Bobby Isaac

Friday 5: Did driver quit NASCAR race to watch man walk on moon?

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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

Alex Bowman on the roof of his car after winning at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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.  

Kurt Busch celebrates his Kentucky win atop his car’s roof. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

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.

Book excerpt: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Racing To The Finish’

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NASCAR America will air an exclusive first listen of NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s book “Racing To The Finish: My Story” on today’s show, which airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

A first-person account, Earnhardt’s gripping book candidly brings fans through his 18 years behind the wheel, his struggle with concussions, and his future aspirations off the race track.

You can get an early listen of Earnhardt narrating a chapter entitled: “A Life, A Secret, And A Promise” and excerpt from that chapter here.

Earnhardt’s book will be released Oct. 16 from the W Publishing Group. You can pre-order the book here.

A Lift, A Secret, And A Promise

Sunday, May, 4, 2014. Talladega Superspeedway. We were having a good day at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest, most intimidating race track. If you know anything about my NASCAR career, then you know that me and that place, we’ve always had a special relationship. Won there six times. My father won there 10 times. The Earnhardts and Talladega, we’ve grown up together. There’s a whole generation of fans down there who were raised to root for me, taught by the generation before them who rooted for my dad.

So whatever I did when I raced at Talladega was always a really big deal. Good or bad. If the grandstands felt like I was making a move to the front, they would lose their minds. Even with 40-plus cars out there roaring around, I could hear them cheering. If they felt like I had been done wrong, I could hear them booing, too. I loved it. On this day, I had them rocking a couple of times. We led a bunch of laps and spent nearly half the day running inside the top 10.

Now, late in the race, they were waiting on me to make my move. So was my team in the pits, especially my crew chief, Steve Letarte. Just a few months earlier, we had won the Daytona 500. But for whatever reason we had never won together at Talladega. Today, we really believed we had a chance to fix that. But now, late in the race, we were stalled.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. on pit road at Talladega in May 2014. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

We made a pit stop for fuel and I got stuck in the pack. I was boxed in my position with nowhere to go. With eight laps to go, I was setting up for my move to the front, but a slower, underfunded car moved in front of me. At Talladega, you have to have a dancing partner to team up, to split the air, slip through it and move up through the pack. But this car in front of me now, this was a bad dancing partner.

There was no way I could push that car to the front. Heck, there was no way I could push any of these cars around me to the front. I was jammed up, running three-wide and basically a 200 mph parking lot with nowhere to go. I started to do the math in my head. How many laps were left? What was my running position? How many cars did I need to slide by to get back into the lead? I added all of that up and realized that the best I was going to do was get up into the top 15 maybe.

So, I Iifted.

I did.

I backed off and I got out of there. I jumped on the radio, and I told my team that I thought there was going to be a big crash and I was staying back so I could stay out of it and steer around it when it happened.

At Talladega, we call it the Big One. When a pack of cars, just like the one I’m running in right now, all wreck at once. Cars start spinning and there’s smoke everywhere and you have no idea where you’re going, what you’re going to hit or what’s going to hit you. Even when you do think you’re about to steer clear of it, a car or a wall can come out of nowhere.

I didn’t want any part of that. Not today. So yea, I lifted my foot out of the throttle and I let my Chevy ease back out of the pack. I watched them all move out ahead of me and made sure to give them their distance but not too far. I stayed close enough that I could still hang on to their draft. Staying on the back edge of that aerodynamic bubble that would keep me close but not too close. There were 27 cars on the lead lap and I settled into 26th. If they started wrecking, I would have enough room and time to get around the mess without getting hurt.

To be clear, this is a strategy that a lot of drivers have used over the years but they always did this at the start of the race, not with a few laps to go like I was doing. I hung back waiting to make a dramatic late move. I wasn’t going to make any moves. My only move was to stay safe. That was my whole goal. Don’t get hurt. Not again.

There’s a famous NASCAR story about Bobby Isaac. The 1970 NASCAR Cup Series champion. A few years later in the middle of a race at Talladega, Bobby came over the radio and told his team to get a relief driver ready because he was getting out of there. He pulled down pit road, climbed from his car and walked straight to a pay phone to call his wife. Bobby told her that a voice had spoken to him, clear as a bell, and told him to get out of the car. Earlier in the same race, an old friend of his, Larry Smith, had gotten killed. Bobby was done. He didn’t race again that season and only ran Talladega one more time. Looking back, that was really the day that his Hall of Fame career ended.

Riding out those final few laps that day at Talladega, there weren’t any mysterious voices in my head. The only voice I heard was my own. I felt awful about what I was doing. It went against everything that being a racer is about. I knew I was going to have to answer questions about it, not just from my fans but from my team. But none of them knew what I had been going through that month. No one did. Not even my fiancé Amy.

They did know what I had endured nearly two years earlier on Aug. 29, 2012. Everyone did. During a tire test at Kansas Speedway I hit the wall going 185 mph and suffered a concussion that eventually forced me to get out of the car for two races later that season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2014 crash at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

After I returned, everything went pretty much back to normal until one month before this Talladega race. On Monday, April 7, 2014, at the high-speed Texas Motor Speedway I finished dead last after wrecking on Lap 12. It was a bizarre situation. I was running down the frontstretch blinded a little by the car in front of me and my left front tire ran off the asphalt and into the infield grass. It was a mistake on my part but it wasn’t all that unusual.

What was unusual was that it had rained all weekend and that patch of grass was like a mud bog. The way we were running our race cars, they rode super low to the ground, so when I hit that soaked turf with a nearly two-ton machine at 200 mph, the grass grabbed that corner of my car and instantly folded it in. It bent that sheet metal and steel like it was nothing, like it was a cardboard box. It grabbed so hard that my car actually went up in the air for a split second before slamming back down to the blacktop. Now riding on only three tires, my car veered to the right, smacked the outside returning wall. Once. Twice. Three times. And then kind of dot, dot, dotted its way along the wall.

If you were watching that race on TV, you probably remember the fact that the car caught on fire. When I finally got the car stopped and climbed out over the hood, the whole rear end of my Chevy was up in flames, but you probably wouldn’t have thought much of the size of all those impacts. If you’re a race fan or a race car driver then you’ve seen or experienced hits just like that all the time.

For me, though, it was like an old wound had been opened. All of a sudden, my brain went back to showing symptoms that I hadn’t felt since 2012. They weren’t as intense as what had forced me out of the car two years earlier. They were much subtler, but I knew something wasn’t right. I knew instantly. I told no one. Amy knew I didn’t feel well because she’s the one who has to look after me every day, but I didn’t share everything with her either.

The only place where I exposed the true details of what I felt was in the notes app on my iPhone. The morning after the Texas crash, I opened that and started regularly writing out the details of whenever I felt bad. I’ve been doing it ever since. A journal of symptoms. At first, I don’t think I even really understood why I started doing it. This sounds morbid, but when I look back now, I realize that what I was doing was leaving a trail for others to discover in case something happened to me that kept me from being able to tell them myself.

I’ve never shared these notes with anyone. Until now.

Friday 5: Questions about size of future Hall of Fame classes

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After NASCAR celebrates the ninth Hall of Fame class tonight (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN), questions may soon arise about how many inductees should be honored annually.

NASCAR inducts five people each year. When NASCAR announced eligibility changes in 2013, a former series executive said that the sanctioning body would “give strong consideration” to if five people should be inducted each year and if there should be a veteran’s committee “after the 10th class is seated.’’

The 10th class — which Jeff Gordon will be eligible for and expected to headline— will be selected later this year and honored in 2019. That gives NASCAR a year to determine what changes to make if officials follow the schedule mentioned in 2013. NASCAR has discussed different scenarios as part of its examination of the Hall of Fame.

Among the questions NASCAR could face is should no more than three people be inducted a year? Should only nominees who receive a specific percentage of the vote be inducted? Should other methods be considered in determining who enters the Hall? 

Only one of the last five classes had all five inductees selected on at least 50 percent of the ballots. Five people in the last three classes each received less than 50 percent of the vote.

The challenge is that if NASCAR reduced the number of people inducted after the Class of 2019, it could create a logjam in the coming years.

Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards (provided Edwards does not return to run a significant number of races) would be eligible for the Class of 2020.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth (provided Kenseth does not return to run a significant number of races) would be eligible for the Class of 2021.

Stewart would appear to be a lock for his year and it seems likely Earnhardt would make it as well his first year.

If the Hall of Fame classes were cut to three a year, and Stewart, Earnhardt and Kenseth each were selected in those two years, that would leave three spots during that time for others.

The nominees for this year’s class included former champions Bobby Labonte and Alan Kulwicki, crew chief Harry Hyde (56 wins, 88 poles) and Waddell Wilson (22 wins, 32 poles), car owners Roger Penske, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs and Cup drivers Buddy Baker, Davey Allison and Ricky Rudd.

A 2019 Class that might feature Jeff Gordon, Harry Hyde, Buddy Baker and two others would still leave some worthy candidates who might not make it for a couple of years if the number of inductees is reduced.

Of course, there are those who haven’t been nominated that some would suggest should be, including Smokey Yunick, Humpy Wheeler, Buddy Parrott, Kirk Shelmerdine, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant and Tim Richmond. That could further jumble who makes it if the number of inductees is reduced.

Those are just some of the issues NASCAR could face as it examines if any changes need to be made.

2. Hall of Fame Classes and vote totals

Note: NASCAR did not release vote totals for the inaugural class (2010 with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr., and Bill France Jr.). Below are the other classes with the percent of ballots each inductee was on:

2018 Class

Robert Yates (94 percent)

Red Byron (74 percent)

Ray Evernham (52 percent)

Ken Squier (40 percent)

Ron Hornaday Jr. (38 percent)

2017 Class

Benny Parsons (85 percent)

Rick Hendrick (62 percent)

Mark Martin (57 percent)

Raymond Parks (53 percent)

Richard Childress (43 percent)

2016 Class

Bruton Smith (68 percent)

Terry Labonte (61 percent)

Curtis Turner (60 percent)

Jerry Cook (47 percent)

Bobby Isaac (44 percent)

2015 Class

Bill Elliott (87 percent)

Wendell Scott (58 percent)

Joe Weatherly (53 percent)

Rex White (43 percent)

Fred Lorenzen (30 percent)

2014 Class

Tim Flock (76 percent)

Maurice Petty (67 percent)

Dale Jarrett (56 percent)

Jack Ingram (53 percent)

Fireball Roberts (51 percent)

2013 Class

Herb Thomas (57 percent)

Leonard Wood (57 percent)

Rusty Wallace (52 percent)

Cotten Owens (50 percent)

Buck Baker (39 percent)

2012 Class

Cale Yarborough (85 percent)

Darrell Waltrip (82 percent)

Dale Inman (78 percent)

Richie Evans (50 percent)

Glen Wood (44 percent)

2011 Class

David Pearson (94 percent)

Bobby Allison (62 percent)

Lee Petty (62 percent)

Ned Jarrett (58 percent)

Bud Moore (45 percent)

3. Charter Switcheroo

Five charters have changed hands since last season. One will be with its third different team in the three years of the charter system.

In 2016, Premium Motorsports leased its charter to HScott Motorsports so the No. 46 team of Michael Annett could use it.

The charter was returned after that season, and Premium Motorsports sold the charter to Furniture Row Racing for the No. 77 car of Erik Jones for 2017.

With Jones moving to Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing not finding enough sponsorship to continue the team, the charter was sold to JTG Daugherty for the No. 37 team of Chris Buescher for this season. (The No. 37 team had leased a charter from Roush Fenway Racing last year).

So that will make the third different team the charter, which originally belonged to Premium Motorsports, has been with since the system was created.

4. Dodge and NASCAR?

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne excited fans when he said in Dec. 2016 about Dodge that “it is possible we can come back to NASCAR.’’

One report last year stated that Dodge decided not to return to NASCAR, and another countered that report.

While questions remain on if Dodge will return to NASCAR, Marchionne announced this week at the Detroit Auto Show that he’ll step down next year, and that Fiat Chrysler will release a business plan in June that will go through 2022. The company will announce a successor to Marchionne sometime after that.

Marchionne said, according to The Associated Press, that the U.S. tax cuts passed in December are worth $1 billion annually to Fiat Chrysler.

A Wall Street Journal story this week stated that Fiat Chrysler makes most of its profit from its Jeep and Ram brands, writing that those brands “have been on a roll as U.S. buyers shift to these kinds of light trucks and away from sedans, which is a segment the company has largely abandoned.’’

5. NMPA Hall of Fame

The National Motorsports Hall of Fame will induct four people into its Hall of Fame on Sunday night. Those four will be drivers Terry Labonte and Donnie Allison and crew chiefs Jake Elder and Buddy Parrott.

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NASCAR’s all-time victory list in Sprint Cup

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Jimmie Johnson‘s victory Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway tied him with Dale Earnhardt for seventh place on NASCAR’s career victory list in Sprint Cup competition.

Here’s the list of the sport’s top winners

1. Richard Petty … 200 wins

2. David Pearson … 105

3. Jeff Gordon … 93

4. Bobby Allison … 84

Darrell Waltrip … 84

6. Cale Yarborough … 83

7. Dale Earnhardt … 76

Jimmie Johnson … 76

9. Rusty Wallace … 55

10. Lee Petty … 54

11. Junior Johnson … 50

Ned Jarrett … 50

13. Herb Thomas … 48

Tony Stewart … 48

15. Buck Baker … 46

16. Bill Elliott … 44

17. Mark Martin … 40

18. Tim Flock … 39

19. Bobby Isaac … 37

20. Matt Kenseth … 36

The day a ‘strange voice’ told Bobby Isaac to get out of his race car

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It was one of the most abrupt retirements in NASCAR history.

And even though he’d come back to compete in 19 more races over the following two seasons, the day newly inducted NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Isaac “retired” has been etched in the sport’s lore.

Isaac was racing at Talladega Superspeedway on Aug. 12, 1973. Earlier in the same race, another driver — friend and fellow Catawba, North Carolina, racer Larry Smith — had been killed in a wreck.

According to NASCAR lore, Isaac said a “strange voice” told him to get out of his car or something bad would happen to him.

Isaac told team owner Bud Moore to get a relief driver ready, came into the pits, climbed out of the car and went home.

His widow, Patsy, related the story after Saturday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremonies:

“As soon as he got out of the car and was able to get to a telephone, because we didn’t have cell phones then, he called me and repeated to me exactly what had happened to him in the car.

He said a voice told him that he needed to get out of the car, and so he radioed to Bud Moore. He said, ‘Find somebody to fill in the car. I’ve got to get out.’

I don’t know what that experience was.  I don’t know if he felt it was an intuition or if it was actually a verbal voice. I know that it impacted him enough that he was not going to stay in the race car.

He had always said that it was not because someone had gotten killed earlier in the race, and that person was from Catawba County, and he knew them. That’s all I can tell you is what he told me.”

Patsy Isaac was supportive of her husband’s decision to get out of the race car that fateful day at Talladega, noting: “I said, come home. That was fine with me.”

Isaac would not run another Cup race in 1973. But he did come back for 19 starts in the following two years, including one last go-round at Talladega.

Sadly, Isaac died at 45 on Aug. 14, 1977, one day after exiting his Late Model with 25 laps remaining in a race at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway and then collapsing on pit road. It was nearly four years to the day of his Talladega exit.

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