Reflecting On 1966

by Steve Samples

Nineteen sixty-six was a transitional year in American culture. The Beatles had begun to experiment with drugs, and the rock and roll anthems they wrote the previous four years, mostly influenced by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis, were now being replaced by LSD inspired tunes that some proclaimed were a transition from mere rock and roll to true musical genius. The United States was now fully emerged in the quagmire of Vietnam, and high school students enrolled in college in record numbers to avoid the draft.

Ralph Nader inspired the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, and the end result was somewhat safer American cars. Ford would design an electric car powered by a sodium-sulfer battery, which was scheduled for production in two years, and GM developed a Corvair which operated on the juice of a silver-zinc battery. Both had short ranges from 40-150 miles, and both designs died as quickly as they were born.

In the world of sports the New York Yankees dynasty was crumbling. The once proud Bronx Bombers finished dead last in the ten team American league. And in football the Green Bay Packers recorded another NFL title, defeating the Dallas Cowboys 34-27. Basketball had its own dominant team, the Boston Celtics, and they continued their winning ways knocking off the LA Lakers in seven games.

Auto racing records fell as Richard Petty won the NASCAR Grand National title, in part because of a boycott by Ford Motor Company, and fan favorite Graham Hill, one of the world's great sports car drivers, won the Indy 500. The key story in auto racing though may have been the drivers leaving the sport, and not the one's winning championships. Since the deaths of Fireball Roberts, Jimmy Pardue, and Joe Weatherly in 1964, many of NASCAR's superstars were openly challenging the sanctioning body, and speaking about the need for reduced speeds. Although NASCAR listened, the general consensus of the day was that records were meant to be broken, and speeds would always rise with new developments.

This unbending philosophy led to the retirement of superstars Junior Johnson and Fred Lorenzen, and the prior season's series champion, Ned Jarrett. Another interesting sideline to NASCAR 1966 was a major rules change, which reduced the wheelbase of competing cars. For the first time in history mid size vehicles were allowed, and stars Fred Lorenzen and Richard Petty proudly displayed the initials Jr. beside their famed number's 28 and 43. Still the circuit's top two drivers, the dynamics of the Freddie/Petty rivalry had changed. Lorenzen only competed in eleven events because of the Ford boycott in '66, and managed only two victories. The paltry two-for-eleven win total was a far cry from his heyday in '64 when he won half the races he entered. Some claimed the on-again-off-again racing season had slowed the "Golden Boy", while others contended that Fred had been planning retirement from the day his teammate and good friend Fireball Roberts died.

The truth was somewhere in between, as Lorenzen wanted to race for years but had no desire to die in the process. Fearless Freddie had proved his mettle time and again with previously unseen bravado on the race track, but when things slowed down Freddie began to ponder life without racing. In 1967 he would hang up his helmet. As 1966 came to a close though there was still racing to be done. Once asked in an interview if he was thinking about getting out of the game, Fred responded sharply, "I'm still a race driver." It was a less than theatrical statement, but spoke volumes about the competitive nature of the sport's greatest driver.

In September of that year riding a frustrating series of defeats Lorenzen prepared for the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Lorenzen had dominated at Martinsville, winning five events in 12 starts between 1961 and 1966. But 28 Jr. was fighting a bevy of rules changes that many felt benefited the Petty Plymouth's, and King Richard was plenty tough at Martinsville himself.

As a fifteen-year-old youngster I traveled to Martinsville that day with my friend Rick Dowell. Arriving hours before the race started we discussed the lack of success of the Ford teams and in particular the Elmhurst Express's recent failures. The conversation was melancholy. We analyzed the situation with our teenage wisdom and reached a conclusion. As much as every kid in the South had idolized the "Golden Boy" it was time to face reality. Fred Lorenzen was now 31 years old, and the slump he endured had to be the result of nature. Football players, basketball players, and baseball players, peak in their late twenties. Race drivers probably do the same. Sad as it was to admit we had to face a fact: "Fearless Freddie" may have lost a step. With all our juvenile wisdom we concluded that this race was a test. If Freddie won it, that may indicate he could hang on another year or so before checking in an old folk's home. If he lost the race, then the Fred Lorenzen we knew was gone. Over the hill. Out to pasture.

As the race began Rick and I felt pressure. It was as if our idol might be disappearing in front of our eyes. We were hopeful of a victory, but resigned to how the history books would remember Lorenzen in his prime. We reminisced about the fun we had had as "youngsters" back in '61, 62','63, '64, and '65, watching the most dominant driver in NASCAR history.

When drivers were introduced reality set in. Today was like seeing an aging Sandy Koufax deliver his fastball, and wonder if it still would leave batters mystified, or if the ball would be pounded into the center field seats. I though about leaving, but didn't. Somehow someway Fred Lorenzen would win this race. He had to. I couldn't watch my hero die before my eyes.

Finally the green flag fell. There was a mad scramble for the lead and Lorenzen was nowhere in sight. I looked at Rick at the 100-lap mark and smiled. "Freddie's playing it smart. Setting 'um up, laying back. We've seen it a thousand times." Rick smiled but shook his head, "He's really falling back." "Hey buddy," I replied. "This is Fearless Freddie. He knows what he's doing." Soon another hundred laps passed. Lorenzen had now fallen farther behind, barely clinging to the lead lap. Within a few minutes the lead car would fly by and put him a lap down. When the pass took place I looked at Rick, but didn't speak. He looked back and spoke without hesitation. "It's over. He's over the hill. Just can't do it anymore." The comment made me angry. I felt as if the Lone Ranger was losing a gunfight. The writing was on the wall.

From this point we sat silently, and watched another fifty laps go by. Fred Lorenzen was now two laps behind. My hero was dying a painful career death in front of my eyes. But somehow, some way, I had this gut feeling he would come back. Perhaps the feeling was denial, or perhaps just an optimistic moment that only kids feel. It was like being at Custer's last stand, but hoping the good guys could come back.

Well suddenly the tables turned. The 28 Ford seemed to pick up horsepower, as if there was divine intervention. A well-timed caution flag helped Fred pick up a lap, then a series of pit stop blunders by his competitors suddenly gave him an opportunity to pick up a second lap. Now easily the fastest car on the track, having been no better than fifteenth when the race began, Freddie had a chance to win. I looked at Rick and he looked at me. We both smiled. The Lone Ranger had now gone to re runs, but Fearless Freddie was still in prime time, alive and well, and driving the racetrack like he did as a young man just a few years earlier.

In the final hundred laps, number 28 rocketed by the leader and went on to win the Old Dominion 500. To this day I wonder if some greater power decided he just didn't want to watch two kids see their idol disappear. In any case Fred Lorenzen was still pretty Fearless. On our way home I looked at Rick and said, "Fearless Freddie-- still the best and 31 years old. You know some guys just don't deteriorate with age." He just smiled.


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