The 600 Has Always Been A Test Of Survival

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 23 2019
The front row for the start of the first 600-miler at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photos courtesy of Charlotte Motor Speedway archives)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

Decades before the reality television show “Survivor” there was an event that truly tested one’s survival skills. No script existed for this “survivor” show because there had never been a 600-mile stock car race, but it certainly tested men’s courage and ingenuity.

Racing tires existed, but they didn’t have inner liners and they were mounted on passenger cars that had been modified for racing. There were no fire retardant uniforms, no fuel cells, no full-face helmets and no safety equipment for crew members. Drivers and crew members had much more leeway with what they could do to their race cars in that decade and it certainly was needed for Charlotte Motor Speedway’s inaugural World 600 (now Coca-Cola 600) in 1960. With drivers facing a track that was constantly disintegrating, NASCAR told the competitors they could put anything on their cars that would help them survive the race.

Three different sizes of wire, including chicken wire, was used to cover each car’s front grille to prevent flying rocks and chunks of asphalt from knocking holes in the radiator. Some used mud flaps to keep the rocks and gravel from hitting the cars behind them.  Many drivers attached shaker screens to deflect the rocky debris from the car’s windshield. Rex White, the 1960 series champion, took a different approach.

Workers went to work fixing the disintegrating racing surface before the first 600.

“I put three windshields on, one on top of the other, and taped them on with duct tape,” White said. “By the end of the race, the outer windshield was so battered with rocks that I couldn’t even see through it. I wanted to take one off and have a clear windshield, but I never did get to do it.”   

It was a challenging race for everyone – drivers, crew members, NASCAR officials and track co-owners Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner; a challenge that began long before race day.

Construction problems and weather issues forced the race to be pushed back from the originally scheduled date of May 29 to June 19. Yet, even with workers assigned to two 12-hour shifts, paving of the track wasn’t completed until the morning of the first qualifying round. With no time for the asphalt to settle, huge holes erupted in the track’s surface in the turns. Daily patchwork was performed on the track’s surface, but the new asphalt in the South’s sweltering heat was useless. The holes kept appearing. Some were so large that Buck Baker remarked a big Chevrolet Impala could have been half hidden in them.

“The race track was way behind on being ready to go,” White recalled. “Poor pit area, port-a-pots, (and) no running water. They had a water truck sitting there if you needed water for a radiator or anything. You had to bring your own water to drink. The garage area was still dirt. It was quite a mess.

“They had a good crowd. The race track just wasn’t … ready to be raced on. It broke up during the race. It got down to the big size gravel and you could hear it hitting the front of the car.”

Ned Jarrett said “they really didn’t know what they were doing when they paved that race track.”

“They were doing the best they could, but they didn’t know how thick the pavement needed to be or the type of asphalt that they needed to put down,” continued Jarrett, who finished 30th after cutting a tire and hitting the wall while running in the top five.   

Despite the track’s continuous deterioration throughout the week-long practice and qualifying, “Tiger Tom” Pistone never considered withdrawing from the event.

Elmo Henderson (70), Richard Petty (43) and Joe Lee Johnson at CMS.

“I had eight kids to feed,” said Pistone, who used a brush with a long handle to clean his car’s windshield from inside the car during the race.    

Even though the track’s condition was the drivers’ primary concern it wasn’t the only one.

Richard Petty and his father, Lee, believed the torrid June heat would be a problem so they installed air conditioning in their race cars. However, it didn’t perform as expected and they removed it before the race began.

Jarrett’s biggest concern entering the event was his appetite. He conquered that issue during the more than five-hour event by drinking Slim Fast instead of water on specified pit stops. Slim Fast was a nutrient-providing beverage.  

“That extra 100 miles … man, you had to talk to yourself,” said White, who finished sixth. “I didn’t realize what that extra 100 miles would mean to the driver and the car. The way that race track was it was really a chore to finish that race. I tried to dodge the holes as much as I could and not follow close behind a car because they would throw up the gravel and beat the front off the car.”

A NASCAR inspector, left, with Glen and Leonard Wood at CMS in 1960.

Richard Petty, who finished fourth before being disqualified, used a similar tactic.

“I just tried to miss the holes to survive,” Petty said. “You could drive around the holes, but every once in a while somebody would hit one and throw out another rock or (chunk of asphalt).  It was a mess, but at the time everything was so crude.”

Despite the conditions, the Wood Brothers didn’t make any special preparations to their race cars.

“You just took it as another race and prepared your car as good as you could prepare it and trust that it would make it,” Leonard Wood said. “You didn’t know if it would make that extra 100 miles or not until you did it. We blew head gaskets on our cars and we didn’t finish the race.”

The event truly was more about survival than racing. The drivers weren’t accustomed to lengthy events. Prior to the 600, only two events in the 44-race season surpassed 250-miles in length – the Daytona 500 and the Rebel 300 at Darlington. Therefore, the drivers’ attitude during a race was to run every lap at their car’s limit. It was a view that Pistone believed kept him from finishing the event.

“I ran as hard as the car could run and that was stupid,” said Pistone, who finished 31st in the 60-car field. “Fireball (Roberts), myself, Junior Johnson, Jack Smith, all we knew was flat out. I should have backed off, but I was just stupid.

“Tiger” Tom Pistone at the 1960 600.

“I had a hydraulic motor inside the car and I would jack wedge into the car. I jacked in so much wedge that I broke the A-frame.”

Prior to the race, NASCAR told the drivers no one was allowed to enter pit road across the dirt apron separating pit road from the racing surface. To do so would result in disqualification. There had been no time to sow grass and NASCAR was concerned about the dust cloud that would occur.

NASCAR’S directive led to Junior Johnson, Lee and Richard Petty being disqualified after the event.

“Somebody spun me and when I came through there (dirt apron) I just stopped in the pits instead of going around,” Richard Petty said. “They let us run the rest of the race because there weren’t any cars out there. They were falling out. When the race was over they told us we got disqualified halfway through the race, but they let us continue. That was the bad part.”

Johnson’s miscue came early in the race when he lost control of his Pontiac as he exited turn four. His car skidded through the dirt apron, slammed into the victory lane structure located on the edge of pit road and ripped out 30 feet of chain link fence before stopping on pit road.

Lee Petty spun his Plymouth in the same area shortly after Johnson’s accident. The elder Petty once said he closed his eyes because of the dust swirling around him as he spun through the dirt. When he opened them his car had stopped in his pit.

In addition to those three drivers, the other competitors who were disqualified were Bob Welborn, Paul Lewis and Lennie Page.

While the disqualification was disappointing for those six drivers, Jack Smith’s loss was heartbreaking. Smith had driven his Pontiac to a five-lap lead when with less than 50 laps remaining a chunk of asphalt ripped a hole in his car’s fuel tank. Gasoline began gushing from the fuel tank and not even rags and steel wool stuffed into the hole could stop it. Car owner Bud Moore desperately searched for a bar of Octagon soap which was large and soft, perfect for plugging the hole. However, one couldn’t be found.

“At that time, we didn’t even cover the gas tanks,” Richard Petty said. “We never thought about them being busted. After that happened, we put fiberglass on them on our cars.”

With Smith forced to exit the race after completing 352 of the 400 laps, Joe Lee Johnson inherited the lead. He then set the pace for 48 laps to claim his second and final Cup victory, the biggest of his career. Johnson’s margin of victory over runner-up Johnny Beauchamp — four laps.

“It certainly was a great learning experience for Bruton Smith and his crew, NASCAR and the competitors,” Jarrett said.  

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 23 2019
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