Monday, May 12, 2008
REPORTING FROM ... THE DARLINGTON RACEWAY
1971 Purolator Mercury
The Dodge Challenger 500 at Darlington was supposed to be a celebration of everything that is new and shiny in today's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The 58-year old racetrack, NASCAR's first superspeedway, is finally getting some sorely needed facility upgrades, from a massive infield tunnel between turns 3 and 4 to the immaculate new paving job that helped 41 of 45 cars break the track qualifying record on Friday.
But 90 minutes before the green flag fell on Saturday night, no one was talking about the $20 million in improvements or the fleet of 43 ultramodern "Cars of Tomorrow" being run through the pre-race tech inspection line.
"Whew," said Robert "Bootie" Barker, crew chief for the #66 Chevy of Scott Riggs. "Ladies and gentlemen, that is a damn racecar."
Racing officials give it a look.
Barker was one of dozens of drivers, crew members, and NASCAR officials who were ingoring their prerace routine to crawl into, under and on top of the 1971 #21 Purolator Mercury, which had been rolled out of the Darlington museum and prepped to run some hot laps in front of the sold-out grandstand. No tricked out shocks, no on-board telemetry, and no rear wing. Just a stock body with a few extra seat belts and a rear spoiler barely as tall as a business card.
"We ran this car in '72 and '73," recalled Eddie Wood, team co-owner and a crew member in during the 1970's. "And we won with it a lot more than we lost with it."
The team won eight races in '72, two with A.J. Foyt and six with their newly-signed driver David Pearson. In '73 they led the league with eleven wins and eight poles.
"Not bad considering we only ran 18 races that year," said Leonard Wood with a laugh, Eddie's uncle and the man long considered the genius behind the team's success. "This car won the spring race here at Darlington in '72 and '73 and it looks just like it did when we rolled it into Victory Lane. These are the original tires and there's even sticks of gum taped to the dash, just like David always asked for."
None of the modern features of the new cars.
There's was also one more added feature that the Silver Fox required the Woods to install—a cigarette lighter.
"You'd be out here at Darlington with 50 laps to go. It's 95 degrees outside and you're just dying," said Pearson's archrival, Richard Petty, who looked like he was ready to jump behind the wheel and go racing. "And then David would go blowing by you and he's driving with one hand and lighting a cigarette with the other. You knew you were in trouble then, but it was kind of cool, too."
35 years later, it still is.