By Steve Waid – During the 1960s NASCAR experienced exponential growth. It could honestly say that it spearheaded stock car races in all parts of the country.
Many new tracks, all of them superspeedways, joined NASCAR and helped alter the sport’s image. The sanctioning body was no longer seen as solely a small-time operation that staged races on country dirt tracks. In the ‘60s big tracks at Charlotte, Atlanta, Rockingham, Dover, Del., Brooklyn. Mich., College Station, Tex., and, most significantly, Talladega, Ala., became part of NASCAR.
Talladega was riddled with controversy. It was built by Bill France, Sr. as a sister track to Daytona – but at 2.66-miles it was larger and faster. Many competitors said it was greatly unsafe. Speeds attained tended to quickly blister and shred tires. They intended to boycott the race if the matter wasn’t rectified.
France held his ground. He claimed the track was safe, and to prove it, he drove around it himself at 150 mph. He said that if the Grand National drivers, most of whom had aligned themselves with the newly formed Professional Drivers Association, did not compete, he would find others who would.
Which is exactly what he did for the first Talladega 500, held on Sept. 14, 1969. Virtual unknown Richard Brickhouse, who has since drifted into anonymity, won it. Any power the PDA thought it had was gone due largely to France’s success.
NASCAR proceeded through the 1970 season much as it had any other – staging races almost every week of the year.
There were 48 of them in ’70, which included events at all of the new superspeedways it had acquired in the ‘60s – and yes, several short tracks at tiny venues throughout the south. To follow such a schedule was very expensive for the teams, most of which didn’t bother and competed only on the tracks which posted equitable purses.
Only the “factory-backed” teams could make a go of it. Detroit’s participation, which had been going on for decades, was huge for NASCAR. The manufacturers were convinced they could sell more cars if they were winners in NASCAR.
So they thought it best to fund as many teams as they could. They lent support with parts, pieces, engineering and, yes, money. They even had a say on which drivers would be employed.
Teams like Petty Enterprises, Holman-Moody, Junior Johnson and Associates, Bud Moore Engineering and a few others benefitted greatly from the manufacturers – and they won most of the races. At the time, General Motors did not participate in NASCAR.
Then came the bombshell at the start of 1971. Chrysler announced it would cut back its NASCAR program to one team, Petty Enterprises and drivers Richard Petty and Buddy Baker.
Ford dropped out of NASCAR altogether, leaving Holman-Moody, The Wood Brothers and Junior Johnson in a lurch. All three teams said they could compete only if they found suitable sponsors. Otherwise, they would shut down. Such a thing would put NASCAR on the brink of disaster.
Then something happened.
In ’71, Johnson made a trip to Winston-Salem, N.C., to see if he could lure sponsorship from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. He knew RJR had money – lots of it. The government had recently banned cigarette ads from television, meaning RJR’s advertising and marketing budgets were overflowing.
Johnson thought he could get $100,000 from Reynolds. When he asked for that amount, he was stunned by the response.
“Junior you don’t understand. We have to spend a lot more money than that.”
Johnson told RJR that there were certain people in Daytona Beach with whom they needed to talk. In a matter of weeks, NASCAR announced the new NASCAR Winston Cup Series. It was the first season-long program that would award significant cash bonuses to those drivers who earned them.
The fund totaled $100,000 – to be paid out in increments of $25,000, $25,000 and $50,000 over the season. Only the drivers in the top 10 in points were rewarded after the first two segments. Twenty competitors got the money after the last.
RJR’s participation in NASCAR remained intact for 33 years, over the course of which drivers were paid millions of dollars in point money. This new program effectively eradicated much of the need for manufacturer participation – but not all. Detroit was always there, if smaller and behind the scenes.
Reynolds’ program was to reward drivers in races of 250 miles or more, which, as you might expect, altered the NASCAR schedule dramatically. There were 48 races in 1971. That was reduced to a much more manageable – for the teams – 31 in 1972.
Also in 1971, something happened that would boost NASCAR popularity tremendously. As strange as it might seem, GM was not involved with NASCAR. At least one person thought something should be done about that.
Why? GM’s Chevrolet was far and away the most popular car in the country. Why wasn’t it racing in NASCAR?
Johnson saw the potential. So he teamed up with Charlotte Motor Speedway promoter Richard Howard to build a Chevrolet. They decided to hire leadfoot Charlie Glotzbach as the driver. The new Chevy would make its debut in the 1971 World 600 at Charlotte. Presto, 78,000 people showed up on race day.
Glotzbach won the pole but plowed into the second-turn wall on lap 234 while running second. But the charm had been cast.
Thereafter, Johnson and Howard peddled the Chevy to the tracks. It raced on those whose promoters would pay – as much as $10,000. The Chevrolet spiked the interest of the fans, so much so that Johnson decided to race the car full-time in 1972, with Bobby Allison as driver.
Yes, Johnson got help from GM.
That season saw one of the greatest on-track feuds in NASCAR history. Allison and Petty went at it. They beat, banged and slammed each other on the short tracks, much to the delight of the audiences. The reason for all of this was simple. Petty was the king. Allison, now in a car capable of the job, wanted to dethrone him.
Allison earned more victories than Petty, 10 to 8, but lost the championship by 127.90 points.
Once dangerously close to collapse, NASCAR found the infusion of money it needed to survive the manufacturers’ decline. It also found the means to offer more financial incentives to the drivers; the type of which kept them on the tracks.
But the decade had a long way to go. And more problems would surface.
Editors note: This is the first installment of a series that will run during the 2014 NASCAR offseason.
EMAIL STEVE AT email@example.com
FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid