By Trevor WilliamsBrainerd, Minn. (February 27, 2007) - "Lead, follow or get the heck out of my way."
That was the racing philosophy of Minnesota native and former NASCAR driver Joe Frasson. He is the most accomplished NASCAR driver from Minnesota, having raced in more than 100 events on what is now the Nextel circuit.
Frasson was born in south Minneapolis and grew up in Golden Valley. He began his career by racing sprint cars and roadsters.
He developed a reputation of being one of the more popular drivers at Elko Speedway during the 1960s. In one race he was dueling Blackie Wangerin, another Minnesotan who would later make it into NASCAR. After Frasson went up a lap, Wangerin decided to take Frasson out and spun both of their cars.
"I was pretty hot tempered back then," Frasson said. "I got out of the car and went after him. Some track officials tried to grab me. I guess I knocked Blackie down along with a couple officials. I didn't know I hit Blackie as hard as I did. I put him in the hospital with a concussion."
After the incident Frasson was barred from Elko, but because he was so popular, they eventually relented and let him back in.
"As a joke the next week I came back with a black hat since I'm the bad boy," Frasson said. "I wore that hat at the racetrack ever since. I guess the reputation has followed me. Any track I went to, short track, dirt, USAC (United States Auto Club), NASCAR, if you wanted to find Big Joe, find the black hat and the cigar."
In 1969 Frasson decided to move on to bigger things when racing legend A.J. Foyt, whom he raced with in USAC, talked him into going to Riverside, Calif. to try his luck at NASCAR.
"Foyt told me, 'Those NASCAR boys aren't so tough. We can whup 'em!'" Frasson said. "Boy was he wrong!"
Frasson had some small success, finishing in the top ten 19 times, but most NASCAR fans remember him only for being inadvertently part of the wild finish at the 1976 Daytona 500.
Way ahead of the rest of the field, Richard Petty and David Pearson went into the final lap first and second, respectively.
Pearson took the lead going into turn three by drafting Petty and then going inside. Petty was then able to get around Pearson in turn four to regain the lead. As they came out of turn four, Petty moved to the right of Pearson, trying to close the door on him but instead clipped Pearson, sending both of them spinning.
At the same time Frasson was running a lap down.
"I went to the bottom of the track to try to avoid it and David came down and hit me in the side," Frasson said. "That knocked him back toward the track. It knocked me down pit row."
While Pearson hit Frasson, Petty's car came to a dead stop, but his crew ran out toward his car.
Pearson had engaged the clutch during the melee to keep his car running. In first gear, at what some estimated between 20 to 30 mph, Pearson slowly drove toward the finish line, several hundred feet away. As Petty's crew reached his car and began pushing, Pearson puttered past Petty and won the race.
"It's taken from the day of the crash until last year to get David to finally admit to the press that if he hadn't hit me, which knocked him back toward the track, he wouldn't have won the race," Frasson laughed.
Frasson is also known for the aborted attempt in 1975 to get Pontiac back into racing. He was approached by NASCAR and a motor company to field Pontiac cars, but it didn't turn out as planned.
"NASCAR wouldn't let me have a spoiler on the back of the Pontiac," he said. "You couldn't drive it, you couldn't hold it straight. When I missed qualifying at Charlotte, it was time for the Pontiac to go."
Frustrated, he decided to destroy the car with a tire iron.
"I didn't hit anywhere around the carburetor, windshield or glass," he said. "I could use that to make a Chevrolet. If I didn't destroy it, the car would go back to the shop and we'd be using it for the next race.
"The press said, 'Good Lord! Why didn't you tell us you were going to do that? We would like to get some pictures.' I said, 'Gather round, we'll do it again.' So the press gathered around, I did it again and NASCAR fined me $1,000."
Outside of NASCAR, Frasson participated in the first two Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash races, which would later inspire the film "The Cannonball Run" with Burt Reynolds.
Bill Broderick of the Union Oil Co. convinced Frasson to drive a Travco motor home that someone wanted delivered from New York to California.
"By the time I reached California, the party was over," Frasson said.
The next year Broderick wanted Frasson to drive a motor home again, but Frasson declined. However, Broderick told Frasson that Travco would build the motor home any way he wanted.
"I'll drive on one condition they have a 426 Hemi, a four-speed road race transmission, a 327 gear and special shocks," Frasson told Broderick. "That crazy motor home ended up running 140 mph!"
As the 1970's progressed, Frasson raced less and less in NASCAR. He was making money as a short track driver, but the amount of money to keep his NASCAR car running was tying up his finances.
One of his major last races was in the Late Model Sportsman 300 at Daytona, the precursor to today's Busch Series Orbitz 300.
Frasson had his own car ready to go, yet decided not to drive, having a bad feeling about the race.
"But Marion 'Preacher' Cox called me and begged me to drive his car," he said. "I told him I had a bad feeling. He said, 'You're the only one who can make money on my car for me. I fired the driver and lost the sponsor.'
Reluctantly, Frasson took Cox's car. Surprisingly, it ran well and Frasson began moving up the pack.
Then tragedy struck.
A driver blew a clutch. Another driver who was driving Petty's car went low to avoid it but turned sideways and lost control of the car. Frasson had to choose between going straight into the spinning driver's side door or going into the wall. Frasson chose the wall. But it wasn't enough.
"I hit the wall and quarter panel of Petty's car so hard it spun him around," he said. "He came down on top of my hood and drove the left front wheel into the clutch and brake pedal.
"The car caught fire. I'm trying to get out of the car, taking off my seatbelts because the car is burning. I heard a voice that said, 'Joe - sit down!' So, I sat back down, snapped the lap belt back on. That's when a car driven by Don Williams, a rookie, who had gone through three caution lights, took the caution flag, but kept running wide open, slammed into the back of my car.
"Of course, the car exploded. It rolled end over end. And it happened so fast. For a moment I thought I had gone blind. My goggles had melted and ran down into my eyes. Amazingly, I had only some superficial burns, including half my beard burned off."
While Frasson walked away from the wreck, Williams went into a coma for 10 years before finally dying.
Soon afterward Frasson was out of NASCAR as a driver for good.
"I went back to open competition dirt Outlaw racing," he said. "That's where I was successful, and all my wins came. Racing Champions, this company that makes racing cards like baseball cards, they documented some 450 short track wins."
Frasson is not a fan of today's NASCAR. "It's not racing anymore," he said. "It's, 'Oh, don't you bump that car in front of you. We'll fine you and bar you!'
"What are we doing gentleman racing? Then let's not do it for money, let's do it for a glass of wine!"
"My favorite drivers are the guys I came up with, like Foyt, Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Bobby Unser. Those guys were race car drivers. We'd race speedways, short tracks, dirt tracks, stock cars, sprint cars, Indy cars. If there was a race, we were going to be there.
"These cats today, two-thirds of them are lost when they get on a road course. God help the crowd if they ever had to run an eighth-mile dirt track."
He shrugs off NASCAR's recent crackdown down on cheating. "If you don't cheat, you don't eat."
"But I have never cheated. I just have been a little more competitive than others!" Frasson said.