This is not the happiest autumn of Henry Ford II's life. When he looks up from the bargaining table in Dearborn he sees Walter Reuther, and Walter has not been brisk about lifting the auto workers' strike. When he looks at the racing news—news that was so much better earlier in the year when Fords won at Sebring, Indianapolis and Le Mans—he keeps seeing the name Richard Petty. As all the South knows, Petty is a curly-haired young man from North Carolina who drives a blue Plymouth racing stock car and has no more respect for a Ford car than a weevil has for a cotton boll.
Last Sunday at Charlotte, N.C., Ford's racing people fired their heaviest weapons at Petty. Enough, they felt, was enough: a record $126,250 in purses earned beating Fords, an unprecedented string of 27 victories in 45 starts, an unparalleled 10 straight wins in the events leading up to Charlotte's 500-mile race. And, as things turned out, Petty was indeed stopped. The only hitch was that the winner at Charlotte was not in a Ford. It was not A. J. Foyt or Mario Andretti of Indianapolis 500 glory, who rarely drive in NASCAR events and were brought in strictly to chase Richard. It was not Cale Yarborough or David Pearson, Dick Hutcherson or Donnie Allison in factory or near-factory Fords. It was a young pal of Richard's named Buddy Baker—like Petty, the son of a stock-car hero of a generation ago. Streaking around Charlotte's tricky 1�-mile oval at speeds above 150 mph, avoiding violent spins and collisions that brought out the yellow accident lights nine times, Baker took the checkered flag before 60,000 hooraying fans. In a Dodge.
Since Dodge is a sister division to Plymouth in the Chrysler Corporation, that did not make the tidings for Henry Ford any more cheerful than if Petty himself had won. All of which means that some loud and lovely battles can be expected as this richest of stock-car seasons ends and the next begins, because Ford aims to get revenge and Chrysler intends to hang on to what it has.
Oh, Ford had done all right in the year's biggest races, winning twice at Daytona and Atlanta and once at Riverside. Calif., but weeks had gone by since the last major victory. Meanwhile, Petty had won the Southern 500 and dominated the short tracks that make up the bulk of the NASCAR circuit. But in the South last month's racing is ancient history. It's the model that won last Sunday's race that brings the people into the dealers' showrooms on Monday. Detroit is amazed at how many Monday shoppers are motivated by Sunday's winners. What gave Charlotte a special richness was the intensity of the Ford counterattack.
The week at Charlotte started well for Ford, with Cale Yarborough winning the pole in the qualifying runs, the single-o Lee Roy Yarbrough nosing in second and ol' A. J. rating third. Petty qualified only sixth but seemed as unconcerned and ominous as ever.
Flashing his no-cavities smile, he went his unobtrusive way, occasionally nuzzling the end of a cigar (Petty does not smoke a cigar, he sips it). With his father Lee—gimpy from the accident that ended his own career—and his brother Maurice heading his crew, Richard has the most efficient racing operation in NASCAR and probably the world. He spent a couple of days putting the final touches to his car, and still had time to take a few spins in teammate G. C. Spencer's companion Plymouth to help it along. Every day during practice he was able to knock off work early enough for Papa Lee to get in a fast 18 holes of golf before nightfall.
Funny how little golf anybody else played. "I get nightmares about Petty," said Hutcherson. "I see him in my dreams."
"I got it worse," said Cale Yarborough. "I see him on the racetrack."
On the outskirts of Charlotte a few days before the race, John Holman of Holman & Moody, the firm that builds the best Ford stock cars, was thinking about Richard, too. People wouldn't let him think about anything else. His insignia is C.P. for "Competition Proven," and on one of the many C.P. signs at the track somebody had made it read "Catch Petty."
And even though Ford had the top three qualifiers, they soon lost one. The day after Lee Roy Yarbrough sprinted second fastest he took his No. 26 out for more practice and wound up with a fantastic set of pictures for his scrapbook. The fire extinguisher in the car went off, filling it with purple powder and blinding Lee Roy long enough so that he slammed into a guardrail. He crashed so hard that when everything stopped bouncing his car sat in one place, the engine in another and the front suspension somewhere else. That eliminated not only a top Ford challenger but also the race's defending champion.