Before 2021, the last time a race was held in July at Atlanta Motor Speedway was the Dixie 500 on July 28, 1974.
Richard Petty overcame an early problem in the form of a cut tire on the 171st of 328 laps, roared back to take the lead on lap 238 and held off David Pearson to win the 160th race of his NASCAR Cup Series career.
Not that it was much of a surprise. The Atlanta event was the fourth consecutive big track race – 1.5 miles or larger in length – in which Petty and Pearson took the top two positions. Each had won twice.
There were only a handful of caution periods, the attendance was posted at 38,000 (which was good for Atlanta back then) and other than complaints about the hot weather, the race was free of controversy and debate.
Which was a good thing.
NASCAR was mired in one of its most frustrating seasons ever. Over the course of six months, the sanctioning body had changed the rules five times, which resulted in angered and confused competitors – not to mention fans and media.
More than a few said loudly, and repeatedly, that NASCAR had no idea what it was doing.
The problem began in 1973. There was a severe petroleum shortage in the United States, triggered by a production shutdown by oil-producing countries.
In 1974 NASCAR had originally planned to reduce legal engine size across the board. That would end the constant juggling of different-sized carburetor plates utilized by engines 426 cu. in. or larger.
But officials said that since they had to deal with the fuel shortage, “We were unable to do anything else but concentrate on that issue.”
This meant that the use of larger or smaller engines and the various carburetors and carburetor plates that came with them would continue – and so would the chaos.
The first rule change was announced just 24 hours before the Daytona 500. On March 18, all the carburetor plates would be removed. All engines larger than 366 cu. in. would be equipped with a specially made Holley carburetor.
Ironically, the first race under the new rules was the Atlanta 500 on March 24. Pearson won the pole in a Wood Brothers Racing Mercury equipped with a small engine. An errant four-tire change swatted victory away from him and Cale Yarborough went on to win in Junior Johnson’s Chevrolet equipped with a 427-cu. in. engine.
Then after Pearson’s victory in the Rebel 450 at Darlington Raceway, in which nearly all the frontrunners competed in cars with 366 cu. in. engines, NASCAR made a second rule change.
It felt the larger engines were at a disadvantage and it provided them with another carburetor, one which would permit larger airflow.
The grousing began.
“You are going to have winners and losers at every race,” Petty said. “The only thing that is going to happen under these rule changes is that racing is going to get more expensive. It already has.”
The Virginia 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 28 was the first race under the second new rule. The sweep of the top six positions was made by drivers racing cars with the smaller engine.
Then at Talladega Superspeedway, Pearson and Benny Parsons finished one-two with small engines. But the real evidence of a major disparity came in qualifying. Pearson won the pole at 186 mph. Buddy Baker, the fastest big engine driver, was a whopping seven miles per hour slower.
You can guess what happened next.
After tests at Talladega and Atlanta, NASCAR decreed that as of May 20, larger engines would be equipped with carburetors of two different sizes, depending on the length of the track.
In other words, a specific carburetor would be required on a short track. A different model was utilized on the bigger speedways.
Wait, it gets better.
On June 24 NASCAR announced that the displacement of the small engine would be reduced from 366 cu. in. to 358 cu. in.
“This is silly,” said Johnson. “Why doesn’t NASCAR just stick to the rules it makes?”
Totally confused and looking for a source to explain everything so I knew what I was writing about, I asked Petty if he could enlighten me.
“You are asking the wrong cat,” he said. “I’m so confused now I don’t know what is right or wrong or fair or not.”
The seemingly endless changes took a financial toll on all teams – especially the lower-tiered, under-financed independent organizations.
“It’s getting worse than better,” said Dave Marcis, echoing the sentiments of almost every other driver.
I remember Richard Childress’ humorous perspective.
“I bought a new carburetor and when I got back to the shop, I got a letter from NASCAR that said I had to use a different one,” he said. “The one I bought was obsolete before I ever used it and I had to buy another. Does that make any sense?”
In early July NASCAR made its fifth, and final, rules change, aimed at Ford products. Teams were limited in what cylinder modifications they could make to their 351 cu. in. engines.
“Well, that costs us all 25-30 horsepower,” team owner Glen Wood said.
NASCAR explained that the entire issue was created by an attempt to correct a mistake. It should have mandated a single change in which all teams would run a specific smaller engine rather than battle a size difference with carburetors and plates.
In a statement, NASCAR President Bill France Jr. said: “We catch a lot of criticism for making so many changes, but if you make a mistake with the wrong change and have a bad rule, why not change it?”
That didn’t do much to end the grousing.
“The way it was all done didn’t do much to help expenses, did it?” asked Johnson.
Thankfully, after the July Atlanta race the controversies and griping died down. And before the season was over NASCAR made one last announcement: in 1975, all cars would be equipped with engines of 358 cu. in. only.
“About time,” Johnson said. “Took NASCAR a while to come to its senses.”
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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