With gasoline prices on the rise and questions abounding about supply, the Camping World Truck Series running at Darlington Raceway and Atlanta Motor Speedway hosting an open house on what used to be its spring Sprint Cup date, this weekend has the feel of the spring of 1974.
In 1974, a gasoline shortage saw prices at the pump rise from an average of 38.5 cents a gallon to 55.1 cents, but the real problem was a shortage of fuel. Race teams including the Wood Brothers, regularly carried extra fuel in their haulers on cross-country trips just to make certain they wouldn’t run dry on the highway.
NASCAR chipped in by cutting the length of its races 10 percent.
But an even bigger story in the NASCAR garage was the series of engine rule changes.
At Atlanta in the spring of 1974, small block engines were the rage as NASCAR began to follow the Detroit auto manufacturers who were getting away from offering big-block engines in their passenger cars. NASCAR rules had been requiring restrictor plates on the big-block engines, which were allowed to be a maximum of 430 cubic inches. Beginning with the Atlanta race, engines more than 366 cubic inches were required to run a specially prepared smaller carburetor while the small-block engines like the 351-cubic-inch Ford engine were allowed to run unrestricted.
Bud Moore was the first Ford team to experiment with a 351, but the Wood Brothers joined the small-block brigade when they entered their 1973 Mercury in the 1974 Atlanta 500.
With David Pearson at the controls, the results were predictable.
Leonard Wood said that the people at Atlanta on pole day didn’t have to have stopwatches or a report from the track announcer to know who had gotten the top starting spot. The roar from the grandstands as Pearson made his run told them ahead of time.
“When he came off Turn Four the crowd knew who won the pole,” recalled Leonard Wood, crew chief of the No. 21 Mercury in those days.
Wood said the power of the small-block engine, plus the handling advantage that came with carrying less weight in the engine compartment made for one fast race car.
“It handled beautifully,” Wood said. “When he’d come off the corner it would be flying.”
Pearson sat on the pole with a speed of 159.242 miles per hour and dominated the race, but his unrestricted engine burned more fuel. The timing of a late-race pit stop caught Pearson a lap behind when the caution flag flew for a spin by rookie Carl Adams. Despite his efforts, the laps ran out before Pearson could track down Cale Yarborough, who drove a Chevrolet with a big block to victory.
“We outran the heck out of all of them,” Pearson said.
Yarborough’s comments in Greg Fielden’s “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing” seconded Pearson’s assessment.
“I knew there was no way to beat him and that small block unless he broke,” Yarborough said. “He didn’t break, but we sure had a lot of luck.” The next race on the schedule that year was at Darlington Raceway, where Pearson still leads all drivers with 10 Cup victories and 12 poles.
The Silver Fox and the Woods qualified on the outside pole. This time they were able to overcome the small-block’s mileage disadvantage.
As the laps wound down, Pearson trailed race leader Bobby Allison, saving fuel for the finish.
With 11 laps remaining in the Rebel 450, he stepped on the gas and passed Allison with ease, leading the rest of the way to get his and the Woods’ the first of their seven wins that season, which wound up being the final year that big-block engines were raced in the Cup Series. In 1975, the engine rules were changed to the current standard, which allows a maximum of 358 cubic inches.
Pearson, who never leaves any doubt that his home-state superspeedway at Darlington is his favorite, said the track was much tougher to tame in the old days, before several changes to the layout.
“It was really one-groove,” he said. “You had to set people up just right to pass them. If you didn’t pass them off the corner, they’d beat you down the straightaway.”
Although Pearson hasn’t raced on Darlington since its latest reworking, he still believes he can offer Trevor Bayne, the Woods’ current driver, some helpful hints, as he did at Daytona before Bayne drove the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion to victory in the Daytona 500.
“He’ll be all right” Pearson said. “I’ll talk to him a little bit when I get down there.”