second career victory and second of the season.

The winner led the 420-lap event six times for a total of 326 laps, but Waltrip - the only other driver on the same lap at the end – wouldn’t fade.

"I don't really know if he got faster, or we slowed down there at the end." said the 35-year-old Bodine. "I think Darrell just reached back for a little more.”

“Really, there was no reason for me to try to try to get away from him late in the race. So, I just tried to run comfortably and not make a mistake.”

“All it would have taken was one little slip and he would’ve gotten by,” Bodine added. “And I seriously doubt if I could get back by him.”

Waltrip said, "I was racing really hard, trying to see if I could get by Geoff, but I saw I couldn't. And I was using up my tires pretty fast.”

"So, I held up a little after that to see if I could slip by him. I tried to go by with about three laps to go, but I couldn't do it. He just had a little better tire there at the end."

Dale Earnhardt, who was a lap behind, would finish third. Ron Bouchard and Bobby Allison were fourth and fifth, respectively, also a lap behind. Allison lost a lap and his shot at the victory when he had to pit because of a flat tire 62 laps from the end.

Despite the success of the Nashville 420, financial problems at the track had been apparent in 1984 and it came to a head when California businessman Warner Hodgdon, who owned the majority of the stock in Nashville Speedway Inc., declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy on the track February 7, 1985. The track was leased from the State Fair Board.

Gary Baker, a former partner of Hodgdon's who paid off the track's $102,000-plus 1984 debt, foreclosed on the track in early March of ’85 and a foreclosure auction was scheduled.

A few days later, NASCAR decided to withdraw its sanctioning of two Grand National races at the financially troubled speedway, the Music City 420 held in May and the Nashville 420 in July. After playing host to NASCAR events for 27 years, it was all over.

Nashville’s hometown hero, Darrell Waltrip summed it up best, “"Because of greed on some people's part and procrastination on others' parts, they have lost the premier spring events in Middle Tennessee.”

"Under the circumstances, everyone is a loser, from the state of Tennessee to Joe Blow who owns a race car."
With new ownership, the track continued to stage weekly racing and in 1981, the All American 400 became a reality; a race that’s still held annually to this day. In 1995, the NASCAR Busch Series would return. A year later, the Craftsman Truck Series would make their first appearance. But both series would eventually move to the new Nashville Superspeedway in 2001.

As of 2011, both Waltrip and multi-time track champion and former NASCAR star Sterling Marlin were trying to save the track, which were the cradle of their distinguished careers.

"It’s the best racetrack in the country," Marlin stated "It's the best short track layout ever. You can run side by side for 100 laps."

Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is termed by many as “the short tracks of short tracks” and the Nashville 420 was definitely one of the premier short track events that will be remembered always.

No comments:

Post a Comment