Thursday, October 26, 2017

9/28/69: As with much of his career, Richard Brickhouse’s Martinsville last-place finish tied to his Talladega upset

PHOTO: Pal Parker
On September 28, 1969, Richard Brickhouse picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Grand National Series career in the Old Dominion 500 at the Martinsville Speedway when his unsponsored #14 1969 Dodge was eliminated in a crash after 2 of 500 laps.

The finish, which came in Brickhouse’s 27th series start, was his first since July 21, 1968, when his #03 1967 Plymouth lost an engine after five laps of the Volunteer 500 at Bristol.

Born in Rocky Point, North Carolina, Brickhouse grew up on his family’s soybean farm. His father cut timber for the Casey Lumber Company while his mother was a schoolteacher at Rocky Point Elementary. After high school, Brickhouse joined the Army Reserves, then returned to farming. He would later operate a dirt track on the property, having caught the racing bug after watching a race at Legion Stadium.

Brickhouse started racing in the early 1960s, working on his own car between features at Carolina Beach and Leland. He caught the eye of Dub Clewis, a local Chrysler dealer, and together they bought a 1967 Plymouth from Richard Petty to enter the June 16, 1968 race at Rockingham. The crew painted the car red, changed the number to #03, and brought it to the track for the Carolina 500. There, Brickhouse turned in one of the strongest debuts in Cup history, pulling off a 4th-place finish behind Donnie Allison, Bobby Allison, and James Hylton.

With $2,650 in prize money from Rockingham, Brickhouse and Clewis ran another six races that year. The aforementioned last-place finish at Bristol was but a footnote to an 11th-place run in his first Southern 500, then a 9th in his return to Rockingham. Driver and team returned for a bigger part of the schedule in 1969, including their first Daytona 500. Again, the 28-year-old driver impressed, racing his way in with a 10th-place finish in his qualifier, then running 12th in the 500.

As spring turned to summer, car #03 sped to an 8th-place finish at Atlanta, then finished inside the Top 10 in three of four races in July, including his first Top 5 with a 5th at the 0.625-mile Thompson Speedway on July 10. But, following a 20th-place showing at the Beltsville (Maryland) Speedway on July 15, Clewis’ team ran just three more races. By then, Brickhouse caught the attention of Bill Ellis.

Ellis, from North Wilkesboro, got Brickhouse involved with Chrysler’s “factory team,” and prepared a brand-new winged 1969 Plymouth for him to drive at Michigan. In that weekend’s Yankee 600, Brickhouse charged from 14th to the lead on Lap 37, battling with David Pearson and Cale Yarborough before he finished 7th. He returned to Darlington in September and finished 10th, his sixth top-ten finish in only eighteen races run that year.

All of this led to the moment for which Brickhouse is most popularly known – the controversial first race run at the Talladega Superspeedway. Brickhouse was one of the eighteen drivers in the Professional Driver’s Association (PDA) who were boycotting the race. Brickhouse may have had more reason than most not to race – he had worked helped Firestone test their tires, and the manufacturer had now withdrawn from the event over tire concerns. However, with his career on the rise near the season’s end, Brickhouse was conflicted. “I was a newcomer, coming up through the ranks,” he said. “France said there was going to be a race and Chrysler [through Ronney Householder] said their car was going to be in it. . .I felt like if I was going to drive a factory car the next year, I’d better do what they wanted me to do.”

That opportunity was the fleet Ray Nichels-prepared #99 Dodge, another Chrysler “factory team.” Since 1957, Nichels had built his program into one of the strongest on the circuit, having scored seven wins with the likes of future owner-driver Cotton Owens, 1970 champion Bobby Isaac, Indy 500 legend A.J. Foyt, Daytona winner Sam McQuagg, and Paul Goldsmith. Goldsmith, whose many accomplishments included the final victory on the Daytona Beach Road Course in 1958, had driven the Nichels #99 to much success in 1969, finishing a season-best 3rd three times in the Daytona 500, Atlanta 500, and Rebel 400. With Goldsmith joining the boycott, ultimately ending his NASCAR career, the opportunity was too good to pass up. Brickhouse left the PDA, crossed the picket line, and raced Goldsmith’s car to victory.

It’s here where our story really begins. The Martinsville race that is the subject of this article marked Brickhouse’s first Cup start since his Talladega triumph. With Nichels’ team focusing on superspeedway racing, Brickhouse was back with Bill Ellis, and put the #14 Dodge 9th on the grid for the 40-car race.

The event also featured a 50-lap qualifying race run the day before the main event, which was won by Dick Brooks. Missing the cut were Danny Turner, who finished last in the qualifier with a busted spring on his #80, and three other drivers who finished in the bottom four positions: Wayne Gillette, Turner’s teammate, who wrecked his #09 central Chevrolet 1969 Chevy, modified legend Ray Hendrick, who lost the engine on his #02 1967 Chevrolet, and Paul Dean Holt, who dropped a transmission on his #16 1968 Mercury. Ken Meisenhelder is also shown to have DNQ’d, although his #04 didn’t start the qualifier. J.D. McDuffie had failed to qualify his own #70, but then stood in for Frank Warren in Dr. Don Tarr’s #0 1967 Chevrolet, which came home 5th in the 50-lapper.

Starting last in the 40-car main event was rookie Johnny Halford, who was making just his second Cup start. The previous Thursday, Halford finished 17th in his debut on the Columbia dirt track. On this day in Martinsville, Halford would improve on that with a 14th-place finish, 51 laps behind race winner David Pearson. One of the first cars he passed was a wrecked Richard Brickhouse.

According to photographer Pal Parker, an unnamed driver from the PDA told him that if he wanted to get a good picture for the papers, to stand in the inside of Turn 2. Just two laps into the race, Brickhouse’s #14 was spun off the corner, where he slid into Bobby Isaac’s #71 Dodge. The picture used in this article, shown in Dave Despain’s 2009 documentary on the subject, was taken from one of Parker’s shots. Though the car does not appear heavily damaged, Brickhouse’s #14 was listed out due to a crash.

Finishing 39th was Ed Negre, whose drive for G.C. Spencer in the #8 1967 Plymouth ended with a drop in oil pressure. Owner-driver Roy Tyner, competing in his next-to-last season on the tour, dropped out next in the only Pontiac in the field. G.C. Spencer didn’t run much further than Negre, and crashed in a chain-reaction following Richard Petty’s spin on the backstretch. Rounding out the Bottom Five was J.D. McDuffie, who drew a caution of his own when Tarr’s engine let go on the 1967 Chevrolet.

After Martinsville, Brickhouse finished 7th his next time out at Ellis’ home track in North Wilkesboro, then made another one-off start with Ray Nichels at Texas World Speedway, where engine woes left him 33rd. Unfortunately, this would be the last time Brickhouse drove for a “factory team.” Chrysler pulled their support. Firestone never returned to re-hire Brickhouse for tire testing, replaced by the present-day Goodyear. And even after a 6th-place finish in the 1970 Daytona 500, the partnership with Bill Ellis ended with the checkered flag. Brickhouse would make just six more Cup starts over the next twelve years, never finishing better than 21st in his last start on October 31, 1982. Curiously, that race came at Rockingham, where his NASCAR career began fourteen years earlier.

Today, Brickhouse still lives on his family’s North Carolina farm, where he briefly operated a dirt track until 1985. While his career was curtailed by controversy and bad luck, he has never lost his passion for racing. In 1995, after finishing 3rd in a NASCAR Legends Race at Charlotte, trailing Ramo Stott and Lennie Pond, the 55-year-old Brickhouse finished 18th in an ARCA race at Atlanta. Just as he had decades earlier, his first start in the series came driving car #03.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for car #14 since March 5, 1967, when Jim Paschal’s 1965 Friedkin Enterprises Plymouth had wiring issues after 41 laps of the Fireball 300 at the Asheville-Weaverville Speedway. To date, Paschal’s last-place finish remains one of only two in Cup history where “wiring” was the listed reason out. The other occurred September 13, 1981, when Mike Alexander’s #37 Rogers Auto Leasing Buick fell out on the first lap of the Wrangler Sanfor-Set 400 at Richmond.
*This remains the only last-place finish for car #14 in a Cup Series race at Martinsville. Clint Bowyer will run the number this Sunday.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #14-Richard Brickhouse / 2 laps / crash
39) #8-Ed Negre / 4 laps / oil pressure
38) #9-Roy Tyner / 11 laps / engine
37) #49-G.C. Spencer / 16 laps / crash
36) #0-J.D. McDuffie / 25 laps / engine

SOURCES
*Cantwell, Si. “Brickhouse knows NASAR history; he was part of it,” Star News, September 20, 2008.
*“Dave Despain On Assignment: Talladega,” Speed Channel, 2009.
*Freedman, Lew. Encyclopedia of Stock Car Racing, ABL-CLIO, March 14, 2013.
*Garner, Joe. Speed, Guts, and Glory: 100 Unforgettable Moments in NASCAR history, Grand Central Publishing, December 14, 2008.
*Racing-reference.info
*“Who is Richard Brickhouse?” NASCAR Race Mom, October 13, 2017.

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