These 6 icons of rebel metal tell the story of NASCAR
In his 80 years, Bill Blair, Jr., has seen all of it, the entire history of NASCAR. He is the sport’s living library, a walking, talking archive that contains every bent rod and brawling punch spanning stock car racing’s seven decades. A few months ago, signaled by our photographer, Blair climbed aboard his 1953 Oldsmobile 88, an exact replica of Bill Blair, Sr.’s, car, and started the Rocket V-8 with a huff of ignition and a lick of smoke. “Call me if you got questions,” he told me, strapping on an old leather helmet. “Most of the writers get the story wrong.”
The tale we hoped to tell was the story of NASCAR—of heroic drives and hilarious knee-slappers and desperate long shots and savage passions and appalling tragedy—through some of its cars. So we looked around Charlotte, North Carolina, the beating right ventricle of NASCAR country, and found Concord Speedway. The slightly shopworn but charmingly grass-roots tri-oval opened in 1982 and is only a few miles from the Dale Earnhardt Plaza in Kannapolis and the headquarters of many of NASCAR’s top teams.
On an overcast and threatening Wednesday in March, the owners of six cars representing the five greatest decades of NASCAR maneuvered their fifth wheels and double-decker transporters onto Concord’s crumbling infield and dropped their beavertails, releasing to us Blair’s ’53 Olds, David Pearson’s championship-winning fastback ’68 Ford Torino, the 200-mph winged wedge of Bobby Isaac’s ’70 Dodge Charger Daytona, the brilliantly blue and red ’76 Truxmore Torino raced by Dick Brooks, Joe Ruttman’s 1984 Levi Garrett Chewing Tobacco Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and Jeff Gordon’s seminal 1994 DuPont Chevy Lumina. It was a riot of color and sound and Southern-fried pedigree, and it was ours for a day.
1953 Oldsmobile Super 88
Some of you know how it all started. A guy named Bill France moved his family to Florida from Washington, D.C., in the 1930s and worked every job he could think of to survive the Depression and pay for his racing habit. He mixed easily with the grease monkeys and moonshiners who drove the jalopies on those early dirt tracks, as well as the huckster promoters who often lied and cheated their way out of paying the purses. By the time World War II was over, France saw the future, and it was the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Well, it almost wasn’t NASCAR, said Bill Blair, Jr., because the guys at that first meeting in 1947 couldn’t agree on a name. “People thought it sounded like Nash-car—like Nash [the automaker] was running it. It took several votes.”
The rulebook back then was about four pages, and the Oldsmobile that Bill Blair, Sr., ran on the sand at Daytona Beach in 1953 was as stock as stock cars ever got. Fitted only with factory parts, it had taller gearing; a larger fuel tank; a “high compression” head gasket, reground cam, and some other nudging of the 303-cubic-inch V-8; and heavy-duty steering gear and shock absorbers from ambulances and other commercial vehicles. Olds produced six cars in 1953 with this “special package” for racing and sold them through dealers. Blair used the longer gears to his advantage in the premier race in Daytona, the 160-miler for strictly stock automobiles, as 14-year-old Bill, Jr., watched from the sidelines.
Figuring he’d lose more time refueling in the pits than he would going slower through the corners, Blair conserved gas by not downshifting for the turns, proving that pit stop strategy is nothing new. He was the only competitor who never pitted, passing leader Fonty Flock in a nearly identical Olds when Flock ran out of gas on lap 38. But it turned out okay: Ebenezer “Slick” Smith, running well down the pack in a ’52 Olds, saw Flock in distress, got behind him, and pushed him three miles to the pits, where Flock got a refill and finished second. NASCAR was like that back then.
Blair, Jr., tried to recreate his father’s car perfectly, down to the lap belt pinched from an old air force trainer and the leather dog collars that drivers tied around the B-pillars to keep the doors from flying open in crashes. Sitting on the doughy bench seat, you still have plenty of room for your fur-felt fedora, and you could be driving to church except for the relatively mild but distinctly un-Christian rumble from the single side pipe. The light three-on-the-tree shifter and thin steering wheel would seem to make the car easy to drive for the hour and 48 minutes it took to run that early Daytona race, but don’t let the Oldsmobile’s genteel appearance fool you.
“When they got out of these cars, their hands would be so blistered, they’d be raw meat,” Blair Jr. said. “Most of the tracks were red dirt, and they’d be spitting up red dirt till Tuesday.” Nobody knew much about the cars. The mechanical expertise was mostly shade-tree intuition learned in the hollows by moonshiners trying to stay ahead of the revenuers.
But as the speeds increased, that would get a driver only so far. So after the races, Blair’s dad used to spend hours on the phone with Don Perkins, a factory Oldsmobile engineer, talking suspension theory and bearing side loads and how to make the heavy, crude Olds quicker in the turns. The top 10 finishers at Daytona in ’53 split $7500 in prize money, but “my daddy didn’t do it for the money,” Blair Jr. told me. “He was self-financing it by hauling white liquor out of Martinsville.”
Blair’s ’53 Olds represents NASCAR’s training wheels, where drivers discovered they needed to be a part of teams, and the teams began learning stock-car racing’s basic bag of tricks, such as how to increase the strength of a crankshaft by machining a slight radius into the joints. All too soon, the “stock cars” would be anything but.
1968 Ford Torino
“The swarthy, relaxed driver sometimes resembles a big bear just roused from hibernation.” So wrote Sports Illustrated of David Pearson, the six-foot-tall, part-Cherokee high-school dropout from Spartanburg, South Carolina, who liked to have a working cigarette lighter in his race cars to use during the caution laps. Throughout the 1968 season, Pearson’s blue-and-gold Holman-Moody Torino dueled with Richard Petty’s Plymouth as the crowd stood and screamed, and NASCAR entered the age of the star driver.
So much had changed. NASCAR was huge now. In 1964 alone, the organization sanctioned 1182 races among its seven classes that ran in 19 states plus Canada, drawing more than nine million spectators. Where the crowds went, so did the media and the money. Average race speeds were 30 percent higher than what they had been in the mid-1950s, as the Chrysler Hemis battled the Ford Wedges for big-block superiority. Bill France was feverishly writing rules to keep the lid on costs and preserve the stock in stock-car racing. It was a tug of war over who controlled NASCAR—the factories or France. Over at the drag strip, however, the fast-growing National Hot Rod Association was more than happy to create a new class for anything that showed up. Fans started drifting away to the drags, which welcomed the wildest engines in the craziest cars.
France was faced with the reality that stock cars are for the street and race cars are for the track, and he was in the racing business. The evolution of stock cars into pure race cars shifted the emphasis onto the drivers. Rather than Hemi versus Wedge, it became Pearson versus Petty. The era saw the ascendancy of Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, and other greats whose names are still remembered in any discussion of NASCAR’s golden age.
Pearson’s 1968 Grand National Championship–winning Torino, now in the care of team owner and former Hendrick crew chief Ray Evernham, is surely one of the prettiest race cars ever to float a valve in competition. Ford’s answer to the original fastback ’66 Dodge Charger, the slick and slippery Torino showed that Chrysler had been on the right track in shaping a production car for speedway work. But the Torino proved much more aerodynamically stable than the Charger and, ultimately, faster than Petty’s 426-powered Plymouth GTX—so much so that a frustrated Petty famously jumped over to the Ford camp for the ’69 season.
The tunnel-port 396 under the Torino’s hood—the final, glorious 600-hp iteration of the Wedge before the Boss 429 replaced it in ’69—also ran as a 427 to slip in just under NASCAR’s then cap of 430 cubic inches. When Evernham’s guys lit the 396 for us, the percussive cackling from the side pipe was pure speedway psychedelia.
As I wriggled through the small opening between the low roof and welded doors and onto a vinyl-covered seat with not much more support than two pillows sewn together, it was obvious how stock-car racing had matured since the 1950s. The cockpit is a spartan tubular cage, the dash a metal box punctuated by a few switches and Stewart-Warner gauges. Except for the safety improvements, it’s not that different from today’s Cup cars. Pearson’s scrawled signature on the dash makes the vital historical connection, and it is irreplaceable. The big bear, a three-time Grand National champion, passed away a few months before this photo shoot.
1970 Dodge Charger Daytona
The Alabama International Motor Speedway, or Talladega, opened in 1969 with the longest oval yet, at 2.66 miles, and speeds crept toward 190 mph. Said Cale Yarborough at the time: “You don’t drive these cars anymore, you aim them.” His colleague, the 250-pound and normally unflappable Tiny Lund, was visibly flapped. “Boy, driving down here sure ain’t fun no more.”
The drivers were so concerned about the escalating speeds there that they organized a union—or, at least, that’s what Bill France called it, and he banned it like everything else he didn’t like. Meanwhile, with the engine displacement capped, the only way to go faster was better aerodynamics. Chrysler leveraged its involvement in the space program and secured the necessary aerodynamic expertise and wind tunnel time needed to shape a car that would finally thrash the Fords.
The metal nose cap came first, but besides causing cooling problems, it so unbalanced the car that a suitable rear wing was needed to stabilize it. The wing could not obstruct the functional trunk lid, a requirement in NASCAR. The solution was an inverted airfoil mounted an outlandish 23.5 inches above the trunk on cast-aluminum stabilizers. It had an internal safety cable to keep it from detaching in crashes and becoming a deadly flying boomerang. The winged warrior was born, and it would clinch 38 victories in 1970—running as a Dodge Daytona or Plymouth Superbird—and break the 200-mph barrier. In response, NASCAR adopted the first carburetor restrictor plates in August 1970.
All eyes were on the K&K Insurance Daytona as owner Tim Wellborn backed it out of its trailer at Concord. One of the few changes from the way Bobby Isaac raced the car in 1970 (before it was banned, and before Isaac took it to Bonneville in 1971 to set 28 speed records, including a 216.946-mph flying mile) is the line of names stacked down the white stripe in back. It’s capped by storied carbuilder Harry Hyde. The man behind so many winning stock cars is supposedly the basis for Robert Duvall’s barn-magician character, Harry Hogge, in Days of Thunder. To wit, Hyde painted the Daytona a Ford color, Poppy Red, rather than Hemi Orange, simply because he liked it better. What he didn’t like was people parking stock Daytonas next to his race car, Wellborn said, because it highlighted where Hyde had cheated by reshaping the body.
Other cheats that Wellborn showed me included a hidden jack screw that let Isaac change the front ride height during the race and a secret body compartment in front of the left rear tire for holding weight or, if Isaac was feeling belligerent, bird shot to drop on the track. The prototype 528 Hemi in the car, which would have been illegal at the time, craters our ears with a bombastic roar.
Wellborn, who has driven the Dodge at Goodwood and the Nürburgring, lets me take it for some slow laps with a caution that too much throttle will easily pitch it sideways on its old tires. It’s like driving any big, loud muscle car, except for the taped steering wheel, three-foot Hurst shifter, and lack of any suspension travel or interior amenities. The wood-grain dash—really, it’s just stick-on shelf liner—is a hilariously “deluxe” touch.
“They were weird cars to drive, but once you got used to them, they were wonderful.” So said Bobby Watson, a former “winged warrior” who drove a Dodge Daytona at Daytona in 1970 and showed up unexpectedly at our shoot. “If you got the rear end loose, you didn’t steer into it. You just let ’er go, and you could feel it come right back.” At 200 mph.
1976 Ford Torino
The speed crusade of the 1960s stalled suddenly in December 1969, when Henry Ford II announced that Ford was gutting its racing budget by 75 percent. Chrysler soon followed as the two automakers redirected every available dime into facing a hailstorm of emissions and safety standards. The 1970 season was paid for, and NASCAR coasted along for the next couple of years on the leftovers. With the two biggest factory players out, Chevrolet’s moment had arrived; a truck version of the Chevy 427 V-8 remained in production even as Ford and Chrysler dropped their big-blocks. The first seeds of an eventual Chevy takeover of NASCAR were sewn in Junior Johnson’s race shop as engine builders began looking to the bow tie for salvation.
Like a lot of the lesser known drivers, Dick Brooks drifted most of his career, hoping for a regular ride with a competitive team but never quite getting there, instead driving off and on for the shoestring Junie Donlavey team. Little known outside NASCAR, Donlavey Racing went international in 1976 when Bill France, ever the deal maker, partnered with the organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans to ship over two stock cars as novelty entries in the storied French enduro.
The Olympia Beer–sponsored Charger crewed by Hershel and Doug McGriff blew its motor on the second lap; the Ford Torino, driven by Brooks and Dick Hutcherson and sponsored by Truxmore Industries (a Virginia company that built equipment for hauling solid waste), lasted until the 11th hour before eating its transmission.
Brooks told a reporter the team had only eight days’ notice before they needed to load the car for shipping. “I’ll try anything once for kicks,” he said, “but the second time, there’s got to be some pay.”
Keith Sultana, a production engineer with Ingersoll Rand and a devotee of 1970s stock cars, thought he might have discovered the Le Mans Torino a few years ago when he found a bare chassis missing its front clip in a lean-to shed not far from where we’re standing. It turned out not to be, but after more research, Sultana is pretty sure—“Would I sign an affidavit at Barrett-Jackson? No”—he has the blue, red, and gold Torino that Brooks drove at the 1976 World 600 in Charlotte. Brooks finished seventh there after tangling with two other cars two laps before the end of the four-and-a-half-hour race, which was also notable for the NASCAR debut of Janet Guthrie.
Sultana restored and bodied the chassis as if it were Brooks’s car and bolted into the noisemaker hole a 351-cubic-inch Cleveland with a rare reinforced block originally cast in the early ’70s for Ford’s Australian racing program. The result is an undeniably beautiful tribute to NASCAR’s middle years, but with extra bumper ducts to channel more air to the brakes, as Sultana generally uses the big Torino to terrorize Porsche and Alfa drivers on local road courses. “It goes pretty good,” Sultana said, “for a car that weighs 3850 pounds.”
1984 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
Bill Rhine built his several businesses from scratch and has restored more than a hundred retired stock car racers, including our Truxmore Torino. He’s proud to say he runs his empire plus a couple charities with an old flip phone. As he waited for the oil preheater to warm the lube in his meticulously restored Levi Garrett Monte Carlo—the clearances are so tight in these race engines that cold, thick oil threatens to spin a bearing—Rhine explained why the car has so many windshield supports. “They had glass windshields until ’92. They shattered all the time.”
Joe Ruttman, whose name is on the side of the Monte, was the youngest kid in a racing family. His father, Ralph, had been a crew chief for J.C. Agajanian, and the face of his older brother Troy graces the Borg-Warner Trophy for winning the 1952 Indy 500 in an Agajanian-Offenhauser. Troy was 22, still the youngest driver ever to win Indy, and not an easy act to follow. Despite not really starting his career until the age of 30, Joe proved his own talent, running up front in hand-me-down cars. At the 1979 USAC Miller 200 in Milwaukee, he swapped paint several times with no less than A.J. Foyt. At the caution, Foyt slid up alongside Ruttman’s two-year-old Pontiac and flashed him a thumbs-up. Ruttman won.
For a few years in the 1980s, Ruttman piloted the angular, compact Winston Cup Monte Carlos, his wearing the number 98 of his brother Troy’s Indy car. Joe drove for Benfield Racing, an outfit based in our shoot location of Concord and so bootstrap that, for the 1984 Daytona 500, Ruttman himself drove the team’s 18-wheeler down from North Carolina. “I’m not really complaining,” he told a reporter. “I like being with the team, and since this is the first time most of us have worked together, it’ll probably be a good thing.”
Ruttman was widely known as one of the humblest guys in racing. He was honest with the reporters when he screwed up and ever the optimist. Early on, still trying to eke out a living, he donated his $2000 prize money for finishing second at a race at Riverside to the widow and four children of a driver killed in practice. Parked in Joe’s seat in the yellow-and-white Monte, I’m a pretender on so many levels, but this is definitely the comfiest of all the cars. The big three-spoke wheel sits right where you want it, and the car’s 1980s post-OPEC dimensions make it feel exactly the right size for racing, unlike the giant Torino and Daytona. It shifts with a wrist flick, but Rhine tells me to stay in low gear to keep the revs up and maintain oil pressure. Of all the cars, Joe Ruttman’s is the one I actually want to go racing in.
Ruttman considered 1984—and the ’84 Daytona 500 especially—make or break for a career that tallied many top-five finishes in the Winston Cup and $200,000 in earnings in 1983, but zero wins. As it happened, Daytona was “break,” as Ruttman, running well back after some pit-road delays, smeared the wall on lap 146, wrinkling every corner of the Monte. A few months later, Levi Garret Chewing Tobacco, at the end of a three-year sponsorship deal with Benfield, pushed to have Ruttman dumped, and he was. NASCAR was never very hospitable to the nice guys.
1994 Chevrolet Lumina
The memories flooded back as Evernham’s crew wheeled out the DuPont Lumina. This was it, the car that changed everything, that helped build NASCAR into the colossal money behemoth it is today. Before Jeff Gordon, people in stock-car racing made a pretty good living. After Jeff Gordon, people in stock-car racing traveled on their own private jets. Gordon, the Indiana boy whose first vehicle was a BMX bike, pulled the sport out of its southern roots and made it cosmopolitan and global. The series even staged three races in Japan in the 1990s.
Nothing has been the same since. Of course, Gordon didn’t do it alone. It was that rivalry—Gordon versus Earnhardt, the uppity kid versus the crotchety veteran, the North versus the South, the Rainbow Warrior versus the Intimidator—that smashed the atom of stock-car racing and produced more heat and light and gold than Croesus could have imagined in his flushest dreams. It’s been 25 years since this car turned a wheel in competition, 18 years since Earnhardt’s terrible crash at Daytona, and you can still cause a rumpus in any roadhouse south of the Mason-Dixon Line by walking in wearing a T-shirt for one driver or the other.
By the 1990s, you had to squint to see how so-called stock cars resembled the production cars they were named after. Templating for aerodynamics, safety, and car equality had produced fields of multicolored jelly beans wearing Chevy, Ford, and Pontiac logos. Strip off the sponsorship regalia, and only the sharpest NASCAR hawks could tell the difference. Most civilians would struggle to climb through the tiny side window of the DuPont car, much less fit into a bucket that was custom contoured to securely hug a 23-year-old Jeff Gordon. The plain gauges and the switches with little rubber-hose extensions for easy operation with gloved hands face you from gleaming bare aluminum that is pasted with a giant DuPont sticker. By 1994, in-car cameras had made a stock car’s interior a nationally televised showcase.
The 46th season of NASCAR was already bathed in white-hot anticipation when it kicked off in Daytona in February 1994, but all eyes were on the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis later in August. The masters of Indy and Daytona, the Hulman/Georges and the Frances, had long had a bitter rivalry themselves, and that first Brickyard 400, as Sports Illustrated noted, “represented a kind of state marriage between those feudal racing lords, with much talk of making history and considerable thought given to making a buck.” Earnhardt had badly wanted to win the race and the biggest share of its $3.2 million purse, but it was Gordon’s victory after taking the lead with five laps remaining that really launched their rivalry and put NASCAR into orbit.
Recently, NASCAR announced new rules for 2019 that tweak the aero package and slash the horsepower for certain races. It’s hoped this will keep the racing tighter and the fans more interested. As we looked back over five decades of stock cars and the people who built and drove them, however, we learned it was never really about the cars at all.
[This article originally ran in Hagerty magazine, the exclusive publication of the Hagerty Drivers Club. For the full, in-the-flesh experience of our world-class magazine—as well other great benefits like roadside assistance and automotive discounts—join HDC today.]