Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Keeping watch over Bobby Isaac

Legendary racer's career began and ended in Hickory


HICKORY -- Bobby Isaac apparently was hearing things.

In 1973 at Talladega Superspeedway, Isaac suddenly radioed hall-of-fame car owner Bud Moore and said he was pitting. He got out of the car and pretty much retired from Winston Cup racing on the spot.


Later, he told a reporter that a voice had told him to get out of the car. Maybe he heard it because, earlier in the race, driver Larry Smith died in an accident.


“He was a very unusual person, and a lot people found him a bit odd,” said Humpy Wheeler, the promoter at Charlotte Motor Speedway from 1975 to 2008. “I thought he was a product of the time; he was brought up in a sawmill in the country, and he had not learned to read or write at the time. He went racing for a guy from Cherryville named Frank Hefner, and Frank didn't know Bobby couldn’t read. They’d stop to eat, and Bobby would order a hotdog. He never looked at the menu.”


Legendary racer Jack Ingram, a friend of Isaac’s, says one of Isaac’s wives taught him to read.


“I never figured out who did teach him to read,” Wheeler said. “He was a proud man, and he never talked to people except people he was close to. He and David Pearson were very much alike – where came from, same age, both from mill towns, and Pearson was one of the most upset people when Bobby died. They traveled together and bummed around together.”


Some people may have thought that Isaac was a coward for walking away at Talladega. Wheeler never thought that.


Bobby was one brave human being in a race car,” Wheeler said. “I don't think there was anything that scared him. He was one of the first drivers who learned to race the big superspeedways. The cars were faster than they are now, and you had to watch out for the terrible right-front (tire) blowout. It meant you’d really hit the wall hard. But Bobby stayed cool in a race car; he didn't scare, didn't get upset.


“When it came down to a showdown, he was tough to beat.”


Beginning and end at Hickory


The beginning and end of Isaac’s great career were at Hickory.

Robert Vance “Bobby” Isaac (1932-1977), a native of Catawba, visited Hickory Motor Speedway in 1952, a year after the dirt track opened, and decided he wanted to race. He bought a 1937 Ford and put roll bars in it to run Hobby Stocks. His first race at Hickory wasn’t much of a success – he flipped the Ford on the second lap – but it didn’t cool his ardor for racing.

At the end, Isaac was running in a Late Model Sportsman race at HMS on Aug. 14, 1977. With 25 laps left he called for a relief driver  and collapsed on pit road. He was revived briefly at the hospital, but a heart attack killed him in the early morning hours. He was 45.
The day that Elvis Presley died – Aug. 16, 1977 – Isaac was buried in the cemetery behind turns three and four at HMS.
In between, Isaac had a world-class career.

He posted 37 Cup victories and 50 poles, and he won 11 races in 1970, the year he won NASCAR’s Grand National (now Sprint Cup) championship. He claimed 20 Cup poles in 1969, and he had a whopping 17 wins one season.

In 1970, he set what was then a world closed-course speed record of 201.104 mph at Talladega.

A year later, he went to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and set 28 world speed records, including some that still stand.


The Bobby Isaac Memorial races at Hickory – set for Sunday and Monday, Sept. 4 and 5 – isn’t the only memorial to Isaac. Each year, Charlotte Motor Speedway presents the Bobby Isaac Memorial Award to an individual or group in recognition of outstanding contribution to short-track racing. Two of the winners were also HMS stalwarts, Ingram and Harry Gant.


Isaac was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1979 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1996.

In 1998 NASCAR honored Isaac as one of its NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers ever.

And Isaac’s name graces the Wall of Fame at HMS.


Isaac being Isaac’


Wheeler’s favorite Isaac story is one about a watch he got, ironically, from the Talladega track. After the Talladega incident, Isaac quit racing for a while, and he wound up racing at short tracks like Hickory.


“One of the results of Talladega,” Wheeler said, “was that he didn’t want anything in the house that said Talladega. Bill France (Sr.) gave him a gold Rolex watch, and on the back it said ‘Quitters never win, winners never quit, Talladega 500.’


Bobby never wore that watch, never put it on. One day he came into my office (at Charlotte Motor Speedway). He never knocked on the door. He said he had the watch and said, ‘You want you to buy this watch, you need a Rolex.’ I said, ‘No, I don't.’ He said, ‘I know you do.’ ”


Isaac left the watch in Wheeler’s drawer and walked out. Later, Tom Pistone called and told Humpy that he owed so much for car parts. Wheeler would pay for the parts, and Humpy knew that was the cost of the watch.



“I started wearing it, and when he died, I offered to give the watch back to his wife,” Wheeler said. “I thought it ought to be part of his trophy collection, but she said, ‘No, he wanted you to have it.’ It meant more than the money, so I still had it.”


As for Isaac getting out of the car, “It shocked everybody else, but what he did at Talladega didn’t surprise me one iota,” Wheeler said.


To Wheeler, it was Isaac being Isaac.



More blog entries from The Auto Racing Journal:
(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

Other blog entries from The Dog Blog
More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie

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