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.
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.
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.
look at the Chargers.
These drivers were flat out peddle to the meddle hard chargers.
Among their ranks were Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson,
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.
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.
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
was considered THE man to beat on Sunday. Never lacking for self
confidence, his fans viewed him as regal, his detractors as
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
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
Richard Petty, Buck Baker, and David Pearson.
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
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
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,
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Please feel free to add a story.
email them here for consideration.