Wednesday, May 17, 2017

5/17/97: Twenty years ago, Delma Cowart forced off the track in the Winston Open

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On May 17, 1997, Delma Cowart finished last in the Winston Open at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his #0 Masters Economy Inns Ford was disallowed without completing any of the 50 laps.

A “Clown Prince of Racing” in the tradition of Joe Weatherly, a man known to say “I never won a race, but I never lost a party,” the soft-spoken driver from Savannah, Georgia remains one of stock car racing’s most beloved veterans.  Like Harry Gant, Cowart was – and remains – a practiced handyman, his expertise in building swimming pools and septic systems.  By his own admission, Cowart got into racing in the 1970s just so he could make the best parties in Daytona Beach.  “All my friends was going to Daytona,” he said in a recent interview, “and in order to get into the party, you had to own a race car, so I got one.”  Sure enough, Cowart made those parties, and on at least one occasion played piano with the band.

Cowart’s first race car ran in the NASCAR Late Model Sportsman Series, which at the time was transitioning into what is today the NASCAR XFINITY Series.  In 1981, when Anheuser-Busch signed on as title sponsor of the new NASCAR Busch Grand National Series, Cowart considered his options going forward.  Even with the sanctioning body’s new regulations that reduced the wheelbase for its Winston Cup cars, the price difference between a Busch and Cup car was relatively modest, just $3,000 to $5,000.  So as the ’81 season ended, Cowart sold his Busch car and bought a Buick Regal.  The listed owner was Heyward Grooms, who would later sponsor Cowart’s car through his company Heyward Grooms Construction.

Cowart chose car #0 from the start, and acquired sponsorship from hometown auto shop Coastal Transmissions to run at his home track in Atlanta.  He then surprised the field by grabbing the 40th and final spot in the starting grid, outpacing seven other drivers who had raced earlier that season: Ronnie Sanders, Mike Alexander, Billie Harvey, Dick May, Bruce Hill, Bobby Wawak, and Bob Schacht (for Hill, who passed away this past week, the Atlanta race was his final Cup attempt).  Even more impressive, Cowart finished a strong 18th, 13 laps down to race winner Neil Bonnett.

Over the next six seasons, Cowart ran no more than five races a year, each time competing on the fastest tracks in Daytona, Talladega, Atlanta, and Charlotte.  Daytona saw him improve his career-best finish with a 17th in the Firecracker 400, won by Bobby Allison.  It was some vindication for the owner-driver, who from 1982 through 1997 entered the Twin 125-mile qualifiers every year, but only four times – 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1992 – did he qualify for the “Great American Race.”  1992’s 25th-place finish which secured him a spot in Richard Petty’s final 500 may have been one of his greatest accomplishments.  Running near the tail end of the field, Cowart avoided a 13-car pileup on the backstretch, placing him 27th on Sunday’s grid.  It was his first Cup start since 1987, and one of his last in a points race.

Now with sponsorship from Masters Economy Inns, which would back the H.L. Waters-owned white-and-green #0 for the rest of Cowart’s Cup career, the driver fought against the same long odds as other underfunded drivers.  One particular challenge was getting engines, which required some bartering: “Back then, I got some engines from Junior Johnson,” said Cowart, “and the way I got them was I traded his engine builder a swimming pool for an engine.  Junior wouldn’t sell to anybody who was running against him engines at that particular time.  Of course, it’s changed drastically now.  You got like only two – Chevrolet people build engines, Ford people build engines altogether – but back then, each team had their own independent engine builder and you couldn’t buy an engine unless you knew somebody.”

Competing on NASCAR’s fastest tracks also proved dangerous.  During his Sportsman days in 1979, it was Cowart whose #09 Chevrolet Nova slammed full speed into the rear of Joe Frasson’s stopped #50 Mercury, triggering an explosive fireball that left Frasson with severe burns to his face.  Frasson managed to climb from his car, but Don Williams, also involved in the wreck, lost his life.  In 1988, Cowart again found himself surrounded by fire when he rear-ended J.D. McDuffie’s brand-new #70 Rumple Pontiac.  Pinned against the outside wall by the crashing Ralph Jones, Cowart’s contact intensified an existing oil fire under the hood, leaving McDuffie with severe burns to his unprotected hands.  Through it all, Cowart managed to keep his health – and his sense of humor – and was always back in Florida for another try at NASCAR’s biggest race.

By 1997, Cowart, now 55, had begun to turn his attention to ARCA, where he again ran his #0 on the superspeedways.  His best finish in the series was a pair of 10th-place runs in 1991, which came at Talladega and the Texas World Speedway.  In February, he’d run his 16th and final Twin 125, which he left with a damaged race car.  On Lap 17, as the leaders lapped him in Turn 4, Cowart lost control and slid into 3rd-place Geoffrey Bodine, sending both cars spinning into the grass.  Cowart hit the inside wall flush with the driver’s side, leaving him last in the race and out of the 500 field.  It was the latest in a series of frustrations.  In ’97, Cowart hadn’t made a start in a Cup points race since July 26, 1992, when he ran 37th of 40 in the DieHard 500 at Talladega.  In a combined 80 career Cup entries (including the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994), he’d failed to qualify 59 times (including two withdrawals), and in the 21 he’d made, he failed to finish 13 of them.

May’s running of the Winston Open was an opportunity for a much-needed pay day.  He’d run the event just once before, finishing 25th in the 36-car field in 1996 (Brad Teague drove his car there in ’95), and was back to running the white-and-green Ford for his return in ’97.  He would line up 30th in the 31-car field, one spot ahead of Ed Berrier in the #95 Feed The Children Chevrolet for longtime single-car team Sadler Brothers Racing.  A 32nd entry, a #55 Ford fielded by Michael Waltrip and driven by Joe Ruttman, was withdrawn.  As to what happened to Cowart that weekend, it’s best let the driver tell it, as he did years later on the Growing Bolder Radio Show:

“We went up there for the Winston Open, and they invited all the Winston Cup teams – it was just a money race, it wasn’t a points race, it wasn’t none of that.  So we got there you know on time and everything, which is unusual for me, but we got there on time, got out on the race track about 10:30 that morning, wiped an engine out.  Well, I had another engine in the truck, but the problem was I’d bought the engine from Rusty Wallace and he had Tilton(?) stuff for the clutch and the starter and all that stuff and I’d been running Quartermaster. . .

“. . .Make a long story short, them boys they worked all day to get it cranked, finally they got it cranked ‘bout time they said ‘Gentlemen, start your engines’ out on the race track.  I cranked mine up in the garage area, pulled it out behind everybody, and made about five laps before they black-flagged me.  But my theory is this: I went there to race, I worked, they worked all day to race, there wasn’t no way in the world I wasn’t gonna get in that car crank it up and try to race.”

Cowart wasn’t credited with completing any laps, and was classified last in the 31-car field with no share of the purse.  TNN’s original broadcast indicates Cowart was on the track coming to the green flag, but fell to the rear on the backstretch and pulled onto pit road just as the race started.

30th went to Gary Bradberry, whose #19 Child Support Recovery International Ford suffered a vibration after 16 laps (the car owned by TriStar Motorsports, who currently fields Cole Whitt’s #72 Chevrolet in Cup).  18th went to owner-driver Brett Bodine, handling woes to blame on his #11 Close Call Calling Card Ford.  Out the same lap in 17th was Robby Gordon, then attempting his first full season for car owner Felix Sabates.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Dave Marcis, who prior to the green made an unscheduled stop in his #71 RealTree Chevrolet along with Morgan Shepherd.

Cowart never entered or attempted another Cup race, though he did try to enter one more ARCA superspeedway event, coming up short of a spot in October 11, 1997 race at Talladega.  His non-entry to the 1998 Daytona 500 marked the first time he didn’t start the Twin 125s since 1981.  As of his interview for Growing Bolder, Cowart had returned to Savannah, Georgia, and is still working on swimming pools and septic systems.  For more on Cowart, be sure to click the links in my “Sources” list below for Growing Bolder’s excellent interviews.

*This remains the first and only last-place finish for the #0 in the Open event prior to the All-Star Race.  The number has also finished last in 19 Cup Series points races, but none since Cowart’s oil leak after 38 laps of the 1985 Daytona 500.  For all his challenges, that was Cowart’s only last-place finish in a Cup points race.  His other three came in exhibitions (1986, 1997 Twin 125s, 1997 Winston Open).
*As of this writing, the only other last-place finisher in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions (points or exhibition) to be listed as “disallowed” was John Andretti during the 2000 Budweiser Shootout.  Unlike Cowart, Andretti was “disallowed” by the Petty team’s longstanding non-participation in the Pole Award program.

31) #0-Delma Cowart / 0 laps / disallowed
30) #19-Gary Bradberry / 16 laps / vibration
29) #11-Brett Bodine / 27 laps / handling
28) #40-Robby Gordon / 27 laps / clutch
27) #71-Dave Marcis / 32 laps / engine

*1997 Gatorade Twin 125s, CBS
*1997 Winston Open, TNN
*Growing Bolder Radio Show: Delma Cowart
*Growing Bolder Radio Show: One of a Kind
*Ultimate Racing History

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