Forty-Five Years Ago, The 1976 World 600
by Daniel J. Simone, Ph.D. May 28, 2021
A Hall of Fame Day: The Silver Fox Wins His Third 600; Janet Guthrie Makes History
This Sunday, the stars of NASCAR’s premier series will race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the grueling Coca-Cola 600, the sport’s longest event. Forty-five years ago to the day, the 1976 World 600 (as it was known then) took place, and David Pearson (2011) was the class of the field that afternoon. Starting from the pole in his No. 21 Wood Brothers Mercury, “The Silver Fox” dominated the field, leading 230 laps. He picked up his third win in the 400-lap affair; he also won in 1961 and 1974.
It was a Hall of Fame top five; Richard Petty (2010), the only other driver to finish on the lead lap, was runner-up. Cale Yarborough (2012), driving for Junior Johnson (2010), was third. Bobby Allison (2011) took fourth in a Mercury owned by Roger Penske (2019), and Benny Parsons (2017) placed fifth.
Also in the field that hot afternoon was Janet Guthrie, the first woman to successfully qualify and compete in a superspeedway race in NASCAR’s premier series.
However, racing in the World 600 on Memorial Day weekend was not her original plan.
Throughout the first half of the 1970s Guthrie competed in sports car competition and was an established road racer. Her career took a turn in 1976 when car owner Rolla Vollstedt offered her an Indy car ride. From there, she made a quick transition to oval-style racing, setting her sights on qualifying for the 1976 Indianapolis 500 that May.
But throughout the qualifying sessions, Vollstedt’s car lacked speed, and as time trials neared completion, it appeared that Guthrie may not make the race. At the same time, her saga attracted extensive media coverage, and Charlotte Motor Speedway Chairman O. Bruton Smith (2016) and General Manager H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler noticed. They realized Guthrie could bolster ticket sales, generate publicity and attract national TV coverage for the upcoming World 600. They began brokering a plan to lure Guthrie to the South—but only if she failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
As it turned out, Guthrie did not make the field at Indy.
But a new opportunity came together quickly in Charlotte. With the support of Smith and Wheeler, Lynda Ferreri—a First Union Bank executive and vice president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce—became involved in the effort. She became the car owner who would take Guthrie on as a driver.
As for the car, Guthrie would drive a 1976 Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna previously owned by Hoss Ellington and driven by A.J. Foyt. Holman-Moody co-founder Ralph Moody was tabbed to lead the team with help from Will Cronkrite.
Guthrie made the show and raced on Memorial Day weekend—but not in the Midwest.
The 1976 World 600 was only Earnhardt’s second premier series race. He drove a U.S. Army-sponsored Chevy sporting the No. 30. The engine let go early, and he finished 31st.
The event was Elliott’s fourth career start at the premier series level. He placed 23rd after the engine failed in his No. 9 Ford. His father George Elliott was the car owner.
Guthrie had never competed in a race even close to 600 miles in length, and many were unsure if she had the stamina to complete the event. Yet, despite blistering on-track heat and a malfunctioning radio, Guthrie took the checkered flag in 15th place, completing 379 of the scheduled 400 laps in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 100,000 fans. Plus, much to Smith’s and Wheeler’s delight, the race garnered TV coverage on ABC.
Guthrie was awarded a plaque to recognize her successful qualification for the 1976 World 600. She graciously donated the artifact to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where it can be seen on display on Heritage Speedway.