Rod Osterlund

April 1 in NASCAR history: Dale Earnhardt tames Bristol for 1st Cup win

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Dale Earnhardt wasn’t joking around on April Fool’s Day in 1979.

At the age of 27, the future seven-time Cup champion bested the likes of Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty to score his first career Cup Series win, in the Southeastern 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt, driving the No. 2 car for Rod Osterlund, led 164 laps and the final 25 to get the win.

It was the first of two Cup wins for Osterlund’s team and it came in Earnhardt’s 16th career start.

“I’ll probably believe it in the morning,” Earnhardt said according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era,” which says 26,000 were in attendance for the race. “This is a bigger thrill than my first ever racing victory. … It was against top caliber drivers. It wasn’t some dirt track back home.”

Earnhardt, who would be named Rookie of the Year in 1979, would go on to win the race again the next year and claim nine total Cup victories at Bristol. He’d win in consecutive Bristol starts three times in his career.

Also on this date:

1973: After a spirited mid-race battle between David Pearson and Cale Yarborough at Atlanta, Yarborough lost seven laps to the leaders due to heating problems. Pearson went on to win over Bobby Isaac by two laps for his second consecutive win. He’d win his next three starts.

1984: Darrell Waltrip scored his seventh straight win at Bristol Motor Speedway with a victory over Terry Labonte and Ron Bouchard. It was the eighth straight Bristol win for team owner Junior Johnson.

1990: Dale Earnhardt edges Mark Martin by a couple of car lengths to win at Darlington. On Lap 212, a multi-car wreck occurred that involved Neil Bonnett. Bonnett suffered injuries, including a concussion, that would keep him out of a Cup car until a 1993 race at Talladega.

1993: Just days after competing in a Cup race at Darlington, defending champion Alan Kulwicki was killed along with three others in a plane crash as they traveled to Bristol, Tennessee for that weekend’s race. Kulwicki was 38.

2007: Jimmie Johnson edged teammate Jeff Gordon by half a car length to win at Martinsville. It was Johnson’s third win in the first six races of the year.

Where Are They Now? Dave Marcis ‘ready to hop back into a race car’

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Editor’s note: This is part one of our interview with former NASCAR driver Dave Marcis. Part two, which deals with Marcis’ friendship with Dale Earnhardt, will appear Tuesday.

When 26-year-old Dave Marcis went south to pursue fame and fortune in NASCAR, he received a true royal welcome when he pulled into the Daytona International Speedway garage for the first time in February 1968.

None other than The King, Richard Petty, was the first to greet Marcis, the wing-tipped short track wonder from Wausau, Wisconsin.

“He come over by my car in the garage, walked all around it, looked all over it, introduced himself and said ‘Welcome to the sport of NASCAR,’ ” Marcis told NBC Sports.

“He asked me a bunch of questions about my car, where it came from and that sort of stuff. He was always my idol when I first started racing. I used to follow him back home by reading Hot Rod Magazine. After meeting him for the first time in Daytona, we became and have remained good friends.”

Dave Marcis joined the NASCAR Cup tour in 1968 and ran 883 races before he retired after the 2002 season. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

But Petty wasn’t merely being friendly, welcoming the newest kid to NASCAR. While Marcis had read about Petty, the latter had heard plenty of Marcis’ racing exploits and success back in the Badger State.

Petty won a NASCAR Grand National record 27 races – including 10 in a row – in 1967. But two years earlier, Marcis won 52 races in the Central Wisconsin Racing Association, a confluence of 1/3- and 1/4-mile asphalt paved tracks.

“They put an ad in the newspaper and formed (the CWRA) at Ed’s Bowling Alley on 6th Street in Wausau in 1958,” said Marcis, who still has a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from his nearly five-decade racing career.

Because the CRWA season lasted just three months. Marcis raced seven times per week, including numerous Sunday day/night doubleheaders, where he’d race at one track in the afternoon and then drive to another track for an evening sequel.

After meeting Petty for the first time, just days later Marcis would make his first of a record 33 starts in the Daytona 500 – including 32 in a row from 1968-99 – and then end his NASCAR career where it began in the 2002 edition of The Great American Race.

At the age of 61, no less.

“That was my first big race track,” Marcis said when asked what it was about Daytona that kept him coming back. “I liked the track, it’s a nice track. I enjoyed it there, the fans and everything.

Roger Penske (left) talks with his driver Dave Marcis at a NASCAR Cup race. Marcis drove 16 Cup events in Penske’s AMC Matador between 1972-74. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

“I worked on my own car and on the chassis and we always seemed to get the car handling good and be able to get qualified. In those days, everybody had to qualify and sometimes you had 62 cars trying to qualify for 40 or so places.”

Between his 33 starts in the 500, Marcis became one of NASCAR’s most prolific drivers, making 883 career starts, behind only Petty (1,185), Ricky Rudd (906) and Terry Labonte (890).

Even though his best finish in the 500 was sixth (in 1975 and 1976), Marcis didn’t consider Daytona his toughest track.

“Trenton, New Jersey (Trenton Speedway) used to be a real tough race track when they put the dog leg in the back straightaway, and Dover, Delaware (Dover International Speedway) was a real tough race track because you’d spend 5 ½ hours in that heat, at 130 degrees in that race car,” he said. “It got pretty warm up there. And Bristol was really, really tough on your neck and the heat was pretty bad there, too.”

When it came to the toughest foes he faced on the track, Marcis said the late Dick Trickle, a fellow Wisconsin native, was the toughest on Midwest short tracks, while Petty was among the hardest on NASCAR’s bigger tracks.

Marcis didn’t have the winning success in NASCAR that he enjoyed in short track racing in his home state. He earned five Grand National/Cup wins, but as one of the sport’s last independent team owner/operators, he earned 94 top five and 222 top-10 finishes.

“You couldn’t keep up with the schedule as an independent owner/operator,” Marcis said. “I’d work night and day so half the time I’d be worn out by race day. It wasn’t easy but it’s what I wanted to do.”

Marcis’ best seasons in NASCAR were 1975, when he finished a distant second in the points to Petty, and in 1978, when he finished fifth, driving for team owner Rod Osterlund.

Marcis’ replacement for the 1979 season was Dale Earnhardt. They would become close friends.

Earnhardt won his first of seven Cup championships in 1980 in his second season of driving for Osterlund before the team imploded two-thirds of the way through the 1981 season.

After the 2002 Daytona 500, Marcis made one more race start in his career, finishing seventh in the 2010 Scotts EZ Seed Shootout, an exhibition race for retired drivers 50 years and older at Bristol Motor Speedway, at the age of 69.

Now 79, racing and life has been good to Marcis.

“I’m doing fine, I have no health problems and am on zero medications of any kind. I’m probably ready to hop back into a race car,” he said with a laugh. “Of course, my wife doesn’t want me to, but yeah, I still would like to.”

Marcis and wife Helen have spent the last 51 years living outside Asheville, North Carolina, where he’s far from retired, owning Street Rods by Dave Marcis. He often returns to Wisconsin, where he owns a few businesses and property. He’s also an avid hunter and fisherman.

“We went bear hunting in Canada last year and we’re going to go moose hunting next year, I think,” he said. “I stay busy, I don’t sit around.”

Marcis also still keeps up with NASCAR.

“Oh sure, I still follow it,” he said. “(NASCAR Vice Chairman) Mike Helton sent me a (hard card) so I can go. I was going to go to Atlanta last week to watch Johnny Sauter, who I know pretty well, in the pick-up truck race, but obviously that race didn’t take place (due to the coronavirus outbreak).”

Even with the lengthy NASCAR career he enjoyed, Marcis has never forgotten his short track roots.

The Badger State not only sent Marcis but also several other notables to NASCAR, including Trickle, Sauter, Alan Kulwicki, Matt Kenseth and longtime crew chief Jimmy Fennig.

Last July, Marcis returned to his hometown, along with Sauter and others to take in a CWRA Stars to Legends Tour race and share many memories in and around his old stomping grounds of State Park Speedway.

“There’s a lot of memories when you race the number of years I did, moving from the ranks of a short-track guy who really had nothing and no big sponsorships and running the 1/3- and 1/4-mile tracks,” Marcis said. “We didn’t even have a 1/2-mile track we ran on weekly.

Dave Marcis watches Southern 500 qualifying in 2018. (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“There were nights where I’d win $142 for winning a race, and others where I was the top qualifier, finished third in the heat race and second in the feature and won only $60.

“But gas was only 27 cents a gallon. And unless we cut them or blew them out, we could run the same set of tires for a whole year. I think that’s another thing that made us better racers because we learned how to set those cars up with those old, hard tires. They were really hard, they didn’t wear. You had to work hard to get those cars handling good. It wasn’t because of a good, soft tire, because we didn’t have them.

“Being able to come to NASCAR and try it, it was just hard to believe that we could even do it. We didn’t have no money or big sponsorships when we did it. I tell people I didn’t know what I was really getting into when I came down there to NASCAR.

“Thankfully, I had a lot of help when I first came here. Way up in northern Wisconsin, I didn’t know that much. I got Hot Rod Magazine and whatever articles they had, that was all I knew about NASCAR.

“If you wanted to race for a living, I decided I needed to go to NASCAR and do it because we started in February and would go through October in those days.”

There was one other incentive, Marcis said with a laugh from his North Carolina home:

“One thing I’ll always remember is around Easter time, they were running at Hickory (Motor Speedway), while we were still shoveling snow back up in Wisconsin. That’s one of the reasons why I moved down here in 1969 and have been here ever since.”

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Coffee with Kyle: Richard Petty and Dale Inman went separate ways

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With the end of the 2018 season, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have parted ways. Johnson has a new crew chief in Kevin Meendering; Knaus has a new driver in William Byron.

The latest edition of “Coffee with Kyle” takes a look at another legendary pairing that split up: Richard Petty and his cousin Dale Inman.

Petty and Inman both believe Knaus has a better chance at winning another championship than Johnson. They came to that conclusion based on experience.

Petty and Inman combined for 166 wins and seven championships before they split up.

“(Going our separate ways) was probably one of the best things that ever happened to both of us,” Petty said. “Because once we got away from each other we realized how we depended on each other.”

Separating might have been good for them personally, but Petty’s performance was never the same. He went on to win just two more races.

Petty’s 199th win came at Dover in May 1984.

“Dover was a big win,” Petty said. “It had been a while since we won. But then everything was ‘the next race, the next race, the next race’ before we went to Daytona. Everybody was expecting the 200 anytime. We was too. But it couldn’t have been any better than for us to win the 200th race July the 4th in front of the President of the United States (Ronald Reagan).

“If you wrote a script, nobody would have bought it.”

Part 1: Richard Petty: Racing ‘took us to the real world’
Part 2: The story behind debut of Plymouth’s NASCAR Superbird

Inman was hired by Rod Osterlund in 1980 and crewed the car for Dale Earnhardt and later Joe Ruttman without another win. 

“Then we got Tim Richmond and what a natural he was,” Inman said. “Didn’t know nothing about a race car. … Even Earnhardt respected him a lot, because he came in and raced Earnhardt.”

In 1982 Richmond won twice at Riverside. Those were the first wins for Inman after leaving Petty Enterprises.

Inman scored another championship with Terry Labonte in 1984. They won on consistency with only two wins but top fives in 17 of 30 races that year.

Regarding a short-lived pairing with Earnhardt, Inman said: “He couldn’t control himself. Darrell Waltrip intimidated him so bad it was unreal. The bad thing on my resume was I never won a race with Earnhardt.”

The episode can be found on the NBC Sports YouTube page.

Click here to watch the “Coffee with Kyle” episode with Tony Stewart.