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WAID’S WORLD: A Few Drivers Dominated Bristol In The Past – And For Good Reason

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It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Bristol Motor Speedway was a sleepy little half-mile track at which you could buy a ticket on the day of the race.

It was pretty much the same at North Wilkesboro Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Martinsville Speedway. However, Bristol was different.

It was a high-banked track, which separated it from all other short tracks. Forty years ago its turns were banked at 36 degrees, larger than any other NASCAR facility.

Speeds at Bristol were easily the fastest of any short track. That was the track’s selling point – it has been so for years – but still, filling the grandstands was no easy matter and was seldom accomplished.

It was a simpler time. Communications technology was in its infancy. Television didn’t care much about NASCAR. Track PR personnel had to work long and diligently to lure the press and fans.

And, too, Bristol was not the behemoth it is today. Its two concrete grandstands could accommodate maybe 40,000 fans – far fewer than the reported 160,000 of today.

There were only a couple of VIP booths and the press box was miniscule. Can’t say the same of any of today’s tracks.

Bristol had its loyal followers and I daresay it does today. There just weren’t as many of them.

As enamored as they were of Bristol races and the incredible speeds therein, there was a time when loyal fans began to grouse and mull the notion of not coming back.

I have always reasoned there was a good reason for that.

They began to tire of seeing the same winner – race after race, year after year.

Over a period of more than a decade a small handful – make that very small – dominated Bristol races. They won so often that if indeed a different driver earned a victory it was considered a major upset, or, perhaps, a matter of luck.

Bristol ran its first race in 1961 and just three years later the single team dominance began. The vaunted Holman-Moody organization won eight races from 1964-71 with drivers Fred Lorenzen, Dick Hutcherson and David Pearson.

That changed in 1972. Bobby Allison swept both Bristol races amid a short-track war he waged with Richard Petty, also a multiple Bristol winner.

Cale Yarborough replaced Allison in 1973 and he picked up where his predecessor left off. He won once at Bristol that year and then, remarkably, compiled seven more wins in 12 races, including a streak of four in a row in 1976-77.

Perhaps Yarborough’s dominance was no more obvious than in the Southeastern 500 in April of 1977.

Yarborough won by an astonishing seven laps. It wasn’t the largest margin of victory in NASCAR history, but it was enough to put the crowd – announced at 30,000 – to sleep.

The guys in the press box were through filing their stories before Yarborough’s team had loaded up and departed. After all, there wasn’t much to say.

The best quote of the race came from Dick Brooks, the distant runnerup.

“The only way I could have beaten Cale,” he said, “was to have someone in the pits shoot out his tires.”

Yarborough’s last Bristol victory came in 1980. A year later another driver began his dominance at the track with a sweep of the 1981 events. His name was Darrell Waltrip.

Incredibly, counting ’81, Waltrip won seven consecutive races at Bristol. Terry Labonte broke his string in 1984.

Allison, Yarborough and Waltrip all had one thing in common, one thing that served as the catalyst for nearly all their Bristol victories.

They drove for Junior Johnson.

Johnson was easily the top team owner at Bristol – and at nearly all of the short tracks, for that matter.

His cars, mostly Chevrolets, were so strong on the short tracks that they were expected to win. They did with such regularity that sometimes boredom set in.

Johnson was never one to obey by the rules – well, perhaps it is better to say he never strictly obeyed them. Nearly everyone believed he had more than one trick up his sleeve when it came to short-track racing.

Maybe he did. But he was never caught. His cars routinely passed pre and post-race inspection.

Waltrip is Bristol’s all-time winner with 12 victories, 10 of which came with Johnson. All of Yarborough’s nine wins were in Johnson’s cars. Allison’s sweep in 1972 – two of his four wins – were accomplished in Johnson’s Chevrolets.

Johnson tops Bristol’s list of winning team owners with 16, but in reality, he has five more as a partner with Charlotte Motor Speedway President Richard Howard.

Howard may have been the designated team owner, but he had nothing to do with the construction and preparation of the cars.

That was all Johnson. And it is one reason he is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural class.



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Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.