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Daytona 500 – It Wasn’t All Southern Boys Back In The Day
- Updated: February 19, 2014
Mario Andretti shown here in the famous Holman & Moody Ford that he drove to victory in the 1967 Daytona 500. [Photo courtesy of the Steve Zautke collection]Big Bend, WI (February 18th, 2014) – The Daytona 500 is one of my favorite events, for a Yankee like myself, usually due to the weather, I’m a captive audience member. The event, dubbed “The Great American Race” by television motorsports evangelist Ken Squire, has been televised live since the epic 1979 event. That event saw legendary Richard Petty win after leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarbrough crashed on the last lap due to each not wanting the other to win. Entertaining finishes such as Kevin “Happy” Harvick edging out gentleman driver Mark Martin in 2007 and Petty and David “Silver Fox” Pearson crashing in “Calamity Corner” (Turn four) in 1976 helped moved the Daytona 500 to the front of the sport pages. Bill France’s speed palace has been seen some of NASCAR’s best in victory lane. The name’s are extraordinary, Petty, Johnson, Lorenzen, Allison, Waltrip and of course Earnhardt. Before lucrative points championships and full season sponsored-driven deals, drivers tended to “pick and choose” which lucrative races to run. Many of the big races such as the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and 12 Hours of Sebring, among others were co-sanctioned as FIA races. Meaning if a driver had a FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) driver’s license, he could compete without threat from his sanctioning body for competing in a rival series. So, if a United States Auto Club (USAC) or Formula One driver wanted, he could run Daytona, Indianapolis or Sebring without fear of suspension.
1964 saw a talented influx of drivers of various disciplines invade Daytona. Admired French F-1 driver, Jo Schlesser made his first and only NASCAR start in the 1964 Daytona 500. Driving a Ford for Bondy Long (team car of Ned Jarrett), Schlesser made it to the finish in a respectable 13th place. Sports car driver Dave MacDonald, a superstar in the making drove a Bill Stroppe Mercury to a tenth place finish. Road racing legend Dan Gurney made his third Daytona 500 start driving for the legendary Wood Brothers and ended 14th at the finish in the ’64 event. Some will remember that Gurney won the famous Motor Trend 500 Nascar race at Riverside five times between 1963 and 1968. Other notable “irregulars” included USAC drivers, A.J. Foyt, Jim McElreath, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Marshman, Sal Tovella and Parnelli Jones.
With Chrysler’s boycott of the 1965 Daytona 500 along with injuries to A.J. Foyt in the race earlier in the year at Riverside, CA, only USAC journeyman, Herb Shannon was the lone ‘outsider’ at Daytona. However in 1966, it was fan-favorite, Jim Hurtubise who fared the best of the “outsiders” wheeling Norm Nelson’s Plymouth to a respectable sixth place finish. Other USAC drivers running included Foyt in Junior Johnson’s Ford and Mario Andretti in renowned master-mechanic and rule-bender Smokey Yunick’s Chevrolet. USAC stars and soon to be stars, Don White, Gordon Johncock, and Johnny Rutherford also started the race.
Other memorable interlopers included sports car star Jerry Grant who hustled the Tom Friedkin Dodge to creditable fifth place in 1967, Hurtubise earned another top-ten in ’67 when he brought the Norm Nelson-owned car home in ninth place. Formula One driver, Innes Ireland drove a Ray Fox Ford that year and Foyt returned, this time in the famous red No. 27 Banjo Mathews Ford. In 1969 Bobby Unser drove Smokey’s Ford into the lead before crashing out. The previous year, younger brother Al had better luck wheeling the Cotton Owens Dodge Charger to an impressive fourth place finish. The 1971 Daytona 500 saw Mexican driving legend, Pedro Rodriguez drive a 1970 Plymouth to 13th place in the 1971 Daytona 500, sadly later that year, Rodriguez lost his life in a racing accident. It was in 1972 when “Super-Tex” A.J. Foyt drove the Wood Brothers 1971 Mercury to victory lane. It was his second win at the track as he won the 1964 Firecracker 400. In that same race, Roger Penske and his driver Mark Donohue entered and drove a red-white-blue AMC Matador in the Daytona 500. It started a long relationship with Nascar for legendary motorsports owner Roger Penske also known as “The Captain.” Englishman David Hobbs drove a team car to Benny Parsons in the 1976 Daytona 500 and even led the race. Did you know Wisconsin short-track star and USAC stock car driver, Dick Trickle’s first Daytona 500 was in 1970 driving a 1969 Ford?
However, it was Mario Andretti who rocked the NASCAR establishment when he wheeled his 1967 Holman & Moody Ford to victory lane. Andretti overcame hard fought battles with David Pearson and later Fred Lorenzen, to wheel the high horse-powered, wildly loose Ford to victory lane. Many railbirds though that Andretti wouldn’t last the entire race.
Andretti reflected back on his historic win in an interview with the Lehigh Valley newspaper two years ago, “When you’re in somebody else’s sandbox, you have to play a different game if you’re going to win,” Andretti said about beating the NASCAR guys at Daytona. “You can’t play their game. They’re too good at it. Some of it was by accident, but I understood what I had to deal with. I felt it was extra special to be competitive in something we don’t specialize in. I’m sure they would feel the same way if they ever won the Indianapolis 500.”
We don’t get too many interlopers anymore, but there was a time when variety certainly spiced the Daytona 500.
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