Dodge Wins First NASCAR Winston Cup Race WATKINS GLEN, N.Y., August 8, 2001 - Here is a great trivia question for stock car racing history buffs: Who won the first NASCAR Winston Cup Series event? The answer isn't Red Byron, Bob Flock or Lee...
Dodge Wins First NASCAR Winston Cup Race
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y., August 8, 2001 - Here is a great trivia question for stock car racing history buffs: Who won the first NASCAR Winston Cup Series event?
The answer isn't Red Byron, Bob Flock or Lee Petty. It's Ray Elder, driving a family owned Dodge Charger at Riverside International Raceway, January 10, 1971. NASCAR's premier stock car series became the Winston Cup that year when it received support from R.J. Reynolds. The first race in those days was not the Daytona 500 in February. It was the Motor Trend 500 on the 2.62-mile road course in Riverside, Calif., and Dodge was there to take home the trophy.
Elder was active in NASCAR's West Coast division, now known as Winston West. He would join the Grand National Series when it came to California twice each year, and he also made the trek to Florida to compete at Daytona. Known as the Richard Petty of the West, Elder won the Grand National West championship six times, including an unprecedented four years in a row from 1969 through 1972. He won two races in Dodges against the top Grand National drivers at Riverside, his second being the Golden State 400 at Riverside on June 18, 1972.
Elder is one of three Dodge drivers to win on road courses. The others are Bobby Allison and Richard Petty. Allison's and Petty's victories were in the summer race at Riverside, the only road course used by NASCAR at the time. Allison won June 20, 1971; Petty won June 8, 1975, and June 12, 1977. Elder said he enjoyed doing battle with the top drivers on the road course because the track gave low-budget teams a fighting chance.
"In a road course, I always say it's more of a driver's track," said Elder. "You have to have plenty of horsepower, but you don't have to have the most horsepower to win at a road course. If you can get a good handling car and know how to run the esse's and know how to get into the corners and get out, you can gain a lot of time.
"I had a better chance of winning (at Riverside), but we took our cars and run Daytona three or four times, and we always ran good. But I always had trouble there. It just seems like some tracks are good for you and some tracks are not. Riverside was good for me. Daytona wasn't, but I always run well there. The last time I was running fourth with 15 laps to go and broke a timing chain. Stuff like that plagued me at Daytona."
For the first Winston Cup Series race at Riverside, Petty won the pole. He also led the first three laps before losing the lead to Allison and David Pearson. Petty regained the lead for 59 laps before engine failure knocked him out. Pearson was also a victim of engine problems. Elder passed Allison with 12 laps remaining to seal the victory.
"I probably wasn't the most competitive car there, but we put a car together to finish the race and I ran to finish the race," said Elder. "When you maintain and run your own cars, you rely on the purses to get you to the next race, so you have to be able finish the race. You run as hard as you can without tearing up your equipment, and so maybe I wasn't the fastest right off the start, but I tried to be as competitive as anybody at the end of the race.
"At Riverside, there were a lot of drivers that had trouble because they abused their cars at the first part of the race," continued Elder. "They would knock a transmission or a clutch out, wear their brakes out or something like that, and it's a 500-mile race. I always looked at it that I'm gonna finish it and I want to be running good at the end. I'm gonna have good brakes and my clutch is gonna still be in good shape.
"Brakes were a big part. At Riverside, we had a back straightaway where you get up to about 170 mph, and then you went into an abrupt corner at turn nine. It's a pretty high-speed corner, but you shot right into it and if you didn't have good brakes, you weren't going to make the corner, that's all there was to it. Your downshifts and that were important, but you had to have the good brakes."
Throughout his stock car racing career, Elder was always loyal to Dodge. His first two Dodges were bought from West Coast stock car racing standout Jack McCoy, and then he bought two more from NASCAR Grand National car owner Ray Nichels.
"I always ran Dodge," said Elder. "In fact, I got out of racing because Dodge was getting out of it and it would have been too expensive for me to switch brands. All my parts and pieces were Dodge and I couldn't find a sponsor big enough so I could switch brands, so I thought the best thing would be to just get out of it. I could see that if I tried to do it without money, I couldn't run competitive and if I couldn't run competitive, I didn't want to run. Wouldn't be any fun."
Elder still has a lot of the parts and pieces, and one complete car. "I've got my old winged car," said Elder. "We're in the midst of restoring it, but it's kinda been on the shelf for quite a while. We'll get it together one of these days.
Although the winged Dodge Charger Daytona was built as a superspeedway car, Dodge decided to use it at Riverside shortly after the car was developed. According to retired Dodge engineer George Wallace, the decision to run the Daytona on a road course was made by marketing for the exposure.
"Usually, we didn't bring the new cars until Daytona," said Wallace. "That was not true when we had the winged cars. Because of Riverside's fast straightaway, aerodynamics were relatively minor. The aerodynamic packages that got better every year for Daytona made very little difference at Riverside. But in 1970, the factory-supported teams ran Daytonas because the winged car was the big thing - we wanted the exposure. Actually, with the nose and no bumpers, they could have been a detriment. They could have gotten the nose flattened out and the cooling ruined."
When Elder won his first Grand National race at Riverside, he was known as a part-time racer and a full-time farmer. Today, he no longer races stock cars but he still has the ranch and owns a mini-mart with a busy sandwich business. "We've still got our ranch but farming is so tough anymore," said Elder. "We got 140 acres of grapes. We're raisin farming. Used to be cotton and hay, but we got out of that and went into grapes and raisins. We've got a little mini mart that we run - a little country mini mart - mainly the deli part and that my wife Pat keeps. We make a lot of sandwiches and that. There's nothing in this area - we're out in the country."
Elder's Mini Mart is actually in Caruthers, Calif., 15 miles south of Fresno. "When we were winning Riverside, on the radio they kept asking where Caruthers is. One of the announcers said, 'Where in the hell is Caruthers?' One of the guys made bumper stickers out here - 'Where in the hell is Caruthers?' We had the stickers all over."
Elder was voted the most popular driver in NASCAR's Western Division eight times, seven of them in succession. In 1971 and 1972, the Motor Sports Writers and Broadcasters of America elected him to the Martini & Rossi All-American Racing Team. More recently, Elder was inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame in 1990.
This week in Dodge history:
* 8/11/74 - Richard Petty and his Petty Enterprises Dodge won the Talladega 500 for his third straight superspeedway win. Other notable Dodge drivers in the race included singer Marty Robbins (ninth) and Dave Marcis (11th) the only driver still active today who won in a Dodge. The event was marred by mass sabotage that damaged as many as 20 cars before the race. Damage ranged from foreign material in fuel tanks to slashed tires and oil lines.