CP MOTORSPORTS - TOM HIGGINS: THE SENSATIONAL AUTUMN SABBATH
Take all the excitement and tension that onlookers experienced during the National 400 of 1965 and triple the emotions.
The math produces some idea of what Waddell Wilson was feeling as the race rolled toward its conclusion on Oct. 17, 1965.
In what many old-time observers – including me – rate the greatest fall race ever at Charlotte Motor Speedway, four famous drivers fought furiously for the checkered flag: Fred Lorenzen, A.J. Foyt, Curtis Turner and Dick Hutcherson.
During the final 50 laps of 267 at the 1.5-mile track they battled in a “Blue Angels Formation,” racing just inches apart. During several laps they alternately ran three abreast, something generally considered impossible at CMS
As the Charlotte track’s annual fall race—now the Bank of America 500-- looms Saturday night, Wilson and I reminisced Monday about that sensational autumn Sabbath thriller a half century ago.
Starting on the 174th lap through the conclusion, Lorenzen, Turner and Foyt alternated in the lead 11 times. Hutcherson never led during this stretch, but was very strong in the mix.
The reason that Wilson was squirming?
He had built the engines powering the Fords fielded by the storied Holman-Moody team for Lorenzen, Hutcherson and Foyt. Additionally, he was working on Lorenzen’s crew as the jackman during pit stops.
“I’ve probably never known a day like that one in my life,” said Wilson, now 78. “It was absolutely nerve-racking. “Every one of those last 50 laps was agony. Not only was I worrying that my engines might fail, I was worried that our guys might take each other out.
“And the way they were racing, no one giving an inch, that easily could have happened.”
To a degree, it did.
With six laps remaining Foyt maneuvered high in turn three to try and pass leader Lorenzen. The man who was to win four Indy 500s got into the “marbles,” spun and his car scraped along the steel guard rail for perhaps 150 yards. Turner spun to miss Foyt as Hutcherson narrowly avoided a collision.
Lorenzen gained an edge he wasn’t to lose, taking the checkered flag three car lengths ahead of runner-up Hutcherson. Turner took third in a Wood Brothers entry, giving Ford a 1-2-3 sweep.
Ned Jarrett and LeeRoy Yarbrough completed the top five. Foyt finished sixth, two laps down.
Some of Foyt’s fans grumbled that Lorenzen had pushed A.J. into the wall during the pulsating final laps.
“There had been some fender contact between us earlier, but not that time,” said Lorenzen. “Our cars absolutely did not touch. It appeared to me that A.J. went into the turn a little too hard and got into the loose stuff.”
Regardless of what happened in that incident, the performance of the Holman-Moody engines was a fabulous feat for Wilson, a relative rookie with the organization, He had joined the Charlotte team only a year earlier.
How did it happen that he built three engines for as many drivers in the race?
“Well, I was the regular engine builder for Freddie,” Wilson said of Lorenzen, a storied driver who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January. “We were having pretty good success. We’d won the Daytona 500 and World 600 (at Charlotte) earlier in ’65.
“A.J. was aware of this, so he went to Jacques Passimo, then the head of Ford’s racing operations in Detroit, and asked for me to build him an engine, too. Passimo passed this word on to John Holman, and he told me to do it.
“When Hutch found this out, well, he also wanted one of my engines for the 400.
“To keep peace in the family, I was ordered to build one for Hutch also.”
Wilson shook his head in looking back over the decades to that autumn day so long ago when what is now the Cup Series was known as NASCAR’s Grand National Division.
“To fret that one engine might fail always put a lot of pressure on me. I took it very personal,” said Waddell. “To have three in such a high profile way in one race, it almost was overwhelming.
“I remember what a great, great relief it was when the checkered flag fell and that thing was over.”