Waddell Wilson’s Daytona Dominance
by Tom Jensen August 20, 2021
Hall of Fame engine builder and crew chief Waddell Wilson took a show car from a fast-food restaurant and turned it into a Daytona 500 winner.
If you walk into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Hall of Honor, one of the five cars you’ll see is the 1984 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that Cale Yarborough (2012) drove to victory in the 1984 Daytona 500, when Waddell Wilson (2020) was his crew chief and engine builder.
When it comes to Wilson and Daytona International Speedway, there is no shortage of amazing stories involving the legendary engine builder and crew chief and his many triumphs at the most important track in NASCAR history.
You can start with the fact that Wilson built the race-winning engines in seven Daytona 500s won by six different drivers on five different teams. Four of those drivers are NASCAR Hall of Famers: 1965 winner Fred Lorenzen (2015), Benny Parsons (2017), the 1975 victor, Buddy Baker (2020), who captured the Great American race in 1980, and last but certainly not least, Yarborough, the Daytona 500 winner in 1983 and ‘84.
Wilson built the race-winning engines in seven Daytona 500s.
— Tom Jensen
In 1967, Daytona 500 winner Mario Andretti and second-place finisher Lorenzen lapped the entire field in Holman-Moody Racing Fords with Wilson engines.
Wilson also built the engines in four consecutive Daytona 500 pole-winning cars from 1979-82 and won three premier series championships as an engine builder.
In 1980, Baker drove the Wilson-prepared “Gray Ghost” Oldsmobile to victory in the fastest Daytona 500 ever run. To this day, Baker’s Daytona 500 speed record of 177.602 miles per hour still stands and it may never be broken. The Gray Ghost is also on display in the Hall of Honor.
Parsons’ victory in 1975 came with an engine Wilson described as “a $200 junk motor” built with pistons from a drag-racing car. No one, least of all Wilson, expected that engine to go all 500 miles, let alone win, but it did.
If he did nothing else, the aforementioned stories would have gotten Wilson into the Hall of Fame.
The Gray Ghost is also on display in the Hall of Honor.
— Tom Jensen
But the most remarkable Daytona 500 of Wilson’s storied career may have come in 1983, after Yarborough barrel-rolled his Hardee’s-sponsored No. 28 Ranier Racing Chevrolet in Turn 3 during qualifying. On his first of two qualifying laps, Yarborough ran 200.503 mph, which should have made him the first driver to qualify at more than 200 mph at the 2.5-mile Daytona track.
That was important to Wilson because in 1982, Parsons qualified a Wilson-prepared car at Talladega Superspeedway at a speed of 200.176 mph, the first post-200 mph qualifying lap in NASCAR history.
It looked as if Yarborough would easily top 200 mph at Daytona, averaging 203 mph as he headed down the backstretch on his second lap. Then, disaster.
“He (Yarborough) goes into Turn 3 and the car got loose and he flipped it,” said Wilson, who was the team’s crew chief as well as engine builder. “It had a notchback (roofline) and no rear spoiler on it, really. I went to see Cale to see if he was alright and he said, ‘You done everything right except one thing. You didn’t put controls in it so I could fly it.’
“He said, ‘I knew I was in trouble when it got quiet inside.’”
Asked what happened, Yarborough said, “I just got airborne. The wind got it and just took it off the race track.” As for his 200-mph lap, Yarborough added, “It was a good lap. I just needed another one like it.”
That Yarborough crashed was unfortunate as it invalidated what would have been a track record speed, but what was worse was the team didn’t have a backup Hardee’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo to race in NASCAR’s most important and richest event, which was just six days away.
In the garage, Wilson talked with a couple of Hall of Famers about the badly wrecked race car and whether or not to try and repair it.
“I come to the garage and (NASCAR chairman) Bill France Jr. (2010) come to me and said to me, ‘Waddell, if you’ll fix that race car, you can work on it 24 hours a day. I’ll put a guard here with you,’” Wilson said. “‘Then Thursday, you have to start the 125 (qualifying race), run a couple laps and then come back in and finish whatever you need to do to it.’ But I went to the guys and they didn’t want to do it.”
“The funny thing is Junior Johnson (2010) walked by and said, ‘Anything that goes that fast should turn over.’”
With the crew not wanting to fix the badly damaged Chevrolet, Wilson did something remarkable: He dispatched his son, Greg, to go to a Hardee’s about 14 miles south in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, to pick up a Pontiac Lemans show car on display at the fast-food restaurant. Driving a borrowed pickup truck towing a flat-bed trailer behind it, Greg Wilson loaded the sponsor’s show car on the trailer and towed it back to Daytona Beach.
In a FOX Sports documentary about the 1983 Daytona 500, former crewman Barry Dodson said of the Pontiac show car, “I knew we had no choice but to run that car.”
In those days, single-lap qualifying was run on Monday and Tuesday, with the Daytona 500 lineup finalized with a pair of 125-mile qualifying races on Thursday. On Tuesday, Yarborough managed to coax a 195 mph lap out of the Pontiac to officially lock into the starting grid for Sunday’s big race. Then the thrash began to turn a show car into a race car in time for Thursday’s Twin 125s.
With the crew working all Wednesday night and deep into Thursday morning, the No. 28 Hardee’s Pontiac was ready to race. Impressively, Yarborough finished third in his 125-mile qualifying race, which meant he’d start the Daytona 500 from eighth place. “It might have been used as a show car, but let me tell you something, that Lemans was a full-blooded race car,” said Dodson.
In the race, Yarborough, Baker and Joe Ruttman engaged in a furious late-race battle, the three drivers being the only ones to lead over the last 200 miles of the 500-mile race. On the final lap, Yarborough drove down low on the backstretch to pass Baker, earning the victory for himself and the Wilson-led team in the 25th running of the Daytona 500.
It was an utterly improbable outcome, given the events of earlier in the week. And it was the first Daytona 500 victory for a Pontiac since Fireball Roberts (2014) in 1962.
“I’ll tell you what, Waddell and everyone did such a fantastic job,” Yarborough said in Victory Lane after winning the Great American Race for the third time. “They made my job easy. All I did was drive it.”
Yarborough credited his team with making the Pontiac competitive. “This is a back-up car and a car we wasn’t even going to bring down here. It’s a Pontiac. We knew the other car was the best, but you know, these boys can make anything run, I guess, and that’s what they did today.”
Wilson was likewise laudatory of his driver. “All the credit goes to him (Yarborough) for being able to pull it off,” he said. “He did a fantastic job.”