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In the twilight of his long and remarkable career, Stan Musial is reported to have said, "I'm too young to be President, but people say I'm getting too old to play this game anymore." So much for baseball. Perhaps the great St. Louis Cardinal outfielder should have been a stock-car driver—for Bobby Allison's victory in the Dixie 500 at Atlanta International Raceway last Sunday pointed up the rather startling fact that NASCAR racing is fast moving into the geriatric wing of the sports world.
Consider: the average age of the world champion Los Angeles Lakers is 28.4, the Boston Bruins 27.4, the Dallas Cowboys 27.9 and the Pittsburgh Pirates 27.5. By comparison, the Dixie field averaged a grizzled 34.5 and, more importantly, the ages of the six drivers considered prerace favorites ranged from Fred Lorenzen's almost-38 down to Donnie Allison's 32. In between were David Pearson and Bobby Isaac at 37, Richard Petty at 35 and the winner himself at 34. All of this recently prompted youngish (30) driver Pete Hamilton to ask Isaac, "When are some of you old cats gonna retire, anyway?"
Isaac replied diffidently, "You know, Pete, I felt the same way when I was coming up."
Faint consolation. Still, there are two good reasons for the longevity of the sport's stars. The first is that there have been no fatalities or disabling injuries among the top-echelon stock-car drivers since 1964, when Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts were killed within a six-month period. Drivers who long ago got good rides have tended to keep them, and as they have grown richer any thoughts of retirement have been fleeting. Petty, the undisputed financial king of the Southern racing set, says, "I made $300,000 last year. Why in the world should I quit now?" Few would argue with him.
The second reason is potentially devastating to the sport. NASCAR is still going through severe withdrawal pains started by the factory pullout of Ford in 1970 and Chrysler last year. Owners now must pay for performance parts that used to come through the mail like so many CARE packages. And while there are signs that new sponsorship money is slowly coming back into the sport, the fact remains that the number of full-time competitive teams is about half of what it was two seasons ago.
As a result, a roll call of the missing at Atlanta was nearly as impressive as the entry list itself. The car builders who were absent—old pros such as Ray Fox, Ray Nichels, Cotton Owens, Banjo Mathews and Holman-Moody—would make up a NASCAR Hall of Fame. On the drivers' side, Charlie Glotzbach, rarely a winner but always a front-runner, was back home again—in Indiana; Cale Yarborough, who left NASCAR two years ago for the greener pastures of USAC, was tending to his many enterprises in Timmonsville, S.C.; Lee Roy Yarbrough was present, but in a Ford of dubious worth that qualified 11th fastest, 18th on the grid and on seven cylinders. Pete Hamilton and Buddy Baker were AWOL because the Atlanta track declined to give them under-the-table appearance money, extra funds paid by the six Southeastern speedways to such as Petty, Isaac, Pearson and the Allisons—roughly $2,000 per car.
Thus the rich keep getting richer while poor but deserving drivers struggle to stay on the track. After failing to qualify in the top 30, Joe Frasson delivered the eternal lament of the struggler: "If we get my Dodge to handling, it won't run; if we get it to running, it won't handle."
Lee Roy Yarbrough and Hamilton represent the opposing views in the appearance-money controversy. Lee Roy allowed, "I'm just pedaling, waiting for something to happen. I've already made $32,000 this year and I could have stayed home. But I like racing too much." Hamilton, who turned 30 the same day Pearson clocked a 158.353-mph lap to take the pole in his Glen Wood Mercury, said, "I only want what the others are getting because I think I put on as good a show as they do."
Even the cars that did show up typified the changing scene. Isaac was in a Dodge and Donnie Allison in a Ford, which was normal. But Lorenzen and Bobby Allison, who made their reputations in Holman-Moody Fords nearly a decade apart, were there in Chevrolets. And Petty had traded his trademark Plymouth for an aerodynamically cleaner STP red and blue Dodge.
Meanwhile, the most obvious beneficiary of the old-age trend has been Pearson. Going into the Atlanta race, he already had established himself as the season's hero. Pearson is something of a loner in the midst of public-relations extroverts and his wry sense of humor is reserved for his intimates. (Occasionally to their embarrassment. While riding recently with a friend who was pulled over for speeding, Pearson shouted at the state trooper, "Damn, officer, thank God you stopped us. This guy's been driving 90 miles an hour for the last 10 miles down this road and it about scared me to death.")