Thursday, November 24, 2016

8/29/76: The story of 1976 LASTCAR Cup Champion Joe Frasson (1935-2016)

PHOTO: John Betts, Stock Car Racers Reunion
On August 29, 1976, Joe Frasson picked up the 8th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Volunteer 400 at the Bristol Motor Speedway when his #18 Excuse Lounge Chevrolet ran out of tires after 5 of 400 laps.

The finish, which came in Frasson’s 100th series start, was his fourth of the season and first since Pocono, three rounds earlier, when he tangled with Bill Hollar’s #29 Velvet Touch Furniture Chevrolet on Lap 3 of the Purolator 500.  The finish, the last of his career, secured him the 1976 LASTCAR Cup Series title.  He ended the year one finish ahead of Darrell Bryant, Henley Gray, and Bruce Hill.

Known as much for his temper as his independence, the no-nonsense Italian-American driver was born in Golden Valley, Minnesota in 1935.  At the suggestion of his friend and mentor, A.J. Foyt, Frasson made the move from USAC to NASCAR in 1969, and made his Cup debut at the Riverside road course on February 1 of that year.  Driving a #32 Plymouth sponsored by Mario Frasson Cement Company, which at the time he co-owned with his father, Frasson finished 41st in the field of 44, out early with engine trouble.  At a time when Northern drivers were a rarity, Frasson took the setback as motivation, and returned in 1970 to attempt a large part of the schedule.

After finishing 14th in his first Daytona 500 start, he made his first start in car #18 at Atlanta, the number he’d run for much of his career.  He earned his first two Top Tens that year - a pair of 9th-place runs at the Columbia (South Carolina) Speedway dirt oval, and the paved Albany-Saratoga Speedway in New York.  The effort put him just short of taking Rookie of the Year from Virginian driver Bill Dennis.  His first Top Five, a 5th at Michigan, came the following year, though he still preferred the short tracks.  He also reveled in his underdog status.  During NASCAR’s “aero wars,” he outpaced several of the winged factory Dodges and Plymouths in an older-model car.  Team owner Ray Nichels took notice, and Frasson’s #18 was awarded a wing of its own.

In each of his ten seasons, Frasson never ran all the races, and was known to lose his temper when he failed to qualify.  In 1975, he took a jack handle to an ill-handling Pontiac LeMans that wasn’t fast enough at Charlotte, earning him the nickname “Jackhandle Joe.”  As with other owner-drivers, the source of his stress was clear:  “I’m bitter because as long as I’ve been down here (South) purses haven’t increased,” he said in an interview.  “Yet the expense of racing is shooting up all the time.  I don’t see why a car that wins a race gets twice as much money as the second-place car, and the second place finisher get twice as much as the third.  I guarantee you if you don’t finish at least fifth, you can’t pay your motel and tire bill.”

The above interview came prior to the 1973 Winston 500 at Talladega, where he would be one of 60 starters to take the green flag.  An outspoken critic of NASCAR’s sanctioning body - especially the rule book - Frasson had clear misgivings about the size of the field.  “For one thing, there’s no money in it,” he said.  “They’ve increased the field but haven’t hiked up the purse.  And those cars starting 40 and on back are not gonna be competitive by any means.  They’ll be from 40 to 40 miles per hour difference in the first ear[sic] and the 40th, at minimum.  And all 60 cars will do is give up more caution flags.  NASCAR was talking earlier about cutting the field to 40 cars so there wouldn’t be so many cautions.  It looks like they’ve eliminated that idea.”

Both of Frasson’s fears came to pass.  After starting 9th, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a third of the field was destroyed in a multi-car melee, the same one which ultimately ended Wendell Scott’s driving career.  For his troubles, Frasson left with a 43rd-place finish and a mere $1,125 share of the purse.  Race winner David Pearson took home $26,345.

Unfortunately, Talladega wasn’t the only serious crash involving Frasson.  He was one of the last people to speak to Tiny Lund minutes before his fatal 1975 wreck at the Alabama track.  During the 1976 Southern 500, Frasson struck the driver’s side door of Skip Manning’s Billy Hagan-prepared Chevrolet.  Pinned in his destroyed car, Manning had to be cut free, and was hospitalized with a cracked pelvis, a concussion, and a fractured left foot.  Then, while running the 1979 opener for the NASCAR Sportsman Series, Frasson’s car exploded into flame when he was rear-ended by Delma Cowart during a grinding backstretch wreck.  Miraculously, Frasson walked away, but the same accident claimed the life of fellow competitor Don Williams.

According to the record books, Frasson was still searching for his first victory in 1976, but according to the driver, he was aiming for victory number two.  In an interview for Perry Allen Wood’s book Declarations of Stock Car Independents, Frasson stated he was two laps ahead of the field at Texas World Speedway in 1973, but a scoring error handed the win to Richard Petty.  He was awarded 3rd that day, tying his career-best mark at Darlington the previous year.  In ‘76, Petty and Frasson crossed paths again in one of NASCAR’s most famous finishes.  When Petty and David Pearson tangled for the win in the Daytona 500, Pearson nosed into Frasson, tearing up the right side of his car.  As Frasson limped home 14th, he watched Pearson take the victory.

The Daytona incident was Frasson’s first race with sponsorship from the Excuse Lounge, who backed his #18 for the rest of the 1976 season.  His best finish of the year came during the spring race at Darlington, where he came home 8th.  But, heading into Bristol, he’d racked-up four DNFs and three last-place finishes, and would one week later be involved in the aforementioned wreck with Skip Manning.  Still, he managed to secure the 30th and final spot in the Bristol field.  Sent home were Georgia driver Jerry Hansen, who looked to make his first start in two years, and Pennsylvania’s Earl Ressler, his only recorded Cup Series attempt.

Frasson’s exit after five laps due to “no tires,” remains the only time in NASCAR history that a last-place finisher retired for that reason.  The cause for Frasson’s lack of tires is not entirely clear, but given his concerns over tire costs, it may be that he simply couldn’t afford enough rubber to run the race.  Finishing 29th was fellow owner-driver Ed Negre, whose #8 Dodge broke the rear end after 12 laps.  Frasson drove Negre’s car in two races late in the 1970 season.  28th went to Dean Dalton, whose #7 Chevrolet lost the transmission three laps after Negre.  North Carolina driver Gary Myers fell out next, the engine gone on his #04 Hicks Pharmacy Chevrolet.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Walter Ballard, who also lost the engine on Baxter Price’s #45 Chevrolet.

Over the next two years, Frasson made seven more Cup starts.  His final race came at Rockingham on October 22, 1978, where his unsponsored Buick came home 23rd after late-race engine trouble.  But this wasn’t the end of his racing career.  In the years ahead, Frasson joined two newly-organized NASCAR divisions.  He was part of the NASCAR XFINITY Series’ first season in 1982, finishing 12th during the series’ first trip to Charlotte.  In 1991, at age 55, he joined the new NASCAR Southeast Series, running at least one race a year for its first five seasons.  His best finish there was a 20th at Myrtle Beach on November 19, 1995, where he again ran a #18 Chevrolet.  His last start in the series came in 1998, though he attempted at least one more start in 2002.  He moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he operated a successful insurance company.

This past Monday, Frasson passed away.  He was 81.

*This marked the first, and so far, only last-place finish for the #18 in a Cup Series race at Bristol.
*The #18 would not finish last in another Cup Series race until June 1, 1980, when Randy Ogden’s #18 Ogden Racing Chevrolet lost the engine after 13 laps of the NASCAR 400 at the Texas World Speedway.

30) #18-Joe Frasson / 5 laps / no tires
29) #8-Ed Negre / 12 laps / rear end
28) #7-Dean Dalton / 15 laps / transmission
27) #04-Gary Myers / 35 laps / engine
26) #45-Walter Ballard / 55 laps / engine

*“1973 - Joe’s bitter. . .Frasson loves racing, but Winston 500 may be his last,” May 2, 1973; reprinted at Midwest Auto Racing, May 2, 2013.
*Hembree, Mike. “From Nightmare To A Comeback.” Herald-Journal, October 8, 1976.
*Wood, Perry Allen. Declarations of Stock Car Independents, Interviews with Twelve Racers of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, 2010.

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