|PHOTO: Robert Wales Collection|
A lesser-known, but no less important member of “The Alabama Gang,” Wales was born in Pleasant Grove, barely four miles north-east of the Allison family’s hometown of Hueytown. He began racing on dirt in 1959, cutting his teeth on the clay oval in Birmingham.
One of Wales’ early racers was car #14, towed to the track behind a pickup painted the same shade of navy and gold. Another was a Chevelle owned by Roy Counce which he raced at the Nashville Fairgrounds, matched against such future NASCAR drivers as Jimmy Means, Neil Bonnett, and Darrell Waltrip. Our research found these to be two of many other cars Wales raced over two decades. Wales also carried a number of local sponsors on his cars, including Guaranty Pest Control, Patrick’s Auto Service, Dave Kornegay’s Western Auto, John & Betty’s Drive-In, Glenn’s Uniform Sales, and Benward Construction.
In 1969, a crash at Huntsville nearly ended his career, sending him to the hospital for brain surgery. But just a few months later on February 21, 1970, Wales made his first NASCAR start at Daytona in the Late Model Sportsman Series (now XFINITY Series). Driving a 1966 Chevelle, Wales started 31st in the 40-car field and finished 28th. Two months later came a win at the Montgomery International Speedway, a modified race where he beat Bobby Allison, Neil Bonnett, and Tony Bettenhausen, Jr. He would return to Daytona in 1971 to finish 17th, and finished in the same spot the following year.
The 1972 Daytona finish came while driving a #63 Dodge, which may have belonged to fellow Alabama native Charlie Roberts. While the owner information is incomplete for that year’s running of the Permatex 300, it was Roberts who fielded a #63 Dodge for Wales to run at Talladega that May. Carrying hometown sponsorship from Pleasant Grove Union, Wales qualified 34th for the 50-car field, outpacing Roberts, who lined up 45th in a newer 1971 Ford. Among the nine drivers who failed to qualify for that race were NASCAR Hall of Fame members Wendell Scott and Richard Childress. While Roberts climbed to 43rd before engine trouble, an oil leak left Wales 48th at the finish, ahead of only Bill Ward and the disqualified Marty Robbins.
The race that’s the subject of this article was Wales’ return to Talladega that summer, where he again drove Roberts’ #63 Dodge. This time, Wales started 45th of 50 drivers, again beating Roberts, who this time around started last. At the end of the first lap, as Buddy Baker battled Bobby Allison for the lead, three drivers lost their engines: 24th-place starter Neil Castles (LINK) in his #06 1972 Plymouth, Roy Mayne in his #65 1972 Chevrolet, and Wales. Wales was ranked last of the three. Ahead of them in 47th was Michigan owner-driver Bill Shirey, running his final season in his #74 1970 Plymouth, and a 31-year-old Dave Marcis in his #2 1972 Dodge. The entire Bottom Five was filled in the first nine laps.
The race was won by James Hylton, the second and final of his long career. Car #48 wouldn’t win another Cup Series race until Jimmie Johnson’s first checkered flag at Fontana three decades later.
Wales never made another Cup Series start, though he would continue to run in NASCAR Late Model Sportsman and ARCA Racing Series competition for the next five years. His best recorded finish in professional stock car racing came in his last run at the Permatex 300 on February 19, 1977, when he rallied from 21st on the grid to finish 10th, besting among future XFINITY Series stars Jack Ingram, L.D. Ottinger, and Morgan Shepherd, as well as fellow “Alabama Gang” legend Red Farmer.
During this time, Wales returned home to work at a U.S. Steel plant, but remained active in other forms of racing. By 1986, he’d transitioned into racing hydroplanes, taking the state championship that year. The next season, he drove in the All Pro Modified ranks, winning seven of nine races and setting four track records, including a lap at Birmingham of 20.92 seconds. “That's when I quit for good,” said Wales, “while I had a chance to do it while I was on top.”
In 2007, Wales was inducted into the Alabama Auto Racing Pioneers Hall of Fame, where he then served as president in 2011. He’s also been active sharing his story online, where a collection of rare photos from his career can be found here as well as video on YouTube of him racing a yellow car #33 at Birmingham. He can be found on Facebook at this page.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #63 in a Cup Series race since September 7, 1962, when Glenn Killian’s 1961 Mercury broke the driveshaft after 3 laps of the Buddy Shuman 250 at Hickory. It remains the only last-place run for the number at Talladega.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
50) #63-Robert Wales / 1 lap / engine
49) #65-Roy Mayne / 1 lap / engine
48) #06-Neil Castles / 1 lap / engine
47) #74-Bill Shirey / 5 laps / ignition
46) #2-Dave Marcis / 9 laps / engine
*Demmons, Doug. “Robert ‘Paddlefoot’ Wales and Bill Hamner inducted into Alabama Auto Racing Pioneers Hall of Fame,” AL.com, December 16, 2007.
*Robert “Paddlefoot” Wales Collection on Fotki
*RacersReunion.com: May 7, 1972: Pearson Begins His Talladega Triad (by user @tmc-chase)