Thursday, April 13, 2017

8/23/60: G.C. Spencer scores first last-place three-peat in NASCAR history

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On August 23, 1960, G.C. Spencer picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR Grand National Series career in Race #34 of the season, held at Bowman Gray Stadium, when his #48 1958 Chevrolet broke a sway bar after 62 of 200 laps.  While the “G.C.” in Spencer’s name stood for Grover Cleveland, the only U.S. President to serve two non-consecutive terms in office, the finish, which came in Spencer’s 49th series start, was his third in a row.  It was the first time a NASCAR driver ever finished last in three consecutive races.

Born in Owensboro, Kentucky, home of Jeff Green and Michael Waltrip, Spencer served in the Navy during World War II, then stateside developed a passion for hot rodding.  According to a 2007 interview with the Times-News, Spencer made his first short track start on a dare, finished 2nd, and took more checkered flags than he could count.  His NASCAR debut came on September 1, 1958, during the eighth Southern 500 at Darlington, when he drove a second Chevrolet fielded by Buck Baker.  Baker finished 2nd to Fireball Roberts that day while Spencer came home a respectable 16th of 48 starters.  The next season, Spencer fielded his own Chevrolets for 28 races.  His first top-five finish came in just his seventh start, when he ran 4th at the Piedmont Intestate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

When interviewed for my upcoming book on J.D. McDuffie, longtime friend Bobby Hudson recalled Spencer as one of a “core group” of friends who played poker together between races.  “Most people called him G.C. and I called him Grover,” said Hudson.  “But G.C., I believe he was the cussingest guy I’ve ever met.  Not at anyone in particular, he was just ‘why?’”

Perhaps the reason for Spencer’s colorful language was the dubious record he set in 1960.  At the time, Spencer was driving for Weldon Wagner, who had started his own team at Daytona with Iowa driver Darrell Dake.  In April, the duo produced Spencer’s second Top Five, a fifth at the Asheville-Weaverville Speedway.  But, following a broken axle at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway, Spencer endured a frustrating three-race stretch.  On August 18, he started on the front row at Columbia (South Carolina) Speedway next to Tommy Irwin, but broke the rear end after 42 laps.  Two days later, the rear end failed again, 22 laps into the race at South Boston.  Bowman Gray followed three days later.

Spencer started 10th in the 17-car field, but was out after 62 laps, the race’s only DNF.  Last-place starter Jimmy Pardue finished in 13th, driving a #54 1959 Dodge sponsored by Lowe’s.  Filling out the Bottom Five were E.J. Trivette in his #35 1959 Plymouth, owner-driver Curtis “Crawfish” Crider in his self-prepared #83 1958 Ford, and rookie Paul Lewis in Jess Potter’s #1 Faircloth 1958 Chevrolet.  All five drivers each made over 100 Cup starts.  The race was won by the Wood Brothers own Glen Wood, who for the third-consecutive Bowman Gray race led all 200 laps on his way to victory.

Spencer’s three-race stretch is but a footnote to a much more impressive statistic.  In 415 career starts, he finished runner-up seven times, the most of any winless driver.  Six different drivers with Hall of Fame careers held him off: Jim Paschal, Darel Dieringer, Dick Hutcherson, Junior Johnson, Marvin Panch, and Ned Jarrett.  Spencer lost to Jarrett twice, the second of which coming May 30, 1965 at the one-third-mile Harris (North Carolina) Speedway.  That day, Spencer started 2nd, passed polesitter Paul Lewis the first time around and led the first 23 laps, then ran out of gas with four laps to go.

The 1965 season was the best of Spencer’s career.  Driving his own #49, Spencer made 47 of the 55 races, scoring 14 Top Fives and 25 Top Tens with an average finish of 11.9.  By campaigning a Ford in a season where Chrysler boycotted NASCAR over the banning of the “Hemi” engine, Spencer outpointed big names like Richard Petty and David Pearson, and trailed only Ned Jarrett, Dick Hutcherson, and Darel Dieringer.

Spencer campaigned as an owner-driver in the #49 for most of his Cup career, the reason that his Inman, South Carolina neighbor James Hylton chose #48 for his own team in 1966.  Spencer drove that number to his 55th and final Top Five came July 15, 1971 at the Islip (New York) Speedway, a day which saw Richard Petty lead all 230 laps.  His final season as a driver came in 1977, and at Darlington, scene of his Cup debut, he earned his 138th and final Top Ten, an 8th in his #49 Lady & Son Auction Dodge.

Though he’d fielded cars for a handful of other drivers since 1964, he did so exclusively from 1978 through 1982, giving Gary Baker, Connie Saylor, and French road racer Claude Ballot-Lena their first starts in NASCAR.  Spencer also gave a team its first start in 1983, when he sold a car to Larry McClure and Tim Morgan, laying the foundation for prolific single-car team Morgan-McClure Motorsports.  Spencer remained as Morgan-McClure’s team manager for the next three years.  Spencer’s driver Connie Saylor gave the team its first start at Talladega.  Their next start went to a 24-year-old Mark Martin.

Spencer passed away on September 20, 2007, Morgan-McClure’s final season in operation.  The team’s fourteen wins stand as a legacy to both.

*G.C. Spencer scored 19 last-place finishes in his Cup career, which as of this writing ties him with Mike Bliss for the sixth-most in series history.
*No driver would score three consecutive last-place finishes in Cup again until August 2009, when Dave Blaney pulled off his #66 PRISM Motorsports Toyota at Bristol, Atlanta, and Richmond.  The article, written during LASTCAR's first season, erroneously reports Blaney was the first to score three lasts in a row.

17) #48-G.C. Spencer / 62 laps / sway bar
16) #35-E.J. Trivette / 173 laps / running
15) #83-Curtis Crider / 174 laps / running
14) #1-Paul Lewis / 176 laps / running
13) #54-Jimmy Pardue / 177 laps / running

*Legends of NASCAR: G.C. Spencer
*Morgan-McClure Motorsports: Team History
*Wood, Perry Allen. Declarations of Stock Car Independents: Interviews with Twelve Racers of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010.

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