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Hood: Best Finish Was The First Finish

Jeff Hood | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 8 2009
 

Waltrip drives on at Darlington.

Waltrip drives on at Darlington.

By Jeff Hood | Senior Correspondent
RacinToday.com

Darlington, S.C. – A recent online fan poll conducted by Darlington Raceway awarded Ricky Craven’s thrilling victory over Kurt Busch earlier this decade as the most-memorable finish during the 1.366-mile speedway’s 60-year history.

 While it would be difficult to vote against the 2003 event which produced the closest finish in NASCAR history, 30 years later I still consider the spring race here in 1979 my favorite moment in the history of stock car racing.

Raised a stone’s throw off Interstate 20 about 55 miles east of Atlanta, Allison, Baker, Parsons, Pearson, Petty, Waltrip and Yarborough were names frequently associated my childhood during the 1970s.

In those days, my connection to the sport was limited to television coverage of what was then known as the Winston Cup Grand National Series on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

Many of my Sundays consisted of going to church in the morning and sitting in my mom’s Mercury outside our home during the afternoons to listen to the Motor Racing Network or the now-defunct Universal Racing Network on a weak AM signal beamed out of Atlanta. 

Another of my fairly regular links to the sport at the time came from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I still consider the late George Cunningham and Ed Hinton, former AJC staffer writers, among the best journalists in the history of motorsports.

And I could hardly wait each Thursday afternoon to open the mailbox and grab the latest edition of NASCAR Grand National Scene.

 Because of my dad’s poor health, I could only dream of one day attending a NASCAR race in person.

My prayers were finally answered during the early morning hours of April 8, 1979. That’s when my father unexpectedly walked up to my bed, tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I’d be interested in going to the NASCAR race in Darlington, S.C. later that day.

He must’ve interpreted the loud screaming sound and fist-pumping action as a yes. Thirty minutes later, we were rolling.

For a kid who was still on the high of watching CBS’ live coverage of the Daytona 500 several weeks earlier and seeing the Allisons and Yarborough slug it out in Turn 3 while Petty roared to victory, the candy store was open for business on this day.

Raised in the country, I began driving the back roads in Morgan County shortly after I turned 8. My first encounter with the Atlanta’s notorious bumper-to-bumper traffic came at the ripe old age of 12.

So as we began our trek toward South Carolina, I really wasn’t surprised when we stopped in Augusta, Ga. for fuel and my dad, who wasn’t feeling too well, asked me to take the wheel of his pickup truck.

A 14-year-old kid roaring down the interstate and bound for his first NASCAR race? I was sure I was in store for something special.

Cruising through the Palmetto State, I remember tuning into American Country Countdown with Bob Kinglsey. I recall him playing Kenny Rogers and the late Dottie West’s “All I Ever Need is You,” which was soaring up the charts. To this date, that is still one of my all-time favorite songs.

Around 11 a.m., I finally got my first distant glimpse of the track called “The Lady in Black”.

Because this was a spur of the moment trip, my first NASCAR experience would include purchasing tickets from a scalper.

My dad plunked down a total of $50 for two tickets in section C, row 14 on the frontstretch, which is today the back straightaway. I think he paid only $5 above face value, so we came out OK.

I could hardly control my emotions as we approached our seats.

This was my Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, Boston Garden and Church Hill Downs all rolled into one.

Not only would I be able to watch my heroes come to life as they roared around the egg-shaped oval for 500 miles, but I quickly realized we had a birds-eye view of pit road.

This was going to be a grand day, indeed.

My favorite driver in those days was Darrell Waltrip, who had qualified second.

At Daytona and Talladega, he drove an Oldsmobile 442. On the short tracks, he drove a Chevrolet Caprice. At Darlington on this day, he was piloting a Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Looking back, I think I actually liked the Gatorade paint scheme on his car more than I actually liked Waltrip as a driver.

I remember consuming a lot of Gatorade as a kid and, for some reason, saving the labels off the bottles to salute my favorite NASCAR driver and team.

I guess marketing campaigns really work.

Waltrip had a penchant for running his mouth back then (some things never change) and naming his cars.

There was Maybelline, the Olds that finished second to Petty in Daytona that season. He also had cars named Bertha and Dolly in his stable.

But on this Sunday, he was going to war with “Wicked Wanda.”

I remember Waltrip’s Gatorade-sponsored Chevrolet jumping into the lead early and dominating much of the race. Wanda was kicking some Darlington tail.

As the race evolved, it was turning into a three-horse race between Waltrip, Donnie Allison and the sport’s all-time winningest driver, Richard Petty.

Though he wasn’t much of a factor early, David Pearson was still determined to pounce late and show the 50,000 fans in attendance why he was called the silver fox.

But just as he began to make his patented move toward the front of the field, the left-side tires fell off his No. 21 Purolator Mercury on lap 301 of 367 as he exited pit road

I sat in disbelief as, arguably the most recognizable car in NASCAR, came to a stop directly in front of me.

Two days later, I was stunned to learn that Pearson’s affiliation with the legendary Wood Brothers was over. And I was there to witness their last hurrah.

Back to the race:

After lapping the field, it was still evident that the trophy topped with a can of CRC Chemicals would be going home with and Allison, Petty or Waltrip.

Over the final 18 laps, Petty and Waltrip were credited with swapping the lead six times.

When NASCAR flagman Harold Kinder displayed the white flag, it was Petty by a few feet over Waltrip as they flashed past the start-finish line.

 The two superstars wound up exchanging the lead an incredible four times during the final lap on what is considered by many to be the trickiest track in racing.

 Waltrip’s cross-over move, going into what was then Turn 3, put his DiGard-owned Chevy into the lead for good.

Petty was relegated to fending off a hard-charging Allison.

Waltrip celebrated his win by sipping a little Gatorade and a lot of wine in victory lane.

 But in my eyes, a 14-year-old kid from Georgia was the real winner that day.

Jeff Hood | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 8 2009
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  • John Sturbin says:

    Jeff: From It’s-A-Small-World Department…turns out I covered my first NASCAR GN race in the summer of 1979 at Texas World Speedway in College Station. And my advance for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was about Darrell Waltrip, driving “Wicked Wanda” there, too. If memory serves, D.W. won the race the next day. My other memory of that weekend was a first-time, albiet brief, interview with an intimidating dude named Dale Earnhardt, during which he pleaded for additional funding from Chevrolet. And oh yeah…I got a traffic ticket in my beloved 1968 Camaro from a security guard on the campus of Texas A&M University for not signalling a turn. But he liked the car…