Race Weekend Central

Racing at the Beach: Daytona Legends Set the Stage, 1971-75

Editor’s Note: The following is part five of Matt McLaughlin’s 11-part series on the history of racing at Daytona. Miss the first four editions? Don’t worry… we have the links for you here. Enjoy!

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

The Grand National Circuit, in the process of becoming Winston Cup, was very different than it had been when the drivers and teams had been there in 1970. The Factory Wars were over: Ford had announced it would not run any factory teams in 1971, and Chrysler was supporting only two cars, Richard Petty in a Plymouth and Buddy Baker in a Petty Enterprises Dodge. Among those left out in the cold as a result was Bobby Isaac, who had claimed the 1970 championship for Dodge.

NASCAR had some new rules as well; The winged Mopars were all but banned, with a rule stating they had to run a 305 cubic inch engine as opposed to the 426 and 429 big blocks of the time in other cars. Restrictor plates had also been added between the carbs and manifolds of all cars to slow them down, as the speeds were once again beyond the capabilities of tires of the time.

Defending Daytona 500 champion Pete Hamilton won the first 125-mile qualifier race of ’71 in his new ride, a Plymouth out of Cotton Owens’s shop. Also in the race was Fred Lorenzen, attempting a comeback in a Plymouth sponsored by STP. Lorenzen actually led during the race until AJ Foyt got by him in a Wood Brothers Mercury. On the final lap of the race, Foyt had a solid lead on Hamilton when Ron Keselowski rolled his Dodge directly in front of them. Foyt got out of the gas while Hamilton made a kamikaze dash past him, avoided the wreckage and took the win.

The second qualifying race seemed like it was going to be a Baker/Isaac show until a flat tire ruined Isaac’s chances. In the closing laps, David Pearson in the Holman-Moody Mercury entry came out of nowhere and calmly blew away the field to take the win. Baker took home second-place honors, while coming home third was Dick Brooks, driving a Dodge Daytona with the tiny 305 cubic inch engine the rules mandated for the winged cars.

During Saturday practice, Pearson was caught with an oversized restrictor plate, which called the legality of the car he drove to the win in the second 125-mile qualifier into question. NASCAR fined the team $500, but Pearson was allowed to start and race the 500.

Early in the Daytona 500 of ’71, rookie Maynard Troyer set a record of a dubious sort. After popping an engine in the second corner on lap 9, Troyer managed to roll his Ford 16 times. He was rushed to the hospital in serious but stable condition. Back at the ranch, Foyt was leading the event when a miscalculation in the pits or possibly sabotage caused his car to run out of gas with 39 laps left to run. Glen Wood claimed after the race they found that the fuel line had been twisted and crimped, by person or persons unknown, a configuration which did not allow the car to use all the gas in the tank.

Donnie Allison then took the point and was leading when the caution flag blew for a blown engine that ended Hamilton’s day. While running under the yellow flag, Allison’s brakes locked up, putting him into the wall and wiping out any hopes for the win.

A surprised Baker then found himself in the lead; Petty and his new teammate swapped the lead a few times the rest of the event, but in the end, it was Petty who took the checkered. Some folks contend that Baker was told to back off and let the boss take the win, a problem that did plague Baker during his career with Petty Enterprises. Meanwhile, Lorenzen staged a successful comeback, bringing the STP Plymouth home fifth, and Brooks was seventh in what would be the final 500 with a mini-motor Daytona. After the race, NASCAR promptly reversed their decision and outlawed the winged cars all together.

1972 bought a lot of changes to the Winston Cup scene. Races of less than 250 miles were taken off the schedule, leaving the tour with 31 dates, down from the previous year’s 48. Among the casualties were the Twin 125s, which had been points-paying events until that year. From 1972 on, the 125s helped determine the starting order of the Daytona 500, but they no longer paid points. Meanwhile, Chrysler had withdrawn their support from Petty Enterprises and the factories were officially out of the racing business.

While it paid no points, the first 125-mile qualifier in 1972 did cost a driver his life. Friday Hassler was killed in a 13-car pile-up caused by Dave Boggs‘s flat tire on a restart. Making his way through the carnage, Isaac drove to an easy win over Coo Coo Marlin, Sterling Marlin‘s dad.

The second race was run caution free, and Bobby Allison in a Coca-Cola sponsored Chevrolet owned by Junior Johnson and Richard Howard returned the bowtie brigade to victory lane at Daytona. Foyt finished in second place, driving the now legendary Wood Brothers Purolator Special Mercury with the white-and-red paint job that would become a trademark on the Winston Cup scene for a decade. Purolator had signed on with the Wood Brothers in 1971 to help with expenses after the Ford factory withdrawal.

The 1972 Daytona 500 was one of those rare events at the track that was about as exciting as watching paint dry. Foyt and Petty were in a class by themselves; when Petty blew a motor on lap 80, Foyt cruised ahead to an easy victory. AJ even admitted in victory lane he had gotten bored out there, running with no one to challenge him. Charlie Glotzbach was in second place, almost two laps down; Jim Vandiver finished third and Benny Parsons bought his Mercury home fourth.

Also of note that year, Roger Penske made his first Daytona 500 start as a car owner with Trans-Am/Can-Am/Indy car legend Mark Donohue at the wheel. The car was a double-ugly red, white and blue AMC Matador, and fans were probably greatly relieved when the hideous circus wagon retired on the 18th lap with a bent push rod. Donohue and Penske were credited with 35th place.

By winning the 500, Foyt became the third Wood Brothers driver to win Daytona, joining Tiny Lund and LeeRoy Yarbrough. It was also the beginning of a period when three or four “super-teams” with heavy financial backing dominated the sport for a decade.

Baker had quit Petty Enterprises after 1972 and took the seat in the K and K Dodge. He made the most of his new ride in the first qualifier of ’73, holding off a determined Yarborough in the Johnson/Howard Chevy for a win in the first qualifying race. The second qualifying race produced one of the biggest upsets in Daytona history: veteran independent driver Marlin took the win after Isaac lost an engine in his Bud Moore Ford. It was the only Winston Cup checkered flag Marlin would ever take, though, of course, his boy Sterling has done all right at Daytona since then.

The pundits looked at Isaac’s blown engine as proof of conventional wisdom: ever the innovator, Bud Moore took advantage of NASCAR’s new rules, giving small block engine equipped cars a substantial weight break and installing a 351 cubic inch engine in the Torino. Most folks felt that was like showing up at a gun fight with a knife… and they were right.

Once again, the outcome of the Daytona 500 was decided in large part by mechanical failure for some of the top drivers. Bobby Allison, Pearson and Yarborough all were sidelined by engine failures, leaving Baker to appear to be driving to a comfortable win. But the master of Daytona, Petty, was in second and wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. On the last pit stop, Petty decided to forego new rubber for track position and went with gas only. That allowed him to make up the gap Baker had opened, and actually took the lead despite being on older tires.

As the laps wound down, it seemed like a classic battle was brewing between Petty and the driver that had quit his team as Baker began to reel Petty back in, lap after lap, trying hard to win his first 500.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. With six laps to go, Baker’s engine went up in a cloud of smoke, and Petty drove to an easy victory two laps ahead of his closest competitor. Isaac knifed his way to a second-place finish in the mini-motor Ford. Baker, whose bad luck streak at the Daytona 500 was very much like Dale Earnhardt‘s, was visibly despondent after the race. (I crave your indulgence here – but on a personal note, among the 103,000 fans in attendance that day was a skinny little runt of a 13-year-old kid screaming himself hoarse at his first stock car race watching his hero Petty win – yours truly).

The world had turned topsy-turvy by the time the Winston Cup teams arrived in Daytona for the 1974 event. The Arabs had shut off the spigot that provided the life blood of the American economy, cheap oil. The most visible effect of the oil embargo was the Daytona 500 being cut back 10% to the Daytona 450… but there were other problems as well.

The economic turmoil had caused many large companies to reconsider their involvement with motorsports, and even the big teams were struggling to find sponsors. The American auto industry was in chaos. The sudden gasoline shortage had turned traditional V8-powered cars into dinosaurs that sat unsold on dealership lots, overnight. Americans were clamoring for smaller cars from Japan and Germany that got better mileage. The only American entries in the “economy-car class” were the three ugly sisters – the Pinto, the Vega and the Gremlin. Any support from the factories was a thing of the past.

Petty still had his STP sponsorship, with the oil additive company suddenly advertising how their product helped cars get better mileage rather than better performance. He was an odds-on favorite at the 450 as a result. Even the qualifier races had been shortened to 112.5 miles. In the first event, Isaac piloted a Banjo Matthews Chevy to the win, edging out Trans-Am star George Folmer, who had replaced Isaac in the Bud Moore Ford.

Donnie Allison, driving for the DiGard team, finished third ahead of his brother Bobby, with Darrell Waltrip coming home fifth. Petty’s 1974 effort did not have an auspicious start. He took the pole for the second qualifier, but hand-grenaded an engine on the 26th lap. Yarborough in the Johnson/Howard Chevy continued Junior’s tradition of strong runs at Daytona, taking the win in that race.

The 1974 Daytona 500 came down to a battle between Petty in his Dodge and Donnie Allison in the DiGard Chevy. The advantage seemed to go to Allison when Petty suffered a cut tire and had to pit, returning to the fray 38 seconds behind Donnie. Then, the pendulum swung the other way. It seemed like the 500 was about to crown one of its biggest surprise winners; but all of a sudden, circumstances changed on a dime.

Allison was coming up to pass a lapped car when the engine in that car expired, blowing shrapnel all over the track. Allison cut down both front tires driving through the debris and had to limp to the pits with 11 laps to go. Petty streaked on for his fifth Daytona 500 win and became the first man to win two in a row.

Marlin almost finished an outstanding second, but he thought the race was over when he took the white flag and lifted off the gas. That allowed Yarborough and Ramo Scott to streak by him before Marlin realized his mistake and recovered to finish fourth. Waltrip also enjoyed a top-10 finish, bringing the Chevy he and his wife owned home seventh. Attendance was down to 85,000 people that year owing to a government mandate that gas stations be closed from nine Saturday evening until midnight Sunday.

To help make up for the last ticket revenues, ABC paid $300,000 for broadcast rights to the race: The first half was taped to show highlights while the second half was shown live, the first TV live broadcast of the Daytona 500.

The energy crisis was over by the time the 1975 February Classic was held in Daytona Beach. Baker’s foul luck continued in the first qualifier race that year when he blew a tire while leading; Bobby Allison in a Penske Matador and Brooks in a Ford lined up behind the pace car to settle things in a three-lap dash to the checkers. The finish was an anticlimax in that Brooks missed a shift, allowing Allison to drive the most ungainly-looking car ever into Daytona’s victory lane. Brooks held on to take second place.

The second qualifier came down to a shootout between the two drivers who dominated on the big tracks in those days, Petty in the STP Dodge and Pearson wheeling the Wood Brothers’ Purolator Special Mercury. It came down to a chess game, with Pearson drafting past Petty on the last lap, then blocking the King’s attempt to return the favor out of the last corner. Yarborough came home third and Marcis finished fourth as the latest driver of the orange K and K Dodge.

Every once in a while in Daytona history, a surprise winner makes it to victory lane in a major upset. Such was the case in 1975. Baker’s Daytona curse stayed alive, as he lost a timing chain after having led for several laps. Petty had a strong car, but his run was hampered by a series of tire failures that resulted in unplanned pit stops and left him hopelessly out of contention. With Petty hobbled, Pearson winning the race was almost a foregone conclusion. Pearson was stroking, holding more than a five-second advantage over surprising Parsons; no one thought Parsons’s LG DeWitt Chevy had the horses to run down the mighty Wood Brothers Mercury.

Into the fray rode the King, who must not have thought much of someone making a daring last-lap pass on him in his kingdom during a qualifying race. He motored along side Parsons and waved for Benny to tuck in behind him. Parsons did so, and the two cars drafting together began cutting into the lead of Pearson, who was running by himself out at the time. Seeing the Petty/Parsons freight train coming, Pearson turned up the wick. That turned out not to be a good plan; while trying to get by the lapped car of Yarborough, who was trying in turn to get by the lapped car of Richie Panch, Pearson and Yarborough got together, sending Pearson spinning.

Both drivers blamed the other for the incident. Meanwhile, Parsons streaked on for the win, beating Bobby Allison, Cale and Pearson, who recovered to finish fourth. Petty came home in seventh place. It was one of the most jubilant victory lane celebrations in Daytona history, with Benny celebrating the upset win, although the presence of Bebop Hobel, Miss Winston, would have been enough to celebrate even without the big check.

Pearson was clearly miffed after the 500, one prize he had yet to claim, and not only with Cale. He had some unkind things to say about Richard playing favorites as well. Thus Richard and David had a score to settle when they returned to Daytona Beach in Feb. 1976.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via