Of all the 600-mile races run at Charlotte Motor Speedway, few can measure up to the 1976 World 600 (now Coca-Cola 600), run 40 years ago this weekend.
That was the year that track owner Bruton Smith and his wily promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler finally regained full control of the track originally built by Smith and Curtis Turner, who lost control of the speedway due to financial issues.
Smith and Wheeler scored a PR home run that year in the 600 when they hastily arranged to have Janet Guthrie in the starting field. Guthrie had made headlines at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that year as a pioneering female driver but failed to win a starting berth in the Indianapolis 500.
Media interest in the 600 ramped up even more after the Indy 500; also run on May 30, struggled with weather issues and was called because of rain after just 255 miles.
Pole-sitter Johnny Rutherford was declared the winner of the shortest official race in that event’s history.
Wheeler, in his efforts to leave no promotional stone unturned, also arranged for a young North Carolina dirt track driver to race in the 600. Wheeler paired Dale Earnhardt with car owner/driver Walter Ballard.
Earnhardt, who made his Sprint Cup debut in the 600 the year before, wrecked Ballard’s car in a practice session. Then he blew an engine after 156 laps of the race and finished 31st in Ballard’s Army Special No. 30 Chevrolet.
Although no one realized it that day, the 1976 Coke 600 also would be the final start for future NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bobby Isaac.
Isaac, who won 37 races and the 1970 championship, drove his final race in Neil Castles’ Chevrolet sponsored by Howard Furniture. His engine blew after 39 laps and he finished 38th. A little over a year later, he died of a heart attack after competing in a race at Hickory Motor Speedway. He was just 45 years old.
Likewise, few realized that day, the significance of the finish by rookie driver Bill Elliott, who also drove the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford from 2007 to 2010 and is now in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
In the ’76 World 600, Elliott, driving his father’s blue No. 9 Ford Torino, ran the most laps he’d run to that point in his Cup career. The 20-year-old redhead ran 343 of the race’s 400 laps, finishing 23rd despite engine troubles late in the race. Previously, the most he’d run was 32 of 492 laps at Rockingham.
The grind of the 600 left Elliott so sore he could barely move the next day, but he soon was in much better condition and by 1982 finished second in the 600 to Neil Bonnett, who was driving the Woods’ No. 21 Ford T-Bird.
Besides all the accompanying storylines, this World 600 turned out to be one of NASCAR’s classic battles among titans.
The top two teams in NASCAR at that time, the Wood Brothers and Petty Enterprises, dueled for the win, with the sport’s top two stars doing the driving.
David Pearson, driving the Woods’ No. 21 Mercury, scored the victory over Richard Petty in his team’s No. 43 Dodge.
The Wood Brothers and Pearson were enjoying one of their best seasons ever, as Pearson won 10 races and eight poles in 1976. The victories came in some of NASCAR’s most prestigious races, among them the Daytona 500, both races at Charlotte, Michigan, Darlington and Riverside, as well as victories at Ontario and Atlanta. Pearson also scored three runner-up finishes, all in just 22 starts.
The winning Mercury Montego from that 600 won for the final time with Neil Bonnett in 1980 in the Talladega 500. It was retired when it became obsolete due to a rules change that reduced the wheelbase for Cup cars from 115 to 110 inches.
That car, which also won the 1976 Daytona 500 when Pearson and Petty crashed coming to the finish line, was then turned over to driver/owner Richard Childress who turned it into a show car for series sponsor R.J. Reynolds. Eventually, the frame and body were returned to the Woods, who sold one of the sport’s most historic cars to a junk dealer for $200.
After spending some time in a Florida junkyard, the car was rescued and restored by Donnie Gould. It now resides at the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska, although the original seat is in the Wood Brothers Museum in Stuart, Va.
Team owner Glen Wood said that looking back on the 1976 season, and the Coca-Cola 600 that year, he sees few similarities with today’s NASCAR world, where his family’s No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion is driven by rookie Ryan Blaney, who will start Sunday’s race from the 18th position.
“There’s nothing much the same today as it was then,” Wood said. “The cars still have four wheels, even though you’ve got a lot of people that aren’t tightening all the lug nuts on them.”
Wood did say it’s not the first time he’s seen teams try to race without a full set of lug nuts on a car.
“In the 1950s, Herb Thomas said you didn’t need five lug nuts on a wheel, so he ran a race with just three on each wheel in a triangle pattern. He ran the whole race and finished with no problems, but was probably lucky to have done so.”
Wood said the expectations placed on drivers are much different than the 1970s, when top stars like Pearson and Isaac were reluctant to speak at length with fans or the media. Isaac was a lot like David [Pearson] when it came to talking in public. “At that time Richard Petty was the best at talking. He’d talk to anybody about anything. He’s still the best that’s ever been at that.”
But today, Wood said, all drivers have to try to be like Petty. “Now it’s a given that drivers have to talk. It’s part of the job.”
When Janet Guthrie entered the 600, becoming the 11th woman to compete in a major NASCAR race and drawing attention to NASCAR much like Danica Patrick does today, many of Guthrie’s fellow drivers were none too complimentary about her driving skills.
Pearson, the race winner, was one of the few who had kind words for her after her 15th place finish.
Pearson is quoted in Greg Fielden’s Forty Years of Stock Car Racing as saying “She got in my way a couple of times, but I think she did a pretty good job for a rookie,” Wood has a similar assessment.
“Everybody wondered what she would do, but she did pretty good for a woman who hadn’t done that much racing,” he said.
Either way, Guthrie’s participation in that 600 was a coup for Wheeler and Smith as they set about to build Charlotte Motor Speedway into a major sporting venue.
Smith had been trying to regain control of the track he’d lost by buying up stock for several years prior to late 1975, when he finally regained control.
Among the former shareholders who sold to Smith was Wood himself. He estimated he held 400 to 500 shares, which he and his brother Leonard had taken as pay years earlier for fielding cars for Curtis Turner and Bob Welborn. Glen paid Leonard for his part of the shares early on. He eventually sold the entire lot to Smith when he was buying up stock to regain control of the track.
“Bruton paid me a fair price, but I didn’t make much money on those shares,” Wood said.
“Today, they’d be worth a lot more.”
Richard Childress, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Bobby Isaac, David Pearson, Richard Petty, Bruton Smith, Herb Thomas, Curtis Turner, Glen Wood and Leonard Wood are now all Inductees in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.