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Retro Racing: DePaolo's all-star team was Fantastic Five

April 22, 2011, Mark Aumann,

DePaolo's all-star Ford team swept top five starting spots at Concord in 1956

With Hendrick Motorsports sweeping the first four spots in Cup Series qualifying at Talladega Speedway last weekend, it brought to mind the day Pete DePaolo's all-star Ford team put five cars in the first five starting positions at Concord Speedway in December of 1956.

DePaolo was a great driver in his own right, having won the 1925 Indianapolis 500. After recovering from a 1934 crash in Spain that left him in a week-long coma, DePaolo began managing race teams. And in 1955, Ford Motor Company hired DePaolo to put together a factory effort.

"It was just like any other good clay dirt track. You back [the engine down] in the corners and drive down the straightaways."


With Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson scoring wins late that season, DePaolo ramped up efforts in 1956. He hired Bill Amick, Ralph Moody and Fireball Roberts full time, and Moody and Roberts combined for nine victories in DePaolo's purple and white Fords. By the end of the year, when the circuit stopped at the half-mile Concord Speedway dirt track outside of Charlotte, there were six DePaolo entries: one each for Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Marvin Panch, Moody, Amick and a young local driver named Ralph Earnhardt.

Panch, winner of the 1961 Daytona 500, remembered how he originally got the job.

"I was driving for a man up in Pennsylvania by the name of Tom Harbison," Panch said during a phone conversation this week. "We had a Ford race car and we were running against the factory Fords, the Pete DePaolo cars. So Pete called me and wanted me to come to Charlotte and talk with him, so I came to Charlotte and he hired me."

Panch said DePaolo was easy to work for.

"Pete was a great guy, he really was," Panch said. "I liked him very much. He used to call me Mar-veen. When they had a road course to go to, he'd always have me drive for him. I had quite a few wins with him."

Turner took the pole that day in his Purple Hog with a lap of 62.586 mph. He was closely followed by Weatherly, Panch, Moody and Amick as Fords took seven of the top eight starting spots. When the race started, Panch charged into the lead by Lap 3 and was never challenged the rest of the 200 laps. He and Paul Goldsmith, driving one of Smokey Yunick's Chevrolets, were the only two cars on the lead lap.

"It was just like any other good clay dirt track," Panch said of Concord. "You back [the engine down] in the corners and drive down the straightaways."

Turner and Weatherly were well-known for their evening antics, but Panch said he was too busy with his family to spend much time with either outside of the track.

"I never ran around much with Curtis," Panch said. "He was good, he was a showman. He liked to throw [the car] sideways at the finish line, stuff like that. He was a hard-charger.

"Joe was a trickster. He tried to pull all sorts of little tricks, but he was great. Obviously at night, I didn't hang around with the group. I went home instead and they had their fun."

The fun didn't last too much longer. In June of 1957, the Automobile Manufacturers Association issued a ban on funding NASCAR teams. DePaolo and Ford immediately dissolved the operation, and Panch wound up with a car, a hauler and a handshake.

"We had trucks that towed the trailers with the cars behind them," Panch said. "And they let us have the trucks with the cars and some parts. And that was it. And down the road we went."

Panch remembered another race around that time -- at a makeshift track at New Smyrna Beach airport -- when Turner was scheduled to be his teammate.

"That's about the time Corvette was selling a bunch of cars to the younger set," Panch said. "So Ford had a pair of '57 Thunderbirds built to counteract that. And they showed up, and Curtis Turner and I were to drive those. One had the big Lincoln engine in it, and that was the one Curtis was to drive. And mine had the 312 engine in it.

"Well, we were out practicing and Curtis bumped one of the Ferraris going in the corner and shoved him off the race track. That didn't set too well and Ford didn't want any bad publicity out of it. So they pulled that entry and left me alone with my Thunderbird. So race morning, they came to me and said, 'You know, you're not here to win the race. All we want you to do is finish ahead of the Corvette.' They had Goldsmith and a bunch of other guys in the Corvettes. So I did that. I ran second to Carroll Shelby in a Ferrari."

After his stint with Ford, DePaolo worked as track director of industrial relations when Michigan International Speedway opened in 1969.

Turner won a total of 17 races and eventually was banned by Bill France for his attempts to form a driver's union. A successful businessman as well as a racer, Turner was instrumental in the construction of Charlotte Motor Speedway. He died piloting his own plane in 1970.

Weatherly, a former motorcycle champion, won the 1962 and 1963 NASCAR titles for Bud Moore. He was killed at Riverside in 1964.

Moody went on to greater acclaim as the driving force behind Holman-Moody, one of the most innovative chassis and design shops in NASCAR history, winning 92 races. He sold his stock in the team in 1971 and opened his own race car shop in Charlotte, and died in 2004 at 86.

Panch retired in 1966 and lives in Daytona Beach. He'll celebrate his 85th birthday -- and the 50th anniversary of his Daytona 500 victory -- driving a No. 20 black and gold Dodge Challenger stock car at Iowa Speedway on May 28.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.