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NASCAR In The '60s & '70s: Fighters, Cheaters And Richard Petty

Culture | May 26, 2019

Right: Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp (No. 73) sail over the turn four railing of Daytona International Speedway in the second qualifier for the 1961 Daytona 500. Right: Richard Petty with his 1973 Dodge Charger. Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty I

NASCAR drivers in the '60s and '70s were some of the most colorful pro athletes in sports. Racers like Richard Petty, Wendell Scott, David “Silver Fox” Pearson, Dick Trickle (yes, that’s a real name), and many more all made the early days of NASCAR their personal playground. Stock car racing was a young sport, and had only been going in an organized fashion since 1948, the year NASCAR was founded. 

Though its official name is the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, NASCAR wasn't "national" as we know it today back in the early '60s. All the tracks were in a handful of states in the southeast, and races were not broadcast nationally. Back then you could get away with a lot more, especially when it came to sports. 

Incredibly, NASCAR’s earliest beginnings can be traced to competitions between moonshiners. Those early prohibition runners were either bored by outrunning the comparably slow officers of the law or so competitive they needed to prove who was top dog. Eventually, those mostly impromptu moonshine races became organized. Within a decade a racer named Big Bill France got everyone headed in the same direction.

Back When Stock Meant Stock

Junior Johnson and Freddie Lorenzen face off at Daytona in 1965. Photo: Ford Motorsports via Hemmings Daily

A common refrain in life is, “Things were better back in the day.” Sometimes it’s true; other times it’s not. Remember dial-up internet? However, when it comes to NASCAR, it really may be true. Part of the reason many NASCAR fans bemoan the days gone by is the cars. NASCAR began as “stock” car racing. That meant the cars were more or less what you could buy off a lot. Yes, they did soup up them up with the muscliest of V-8s and stiffer suspension but they still resembled other cars on the road. 

From Rum Runners To Rocket Ships

Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers mix it up at the 1979 Daytona 500. Source: donnieallison.com

Today, NASCAR vehicles are actually closer to rocket ships than cars. Armies of engineers, capable of working for NASA work around the clock, extracting every ounce of speed possible. However, the first rules and regulations of NASCAR were written on a napkin and any disputes were settled with good ole fashion fisticuffs on the field. In fact, the pugilism was still going strong at the 1979 Daytona 500, the first NASCAR race to be nationally televised in its entirety. The race, which has been called NASCAR's equivalent of the Super Bowl, culminated in a brawl between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers. Talk about a ratings boost!

If You An’t Cheating, You An’t Trying:

Left: David Pearson's '69 Ford Torino Cobra. Right: Program for the 1971 Dixie 500. Sources: favcars.com; Pinterest

Another fun wrinkle in the NASCAR of the olden days was the cheating. As we mentioned, you could get away with a lot more in the '60s and '70s and those early NASCAR drivers tried to get away with everything. Wooden roll bars painted to look like steel, inflated basketballs in the gas tanks, even building cars that looked exactly legal but were actually ⅛ smaller. No chicanery was too subtle. You could write a book on all the various means drivers used to get an edge. Naturally, everyone kept a keen eye out for any deceptions. That also led to accusations, tension, and all-out fighting. What a sport!

It’s Good To Be King

Richard Petty kneels beside his 1970 Plymouth Superbird. Source: altdriver.com

Of the wild cast of characters, NASCAR brought to the table, none brought more attention and fanfare than Richard Petty. Forever dressed in jeans, 'gator boots, and sunglasses, Petty won 200 races in his time. That’s nearly 100 more than the next man, becoming a god to NASCAR fans everywhere. 

The Greatest Finish In NASCAR History

Left: Pearson limps toward the finish line as Petty can only watch from the infield at Daytona in '76. Right: Bobby Allison in a '67 Mercury Cyclone. Source: daytonainternationalspeedway.com; Flickr

Richard Petty and racer David Pearson were involved in what is considered the greatest finish in NASCAR history, the 1976 Daytona 500. Both racers traded the lead as they headed to the finish, using drafting techniques to overtake one another. Going into the final turn they crashed. Petty spun out but continued heading toward the finish in reverse. Pearson spun into the infield where his car stalled. Just as it seemed Petty would win the race going backward, he hit a grassy rut. Pearson fired up his stalled car and crossed the finish as Petty watched on helplessly. 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | NASCAR | Remember This?... | Richard Petty

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!