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Retro Racing: Lone stars visit Texas track in 1971

April 08, 2011, Mark Aumann,

For all the hand-wringing over full fields, more cars finish on the lead lap now than actually started some NASCAR Cup races. Consider the 1971 Space City 300 at Houston's Meyer Speedway, when an announced crowd of 9,000 watched 14 cars take the green flag.

Located in southwest Houston, Meyer Speedway was a paved but bumpy half-mile oval with corners banked at just seven degrees. Houston was a hotbed of racing in the '50s and '60s, with drivers like H.B. Bailey, A.J. Foyt and Billy Wade leading the way.

Bailey was one of the first drivers from Houston to make his mark at NASCAR's highest level. After gaining local prominence at Playland Park Speedway, Bailey made his Cup debut in Atlanta in 1962. He raced a limited schedule for the next 30 years, and his best season came in 1965, when he scored three top-10 finishes.

Foyt won four Indianapolis 500s and reached superstar status in open-wheel cars. Wade went from Meyer Speedway to the 1963 NASCAR rookie of the year award. The following season, Wade won four consecutive races and finished fourth in the standings, but was killed during tire testing at Daytona in early 1965.

The track hosted several USAC sprint car races, including one in 1959 when Foyt edged Parnelli Jones for the victory. But NASCAR hadn't visited until the local promoter enticed Bill France to bring his traveling circus to town for a 300-lap event in the summer of 1971.

There were a number of factors for the low car count. The race was run on a Wednesday evening, only four days after the Cup race at Riverside. And the winner's purse was a little over $2,000. With that in mind, many of the full-time teams that made the cross-country trip either headed directly back to North Carolina or didn't have a short-track car in tow.

Two of the exceptions were Bobby Allison and Richard Petty, and not surprisingly those two sat on the front row, with Allison turning a lap of 78.226 mph to win the pole. Allison was the hottest driver on the circuit, having won four consecutive races in his No. 12 Dodge. But it was Petty who jumped out to the early lead.

He and Allison swapped the lead over the first 40 laps before Petty's No. 43 Plymouth slowed with an electrical problem. The team finally narrowed the problem to the distributor, and after making repairs, returned to the race with Petty several laps down.

By that point, Allison had lapped the entire field, and only relinquished the lead to James Hylton during a mid-race pit stop. He led the last 143 laps and eventually beat Hylton by more than two laps in a race that featured no caution flags. Houston native Walter Ballard, who went on to win rookie of the year honors that season, finished third, eight laps behind.

The race featured three other Meyer Speedway regulars. While Fred Hill and Pete Arnold made what would be their only Cup starts, Ronnie Chumley -- who finished 12th -- had previous Cup experience, having run in a pair of Daytona 500s.

It was Bailey who hired Chumley to drive one of his Pontiacs at Daytona in 1964. Chumley finished 13th in the qualifying race, which placed him 27th on the grid for the 500-miler. However, he was sidelined with a blown engine just 21 laps into the race. Chumley returned to the Daytona 500 two years later as Bailey's teammate, but both cars suffered engine issues before the race was 10 laps old.

Chumley returned to Houston, and in addition to the 1971 race at Meyer Speedway, made two starts at Texas World Speedway in College Station, finishing 27th in 1971 and 25th in 1972. He eventually started a wrecker service in Magnolia, and recently handed the business down to his sons.

Chumley's crew chief was Jimmy Starr, whose son David hopes to make his Cup debut at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend.

Other drivers with Meyer Speedway and NASCAR connections include Tony Bettenhausen Jr., who ran a full Cup season in 1974 before turning his attention to Indy cars, and Jerry Schild, who made five Cup starts in 1974, including finishing eighth at Darlington.