Thursday, April 6, 2017

6/7/81: First Baxter Price, then Texas World Speedway “quit”

Jimmy Means' #52 Chevrolet, which may have become
Baxter Price's #50 at College Station, Texas
PHOTO: Unknown
On June 7, 1981, Baxter Price picked up the 5th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Budweiser NASCAR 400 at the Texas World Speedway when he “quit” driving his #50 Broadway Motors Chevrolet after 1 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in his 90th start, was his first since that February at Richmond, 11 races earlier, when his #45 McWhirter Grading Buick broke a driveshaft after 16 laps of the Richmond 400.

Price excelled in the Grand National East Series, a circuit consisting of tracks recently cut from the Winston Cup tour.  In 1972, he scored three Top Fives and 11 Top Tens on his way to a 4th-place showing in the standings.  The series was stacked with Cup Series veterans, including season champion Neil Castles and fellow owner-driver Elmo Langley, who finished 1-2 in points.  Among the drivers Price outpointed that season were Wendell Scott, Richard Childress, Tiny Lund, Buck Baker, and Bobby Allison.

With this success, Price made his Cup debut at Richmond on September 9, 1973.  He filled out the 34-car field in his #33 Price Racing Chevrolet, starting in the final spot.  On Lap 4, Price spun in the fourth corner and couldn’t restart.  With the track still in its tight half-mile configuration, outside-polesitter Darrell Waltrip couldn’t avoid Price’s car and slammed into the rear of #33.  The result was a 14-car pileup that also triggered a fuel fire in Baxter’s car, leaving the last-place finishing rookie with second-degree burns to his face and hands.  It was an inauspicious start to a brief career.

Price didn’t run another Cup race until May 10, 1975, when he returned at the Nashville Fairgrounds to run the Music City USA 420.  Now driving the #45 he would campaign for much of his career, the driver started next-to-last in the 28-car field and climbed to 20th despite running just 38 laps.  He improved to 22nd in his return to Nashville that summer, then ran 18th in his superspeedway debut at Pocono, the first track where he finished under power.  He slowly built his program over the next two seasons, running six races in 1976, 12 in ’77, and 24 for back-to-back seasons in 1978 and 1979.  He also picked up a series of local sponsors for his #45, including Tire King, Ray Cook’s Bar-B-Q, Ideal Maintenance, and Iron Peddlers, the last of which being his most consistent backer through the 1979 and 1980 seasons.

The Virginia 500 at Martinsville on April 23, 1978 saw Price earn what would be his best career finish, an 11th-place run, 45 laps behind Darrell Waltrip.  At Charlotte that October, Price was also tabbed to drive in relief of none other than Dale Earnhardt, who was preparing for his Rookie of the Year campaign.  Two competing deals arrived for Earnhardt to run Charlotte in Will Cronkrite’s #96 Cardinal Tractor Ford and run Atlanta in Rod Osterlund’s Chevrolet.  Since running both races would exceed the maximum number of starts Earnhardt could make and still run for rookie honors, Price was tabbed to start the #96 at Charlotte.  And so it was on October 8, 1978, that Baxter Price and Dale Earnhardt split time in the same car for 179 laps before the engine let go.

By 1981, when NASCAR downsized its cars from 115-inch to 110-inch wheelbase models, Price had scaled down his operation.  A fourth bid to make an elusive Daytona 500 start ended in disappointment, though he finished 4th in the 12-car “Consolation Race” run the Friday before the race.  A last-place finish at Richmond turned out to be the final green flag taken in his black-and-gold #45 Buick.  Then, in June, came a call from another owner-driver.

Jimmy Means was in his sixth season of competition on the Winston Cup tour, and headed toward the second-best season of his Cup career.  By June, he was 14th in the point standings, and he’d finish there at season’s end.  While preparing his #52 Broadway Motors Pontiac for the upcoming race in College Station, Texas, Means tabbed Price to drive a second car for him.  Price would drive a renumbered #50 Chevrolet, likely the same Chevrolet that Means ran four times earlier that season at Daytona, Bristol, North Wilkesboro, and Nashville.  The agreement was made and both drivers arrived at the track.

The venue was the Texas World Speedway, a blistering-fast two-mile oval similar in construction to Michigan International Speedway, but with steeper corners banked between 12 and 22 degrees.  The circuit joined the Winston Cup schedule in 1969, where Bobby Isaac prevailed in a 38-car contest.  Over the next four seasons, the fields grew as large as 49 cars with both Richard Petty and lead-footed Buddy Baker taking the checkered flag.  But the track was dropped from the schedule in 1974, and when it returned five years later, the fields were noticeably depleted.  Just 34 cars took the green in 1979, then 31 in 1980.  Means and Price were among just 34 drivers to arrive in 1981.

Kirk Shelmerdine at Texas World Speedway, 1981
PHOTO: Unknown
According to the official results, it appears that Price’s car was one of at least three brought in to fill out the field.  Unlike the more recent examples of “start-and-park” teams, which often list mechanical failure as the reason out, it was then common for such cars to list the more direct “quit.”  Price pulled out first after the opening lap.  The next time by came Kirk Shelmerdine, who was making his Cup debut.  Like Price, Shelmerdine arrived in a second car belonging to an owner-driver, his future boss Richard Childress: Shelmerdine drove a #8 McDonald’s Pontiac renumbered from Childress’ #3.  By 2002, Shelmerdine would start his own team.  Third among the “quit” group was D.K. Ulrich.  Ulrich’s exit is a strange one as, just one month earlier, he’d piloted his #98 UNO Buick to a career-best 4th at Dover.

Rounding out the Bottom Five were 39-year-old Morgan Shepherd, fresh off his first Cup victory that April.  Shepherd’s #5 Performance Connection Pontiac prepared by Cliff Stewart exited with radiator issues.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Darrell Waltrip, one of only four DNFs in a 12-win season that vaulted he and his Junior Johnson-prepared car to the first of three Winston Cup titles.

As it turned out, June 7, 1981 was both Baxter Price’s final Cup start and the final Cup race at the Texas World Speedway.  Price’s 90-race career set a mark for the most Cup starts without a Top 10 finish - a record which stands to this day.  Texas World Speedway hosted ARCA and K&N Pro Series West races until 1993, and in 2009 made the news when Greg Biffle turned a lap of over 218mph during a test session.  While one report in January 2016 indicated the track would be torn down to make way for a housing development, as of this writing, the track’s online calendar still has private tests and other track events scheduled for the rest of 2017.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #50 in a Cup Series race since August 3, 1980, when Bruce Hill lost the engine on his #50 Global Heat Exchanger Oldsmobile after 12 laps of the Talladega 500 at Talladega.  The number would not finish last in Cup again until October 11, 1987, when Greg Sacks’ #50 Valvoline Pontiac crashed after 20 laps of the Oakwood Homes 500 at Charlotte.  This was the first and only last-place finish for the #50 in a Cup Series race at Texas World Speedway.
*In 2,505 Cup Series races, “quit” has been the listed reason out for just 59 last-place finishers.  The first time it was used was February 24, 1967, when Daytona 500 polesitter Curtis Turner pulled off the track in Smokey Yunick’s #13 1966 Chevrolet after one lap of his qualifying race.  The last time was June 13, 1993, when another Jimmy Means backup car, this time driven by Graham Taylor, pulled the #53 State Shuttle Ford off track after 3 laps of the Champion Spark Plug 500 at Pocono.

34) #50-Baxter Price / 1 lap / quit
33) #8-Kirk Shelmerdine / 2 laps / quit
32) #98-D.K. Ulrich / 4 laps / quit
31) #5-Morgan Shepherd / 17 laps / radiator
30) #11-Darrell Waltrip / 33 laps / cylinder head / led 12 laps

*Legends of “Owner – Crew Chief Will Cronkrite.”
*McLaughlin, Matt. 50 Years of NASCAR Racing. “The Fall of Richmond (Post 87).” Reposted at

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