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Waid’s World: The Tale of a Dysfunctional Team & Its Secret Weapon

I was part of a discussion recently that revolved around the question, “Which is the most successful yet most dysfunctional NASCAR team you can remember?”

Interesting. I think that almost every team gets dysfunctional for a period of time. And by dysfunctional, I mean that despite all its talent and record of success, the organization falls on hard times — sometimes due to its own making.

The great teams, the ones that produce year after year, overcome their problems and dysfunctions. That’s what makes them great.

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But to me, there is one team that was seemingly always dysfunctional and yet won consistently over several years.

That was DiGard Racing Co., formed in Florida in 1976 by brothers Bill and Jim Gardner.

During its existence, DiGard went through crewmen, crew chiefs and personnel like a wildfire through a dry wheat field. The team seemed unsettled, to say the least. There was constant bickering and internal strife — or so it seemed.

But it did have one thing going for it. It had talent; plenty of it. That was obvious given the skills of its rising star driver Darrell Waltrip and such veteran, creative crew chiefs as Buddy Parrott and Gary Nelson.

Undoubtedly, the best example of how DiGard benefitted from its combination of innovation and talent — and thus overcame its myriad other problems — came during the 1977-80 seasons.

That was the era of the team’s bulky Chevrolet known as Buckshot Bertha.

Named after a World War II battleship, there wasn’t much appealing about Bertha. Created in late 1976 at the shop of Edwin “Banjo” Matthews in Arden, N.C., it was a brute of a racecar with very little, if any, aerodynamic appeal.

Matthews would argue with that. He claimed that Bertha, a Monte Carlo, had more downforce than it appeared.

“The big, boxy look of that car was misleading,” Matthews said.

Bertha was updated to 1977 standards and delivered to DiGard. It was an instant success.

Over the years, Bertha won at every short track on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, several superspeedways — including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Michigan International Speedway — and on the road course at Riverside, Calif.

Unlike most stock cars of the day, Bertha’s level of performance didn’t decline over the years. It endured the usual and expected wear and tear, but overall, it remained a well-handling machine.

“It didn’t matter what we did to her, she always handled well at every racetrack we ran,” Waltrip said. “If we wrecked her, we would repair and paint her and get back to it.

“Some cars have odd characteristics where they will run good at one track and not anywhere else. But Bertha wasn’t like that.”

However, Bertha held a dark secret — one so diabolical it defies the imagination.

Starting in 1978, as improbable as it may sound, Bertha was loaded with buckshot — that’s right, the same buckshot that would be loaded into a shotgun.

According to longtime associate and friend Thomas Pope, who wrote about Bertha in a 1992 edition of American Racing Classics (a sister publication to Winston Cup Scene), the buckshot was part of a plan to reduce Bertha’s legal weight and thus increase speed.

Nelson, then a DiGard crewman who became NASCAR’s Cup Director, its chief law enforcement official, said that the battery, located behind the left front wheel, was removed to make room for the buckshot.

“Then we jacked the car up as high as we could get it,” Nelson said. “Then we would pour the buckshot in through a funnel.

“When we were finished, we learned that we could pour about 75, 80 pounds of buckshot in there.”

When the time was right, Waltrip would release the buckshot and it would scatter across the track surface.

Nelson supervised the creation of a device that would allow Waltrip to make just one turn of a cap attached to a tube that led to the post, which extended outside of the car and was hollow. That allowed the buckshot an open path to the track.

According to Nelson, the pellets didn’t rush out. It took a couple of pace laps to complete the job.

The buckshot was used for the first time at Atlanta in March of 1978. It was at that race that the first hint of DiGard’s impropriety leaked.

Several media members were equipped with radios with which they could listen to team conversations when tuned to the proper frequency.

During the pre-race laps at Atlanta, one radio-equipped media member yelled out, “Guys, something strange is going on. I just heard Waltrip yell, ‘Bombs away!’”

“I heard it too!” said another.

Of course, no one knew exactly what was up. But for a driver to say “Bombs away!” was a clear indication skullduggery was afoot.

Suspicion intensified when it was learned foreign material was rolling down the pit road and scattered everywhere.

“We apparently jarred most of that buckshot loose, and it went in a rush all over the place,” Nelson said. “Junior Johnson was really mad because most of it dumped on him.”

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After Waltrip finished third at Atlanta, NASCAR immediately ordered that Bertha be impounded for a post-race inspection.

Nelson sensed that DiGard had been caught red-handed. But he was relieved when NASCAR ordered him to jack up the car.

“That jack would cover the hole in the hollow post where the buckshot would drop out,” Nelson said. “I knew then we had gotten away with it.”

There’s some debate if the buckshot was ever used again. Waltrip insisted it wasn’t.

“Gary might lead you to believe it was,” Waltrip said. “But it happened that one time only.”

There was debate about that. Some media members insisted that Atlanta wasn’t the last time Waltrip said, “Bombs away!”

Bertha won 19 times in the 69 races over the five seasons it was used.

Over those five years, internal unrest at various levels continued at DiGard.

It rose to a crescendo in 1980 when Waltrip was involved in a very public vocal war with the Gardners to escape his contract.

That year, Bertha ran in just 10 races. It won three of them.

Without the help of buckshot, of course.

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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Kevin in SoCal

Didn’t they weigh the car again after the race??

Big Tex

No, not at that time

DoninAjax

Ah the good old days. Smokey would have been proud.

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