As the celebration of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon 50 years ago takes place Saturday, the event puts a spotlight on NASCAR folklore.
And an independent driver named Henley Gray.
The story goes that Gray pulled off the track and quit the Bristol race so he could return to his Rome, Georgia, home and watch man walk on the moon on July 20, 1969.
Here’s what is known: NASCAR raced that day at Bristol. The Volunteer 500 began at 1:30 p.m. ET. with a field that included Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker among the 32 drivers.
Pearson won. Runner-up Bobby Isaac finished three laps down. Gray placed 15th, completing 206 of 500 laps. The reason he did not finish is listed as “quit.”
The race ended just after 4:30 p.m. ET. The Eagle lunar module with Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon at the Sea of Tranquility at 4:17 p.m. ET. Armstrong didn’t step on to the moon until 10:56 p.m. ET.
Based solely on the timeline, the story is possible that Gray quit to watch man walk on the moon.
But there’s a problem.
“That didn’t happen,” Gray told NBC Sports this week. “I don’t know how that got started.”
Gray is 86 — “I’ll be 86 and a half next month,“ he said. “Halves count when you get my age.” — and ran 374 Cup races from 1964-77. He never won.
His best finish was fourth at Nashville on July 30, 1966. Petty won the 400-lap race, leading every lap. Petty was followed by Buck Baker (five laps down), Allison (six laps down) and Gray (17 laps down) in a field of 28 cars. Henley went on to finish a career-high fourth in the points that season. It was the only season he placed in the top 10.
Since he wasn’t a “hot dog” as he called the factory-backed drivers of that era, Henley admits he quit some races. As an independent, he had to be wise with his money. Sometimes it wasn’t worth running 100 more laps in hopes of earning another $100 when the wear and tear on the car would be greater. So he packed up and headed to the next race.
“I was having a ball,” Gray said of his career. “I wasn’t making any money, but I was having a ball.”
After a crash at Michigan ended his driving career, Gray remained in the sport as an owner.
Dale Earnhardt drove for Gray in October 1977 at Charlotte. It was Earnhardt’s fourth career Cup start. He finished 38th after a rear end failure 25 laps into the race. Baker drove for Gray at Martinsville in April 1982, finishing 28th. Benny Parsons finished 28th at Daytona in July 1982 in Gray’s car.
Gray goes from one story to the next, recalling his career, laughing at the stories and times with drivers who have since passed.
But he is adamant. He didn’t leave Bristol early to watch man on the moon.
Now, there is one story that is true about Gray looking up to the heavens.
“(One) time, there were three of us on our way from Charlotte going down to Rockingham, an eclipse was going to happen at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “We pulled over on the side of the road and stood there for a while and watched all the eclipse and got back in the trucks and went on to the race.”
2. NASCAR is watching
Twice in the last three weeks, victory celebrations featured drivers standing on the roof of their car. Alex Bowman did it after he scored his first Cup win three weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway. Kurt Busch did it last weekend at Kentucky Speedway.
In the early 2000s, NASCAR frowned upon drivers standing on the car’s roof after a victory. NASCAR penalized a team after its roof was found to be too low. It so happened that the team’s driver jumped on the roof after winning. That celebration went away.
What Bowman and Busch did evokes the spontaneity some suggest has been lost because of corporate sponsorship and the need for drivers to thank sponsors before relishing a victory.
Last week also saw five crew members ride on Kurt Busch’s winning car from the start/finish line after his celebration there. The moment was lauded on social media for how it resembled such celebrations decades ago.
It’s a wonderful image. So is a driver standing on the roof of a car after winning. But both present potential problems for NASCAR.
In an era where a failure in post-race inspection can lead to a disqualification of any car, including the winner, NASCAR has to be mindful of ensuring the vehicle’s integrity while permitting celebrations that fans enjoy.
On the recent celebrations by Bowman and Busch, a NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports: “Our inspectors are very good at their jobs, so it hasn’t been an issue thus far. We will continue to remind the teams about celebrating responsibly.
“We will not hesitate to make a stand if celebrations turn nefarious, but the very recent trends of drivers being human and showing emotion over something they’ve worked so hard for isn’t hurting the integrity of the sport in our opinion.”
3. A new strategy
Since lightning stopped the Daytona race a couple of weeks ago and rain later finished it, some teams are taking a closer look at how they monitor weather.
Previously, many watched radars for when rain would arrive at the track. Now, teams have to be aware of NASCAR’s policy that any lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of the track will stop the action.
While there’s no way to predict when and where lightning will strike, if an approaching storm features lightning, teams will have to be aware of that.
Kurt Busch gave up the lead at Daytona under caution to pit when NASCAR announced that the restart would be on the next lap. Shortly after pitting, lightning struck 6.3 miles from the track and the race was stopped with Justin Haley in the lead. The race never resumed and Haley won.
“I asked NASCAR about their policy and how they handle things and what they look at so we are now making sure we copy everything the same,” Kurt Busch said. “That will help us gauge how to call a better race.”
Said Kyle Busch: “That’s certainly something that we all have to got to look at and think about now.”
Lightning won’t be an issue this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, drivers will have to deal with the heat. Temperatures are expected to be in the 90s this weekend.
4. Beating the Big 3 in Xfinity
Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick went 1-2-3 last weekend in the Kentucky Xfinity race, continuing their dominance this season. They’ve combined to win 10 of the last 11 races (Ross Chastain‘s win at Daytona was the exception). Twice, the trio took the top three spots in a race (Bristol and Kentucky). In seven of the last 11 races, the trio has taken at least two of the top three spots.
So, who can top them?
Michael Annett finished fourth at Kentucky and said that was a key performance for his JR Motorsports team.
“At least I’m able to be up there and see where they’re better,” said Annett, who won at Daytona and has 12 top 10s in 17 races this season. “I’m at least able to see that now in the race and just be able to put a whole weekend together. That’s what you’re going to have to do to beat those guys.”
Justin Allgaier, who has six top-three finishes this season, also sees the progress Annett, his teammate, sees.
“I felt (at Kentucky) we were way closer to them speed wise than we have been,” said Allgaier, who finished seventh. “We ran right there with (Custer and Bell) for quite a while.”
Allgaier admits that’s something he couldn’t say earlier in the season.
5. Sticky situation
This marks the second of three consecutive weekends that a traction compound will be applied to a track surface. It was done last weekend at Kentucky, will be done this week at New Hampshire and also will be done at next week at Pocono.
Watkins Glen follows Pocono but the next oval after Pocono is Michigan. There are no plans at this time for Michigan to use the traction compound next month.