Carolina Dreamin’ - 5 Memories from Charlotte Motor Speedway
by Tom Jensen May 22, 2020
Five Fabulous Hall of Fame Memories from Charlotte Motor Speedway.
On May 24, Charlotte Motor Speedway will host the 61st running of the Coca-Cola 600, the annual Memorial Day weekend extravaganza that is both NASCAR’s longest race and one of the sport’s most prestigious.
With most of the premier series teams based within hauling distance of the 1.5-mile track, this is a race every team circles on its calendar. There’s a lot of money and a lot of bragging rights that go with winning a race at Charlotte.
It’s been that way since the very beginning. When the track opened in 1960, it caused an immediate sensation with racers and fans alike.
At a time when most premier series races paid $1,000 – or less – to win, the inaugural World 600 as it was called then was billed “as the race with the $100,000 purse.”
The World 600 was far and away the richest race on the 1960 schedule with winner Joe Lee Johnson pocketing a cool $27,150 – nearly half of the amount Hall of Famer Junior Johnson (2010) earned for winning the 1960 Daytona 500.
Given Charlotte’s long history of producing firsts, here are five firsts at Charlotte Motor Speedway with direct connections to NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees.
1. David Pearson, 1961
A member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2011, David Pearson is best known for winning 105 races, second only to the 200 won by Richard Petty (2010). What is less well known is that Pearson’s first victory was earned on just three tires. Not three good tires, three tires period.
With less than two laps left in the second World 600, Pearson was four laps ahead of Fireball Roberts (2014) when he cut a right-rear tire on his Ray Fox-prepared Pontiac. Because he didn’t know how big his lead over Roberts was, Pearson stayed on the track instead of pitting, limping around on the bottom of the apron on three tires and producing a cascade of sparks from the right rear rim. Even with running the last lap at 40 mph, Pearson was able to finish two laps ahead of Roberts, earning $24,280.
2. Buddy Baker, 1967
The towering 6’ 6” driver known as “Leadfoot” and the “Gentle Giant” came by his need for speed honestly. Born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1941, Buddy Baker was the son of Hall of Famer Buck Baker (2013), a two-time NASCAR premier series champion. Being the son of a NASCAR champion didn’t mean Baker had an easy path. It would take the second-generation driver eight years and 216 starts before he found Victory Lane for the first time in the 1967 National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he led 160 of 334 laps to win in a Ray Fox-owned Dodge.
The win not only was huge for Baker, but it also ended Hall of Famer Richard Petty’s (2010) record 10-race winning streak. “When I went under the checkered flag, I let out a yell you could have heard in Concord (North Carolina),” said Baker after the race. “This is the greatest day of my life. Maybe it will give me a mental boost. Now I know how to win.”
3. Jeff Gordon, 1994
When you build a team that has Hall of Famers as the driver, owner and crew chief, greatness is only a matter of time. And that’s the way it was for driver Jeff Gordon (2019), team owner Rick Hendrick (2017), crew chief Ray Evernham (2018) and the entire Hendrick Motorsports operation. After a rocky rookie season in 1993 when he frequently showed speed but tore up a lot of race cars, Gordon broke through with a huge victory at Charlotte in NASCAR’s longest race. The second-year driver used a late-race call from Evernham for a two-tire pit stop while leader Rusty Wallace (2013) took four. Gordon beat Wallace out of the pits to win the Coca-Cola 600, his first of 93 career premier series race victories. “I’m speechless,” Gordon said as he fought back tears in Victory Lane. “This is the greatest day of my life.”
And it was a day his boss knew was coming. “Quickly, you could see how good he was going to be, even though he got swept up in things,” Hendrick said of Gordon. “Then he wins a race. And then, it was just on from there. The combination of he and Ray was really awesome.” Indeed.
4. Bobby Labonte, 1995
If you want to know just how significant winning the 1995 Coca-Cola 600 was to Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte (2020), you need look no further than the NASCAR Hall of Fame Hall of Honor, where the Chevrolet Labonte won his first premier series race in is prominently displayed. When Labonte took his maiden victory at Charlotte, that car was owned by Labonte’s boss and fellow Class of 2020 inductee Joe Gibbs.
In the ’95 Coca-Cola 600, Bobby defeated older brother (and fellow Hall of Famer) Terry (2016), assuming the race lead after Ken Schrader lost an engine on Lap 358. Labonte was shocked to see Schrader’s misfortune. “‘Holy cow, this is the biggest freaking race and I’m in first place now,’” he said. “And so I went from chasing this dude (Schrader) to, ‘Whoa, I’ve got 8 seconds on my brother. I think I just better hold on here.’ It was awesome … Your first win at the Coke 600. Oh, my goodness, the first ever. And you’re just like, ‘I cannot believe this is happening.’ And then to have Terry finish second. … It was so amazing.”
5. Austin Dillon, 2017
Sometimes, racing transcends mere competition. Occasionally, it’s a whole lot bigger than simply reaching Victory Lane. Such was the case at the 2017 Coca-Cola 600, where Hall of Fame car owner Richard Childress (2017) saw his iconic No. 3 Chevrolet win a race for the first time since the late Dale Earnhardt (2010) at Talladega in October 2000. Piloting the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevy at Charlotte Motor Speedway was Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillon, who had never won a premier series race before. But when leader Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas with two laps to go, Dillon was there to take advantage and win one of NASCAR’s majors.
On top of that, Dillon’s car carried on its windshield the name of Joshua Harris, a U.S. Navy Special Warfare Operator First Class SEAL, who died in Afghanistan in 2008. Harris’ family gave team owner Childress their late son’s engraved knife in gratitude for carrying his name.
“Can you believe this, the Coke 600, Austin Dillon, the No. 3?” said Childress after the race, “… Having my grandson just made it that much more special. I know Dale is up there smiling down because he would want this win, he'd want to see it with Austin.”