Richard Petty Won First At Dover
by Tom Jensen August 21, 2020
In 1969, the inaugural Dover race took place just two days after the Firecracker 400 at Daytona.
NASCAR heads north this week for four races at Dover International Speedway, where the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series will race on Friday, followed by the Xfinity Series on Saturday. The premier series will race both Saturday and Sunday in the penultimate weekend of the regular season
Needless to say, it will be a jam-packed weekend of racing, and it’ll be a lot different than back in the summer of 1969, when NASCAR first raced on the “Monster Mile,” as Dover has come to be known.
In NASCAR, the aerodynamic wars between Ford and Chrysler were heating up during the summer of ‘69, with Ford luring NASCAR’s biggest star, Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010) away from Chrysler and into the cockpit of a swoopy Ford Torino Talladega, creating one of the biggest stories in years.
Race tracks were also making headlines in 1969. Dover Downs International Speedway, as the facility was originally named, was one of four major tracks to make its NASCAR debut in 1969, the others being Michigan International Speedway, Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway), and Texas World Speedway.
Located 82 miles south of Philadelphia, and 93 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., Dover was ideally positioned to draw crowds from the densely populated Eastern Seaboard.
That was a big advantage for the fledging facility as it prepared for the inaugural Mason-Dixon 300. What was decidedly not an advantage for Dover was the calendar. July 6, 1969, was a Sunday, the normal race day for the NASCAR premier series.
The only trouble was that back in the 1960s, NASCAR always ran the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 4th proper, not the July 4th weekend as is the case today.
On Friday, July 4th, 1969, LeeRoy Yarbrough drove Hall of Famer Junior Johnson’s (2010) Ford to victory in the Firecracker 400 ahead of Buddy Baker (2020), Donnie Allison and Hall of Famers David Pearson (2011) and Richard Petty (2010).
In those days, racers often took their families on summer vacation as soon as the checkered flag fell in Daytona on July 4th. Not this time, though, at least not for most of them. After the Firecracker 400 was over, the teams had to load up and drive 891 miles north from Daytona Beach to Dover, a dicey proposition as sections of I-95 were still under construction.
Given the tight turnaround time, it’s hardly surprising that not every driver and team who competed in the Firecracker 400 made the long haul to Dover. Cale Yarborough (2011) skipped Dover, as did the team he drove for, Wood Brothers Racing, which was owned and run by brothers Glen (2012) and Leonard Wood (2013). Also opting not to head north were Bobby Isaac (2016), Bobby Allison (2011) and Baker.
Thus, the 32-car Dover field featured a few names not well known to NASCAR fans, including drivers George Ashbrook, James Cox, George Davis, Bobby Maugrover and Ken Meisenhelder.
Fresh off his top five in the Firecracker 400, Pearson put the No. 17 Holman-Moody Racing Ford on the Dover pole, with a qualifying lap of 130.43 miles per hour. Pearson would complete just 65 laps before crashing out of the race, the same fate that would claim second-qualifier and Daytona winner Yarbrough after leading 124 of the first 223 laps.
The on-track woes of Pearson and Yarbrough left the way clear for Petty to cruise to victory. Driving his iconic Petty Blue No. 43 Ford, Petty had an easy time of it, finishing more than six full laps ahead of Sonny Hutchins in another Ford, this one owned by Junie Donlavey. James Hylton, John Sears and Elmo Langley completed the top five.
For their victory, in the Mason-Dixon 300 the Petty Enterprises team collected $4,725. Petty led 150 laps—exactly half the race—including the final 79 circuits. His triumph was very popular with the 22,000 NASCAR fans who filled the grandstands back in the day.
Petty would go on to win seven races at Dover, including three of the first four, but that first victory earned him a spot in the record books.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is open Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to nascarhall.com/tickets.