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HOF: Isaac built career worthy of Hall consideration

December 24, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Isaac's education came on track as he built a career worthy of Hall consideration

Nothing is more important than a quality education. But that doesn't necessarily equate to book learning.

For Bobby Isaac, lessons learned behind the wheel more than made up for his decision to quit school by the age of 13. However, Isaac understood that his situation was definitely unique, and probably not the preferred way to success in NASCAR.

A part of history

A 21-person nominating committee made up of representatives of NASCAR, the Hall of Fame and track owners voted to add H. Clay Earles, Bobby Isaac, Cotton Owens, Les Richter and Leonard Wood to the list of candidates. The Class of 2012 -- which will be inducted into the Hall in January -- includes Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Richie Evans, Dale Inman and Glen Wood.

"I've made it," Isaac was quoted in a 1971 magazine article. "But I may have made it faster if I had finished my formal education. I really prefer not to talk about it. I think that if a boy is sincerely interested in auto racing he should finish school, go to college and get an engineering degree."

For his 37 wins, 134 top-five finishes, 49 poles and the 1970 Cup championship, Isaac was one of five persons nominated this year for possible induction into NASCAR's Hall of Fame.

Born in either 1932 or 1934 -- there are conflicting stories -- as the seventh of nine children to a Catawba, N.C., farmer and his wife, Isaac was 6 when his father died. His mother then went to work at a furniture store, leaving Isaac to determine whether or not he felt like going to school. By the end of sixth grade, the answer was plainly no.

"If I didn't want to go to school I didn't have to," Isaac said.

And when his mother died three years later, Isaac was left to fend for himself as a worker in a local sawmill. He eventually moved in with his older sister and caught the racing bug when he attended a race at Hickory Speedway.

Thinking this would be an interesting career, Isaac put rollbars in a 1937 Ford with the intention of racing. But he flipped the car on the second lap of his debut, nearly putting an end to his aspirations.

However, Isaac worked to make ends meet and raced when he could. In 1956, he landed a sportsman division ride with Frank Hefner, making as much as $125 a week. Two years later, Ralph Earnhardt put him in a car -- and Isaac won more than two dozen times and earned him the reputation of being one of the top short-track talents in the state.

He made his NASCAR debut in one of the qualifying races for the 1961 World 600, when Junior Johnson asked him to start and park his Pontiac after two laps to save it for the 600-miler. He wouldn't get a chance to run again for two seasons, when Bondy Long bought a Plymouth from Petty Enterprises with the idea of entering Isaac in the 1963 Daytona 500.

They missed the show -- finishing 22nd in the qualifier -- but Long was more than willing to give Isaac the chance to run more races, particularly after he finished 11th at Spartanburg and followed that up with a sixth at Weaverville. In all, Isaac scored three top-fives and seven top-10s in 27 starts that season -- but a series of disputes with chief mechanic Mack Howard led to Isaac walking away from the ride after Darlington.

Isaac rarely shied away from an argument, or a fight, in his early days. According to a quote in Steve Lehto's biography on Issac, "When Bobby Isaac runs, one of two things is going to happen -- he's either going to win the race or the fight afterward."

He eventually settled his temperament and let his driving do the talking for him. Ray Nichels, on the recommendation of a mechanic who knew Isaac, was swayed enough to give Isaac the opportunity to drive a factory-backed Dodge in 1964.

And Isaac pounced on the chance in a big way. When Richard Petty ran out of gas on the last lap of the Daytona 500 qualifier, it created a three-way photo-finish at the stripe between Petty, Isaac and Jimmy Pardue -- with Isaac finally getting credit for his first Cup win four hours later.

Isaac came close to winning several times, finishing second to Fred Lorenzen at Atlanta and runner-up to A.J. Foyt courtesy of a last-lap pass at Daytona in July.

However, when Dodge's Hemi engine was deemed illegal by Bill France in 1965, the manufacturer pulled out of the sport for the rest of the season, leaving Isaac without a full-time ride. Isaac ran a handful of races in Junior Johnson's Fords in 1966.

Then in early 1967, everything changed when an insurance man named Nord Krauskopf came calling.

Krauskopf, a former roofer and weekend racer, realized the need for quality insurance for race car drivers and tracks in the early '50s, and parlayed that into a thriving insurance business. To get the word out, Krauskopf decided to sponsor a car in NASCAR -- but he needed a driver equal to the equipment he provided.

That happened to be Isaac. Over the next four years, Isaac's No. 71 Dodge was as good as -- or better than -- any team in the sport. He recorded 36 top-10 finishes in 49 starts in 1968, finishing second to David Pearson in the points. The following year, Isaac won 17 races and earned an incredible 19 poles. And in 1970, he won 11 more times on his way to the championship.

He even set a world record for speed on a closed course when he lapped Talladega at 201.104 mph that November. While Chrysler was in the process of pulling the plug on manufacturer support, Krauskopf and Isaac took their Dodge Charger to the Bonneville Salt Flats in September of 1971 and set multiple speed records for stock cars, including 216.946 mph for the flying mile.

Isaac ran much of the 1973 season for Bud Moore, but he pulled into the pits at Talladega and climbed from the car during the race. Legend has it that Isaac heard a voice telling him to get out of the car.

He ran less than 20 races over the following three seasons, with his final Cup start coming in the 1976 World 600. On Aug. 13, 1977, Isaac was driving a late model stock car at Hickory when he pulled his car off the track, this time complaining of chest pains. He died early the next morning of a heart attack at a local hospital.

Second in a weekly series on the most recent nominees to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.