Country crooner went to great lengths to live out his racing dream
As a dabbler in NASCAR’s Grand National circuit, the top shelf of stock car racing in the country in the mid 1960s, Marty Robbins had just one goal.
The country music superstar with 17 No. 1 singles including the classics “El Paso” and “A White Sport Coat,” didn’t want to win a race or lead a bunch of laps or win lots of money. He simply wanted to pass Richard Petty. One time. Put it the books. Let’s pack it up and go home.
Well, in the 1972 Winston 500 on May 7, 1972, at what is now the Talladega Superspeedway, Robbins finally lived out his dream. He just didn’t do it quite fair and square. Robbins’ car owner that day, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, picks up from there.
“When we first talked about it, he said Bobby, ‘You do whatever you have to do to make that car pass Richard Petty, and I’ll pay whatever it costs,’” Bobby said. “He didn’t say he’d pay all the fines, too, although I feel pretty sure he did.”
What Robbins, Bobby and his engine-building brother, Eddie Allison, came up with was to “re-engineer” the carburetor on Robbins’ 1972 Dodge. Bobby recalls they used a material with a different expansion rate than the aluminum from which the carburetor was normally crafted. Eddie remembers putting wax on the restrictor plate to hold it in place as well. The bottom line is that when the carburetor got hot it expanded, the wax melted, and the plate fell out.
To keep it from falling into the valves and ruining the engine, the Allisons put small rods in the intake manifold that caught the plate when it fell. The result was a 2-inch opening in the carburetor instead of the mandated 1-11/16th opening. Now it may not sound like much, but that extra 1/16th meant an extra 40 to 50 horsepower under Robbins’ right foot and a car that could reach speeds of 220 miles per hour.
Eddie remembers Robbins having a very definite plan in mind.
“Marty Robbins was a sharp character,” Eddie said. “He told me what he wanted to do, and he had dreamed it up himself. I just had to fix it up so it wouldn’t destroy the car, and that’s what we did.”
The result was that in his very first race on the 2.66-mile Talladega track with its 33-degree banked turns, Robbins could indeed run with the Buddy Bakers, David Pearsons and Bobby Isaacs of the NASCAR world when he wanted to. And somewhere along the way, he did blow past “The King,” reportedly smiling and waving as he went.
The fun was up, however, when the race was over and Robbins, who still finished eight full laps down to winner Pearson, was questioned by NASCAR inspectors. Since it was his first time at Talladega, he would have still received Rookie of the Race honors had it been a legal finish. But when he was summoned to Victory Lane, Robbins fessed up to what he had done.
“One of the inspectors came down and said, ‘They want you down in the Winner’s Circle to present you the trophy for Rookie of the Race,’” Robbins said. “I said, ‘Well I can’t take it. I was running illegal today.’”
The inspector stood there a few more moments chuckling because he thought Robbins was joking and said, “Hurry up, they’re waiting on you” to which Robbins’ again replied “I can’t do it. I was running illegal today.”
At that point, the inspector realized Robbins was serious, his higher ups got involved, and Robbins explained to them exactly how he had qualified for his ninth starting spot legally but ran the race illegally. He was disqualified and dropped to last place in the 50-car field. Bobby remembers there were fines for each of the three “conspirators” in the thousands of dollars, which at that time was a lot of money.
“But Marty had 10 or 15 gold records so he wasn’t worried about a few thousand dollars in fines,” Bobby said.
Bobby also recalls that Robbins probably drew undue attention to himself because he was unable to contain his absolute glee at passing Petty.
“He was so happy he was hard to control,” Bobby said. “He said, ‘Did you see me? I passed Richard Petty! Did you see me? Did you see me?’ Well, yeah, the whole world saw him.”
By most conventional standards, Robbins cheated that spring day in the Talladega countryside, but he looked at it differently.
“I was running illegal, but I wasn’t cheating, and there is a difference,” Robbins said. “If you are illegal, you confess. But if you cheat then you go ahead, and you don’t tell anybody. So I was illegal.”
By coming clean and being relegated to last place, Robbins also insured that none of the NASCAR regulars who earned their living lap after lap week after week were robbed of any finishing positions and, more importantly, any prize money.
“I didn’t care about winning. I didn’t care about the money,,” Robbins said. “I was just having a good time. I think (the drivers) did admire me for turning myself in since it was done in a joking way. I think I gained some friends from that, and I found out that cheating is just not the way to do it.”
Both Allisons agree that Robbins, a popular figure in the garage, wasn’t held in disdain by the NASCAR driving fraternity for his stunt, in great part because those who worked in glass garages couldn’t throw lug nuts.
“Quite a few of the other guys had their own little deals they were doing, too,” Bobby said.
So Robbins, who died on December 8, 1982, less than two months after his last race at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina, sped off to that great west Texas town in the sky with his conscience clean and the memory of Petty in his rear-view mirror he so desperately wanted.
He left behind many in the NASCAR family who were proud to call him a friend and who considered him a far more talented driver than his 35 career races and one Top 5 finish might indicate.
“He was one heckuva of a race car driver,” Eddie said. “If he had put as much effort into driving race cars as he did singing, he would have been right up there with the best of them.” H&A