10 Surreal 1971 NASCAR Storylines
by Tom Jensen May 14, 2021
The 1971 NASCAR season marked both the beginning of the sport’s rise to national prominence and a whole lot of bizarre happenings.
As years go, 1971 had more than its share of drama, what with the passing of the 26th Amendment to let 18-year-olds vote, the Apollo 14 moon landing, the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the end of cigarette advertising on television and the debut of a new stock market called NASDAQ.
Fifty years ago, rock music fans rocked out to “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, as well as Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, while movie theaters were filled by film buffs excited to see “The French Connection,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Last Picture Show.”
The Fight of the Century, a battle between heavyweight champions Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali, lived up to its nickname as the two mercilessly pummeled each other for 15 rounds, with Frazier winning by decision. Both warriors ended up in the hospital after the brawl.
And in NASCAR, well, 1971 was one of those years you just couldn’t make up if you tried. So much happened that changed the sport forever. Following are 10 of the most surreal storylines of the year in NASCAR racing.
10. R.J. Reynolds Steps Up
Once the federal government started restricting television advertising of cigarettes, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. had to find new places to spend its huge marketing budget, which ran into tens of millions of dollars annually. Under a deal brokered by Hall of Famer Junior Johnson (2010), Reynolds agreed to be NASCAR’s first title sponsor, starting with 1971, when the NASCAR Grand National Series was rechristened the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Entire books could be written about how the huge sums of money Reynolds sunk into NASCAR helped elevate it from a regional curiosity to a national powerhouse over the next 30+ years. Suffice to say the boom began in 1971 and reached every level of the sport.
9. Ford Pulls Out
As good as the Winston news was, the news out of Detroit was dreadful for the racers. Prior to the start of the 1971 season, Ford Motor Co. dropped a bombshell, announcing it was pulling out of stock-car racing completely, a devastating blow to teams owned by Holman-Moody Racing, Junior Johnson (2010) and Glen Wood (2012).
Johnson, who had entered cars in 68 races from 1968-70, entered cars in just four races in 1971. His team would not compete in a full season again until 1975.
Holman-Moody, the factory backed Ford team that won the 1968 and ’69 championships, and 96 races from 1958-71, quit fielding cars altogether after the ’71 season.
8. Chrysler Makes Deep Cuts
As if the Ford news wasn’t bad enough, Chrysler Corp. slashed and burned its NASCAR program in 1971. Hall of Famers Bobby Isaac (2016) and Bobby Allison (2011), who had finished first and second, respectively, in the 1970 championship race in their Dodges, both lost their factory deals, Chrysler downsized its factory effort from six cars to just two in ’71, both run out the Petty Enterprises stable: A Plymouth for Richard Petty (2010) and a Dodge for Buddy Baker (2021).
7. Radical Schedule Surgery
One of the first big moves by R.J. Reynolds was to focus its promotional efforts on races that were at least 250 miles long, most of which were in larger markets than the tiny half-milers that typically hosted 200-lap races in the South. A total of 13 tracks were dumped from the NASCAR Winston Cup schedule after 1971, including South Carolina’s Columbia Speedway, which had hosted 43 premier series races, starting way back in 1951. The premier series schedule, which had been 48 races in both 1970 and ’71, would be cut to 31 in ’72.
6. Cale Jumps Ship
Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough (2012) had a steady job running a part-time deal with Wood Brothers Racing, where he won 13 premier series races from late 1966 through the end of the 1970 season. But once Ford Motor Co. pulled out of stock-car racing, Yarborough moved to the USAC Champ Car Series, where he drove Mongoose/Fords for team owner Gene White in 10 races. Yarborough’s best finish in 1971 was fifth at Michigan International Speedway, and he finished 16th in the Indianapolis 500 that year.
5. Bristol Comes Clean
One of the most intense, action-packed tracks in all of NASCAR is Bristol Motor Speedway, a half-mile bullring located within spitting distance of the Tennessee-Virginia state line. Races at Bristol usually feature lots of bent sheetmetal and frayed tempers. But on July 11, 1971, Charlie Glotzbach finished three laps ahead of Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (2011) in the Volunteer 500. Remarkably, the race ran caution-free for all 500 laps. The victory was the fourth and final one of Glotzbach’s career, and it was the first win of the season for Chevrolet.
4. Muscle Car Mania
In 1969, NASCAR formed the Grand American Division for the immensely popular muscle cars of the day – models like the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and AMC Javelin. But with the Grand Am Series floundering by 1971, NASCAR made the unusual – and controversial – decision to let the Grand Am cars compete in six Winston Cup races. The wins were split three each, with Bobby Allison winning at Bowman Gray Stadium in a Mustang and Tiny Lund scoring victories at Hickory Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway in his Camaro.
Here’s the catch, though: Allison’s win at Bowman Gray was credited as a Grand American victory, but not a Cup victory, while Lund’s wins counted in both series. The official records list Allison with 84 premier series victories, but he says he has 85.
3. Bobby’s Bonneville Blast
In 1971, NASCAR effectively legislated out of existence the limited-production aero cars that had dominated at superspeedways the previous two seasons. Bobby Isaac, the 1970 premier series champion, saw his high-winged Dodge Daytona suddenly made uncompetitive. But Isaac, crew chief Harry Hyde and a handful of crewman load up his Nord Krauskopf-owned K&K Insurance Dodge Daytona and hauled it all the way to the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 1971. There, Isaac and company set 28 world speed records, including running a flying mile at 216.945 mph.
2. Streaky Superstars
Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison completely dominated the 1971 Winston Cup season, combining to win two-thirds of the 48 races on the schedule. Each of the two would win five consecutive races, Allison in June and Petty in July and August. In a 10-race stretch from July 14 to August 27, Petty and Allison were the only drivers to win races.
1. Fit for A King
In 1971, Richard Petty was at the height of his powers, his iconic No. 43 Petty Blue Plymouth continuing to dominate the competition. For the season, Petty won both his third premier series championship and his third Daytona 500. Petty entered 46 races and won 21 of them, a winning percentage of 45.7 percent. In terms of victories, it was Petty’s second-best year ever, trailing only his record 27 wins in 1967. In both 1967 and ’71, Petty earned career highs with 38 top-five finishes. One last note: 1971 was Richard Petty’s last full season in a Plymouth; by the 11th race of 1972, Petty had switched to Dodges.