Chargers, Thinkers, and Planners
by Steve Samples

Every era of sports produces an exciting assortment of stars, and every generation is proud to proclaim that the stars of their generation are the best ever. The problem in comparing these stars is that they will never compete, and there is truthfully no way to determine exactly who was best.

Would Rocky Marciano have knocked out Muhammad Ali? He was smaller, slower, less agile, and had a decided disadvantage in reach. Yet the only man to have fought both Rocky and Ali, former champ Archie Moore, has stated publicly, "Rocky would have killed Clay." (Ali's pre Muslim sir name) A computer programmed with the extensive ring history of both fighters agreed with Moore. And experts point out that Rocky never lost a fight while mixing it up with the likes of the great Joe Louis, Joe Walcott and many others. Ali of course lost five. Three while in his prime, and all three to fighters who fought a crude unorthodox style much like-- you guessed it, Rocky Marciano.

Baseball has it controversies as well. Would Babe Ruth have hit as many home runs as Hank Aaron had they played in the same era? We will never know, but we do know that Ruth hit softer baseballs made of inferior materials than Aaron. When struck with the same force those balls did not travel as far. And the parks he hit from were on average much larger. In Aaron's camp are the detractors that point out relief pitching in the modern era was far superior to the pitching Ruth faced, and the late inning blasts of the Babe simply wouldn't have happened as often in the 1970's. Perhaps the most telling facet of this discussion though is times at bat. It took Aaron 3,000 more at bats to hit 714 round trippers than the 'ol Bambino. That's more than a few!

But how do we rate stock car racing greats? If Jeff Gordon had equal equipment, an equal pit crew, and raced under identical conditions against Curtis Turner, would he have won more or less than the North Carolina lumberman? Would Fearless Freddie Lorenzen have been as fearless with the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. behind him? The next two additions of "Beyond the Grandstand" are going to explore that issue. We will look at the great driver's of the 60's and compare their driving styles with the great drivers of today. But before we make those comparisons we are going to examine the old timers, one at a time and categorize their driving styles.

To broaden our understanding of exactly who they might look like if racing today, we will place these drivers in three categories. The categories will be called, Chargers, Thinkers, and Planners.

First we'll look at the Chargers. These drivers were flat out peddle to the meddle hard chargers. Among their ranks were Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts, and Buddy Baker. To be sure, there are current generation drivers that push a car as hard, but none push one harder. Richard Petty once said of Curtis Turner, "Turner wasn't interested in winning races. He just wanted to run up front." The King was right, but Turner did win races. Seventeen official NASCAR Grand National events, and perhaps as many as 300 non-sanctioned events against similar competition before the formation of NASCAR. In fact Turner won a 500 miler at Rockingham in 1965. Not a great feat for a driver of Turner's stature except for one thing. Curtis had been banned from NASCAR for four years prior to the race. Any thoughts of his having a bit of rust were quickly displaced. Despite his enormous physical talent for driving a race car, Turner once described his philosophy of racing, and confirmed the King's comments following a blown engine at Daytona.. After falling out of the race while leading Turner was asked by a TV reporter, "who was your toughest competition out there?" Curtis replied simply, "I didn't have any." The fact that he would not finish the race he started had no impact on the hard charger's feelings.

Junior Johnson, although cut from the same driving mold, did care about winning. Like many driver's of his era Junior came from humble beginning's and needed to win to survive. And the only way Junior knew how to win was to run every lap as fast as the car could go. Since few could match his hell bent for leather driving style, Junior did win. At big tracks and small. But Junior Johnson was frequently a car owners worst nightmare. If it was possible to break a part through pure abuse, Junior would break it. No one who ever competed in NASCAR was tougher on an automobile.

Glenn "Fireball" Roberts was a somewhat refined version of Johnson. One of the few NASCAR driver's of his day who attended college, Glen drove just as hard as Junior and Curtis, but seemed to know and respect the limits of his car. He was a hustler in the pool room and on the racetrack, and prior to the emergence of Fred Lorenzen was considered THE man to beat on Sunday. Never lacking for self confidence, his fans viewed him as regal, his detractors as arrogant.

Buddy Baker was yet another charger who took a second seat to no one. Buddy was a gifted driver who had a lead foot and nerves of steel. Unfortunately for Buddy he rarely had quality equipment, and that fact is reflected in his win total. More like Roberts than Johnson or Turner, Buddy would tax his car only to a point.

Along with the Chargers, we have the Thinkers. These drivers took a multi faceted view of racing, and realized that a lead foot was only one of the ingredients necessary to reach victory lane. The leaders of this group were Fred Lorenzen, Richard Petty, Buck Baker, and David Pearson.

Lorenzen, perhaps the most diverse and talented of these men, would spend more time planning strategy, computing gas mileage, and studying tire wear than anyone. On race day he would stay out of trouble like a sly fox, lingering a half lap off the pace and waiting for his adversaries to crash while attempting to lead a meaningless lap early in the race. The only lap Fred wanted to lead was the last one. But make no mistake about it, when the checkered flag was near, there was no one who raced harder and with greater skill than The Elmhurst Express.

Richard Petty, despite his rivalry with Lorenzen, drove much like The Golden Boy. A heady chauffeur, he planned, calculated, led when it was smart to lead, and he won. Although his career peaked after Lorenzen's retirement in early '67 (Petty won 27 races that year), no one was better respected in the early stages of his career than King Richard. Once asked in 1962 how he planned to combat the powerful Pontiacs on the short tracks, Fred Lorenzen stated bluntly, "I'm more worried about the Petty's on the short tracks, than the Pontiacs. They probe those engines 12 hours a day, and they're tough."

Though past his driving prime in the 1960's, Buck Baker was still among the circuit's best. Buck did things technically correct. He was a smooth driver who knew when to lead and when to follow. If Buck taxed the car, you could bet that it was the smart thing to do. Always the commensurate pro, Buck Baker exhibited superb physical skills on the track, and seldom caused problems for other drivers.

Like Buck, David Pearson was a natural behind the wheel. High on talent, but low on flare, Pearson evolved from a charger to a thinker at the mid point of his career. Realizing that leading every lap was one way, but not the only way to win, Pearson reduced his fender banging when he accepted the Wood Brothers Mercury ride, and in the process established himself as one of the sports all time greats. Not one for lengthy celebrations in victory circle, David did his celebrating on the way to the bank.

Our final group is called the Planners. This group is comprised of Ned Jarrett and Joe Weatherly. The strategy of these drivers was not complex at all. You cannot win a race if you don't finish. We might also call these men, "Thinkers Lite." The major philosophical difference between them and the Thinkers is that they would not risk losing a car to win a race, preferring to always drive within the limits of the vehicle, even as the race drew to a close. They would take a safe 5th place finish instead of risking an accident and finishing 20th. Although their driving skill accounted for many wins, few times would these men "slug it out on the track" with other drivers.

Of the two, Ned Jarrett won the most races with 50, but the vast majority of Ned's wins were on short tracks, where only a few factory cars were entered. Only twice did Ned enter victory circle on the superspeedways, winning Atlanta in 1964, and Darlington in 1965.

Joe Weatherly was a carbon copy of Jarrett. Seldom putting his car at risk, he came home first four times in superspeedway competition (aside from qualifying races), and tied Jarrett with two points championships. It should be noted however that winning the points title in the 60's was a far different game than today. Unlike current era driver's who compete for big money at all the speedways, the 60's schedules were filled with 60 events a season, many on small dirt tracks, with tiny crowds and small payouts. For this reason many of the eras top teams elected to compete in only the headline making big pay events, which consisted of the five superspeedways, a select group of half milers, and perhaps another race or two. No Fred Lorenzens or Fireball Roberts at the Savannah Fairgrounds, or Bowman-Gray Stadiums, thus paving a somewhat easier trip to victory circle, and to the points championship.

Well, there you have it. Three driving styles, three different sets of personalities, and three different ways to achieve success. Sound like any of the drivers we see today? Next month we'll explore that question, and let you decide who the true superstars of NASCAR history are, and where their place in history should be. In the meantime I'll give you a quick preview of next month's article by supplying the answer to those opening questions about Jeff Gordon and Fred Lorenzen. If you guessed "more" and "yes"-- you were right!


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