Thursday, March 23, 2017

2/28/71: The forgotten debuts of Dean Dalton and Ontario Motor Speedway

PHOTO: Getty Images, RacingOne
On February 28, 1971, Dean Dalton picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Miller High Life 500 at the Ontario Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #17 1969 Ford was flagged off the track after 2 of 200 laps.  The finish came in Dalton’s series debut.

Dalton’s story is as much about the track as it is about the driver.  Opened in August 1970, “The Big O” was constructed to quite literally be “The Indianapolis of the West,” a 2.5-mile rectangular oval with nine-degree banking in the corners.  The complex included a spacious garage area, a drag strip, and an infield road course – twenty years before Indianapolis built theirs.  The first race, held on September 6, 1970, welcomed the USAC open-wheelers in a 200-lap race of their own.  Taking the checkers was Jim McElreath, driving for A.J. Foyt, who took the lead from Art Pollard with five laps to go.

The following February, the 26-year-old Dalton arrived as one of 81 drivers looking to make the 51-car field for Ontario’s first NASCAR race.  Among them were a mix of Winston Cup and Winston West competitors, as well as both McElreath and Pollard.  When time trials were done, McElreath made the field, but Pollard did not.  Among the 29 joining Pollard on the ride home were owner-drivers D.K. Ulrich, Neil Castles, Ed Negre, and Bill Champion.  Dalton, meanwhile, secured the 43rd starting spot, lining up next to Bobby Wawak and Harry Schilling in a three-wide Indy-style formation.

Starting 51st and last that day was Daly City, California driver Bob England.  England, fourth in Winston West points the previous year, had made four previous Cup starts, all of them on the Riverside road course.  His best finishes were a pair of 13th-place runs in 1970 and 1971, though he had yet to finish any of his starts under power.  Only two laps into the race, Dalton was flagged off the track, perhaps for not maintaining minimum speed.  The exit wasn’t shown in “Car and Driver’s” highlights of the event, which can be seen here.

Finishing 50th that afternoon was another owner-driver, Frank Warren, whose engine let go on his #79 Prince Chrysler-Plymouth 1969 Dodge.  The next two spots went to Winston West competitors.  Another engine failure by the #82 Tognotti’s Speed Shop 1969 Ford of 49th-place Ron Gautsche, who finished 19th in his series debut at Riverside, drew the first caution of the race.  48th went to Dick Kranzler, 14th at Riverside, but out with overheating problems on his #4 Goodyear Tire Center 1970 Chevrolet.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was another standout, Mexico City’s Pedro Rodriguez.  By 1971, Rodriguez was one of the best drivers in the world.  He started racing bicycles and motorcycles with his brother Ricardo, ran the 24 Hours of Le Mans when he was just 18, entered Formula One in 1963, and won two Grands Prix at Kyalami and Spa.  Twice he finished 6th in the World Championship, once each for Cooper and BRM.

Long before Daniel Suarez and Carlos Contreras, Rodriguez had also been racing in Cup since May 17, 1959, when he finished a strong 6th in the 18-car field at Trenton, New Jersey.  He followed this up with a 5th in the 1965 World 600 at Charlotte, driving for Holman-Moody.  He even banged fenders with Benny Parsons during the Ontario race.  Tragically, subsequent electrical issues on his #20 Southland Auto Salvage Auction 1970 Ford marked the end of his final NASCAR start.  Less than five months later, Rodriguez was killed during a race at the Norisring in Nuremburg, West Germany.  The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course in his native Mexico City is named in honor of the Rodriguez brothers.

Unfortunately, the careers of Dean Dalton and the Ontario Motor Speedway that began that day in 1971 would not last a decade.  Dalton switched car numbers from #17 to #7, and ran that number in most of his 118 Cup starts.  His best finish was a 6th at Darlington in 1973.  Dalton also brought sponsor Belden Asphalt into the sport, a company which would then back owner-driver Henley Gray into the 1990s.  From 1971 through 1977, Dalton fielded cars for Gray as well as Ed Negre, Jackie Rogers, Walter Ballard, Jack Donohue, Cecil Gordon, D.K. Ulrich, and Frank Warren.

Ontario hosted its final Cup race, won by Benny Parsons, in 1980.  In the infield, Dale Earnhardt, then driving for Rod Osterlund, celebrated his first Winston Cup after edging Cale Yarborough by 19 points.  The track was demolished the next year.  Oval track Cup racing would not return to Southern California until Fontana’s debut in 1997.

*This marked the first last-place finish for #17 in a Cup race since June 8, 1968, when David Pearson’s #17 1968 Ford was disqualified for mismatched tire treads at the (Birmingham) Fairgrounds Raceway.  It would not finish last again until March 11, 1979, when Roger Hamby earned his own first last-place finish after his #17 Hamby-Ellis Chevrolet overheated 68 laps into the Richmond 400 at the Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway.
*This marked the first time a Cup last-place finisher was flagged off the track since February 11, 1971, when Ken Meisenhelder’s #41 1969 Chevrolet was waved off after 1 lap of Race 2 of the 1971 Daytona Qualifiers (then listed as a full-race points event).  It wouldn’t be long before it happened again.  On June 26, 1971, Ernest Eury’s #05 1969 Chevrolet was also flagged after just 1 lap of the Pickens 200 at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

51) #17-Dean Dalton / 2 laps / flagged
50) #79-Frank Warren / 4 laps / engine
49) #82-Ron Gautsche / 10 laps / engine
48) #4-Dick Kranzler / 13 laps / overheating
47) #20-Pedro Rodriguez / 18 laps / electrical

*NASCAR Grand National @ Ontario 1971 – YouTube (posted by Mitch’s Racing Highlights)

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