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The Day NASCAR's Underdogs Went Rogue

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Imagine that the best sixth men in NBA staged their own All-Star game after the season, and they did it in style: a pick-up game at a small gym for four quarters of anything-goes hoops. Or maybe the best third and fourth lines on NHL teams rent out a local rink so that they can go all-out for 60 minutes to earn bragging rights and a cut of the gate receipts.

There are enough fans of scrappy underdogs, gamers, and grinders that such events would certainly draw some attention.

Around 20 NASCAR drivers actually took that type of bold step 50 years ago last month. The result on November 25, 1973 was a wonderful off-the-grid spectacle that would be all but lost to the exhaust fumes of history if a few remnants of the race hadn’t survived to this day. You can find a couple of articles online by a racing writer named Jonathan Ingram, including this recent article in Autoweek that called the race one of the stories that helped define the first 75 years of NASCAR. But that’s about it. The race is so obscure that even Chat-GPT doesn’t have enough information to bluff its way through a recap.

So why resurrect a race from so long ago?

The story of the Independent 250 is worth telling for several reasons. It served as an All-Star race for the Winston Cup’s independent drivers, the individual owner-operators who had formed the backbone of NASCAR’s premier series since the organization’s founding in 1948. Those drivers deserved that special day of recognition – and a rare chance to take a checkered flag themselves – because most of them would be gone from the sport entirely by the end of the 1970’s, done in by economic disparities they couldn’t overcome.

NASCAR would spend the 1970’s leaving behind its start-up phase, steeled on a cluster of small tracks of the South, and preparing to enter the big-money world of national sports where major sponsorships and television contracts would increase the revenue inflows by orders of magnitude.

The Independent 250 is also important to me personally, because I was there that day in person. As I wrote a couple of years ago, professional sports meant auto racing to me until I was 10 years old. So that day in November 1973 was also my personal NASCAR All-Star race, featuring many of the underdog drivers I followed all spring and summer on the radio. My father captured much of the event on Super-8 movie film and this article includes some personal photos as well as screen captures from the digitized versions of those reels.


Long live the Independents!

Raymond Williams, a driver from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, hatched the idea to stage a post-season race for his fellow independent drivers on NASCAR’s Winston Cup circuit after the conclusion of the 1973 season. He promised 250 laps of racing with no restrictions at Trico Speedway in nearby Rougemont. That 3/8-mile track featured two high-banked turns that promised to make the racing exceptionally fast.

“A bunch of us independents just wanted to go out and race on our own and take the cars that we had and try to make a little money with it,” explained Richard Childress, one of the drivers who showed up for the November 25th race. But he recalled only a few details of that day.

“You’re going way back. I can’t hardly remember that race,” he said when we spoke by phone late last month. “Everything I’m going to tell you is the best of my memory.”

Childress is one of the few independents who survived the NASCAR’s wrenching transition of the 1970’s. He made the switch from the driver’s seat to the owner’s seat so successfully that he entered the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the Class of 2017 as a team owner. Starting with a win by driver Ricky Rudd in June 1983, the drivers under the banner of Richard Childress Racing (RCR) have earned 116 victories and six drivers’ championships in the NASCAR Cup Series alone.

But back in late 1973, Childress was still an independent driver who had started 53 Winston Cup races and finished with no wins and only one top 10 finish. In fact, of the 10,000 laps he had driven in sanctioned Cup races to that point, he had been the leader for exactly one of them. The grainy image below, captured from one of the movie reels, shows Childress’s car parked in the infield as Bill Champion (#10) comes in for a pit stop during the Independent 250.

“When I looked at the picture, I realized that was my short track car I was driving for L.C. Newton at the time,” Childress said. He originally hadn’t planned on taking part in the race, but eventually hauled that #96 car to the track.

“It was something that came up at the last minute and they needed a few more cars,” he said.

When race day came, 19 drivers lined up in the starting grid, led by Dave Marcis (#2) on the pole. James Hylton (#48) lined up on the outside, while Cecil Gordon (#11) and Williams (#47) filled out the second row. Cecil Gordon normally drove a yellow #24 car, but opted for #11 that day. Childress started near the back of the field.

The first two rows of the Independent 250 starting grid


Out of the Top 25 in the NASCAR Winston Cup point standings in 1973, 14 of them were independents who raced at Trico that day, including Gordon (3rd), Hylton (4th), Walter Ballard (8th), Elmo Langley (9th), and J.D. McDuffie (10th). Childress finished 16th in the point standings that year.

The picture above shows McDuffie (#70) behind Ed Negre (#8). Even though most of the day was overcast, it is clear from the screen captures of the starting grid that the sun was shining as the gentlemen started their engines.


The economic disparities the independents faced

The survival of NASCAR’s independent drivers, even before the hardships of the 1970’s, always depended on making a tough tradeoff between consistency and aggressiveness. They earned their points by finishing races, not by running up front with the powerful racing teams.

“Back in ‘73, there were more independent drivers than NASCAR teams,” Childress said. He noted that there were only four or five teams in the modern sense of the term, including Junior Johnson’s, Bud Moore’s, and the Petty Family’s.

The problem was that those teams were clear ‘haves’ and the independents were the ‘have nots.’ Together with the team of Wood Brothers, the drivers from the racing teams won almost every race. In fact, with just four exceptions, only five drivers – Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, and Buddy Baker – accounted for every win and every pole position in the 28 Winston Cup races in 1973. They also had sponsor money, with STP on the Petty car, Coca-Cola on Allison’s car, and Purolator on the Wood Brothers’ car.

The 14 independents in the Top 25 who drove in the Independent 250, meanwhile, not only won no races in 1973, they also led only 11 of the almost 9,500 laps run in those 28 races that year.

The gap between the team drivers and the independents showed up in earnings as well. In the 1973 season, the 14 Top 25 independents who raced at Trico grossed an average of $300,000 in today’s money, according to data from Racing Reference. That may seem like the basis for a nice living, except that amount needed to cover all of the owner-operator’s expenses, from equipment, engines, tires, and fuel to travel and crew. The team drivers, in contrast, grossed an average of $1.43 million apiece in today’s dollars.

But on November 25, 1973 at Trico Speedway, none of that mattered. The drivers raced all out in the turns and on the straightaways, knowing that they didn’t have to make the tradeoff between consistency and aggression. It was win or go home. The picture above shows Marcis and Langley (#64) lapping traffic, including Richard Brown (#44), on the narrow backstretch.


Wendell Scott’s daring experiment

Wendell Scott, the first and only Black driver in the top NASCAR series for decades, knew all about the economic disparities that the independents faced. He also typified the tradeoff between consistency and aggression that allowed independents to make a living from racing throughout the 1960’s.

From 1966 to 1969, he finished in the Top 10 in points every season without ever earning a pole or even leading a lap. But in contrast to most other independents, he did have a win to his credit, earned in Jacksonville, Florida in 1963.

For the Winston 500 race in Talladega, Alabama in 1973, however, Scott decided he would abandon the consistency. Talladega was NASCAR’s largest oval at 2.66 miles and drivers could hit speeds of 200 miles per hour. It was time for all-out aggression, to see what he could do running flat-out in the best equipment he could buy.

It almost cost him everything.

According his biography by Brian Donovan, Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver, Scott took out $22,000 in mortgages and loans (around $150,000 in today’s money) and bought a Mercury with the aerodynamics and the horsepower to compete with the top teams. After a disappointing day of qualifying, the Wood Brothers tuned the car up, and suddenly Scott could sense his dream coming true.

The race, the 494th start of his career, could not have started better. “That thing felt like somebody shot me out of a shotgun! Oh, man!,” he said in his biography. “Them cars that had outqualified me, I was walking by them like they weren’t there. I was on my way to the front!”

But he never got there. Just a few laps later, one of the worst accidents in the history of Talladega occurred, knocking out 19 of the 60 cars in the starting field, including Scott’s. His #34 machine did not make it through the clouds of dust and oil slick. The accident destroyed the car beyond repair and left him clinging to his life.

Financially, the damage was severe. Scott earned a mere $500 ($3,400 in today’s dollars) that day for the race that was supposed to catapult him to the top tier of NASCAR drivers. Physically, the damage was worse. His biographer writes that the crash “fractured Scott’s left leg and his pelvis in several places, broke three ribs and his right knee, ripped much of the skin off his left forearm, and seriously injured his right kidney.” He recovered sufficiently to drive one more Cup race in 1973, and that would be his last official race.

But he found the resolve to drive another unofficial one. He and his son Wendell, Jr. made the one-hour drive from Danville, Virginia to Trico Speedway to take part in the Independent 250. The picture below shows him waving to the crowd during the introduction of the drivers.

The Scott family entered a light blue Mercury with a gold #34 on the side. It is not documented how much of the race he drove and how much Wendell, Jr. drove, but I know from talking with them in the pits after the race that Wendell, Jr. did spend a lot of time behind the wheel.


The end of the independent era

Most of the drivers at the Independent 250 retired before the end of the 1970’s. A few of them had already scaled back their Cup Series driving by the time the Independent 250 came. Factors beyond their control worsened the economic disparities. Inflation hit 8.4% in November 1973 and the conflict in the Middle East had triggered an oil crisis which would soon result in higher prices and the infamous long lines for gasoline. NASCAR had already started to reduce the number of races per season, cutting out many of the short-track races where the independents could accumulate money and points.

“They never disappeared, but there wasn’t as many of them,” said Childress. “If you wanted to go and race you could, but if you wanted to do good, you couldn’t. Before we were running in the Top 5 and Top 10, and all of sudden you find yourself running 15th and that wasn’t no fun.”

Childress anticipated the changes and timed his exit well. He saw “all these people coming in with money, and that’s the reason I got out of the race car. In ‘81 I could see the trend changing.”

In 1984, he signed another driver to get behind the wheel of his team’s car, which now bore #3.

That driver was Dale Earnhardt. And as they say, the rest is history.

For the next 17 years, until Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the partnership between Childress and Earnhardt endured to become on the most iconic in NASCAR history.

After the Independent 250 ended, most of the drivers stayed around to greet fans and sign autographs. The ones who had the STP-sponsored postcards handed those out, and I still have the postcards shown below.

Wendell Scott was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015 as an owner, driver, and mechanic. Elmo Langley (#64) stayed in the business as a pace car driver at NASCAR races. Dave Marcis (#2) ran his last Cup Series race in 2002 at the age of 61. All in all, Marcis competed in 883 Cup Series races over a 35-year career, and eventually won five times. J.D. McDuffie (#70) continued racing in the NASCAR Cup Series as an independent until 1991, when he was killed in an accident during the Cup Series race at Watkins Glen, New York.

And the winner of the Independent 250? That was Cecil Gordon, who competed in 449 official NASCAR Cup Series races in his career. But his only victory against Cup Series competitors came on that afternoon in November 1973. According to one report, he earned $500 for the win ($3,400 in today’s dollars), with the proceeds coming from ticket sales to the estimated crowd of around 2,000 fans.

“It was a one-off thing to show that the independents could race on our own,” Childress said about the Independent 250. “And it worked, but we didn’t follow up with another race.”


Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC. He ghostwrites best-selling and award-winning non-fiction books. He is also the author of the book Blues Flashbacks, a compilation of his personal interviews and concert reviews of all-time great blues music legends.




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