|SOURCE: Daytona Beach News-Journal|
Wawak, a native of Villa Park, Illinois, made the move from drag racing to stock cars when he was 19 years old. After six seasons of running competitively on short tracks like Mance Park Speedway and O’Hare Stadium, Wawak made the move to the national circuit, racing in both USAC and NASCAR. His Cup debut came in the 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington, driving a #4 Mercury he prepared himself. Wawak started 27th in the 44-car field, but came home 36th after early engine troubles.
Wawak’s second start in the series was yet another endurance match – the 1967 World 600 at Charlotte – and he finished a strong 13th. His first Top 10 (a 10th) came that July at the third-mile bullring of Oxford Plains Speedway. He finished the ’67 season 31st in points with a season-best 7th, again at Charlotte, despite making only 14 of the 49 races. He also won a 25-lap qualifying race that at Rockingham that October, starting from pole and edging Neil Castles by two carlengths.
Following a brief departure from NASCAR, during which time he scored the 1974 late model title at the Illiana (Indiana) Motor Speedway, Wawak teamed with car owner John Gwinn for a 20-race stint in 1976. The result was the best Cup season of the driver’s career: in the 19 races he made in the #36 Chevrolet, Wawak racked-up nine Top Tens and set a new career-best finish of 6th at Ontario, good enough for 22nd in the standings. The duo continued their success into 1977, finishing 18th in the season opener at Riverside, then set their sights on Wawak’s first Daytona 500 start.
SpeedWeeks 1977 started on a promising note as Wawak made the Top 10 in qualifying, securing him the 5th spot in the first qualifying race. But with ten laps to go, the engine on his #36 Encyclopedia Britannica Chevrolet let go, leaving him 25th. Despite his initial speed, the finish put him out of the Daytona 500, one of 24 sent home from a gargantuan entry list. Fortunately, the Gwinn team had a backup plan: they’d entered a second car, #32, driven by Georgia racer Henley Gray. Gray, who made the field with a sterling 9th-place finish in Race 1, was by Sunday swapped out for Wawak. Thus, Wawak rolled into the 17th starting spot in his #36, a new engine under the hood and the “6” hastily repainted into a “2.”
The 42nd and final starting spot that day belonged to another independent, New Jersey driver D.K. Ulrich and his unsponsored #40 Chevrolet. But just three laps into the race, the caution fell for trouble in Turn 4. As Wawak held fast in the middle of the pack, he suddenly spotted smoke, then flames inside the cockpit. A fuel line had come loose, starting a raging blaze in front of the firewall. Wawak turned his car hard to the left, slowing down as best he could, and climbed out while the car was still rolling. As the flaming Chevrolet nosed hard into the inside wall, Wawak walked away in shock. In photographs, he appeared unharmed, but for a pair of severely damaged gloves – except he wasn’t wearing any. As it turned out, the flames left him with third-degree burns to both hands and his forehead. The accident all but ended the practice of racing without gloves in NASCAR, which veterans claimed prevented them from having a good feel over the steering wheel.
“It was like sitting in front of a blow torch,” said Wawak.
Finishing 41st that afternoon was Johnny Rutherford (curiously, that year’s last-place finisher of the Indianapolis 500), whose #77 t.edwards Happy Legs Chevrolet suffered a vibration after 29 laps. Road racer Elliott Forbes-Robinson, who made his Cup debut that day in Ferrel Harris’ #87 Rossmeyer Dodge, exited after 44 laps with engine trouble. Blown power plants rounded out the Bottom Five with Canadian Roy Smith in Dick Midgley’s #29 Mercury Marine Chevrolet and prolific owner-driver Buddy Arrington in his #67 Sub-Tropic Dodge.
The accident curtailed Wawak’s 1977 season. He returned at Martinsville, just two months later, but again finished last with rear end trouble. From there, he fielded his own Chevrolets, running #74 and soon adopting a distinctive bright yellow paint scheme. In 1981, he honored Louise Smith, the first lady in racing, by running the “Louise Smith Special” with her #94 on the door. The next year, he led his first Cup Series laps, pacing the field for Laps 101 and 102 of the Southern 500. He began to share his ride with other drivers, including road racer Jim Fitzgerald who in his Cup debut at Riverside in 1986 set an age record for oldest driver to start a race, a record he’d beat at the track one year later with Hendrick Motorsports. After a difficult 1987 season where he finished no better than 19th in eight starts, Wawak again looked to the Daytona 500 for a rebound. As in 1977, he would be entering two cars – John Linville, a Busch Series veteran (and father of DeLana Harvick), would run the #74 while Wawak ran #57. And, again, near-tragedy would stop him short.
On Lap 6 of the first 125-mile qualifier, Wawak’s Chevrolet again lost fluid, this time spilling water beneath his rear tires. Heading into the third corner, Wawak lost control and slammed hard into the wall. “I never blacked out or anything,” he said. “The engine dumped the water out and I went straight into the wall. It happened on one of the fastest parts of the track.” Wawak spent six days in the Halifax Medical Center with two crushed vertebrae in his back and severe eye injuries. Curiously, it was during these same Twin 125s that J.D. McDuffie, whose gloves were stolen before the race, also suffered severe burns during his own serious wreck in Race 2.
“I’m not sure what’s on my agenda,” said Wawak in 1988, “I’ve got everything here a big budget team has to go racing but if I don’t find a sponsor, I’ll have to leave racing.” Having all but lost sight in his right eye, Wawak never raced again, but did remain in the sport. His team continued on through 1990, fielding cars for Randy LaJoie and Mike Potter at Dover and Pocono. When the team closed, Wawak later worked for Hendrick Motorsports, handling show car duties for the team. On April 17, 2004, Wawak passed away at age 64.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #32 at Daytona and the last at the track until July 5, 2003, when Ricky Craven’s Tide Pontiac crashed after 49 laps of the Pepsi 400. The number had not finished last in Cup since March 30, 1969, when Dick Brooks’ 1969 Plymouth lost the engine after 38 laps of the Atlanta 500 at Atlanta.
*This marked the third, most recent (and hopefully final) time the last-place finisher of a Cup race was listed out with “fire” as the cause. The previous two occurred on August 22, 1956 at the Norfolk (Virginia) Speedway to Joe Bill McGraw and May 6, 1962 at the Concord (North Carolina) Speedway to Rex White.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
42) #32-Bobby Wawak / 3 laps / fire
41) #77-Johnny Rutherford / 29 laps / vibration
40) #87-Elliott Forbes-Robinson / 44 laps / engine
39) #29-Roy Smith / 45 laps / engine
38) #67-Buddy Arrington / 51 laps / engine
Borden, Brett. “Unfortunate events force some stubborn drivers to change,” ESPN.com, May 22, 2008.
Kalwasinski, Stan. “Bobby Wawak,” ChicagolandAutoRacing.com
Kelly, Godwin. “For Wawak, 30 years of race driving ends in a heartbeat,” The Times-Journal, June 30, 1988.
YouTube – 1977 Daytona 500 Footage from the stands including crash and fire