As Buddy Arrington swung his Dodge Magnum onto pit lane toward the end of the 1979 Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala., the crowd of 100,000 was roaring in anticipation of something special. Driving an unsponsored automobile, the perennial also-ran had somehow stuck with the likes of Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip all afternoon. Now, with only 15 of 188 laps remaining, Arrington had a shot at his first victory in more than 300 NASCAR starts. But he had to gas up and get back on the course promptly.
"We had 'em all beat," recalls Arrington, "but one of my crew left the gas can hanging on the car when I pulled out of the pits." By the time someone chased him down many precious seconds later and relieved him of the extra baggage, the race was lost.
Arrington has lost more than 160 races since then, but he almost always comes away with a little cash and a few championship points. By 1983 he had become the first Grand National driver to earn $1 million without ever having won a race.
"Buddy is everybody's second-favorite race driver," says NASCAR's p.r. czar, Chip Williams. "A fan will say, 'Richard Petty's my man, but if he can't win I'd just as soon see Buddy Arrington pull it off.' "
A gangling 46-year-old tobacco-farmer-turned-used-car-dealer from Martinsville, Va., Arrington is something of an anachronism. His passion is rebuilding Volkswagen "Bugs," and he looks about as out-of-date as the VWs. He sports the last ducktail haircut in racing, shyly hides behind wraparound sunglasses so antiquated they verge on punk, and speaks with the nasal cackle of a cartoon character. Maybe Underdog.
But over the years the main reason for Arrington's popularity has been the make of his car—Chrysler. When Richard Petty switched makes in 1978, Arrington bought up his Dodge stock—three cars and tons of parts. Soon he was the only regular Chrysler racer in a field of Fords and Chevys and Buicks. Out of economic necessity and lingering affection, he stuck with his brand. "You just get used to all the pieces," he explains, adding, "I'm the old die-hard Chrysler man, and I'd say 75 percent of my fans are Chrysler nuts."
But Arrington will not be allowed to drive his Chrysler Imperial after this year. Under NASCAR's three-year limit, the Imperial, last made in 1983, will be ineligible. He showed up in a Ford Thunderbird at Darlington's TranSouth 500 on April 14, and he was more concerned about the switchover than about his 17th-place finish.
Stock-car fans feel as much loyalty to the car as to the man, and a driver who switches brands is regarded with the same suspicion as a politician who changes parties.
"There's gonna be a lot of fans that's gonna get just plumb teed off," he says. "I hope they'll realize that I had no alternative."
So far no hate mail. "Heck," says Arrington, "I just heard from a guy—a Dodge dealer, as a matter of fact—who said he didn't care if I was driving a Studebaker. He'd still support me."