Thursday, October 20, 2016

5/3/87: Chet Fillip’s engine failure comes minutes before terrifying Talladega wreck

On May 3, 1987, Chet Fillip picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Winston 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway when his #81 Warr Valves Ford fell out with engine trouble after 3 of 178 laps.  The finish came in Fillip’s 21st series start.

Fillip’s obscurity is surprising given his diverse racing career.  In many ways, he has much in common with the late Bryan Clauson due to his similar experience in NASCAR, IndyCar, and USAC midget racing.  Fillip got his start in stock cars and modifieds, competing alongside his father Marvin at the Arena Park Raceway in his native Texas.  During this time, Fillip also drove some of the most spectacular supermodifieds of his era, low-slung machines with massive wings and cramped cockpits.

In 1982, Fillip teamed with Texas businessman Tom Mitchell with eyes on making the Indianapolis 500.  His car with a red nose and blue body, sponsored by Mitchell’s Circle Bar Truck Corral and R.V. Park, made 11 IndyCar starts, including back-to-back 500s in 1982 and 1983.  While Fillip finished just 24th in the former and last in the other, he did earn a career-best 10th at the Milwaukee Mile in 1985.

Circle Bar stayed as a sponsor with Fillip in 1983 when he looked to make his first NASCAR Winston Cup start in the Daytona 500.  Unfortunately, the #13 Buick, fielded by 1977 LASTCAR Cup Series Champion Earle Canavan, was one of nine withdrawn during SpeedWeeks.  Undaunted, Fillip returned four months after his final IndyCar start to attempt the 1985 finale, the Atlanta Journal 500.  Reunited with Tom Mitchell, Fillip snagged the 36th starting spot in qualifying and finished 25th.  Among the ten drivers Fillip bested in qualifying were series veterans Doug Heveron, Jim Sauter, Blackie Wangerin, and Bobby Wawak.

Fillip and Mitchell returned to NASCAR in 1986 to run a partial season, attempting 18 of the 29 races.  The team remained with Ford, carried the same blue-and-red Circle Bar livery from IndyCar, and changed the car number from #31 to #81.  This time, the team didn’t withdraw, and Fillip lined up 15th in the 31-car field for the second 125-mile qualifier.  With only a 20th-place finish, Fillip once again went home empty-handed, this time as one of 21 drivers, including Michael Waltrip, Alan Kulwicki, and Davey Allison.  Fillip rebounded after Daytona, making all 17 of his remaining starts.  His best finish of the year came at Pocono on July 20, where he came home 12th - three positions better than his open-wheel start there in 1984.

Fillip and the #81 returned in 1987, though this time with owner-drivers Mike Potter and Buddy Arrington as co-owners.  Arrington and Potter, along with Slick Johnson and Eddie Bierschwale, would share driving duties with Fillip for their second partial season.  Fillip entered the car in Daytona with new sponsor Marshall Batteries.  Now behind the wheel of one of Ford’s sleek new Thunderbirds, Fillip held fast to a 13th-place finish in his Twin 125 securing him the 26th spot in his first-ever Daytona 500.  And though engine troubles cut short his run after just 19 laps, Fillip joined an elite fraternity of drivers who had started both of America’s signature 500-mile races.  With a 24th-place showing in the following race at Rockingham, Fillip prepared to return to superspeedway racing at Talladega, where he finished 23rd and 28th the year before.

As at Daytona, perilous unrestricted speed was the big story for the Winston 500.  It was in qualifying for this race that polesitter Bill Elliott set NASCAR’s all-time record speed of 212.809mph, more than one full mile per hour over outside-polesitter Bobby Allison.  Among the 41 drivers who filled the starting grid, only the last two - 40th-place Steve Christman for car owner Tom Winkle, and 41st-place Jimmy Means, who didn’t complete a lap - did not break the 200mph mark.  Blackie Wangerin and Ronnie Sanders missed the cut, while seven other drivers, including J.D. McDuffie, withdrew.  Fillip’s #81, carrying new sponsorship from Warr Valves, secured the 31st spot with a lap of 205.295mph.

When the race started, Jimmy Means’ #52 In Fisherman / Turtle Wax Pontiac got a slow start and he held down the last spot as he tried to rejoin the pack.  Then, on Lap 4, smoke began to billow out of Fillip’s #81.  The caution flew as the leaders headed into Turn 1 with Fillip, trailing fluid, slowing at the entrance to pit road.  Not wasting any time on pit road, Fillip pulled behind the wall, where the team soon discovered the problem was terminal.  40th went to Geoffrey Bodine, who made an unscheduled stop just three laps after the restart.  The Hendrick Motorsports crew lifted the hood of Bodine’s #5 Levi Garrett Chevrolet, then the crew pushed his car behind the wall as well, done with engine trouble.  “We’ll get it right one of these days,” said Bodine.

The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by the day’s most spectacular - and terrifying - moment.  During the Fillip caution, outside-polesitter Bobby Allison told the ESPN crew by radio that his #22 Miller American Buick was handling well.  Coming down to complete Lap 21, Allison had just slipped behind Buddy Baker into the 5th spot when the right-rear tire came apart midway through the tri-oval.  The explosion turned Allison sideways, and the rear end of the car caught the air.  Just a few hundred feet from the flagstand, Allison’s car backed into the catchfence, tearing the car to pieces and ripping down a length of the protective fencing.  The field tried to slow to avoid him, but speeds were so high that another nine drivers were caught up in the debris field, spinning and crashing into each other.  One of them, the #1 Bull’s Eye Barbecue Sauce Chevrolet of Ron Bouchard, made contact with Allison.  Fortunately, all drivers involved, as well as those in the stands, were unharmed.  Allison, Bouchard, and Cale Yarborough, also eliminated in the wreck, rounded out the final five spots.

After an extensive delay, Bobby Allison’s son Davey, making his 14th career start, took his first career victory in a race shortened ten laps by approaching darkness.

After Talladega, Fillip finished 13th of 34 drivers in his lone appearance in the Winston Open exhibition race, missed the field for the Coca-Cola 600, and made just three more starts, including two for owner-driver Buddy Arrington in the #67 Pannill Knitting Ford.  His last race, also at Talladega, secured him a 20th-place finish.  The Potter-Arrington team made its final Cup start with Slick Johnson at North Wilkesboro on October 4.  Johnson finished last in the race, again due to engine trouble.

Following his NASCAR career, Fillip made the move to USAC sprint car competition, winning nine races, including the Little 500 at Indiana’s Anderson Speedway.  He then moved his family to nearby Avon, Indiana and continued to find success on the short tracks.  In 2006, he claimed the inaugural championship in the Premier Racing Association, a series he helped found, driving a car he both designed and manufactured.  Fillip, now 59, remains active in USAC racing today, and in 2008 took the checkers in a race at Richmond International Raceway.

As of 2014, Tom Mitchell’s Circle Bar R.V. Park is still in business in Ozona, Texas.  A modest museum contains at least three red-and-blue cars Fillip drove in NASCAR and IndyCar competition, including his #81 Ford Thunderbird from 1986.

*As of this writing, Fillip is one of eight drivers to finish last in both a NASCAR Cup Series race and the Indianapolis 500.  The others are Pancho Carter, Larry Foyt, Cliff Hucul, Jim Hurtubise, Juan Pablo Montoya, Johnny Rutherford, and Tony Stewart.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #81 in a Cup Series race since September 17, 1978, when Jabe Thomas’ #81 Louise Smith Chevrolet pulled out after 1 lap of the Delaware 500, the official reason listed as the driver “quit” the race.  Following another last-place run for the Fillip team in 1987, the #81 would not finish last in another Cup race until June 15, 1997, when Kenny Wallace’s #81 Square D Ford dropped an engine during the Miller 400 at Michigan.
*This was Fillip’s only NASCAR last-place finish.

41) #81-Chet Fillip / 3 laps / engine
40) #5-Geoffrey Bodine / 11 laps / engine
39) #22-Bobby Allison / 21 laps / crash
38) #1-Ron Bouchard / 22 laps / crash
37) #29-Cale Yarborough / 22 laps / crash

*1987 Winston 500, ESPN
*Colorado Racing Memories
*Johnson, Bryan. “Chet Fillip: Racing’s Jack of All Trades,” Fun City Finder, November 2, 2010.
* Profile: Chet Fillip
* Chet Fillip
*Wikipedia: Chet Fillip

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