Thursday, June 16, 2016

3/13/77: Bruce Hill headed back to the track for first time in 30 years, says Allmendinger

SOURCE: Brian Norton
On March 13, 1977, Bruce Hill picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Carolina 500 at the North Carolina Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #47 Chevrolet fell out with a blown engine after he completed 21 of 492 laps.

The finish, which came in Hill’s 51st series start, was the first for both him and the #47 since September 26, 1976 during the Old Dominion 500, when his Chevrolet overheated after 37 laps of the rain-shortened event.

Born in Topeka, Kansas, Hill made his NASCAR debut in 1974 as a Winston West competitor.  The Winston Cup season finale at the Ontario Motor Speedway on November 24 was a companion event matching the series regulars against Winston West drivers like Hill.  While Bobby Allison won the race in his Roger Penske-prepared Matador, Hill finished highest among the 15 West competitors and 13th overall.  Hill even finished two spots and a full lap ahead of Richard Petty, who not only won the pole and led a race-high 89 of the 200 laps, but had also clinched his fifth Cup title.

In 1975, Hill continued to impress.  He finished 9th in his first ever Daytona 500 qualifying race, 5th in just his fourth career start at Rockingham, then followed it up with back-to-back 5th-place runs at Darlington and Dover.  16th in the final season standings despite running just 26 of the 30 races, Hill was an easy choice for Rookie of the Year, defeating Carl Adams, Bruce Jacobi, Grant Adcox, Chuck Bown, Joe Mihalic, Travis Tiller, Ferrel Harris, and Dick May.  What’s more incredible is that Hill did all this with just one car and one regular employee.  It was to be the best season of Hill’s career.

Mechanical gremlins made 1976 a challenging season for Hill.  In 22 starts, he failed to finish 16 times, and came home last in three of them.  But in the six races he did finish under power, Hill finished in the Top Ten four times and never finished worse than 18th.  Sponsorship from Howson Algraphy had come aboard late in his 1975 rookie campaign, and remained on his #47 for several races that season, but despite his strong results with limited resources, Hill continued to struggle to find more backing.

When the series came to Rockingham in 1977, his bright white #47 Chevrolet with blue and red stripes timed in a strong 13th, right between Dick Brooks and Neil Bonnett.  Unfortunately, the engine let go during the early laps.  Longtime independent driver Frank Warren was next to retire when his brown-and-gold #79 Naive Tan Dodge pulled behind the wall, followed by the late Lennie Pond, who four years earlier defeated Darrell Waltrip for Rookie of the Year.  Rounding out the Bottom Five were Tight Scott, driving the Walter Ballard-owned #30 Scotty’s Fashions Chevrolet that Hill made two starts with the previous year, and 4th-place starter David Pearson, who crashed his #21 Purolator Mercury on Lap 133.

Eleven cautions slowed the Rockingham race for 111 of its 492 laps, requiring 5 hours, 6 minutes, and 46 seconds to complete.

In all, Hill competed in 100 Cup Series races, the last of which coming on August 16, 1981 during the Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan, where Hill finished 33rd in a field of 36.  He also attempted at least one USAC Champ Car Series race at the Milwaukee Mile in 1980 and in 1978 was leading coming off the final corner during the ARCA 200 at Daytona when Jim Sauter wrecked Hill’s pole-winning car, leaving him 2nd.

Today, Hill still lives in Kansas, where he owns a hotel in Great Bend.  But that’s not the end of the story.

On May 4, JTG-Daugherty Racing announced that driver A.J. Allmendinger would be running the same scheme Hill ran during the 1977 season for this September’s second-annual “Throwback Weekend” at Darlington.  I had the opportunity to talk with Allmendinger about the tribute during his visit to the Sonoma Raceway earlier this month.

“Yeah, well, last year we didn’t do a throwback scheme, it kind of came on late.  And to be completely honest, Kroger didn’t know much about it.  You know, they’re fairly new to the sport when it comes to all the stuff we’re doing and we kept talking about it and said, you know, last year was just kind of an experiment and now everybody’s jumping on board and it’s a cool idea.”

“So, we were - really, (Kroger) just kind of looked at what fit their scheme already and found the Bruce Hill scheme and it kind of worked out we were going to Kansas - Bruce Hill’s a Topeka native - and, you know, I think there’s a little bit of a bonus there that, you know, we’re one of the small teams that keep trying to get recognition.”

“Bruce Hill’s the guy that - I’ll be honest - I didn’t hear about him until I got to meet him and you start learning about his career and he was a guy who basically put his life savings into it and was really good, I mean, won Rookie of the Year, had a lot of top-five, top-ten finishes in the short amount of races that he did, so it all worked out.  I thought the scheme when I caught it out was like, ‘that’s pretty cool.’  So, it’ll be fun at Darlington for sure.”

“And it was cool to actually meet - (Bruce Hill) hadn’t been to a race track in thirty years.  He left the sport and said, ‘It’s too hard to come back.  I don’t want to come back and watch.’  And he hadn’t been back to a race track in thirty years and it was the first time, you know, we invited him out and a couple of his old crew members and he just loved it.  But he was - guys like Richard Childress and Richard Petty, guys he raced against.  So I think it was pretty special for him.  We’ve invited him and as many of his crew guys that want to come out to Darlington, so yeah, it was cool.”

And now, thanks to JTG's partners, Hill’s car will have plenty of sponsorship.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #47 in a Cup race at Rockingham since March 14, 1971, when Raymond Williams’ #47 MARC Times 1970 Ford wrecked after 5 laps of the Carolina 500.

36) #47-Bruce Hill / 21 laps / engine
35) #79-Frank Warren / 32 laps / engine
34) #54-Lennie Pond / 52 laps / engine
33) #30-Tighe Scott / 107 laps / oil pump
32) #21-David Pearson / 133 laps / crash / led 12 laps

No comments: