This is not the happiest autumn of Henry Ford II's life. When he looks up from the bargaining table in Dearborn he sees Walter Reuther, and Walter has not been brisk about lifting the auto workers' strike. When he looks at the racing news—news that was so much better earlier in the year when Fords won at Sebring, Indianapolis and Le Mans—he keeps seeing the name Richard Petty. As all the South knows, Petty is a curly-haired young man from North Carolina who drives a blue Plymouth racing stock car and has no more respect for a Ford car than a weevil has for a cotton boll.
Last Sunday at Charlotte, N.C., Ford's racing people fired their heaviest weapons at Petty. Enough, they felt, was enough: a record $126,250 in purses earned beating Fords, an unprecedented string of 27 victories in 45 starts, an unparalleled 10 straight wins in the events leading up to Charlotte's 500-mile race. And, as things turned out, Petty was indeed stopped. The only hitch was that the winner at Charlotte was not in a Ford. It was not A. J. Foyt or Mario Andretti of Indianapolis 500 glory, who rarely drive in NASCAR events and were brought in strictly to chase Richard. It was not Cale Yarborough or David Pearson, Dick Hutcherson or Donnie Allison in factory or near-factory Fords. It was a young pal of Richard's named Buddy Baker—like Petty, the son of a stock-car hero of a generation ago. Streaking around Charlotte's tricky 1½-mile oval at speeds above 150 mph, avoiding violent spins and collisions that brought out the yellow accident lights nine times, Baker took the checkered flag before 60,000 hooraying fans. In a Dodge.
Since Dodge is a sister division to Plymouth in the Chrysler Corporation, that did not make the tidings for Henry Ford any more cheerful than if Petty himself had won. All of which means that some loud and lovely battles can be expected as this richest of stock-car seasons ends and the next begins, because Ford aims to get revenge and Chrysler intends to hang on to what it has.
Oh, Ford had done all right in the year's biggest races, winning twice at Daytona and Atlanta and once at Riverside. Calif., but weeks had gone by since the last major victory. Meanwhile, Petty had won the Southern 500 and dominated the short tracks that make up the bulk of the NASCAR circuit. But in the South last month's racing is ancient history. It's the model that won last Sunday's race that brings the people into the dealers' showrooms on Monday. Detroit is amazed at how many Monday shoppers are motivated by Sunday's winners. What gave Charlotte a special richness was the intensity of the Ford counterattack.
The week at Charlotte started well for Ford, with Cale Yarborough winning the pole in the qualifying runs, the single-o Lee Roy Yarbrough nosing in second and ol' A. J. rating third. Petty qualified only sixth but seemed as unconcerned and ominous as ever.
Flashing his no-cavities smile, he went his unobtrusive way, occasionally nuzzling the end of a cigar (Petty does not smoke a cigar, he sips it). With his father Lee—gimpy from the accident that ended his own career—and his brother Maurice heading his crew, Richard has the most efficient racing operation in NASCAR and probably the world. He spent a couple of days putting the final touches to his car, and still had time to take a few spins in teammate G. C. Spencer's companion Plymouth to help it along. Every day during practice he was able to knock off work early enough for Papa Lee to get in a fast 18 holes of golf before nightfall.
Funny how little golf anybody else played. "I get nightmares about Petty," said Hutcherson. "I see him in my dreams."
"I got it worse," said Cale Yarborough. "I see him on the racetrack."
On the outskirts of Charlotte a few days before the race, John Holman of Holman & Moody, the firm that builds the best Ford stock cars, was thinking about Richard, too. People wouldn't let him think about anything else. His insignia is C.P. for "Competition Proven," and on one of the many C.P. signs at the track somebody had made it read "Catch Petty."
And even though Ford had the top three qualifiers, they soon lost one. The day after Lee Roy Yarbrough sprinted second fastest he took his No. 26 out for more practice and wound up with a fantastic set of pictures for his scrapbook. The fire extinguisher in the car went off, filling it with purple powder and blinding Lee Roy long enough so that he slammed into a guardrail. He crashed so hard that when everything stopped bouncing his car sat in one place, the engine in another and the front suspension somewhere else. That eliminated not only a top Ford challenger but also the race's defending champion.
Andretti, who had won the Daytona 500 back in February, brushed the wall early in practice and never did get his car straightened out. "When the car feels right," he moaned, "it won't go fast. When it goes fast, it doesn't feel right. I don't think I like stock cars very much." He started the race back in 17th position.
And Cale Yarborough, the winner of two major races for Ford during the season, had a pair of wild rides. On Thursday he was tight behind Lee Roy's car when the extinguisher blew; the skittering engine just missed him. Earlier that morning Bobby Allison's Dodge Charger dropped a drive shaft and sent a hunk of metal clean through Cale's radiator.
With Baker and Donnie Allison, Cale was one of the young chargers on the scene who did not feel comfortable racing unless his gas pedal was all the way down to the floor. "I drive flat out," said Cale, "because that's the way I drive—and because a car nowadays can go flat out for 500 miles. A guy told me, 'Cale, if you drop back about two car lengths going into those turns you can save an awful lot in tire wear.' Well, maybe so. But if Buddy and Donnie don't drop back, you can bet I won't. You might as well stand in front of a speeding train and yell, 'Stop!' It's just not gonna work. You see Fred Lorenzen there? He's quit racing but he's come back as an adviser to the Ford drivers. He said he quit because he couldn't keep up."
On Sunday, Cale and a number of the other Ford locomotives looked for a while as if they were going to have good news for Henry. For much of the first 300 miles Fords were 1-2-3-4. Petty, the hare the Ford hounds wanted to corner so desperately, had only 41 good laps. Then, ironically, he and Paul Goldsmith, in a sister Plymouth, tangled in the first turn. Paul spun into the guardrail and Petty sideswiped him. Goldsmith was eliminated. Petty drove gamely on, but without the door on the right side of his car. He moved up as high as fifth, though, before a faulty distributor put him out of the race.
Andretti's frustration continued. He never could quite challenge for the lead, and suffered the indignity of two heavy accidents, both within 11 laps, near the 300-mile mark. The second smashup also took Pearson's Ford out. Donnie Allison at one point was a strong third but blew his engine with less than 50 laps to go. Foyt stayed near the top, too, but his engine failed at about the time Andretti was spinning toward retirement. Dick Hutcherson ultimately finished third.
And so Ford's challenge was in the hands of Yarborough. With just 60 miles to go, it appeared that he might make it. Baker had blown a tire after 375 miles. He stormed around the track and into the pits, scattering mechanics and NASCAR officials every which way, got it changed and stormed back out. Yarborough made what would have been his last pit stop for gas and a change of tires under a yellow light 35 laps later, and the fans tensed for a tight Ford-Dodge run for the flag. The run was over for Yarborough not long after his pit stop, however, when his engine overheated. Bobby Isaac's Dodge finished second to Baker's.
After an extravagant Victory Lane welcome from a blonde and bountiful winner kisser, Baker said, "I whooped and hollered so much when I saw that checkered flag that it's a wonder I didn't pop right out of the car."
Ford was by no means ready to give in and write off the rest of the season. The last major race is at Rockingham, N.C. on October 29, and Ford will be playing its very last ace. Jimmy Clark and Jochen Rindt of Grand Prix fame are expected to-share a Ford in that 500-miler—each driving half the distance—and if they can't catch Richard Petty or Buddy Baker or anyone else with a Chrysler brand on him they at least ought to have plenty of fun trying.