The inaugural NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway, on June 15, 1969, was appropriately named the “Motor State 500.”
Held in the home state of the major U.S. automakers, the race has been from the beginning an event that participating auto makers want to win, for many reasons, including local bragging rights.
It was especially true for the inaugural event, according to Leonard Wood, long-time crew chief for his family’s No. 21 Ford.
“Ford really wanted to win that race,” Wood said. “All the manufacturers wanted to win it.”
Photo Credit Smyle Media
As teams began preparing for the wide, two-mile oval, Wood and his driver, future NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough, worked to get their Mercury handling well entering the turns.
“If you overdrove it getting into the turns, you can’t come off the turns as fast as you should,” Wood said. “And with those long straightaways, you want to get off the corner fast and be fast down those straightaways.”
As it turned out, all the Ford teams were fast at Michigan, as they have been throughout the track’s history. Donnie Allison won the pole in Banjo Matthews’ Ford, with Lee Roy Yarbrough alongside in Junior Johnson’s Mercury. Yarborough qualified fourth in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Mercury.
The Motor State 500 turned out to be a dandy race, with 35 lead changes among nine drivers, all but three of them in either a Ford or a Mercury.
The fastest cars that afternoon were the Wood Brothers Mercury with Yarborough aboard, the Mercury driven by Lee Roy Yarbrough, the No. 43 Ford of Richard Petty and the No. 17 Holman-Moody Ford driven by David Pearson.
Photo Credit Life Magazine/ WB
As the laps wound down, Pearson led Laps 214 to 220 before being passed by Yarborough, who led 11 laps before being passed by Lee Roy Yarbrough, who led 12. Cale regained the lead for three laps then lost it to Lee Roy, who led one before Cale took the top spot again with three laps to go.
The final lap provided the most drama of the day, as the two Mercury drivers headed into the final lap side-by-side, much to the delight of the crowd of 46,238 as reported at the time.
The two drivers collided, with Lee Roy getting the worst end of the deal, slamming into the wall. Cale regained control of the No. 21 Mercury and got back to the finish line five car-lengths ahead of Pearson, with Petty taking third place.
Lee Roy Yarbrough continued on with his battered car but did not make it back to the finish line.
Still he was credited with fourth place, giving Ford a sweep of the top four finishing positions.
“I don’t fault [Lee Roy] at all,” Cale is quoted as saying in Greg Fielden’s Forty Years of Stock Car Racing. “He was trying his darnedest to win the race, just like I was.”
Lee Roy, after consulting with Ford officials, responded by saying, as reported by Fielden: “I thought I had figured out a way to win the race, but it didn’t happen that way.”
Photo Credit Smyle Media
Leonard Wood said he couldn’t see the contact, but he knew Yarborough was giving it all he had in the closing laps.
“He drove hard all the time,” Wood said. “But he got more out of the car at the end of that race than I thought he had.
“It was great to be able to win it for Ford.”
The Wood Brothers have gone on to win 10 more Cup races at Michigan and will be trying to push that total to 12 in this weekend’s FireKeepers Casino 400, which will be held using a new, lower-downforce aerodynamic package.
Leonard Wood, who did most of his racing in an era where cars had very little downforce, said he likes the idea of reducing downforce on current cars including the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion that rookie Ryan Blaney will drive.
“If it makes the racing better, that’s what the fans want to see,” he said. “I’m for whatever the fans want. They’re the reason we are all here.”
Qualifying for the FireKeepers Casino 400 is set for Friday at 4:15 p.m. and the race is scheduled to start just after 1 p.m. on Sunday with TV coverage on Fox Sports 1.