By 1972, Robbins was a household name in two different, but at the time, very similar circles. In the postwar years, he came to prominence as one of the most popular and beloved country music stars of his time. Performed during his regular appearances at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, the singer-songwriter’s most famous ballads included “El Paso,” his first song to top the pop charts, the Grammy Award-winning “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife,” and “Big Iron,” which has since been covered by many of his contemporaries.
In 1966, Robbins discovered another love in his life: NASCAR racing. He made his series debut on July 30, 1966 at the Nashville Fairgrounds near the Grand Ole Opry, finishing 25th in a field of 28 in a race won by Richard Petty. By 1971, he expanded his new hobby by running on a number of the series’ fastest tracks, including Charlotte, Atlanta, Darlington, and the old Texas World Speedway. He fielded his own fuchsia -and-yellow Dodges prepared by veteran car owner Cotton Owens and began to earn a number of surprising finishes. He came home 7th in the 1971 Southern 500 and 8th at the sprawling 2.5-mile Ontario Motor Speedway early in the 1972 season.
Back then, however, a 7th or 8th-place car still typically finished laps down to the leaders, and Robbins was mindful to stay out of the leaders. “I don’t think I get in their way,” said Robbins in an interview, “I stay out of the way of the fast ones and I find me one that’s about my speed and I chase him all day long.”
Ever the playful type, Robbins had a prank in store for the 1972 Winston 500 at Talladega, his first start at NASCAR’s biggest track. Though modern restrictor-plate racing was still another fifteen years away, the sanctioning body was already playing with the idea, and all 50 starters would have plates in their cars. Wanting to see what it was like to run with the leaders, Robbins found a way to make his plate come loose and fall into the carburetor, allowing him to run the event 15mph faster than he had in practice. The plan worked, and to the surprise of the crowd, he zipped to the lead pack, trailing David Pearson, Bobby Isaac, and Buddy Baker. In the final laps, he thought about taking the lead, but wasn’t comfortable with going 200mph into a corner for the first time in his life. So he pulled the car into pits, leaving him 18th, nine laps down.
Impressed by Robbins’ performance, NASCAR offered to give Robbins with the “Rookie of the Race” award, including a $250 prize. But, by Robbins’ admission, he was “illegal, but not cheating,” a distinction drawn as he didn’t intend to get away with it. When he brought his carburetor to the attention to of NASCAR inspector Bill Gazaway, Gazaway wasn’t pleased. He disqualified Robbins from the event, classifying him last in the field, and fined him $1,300.
At first, Robbins wasn’t bothered. “I didn’t want the money, points or anything,” he said. “It was worth it. In fact, I’d have paid (the fine) for a picture of Joe Frasson’s face when I passed him.” But in an interview years later, he seemed embarrassed over the issue: “I learned that what I did that day, I hurt some people’s feelings, you know, like Bill Gazaway, Len Cooper, the drivers. They didn’t really like what I did, but they did admire me for turning myself in.” Ironically, Robbins already had a fast car - when the plate was in place, he qualified 9th.
Before the penalty, the last-place finish for the day was originally going to go to Anniston, Alabama driver Bill Ward, who started last in the #53 Hopper-Crews 1972 Ford and fell out with an oil leak. It was Ward’s third of seven career starts, all of which came at the Talladega Superspeedway. He finished a career-best 11th in the 1969 inaugural when the big names went on strike, driving a #81 Chevrolet for owner Bill Hemby. The disqualification lifted Bill Ward to 49th.
Finishing 48th was Robert Wales, who three laps after Ward fell out with an oil leak of his own on his #63 Pleasant Grove Union 1970 Dodge. Wales’ only two Cup starts came in that year’s Talladega races - he would finish last after a Lap 2 engine failure that August. 47th belonged to veteran owner-driver Neil “Soapy” Castles, who was running his 15th of 19 years on the tour. Castles retired in 1976 to become a car owner, having never won in 498 career starts, third-most of all winless drivers behind J.D. McDuffie (653) and Buddy Arrington (560). Rounding out the Bottom Five was Glen Allen, Virginia driver Bill Dennis, the 1970 Rookie of the Year, driving a 1970 Plymouth for owner Don Robertson.
Another interesting side note to the race was the driver who finished 38th. A 25-year-old racer from Tennessee named Darrell Waltrip was making his first NASCAR start that day, driving a #95 Terminal Transport 1971 Mercury. Waltrip lost an engine after 69 laps.
Robbins remained a fan favorite in NASCAR and continued to impress on the sport’s biggest tracks. Just one year later, he finished 8th in the Medal of Honor Firecracker 400 at Daytona, then in 1974 scored a career-best 5th at Michigan, trailing Richard Petty, Earl Ross, David Pearson, and Gary Bettenhausen. His 35th and final NASCAR start came on November 7, 1982 in the season finale Atlanta Journal 500, his first race at Atlanta in eleven years. Robbins, now driving a Buick, finished 33rd that day in a field of 40. Tragically, just one month later, Robbins died from complications from heart surgery. He was 57.
Robbins’ legacy lives on today, both in music and in racing. The 420-lapper at the Nashville Fairgrounds, where Robbins made his Cup debut in 1966, was in 1983 renamed the Marty Robbins 420. Ray Evernham, former NASCAR crew chief and team owner, acquired an old Plymouth Belvedere that Robbins raced on the short tracks. Evernham and artist Ken Binkley, who painted the very same car decades earlier, completely restored it.
For more on Robbins and his racing career, check out this video featuring interviews with the man himself.
*This was the first last-place finish for the #42 in a Cup race since July 10, 1963, when Richard Petty won the pole at the Savannah Speedway in Savannah, Georgia and led the opening 6 laps, but crashed his 1963 Plymouth after 38 of 200 circuits. In a career spanning 1,184 races, this was one of the 61 times Petty did not race the #43 and one of the 29 times he ran his father’s #42 instead. He also ran the #142, #2, #24, #41, #42A, and once ran D.K. Ulrich’s #6 following a practice crash at Charlotte in 1986.
*This was the first time a driver was classified last in a Cup race since September 13, 1968, when David Pearson’s #84 1968 Ford finished on the lead lap with Bobby Isaac during the Maryland 300 at Beltsville Speedway in Beltsville, Maryland, but had his finish taken away because the car was too light. It was Pearson’s second disqualification of the season and came in the only race where he didn’t drive for Holman-Moody that season. That day, Pearson drove a car Roy Trantham wrecked during his NASCAR debut at Darlington earlier that month. By the time it arrived in Beltsville, Trantham’s car was found to be too light, bringing about the disqualification. Pearson more than made up for the setback - the Darlington race was one of 16 victories he claimed en route to his second of three championships.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
50) #42-Marty Robbins / 179 laps / disqualified
49) #53-Bill Ward / 10 laps / oil leak
48) #63-Robert Wales / 13 laps / oil leak
47) #06-Neil Castles / 19 laps / clutch
46) #23-Bill Dennis / 23 laps / engine