June 28, 2006

Racing Reporter

Foyt's Very First Win

A. J. Foyt's close win in the 1964 NASCAR Firecracker 400 at Daytona went down as a first of sorts.

The year 1964 was a tough one, not just because of the hard-fought racing battles on the track, but between rival sanctioning groups and car makers. NASCAR had not reached the dominance it enjoys today and the rivalry with USAC (United States Automobile Association) was at its peak. In addition, there were heated arguments about car rules and standards that threatened to tear apart the NASCAR series. Chrysler was considering withdrawing all support from stock car racing because of new rules that would outlaw its powerful Dodges and Plymouths in favor of less competitive designs.

The July Fourth race was dedicated to Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, a local boy and racing idol, who had died after a fatal accident just one month before in the World 600 at Charlotte.

Some fans suggested the race should be postponed, but everyone knew Roberts would never have wanted that. What he would have wanted was a close and exciting finish.

No one could have known at the beginning how close it would be. There were several USAC drivers, including A. J. Foyt that was entered.

Heading the Chrysler group was Richard Petty, Paul Goldsmith, Bobby Isaac, Buck Baker, and Jim Paschal. The Dodge and Plymouth entries featured a new hemi-head design that put out more power than either GM or Ford. But no one could rule out the Ford camp, because of drivers like Fred Lorenzen, Marvin Panch, Ned Jarrett, and Junior Johnson.

Foyt, fresh from his Indy win was originally slated to drive a Ford, but he did not like the way the car drove during practice, so he wound up driving a Dodge prepared by Ray Nichels.

Qualifying was rained out. The pole was awarded to Dariel Derringer, and the remainder of the field was to be determined through several sprint or "Last Chance" races.

Foyt and Paul Goldsmith were caught up in a wreck that involved Fred Lorenzen and Johnny Rutherford. The wreck didn't take Foyt out, and he started the Firecracker 400 in the 19th position.

The 160-lap race started off bad for Foyt, as he barely missed hitting Reb Wickersham's spinning Pontiac on lap one. After 20 laps Richard Petty had built up a 13-second lead, as he ran over 170 miles per hour. Meanwhile, Foyt was moving up through the field. As the cars finished lap 20, he was fifth. After 100 laps, Petty was close to lapping the entire field. On lap 103, a car driven by rookie Ken Spikes of Georgia crashed hard into the front grandstand wall. The extent of Spikes' injuries was a broken leg and finger.

Few fans noticed that the blue No. 43 had slid to a stop in his pits with a blown engine. Petty had to spend the rest of the afternoon as a spectator after leading the first 103 laps.

Foyt and Bobby Isaac were the new leaders. Since Daytona was NASCAR country, there was more fan sentiment for Isaac than Foyt, who normally ran USAC.

The two drivers switched the lead several times. As the laps wound down, neither driver fell back. The crowd was on its feet, many fans yelled themselves hoarse. With 30 laps remaining, both cars had pitted and were good to go to the finish. Isaac held the lead with 10-to go, but Foyt was right on his rear bumper. The final five laps began and both cars were running well. Foyt pushed ahead with four remaining, but all he could see in his rearview mirror was the No. 26 of Bobby Isaac's Dodge.

On lap 158, Isaac got a run on Foyt and found running room and slipped past Foyt with only two laps left. But Foyt refused to give up, and both cars continued to run side-by-side as the white flag was given and they entered the final lap.

It was Isaac leading as they came out of turn two and headed down the backstretch.

Foyt was on the inside and gaining. Going into the third turn, he was ahead by inches. But Isaac wouldn't quit. He rode the outside and somehow came up with a little extra power from his engine that allowed him to pull even. For a second, the two cars were dead even. The cars crossed the finish line so quickly that many fans didn't know who the winner was, but it was Foyt that had managed to get a slim lead. Foyt's win was the first ever for a USAC driver on a NASCAR track, and it was the first win by Dodge on a superspeedway. Even though the race for the win was close, it required several minutes and a look at the photographs before judges decided Buck Baker had edged out Paul Goldsmith for third.

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