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February 29, 2024

Rockingham reflection, 1976: Looking back at the only Cup Series race run on Leap Day

Richard Petty (right) and Maurice Petty (center) accept an Ingersoll Rand Award at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham.
1975 photo
NASCAR Research & Archives Center

It took two weeks for the smoke to clear from the 1976 Daytona 500’s slam-bang finish before the NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule resumed. By then, the garage was still abuzz over David Pearson’s last-lap tangle and triumph over Richard Petty, but the race that followed – while perhaps not an all-timer – holds its own with a special distinction.

Forty-eight years ago today, the Cup Series held its only event on Leap Day, Feb. 29 – a calendar oddity that occurs once every four years. North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham was the venue for the Carolina 500, a grueling race that was marked by a real-life leap with a shaken Bobby Allison’s wild, tumbling wreck on the backstretch.

On paper, the race went into the books as a Petty rout for the No. 43 Dodge — career victory No. 178 on the royal march toward 200. Behind the stat sheet, there was plenty to unpack from a full weekend at the 1.017-mile oval known as “The Rock.”

RELATED: 1976 Carolina 500 results | Cataloging all of Petty’s 200 wins

Petty and Pearson entered as co-favorites in the pre-race billing. Cale Yarborough, another headliner, was vying for his third consecutive Rockingham victory, but his No. 11 Junior Johnson team was without chief mechanic Herb Nab, sidelined in a Charlotte-area hospital with ulcers. “We’re going to miss Herb,” Yarborough said, “but we hope we can win without him.”

That year, Yarborough eventually won his first of three Cup Series championships, but both Petty and Pearson were top of mind for the last day in February. The two drivers recalled their fateful collision in the “Great American Race” from two weeks earlier, when Pearson prevailed by nursing his battered No. 21 Wood Brothers Mercury to the finish line. Two weeks later and not surprisingly, their accounts of the incident still differed.

“Richard pinched me,” Pearson told the Associated Press in Rockingham. “Maybe he thought I was going to back off. I don’t know. I do know that when he pinched me, he sent me into the wall.”

“Everybody except David and I know what happened,” Petty told the AP, discounting the wind and any bumps in the track as possible factors. “… We were both going for it, but there wasn’t room for both of us. I had about three-quarters of a car length on David as we entered the tri-oval. I was in a better position to win. Why would I pinch him? I know he’s a racer and wouldn’t back off. He knows I wouldn’t either.”

The other post-Daytona buzz stemmed from the irascible A.J. Foyt, still fuming from having his field-fastest qualifying lap for the 500 disallowed after his car was found with a nitrous-oxide bottle on board. Foyt had been fined $1,000 for the infraction, but he refused his Daytona prize money – a sum of $4,600 for 22nd place – until the penalty was rescinded. Super Tex also threatened to boycott the rest of his stock-car schedule, but he made it to Rockingham with his Hoss Ellington-owned team, holding court with the idea that NASCAR needed a commissioner along the lines of Pete Rozelle – the NFL’s top honcho at the time. Naturally, Foyt volunteered himself for the role.

Qualifying at Rockingham went much smoother. Dave Marcis, another Daytona DQ because of a trick radiator flap found in time trials there, redeemed himself at Rockingham in Nord Krauskopf’s No. 71 Dodge with a pole lap at 138.287 mph. That speed was enough to terrify his chief mechanic, NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Harry Hyde, who broke his usual qualifying routine to watch Marcis’ run from a different vantage point, at the entry to Turn 1. “He scared the hell out of me,” Hyde told the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. “I thought the throttle had hung.”

The other footnote to qualifying was a bushy-haired 20-year-old rookie from Georgia named Bill Elliott, who drove a powder-blue No. 9 Ford to the 34th starting spot at Rockingham in his Cup Series debut. “It was totally out of my realm,” Elliott told the Observer’s David Poole in 2000. “I was just trying to get in a race and get some experience and learn the cars. … I don’t know that I had a clue what I was doing.” Elliott completed 32 laps in the race until his engine gave way, and he collected $640 for 33rd place in the first of 828 Cup Series starts that made up his Hall of Fame career.

Petty qualified third, and the No. 43 team’s swagger received another jolt on the eve of the Carolina 500 with a victory in the annual Unocal 76 pit-stop competition. The Petty crew changed right-side tires and fueled the car in 17.689 seconds, and even a two-second penalty for coming up short of the 14 minimum gallons of gas was more than enough to top Lennie Pond’s team.

Crew chief Dale Inman and mechanic Maurice Petty brushed off the suggestion that any extra effort or emphasis went into the pit-stop preliminary. “Oh yeah, we’ve been practicing,” Maurice Petty bristled. “We’ve been practicing for 20 years.”

When race-day Leap Day arrived, Petty quickly established what would be an afternoon of dominance, with a pair of unscheduled pit stops for cut tires the only hiccups. Pearson, believed to be his top challenger, led just nine laps before a faulty oil pump halted his No. 21 Mercury after just 186 of the 492 laps.

Bobby Allison and Roger Penske chat in the Cup Series garage in a mid-1970s photo
NASCAR Research & Archives Center | Getty Images

Instead, another strong contender emerged in Bobby Allison, who was in front for 91 laps in Roger Penske’s No. 2 Merc. Allison’s bid ended dramatically on Lap 373 in what reporters called one of the most chilling crashes in the track’s then-brief 11-year history.

Allison’s car made contact with Yarborough’s No. 11, then impacted the outside retaining wall. The momentum sent the car barrel-rolling along the back straightaway, throwing parts and sheet metal along the way and bouncing atop the Chevrolets of both Richard Childress and Benny Parsons as it tumbled, coming to rest with wheels up and the shell of the roll cage freshly exposed.

“I was on the outside and Bobby was on the inside, and I guess he figured he had gotten far enough past me to move back over,” Yarborough said, recalling their contest through Turn 2. “I don’t know whether he couldn’t see me or what, but I got knocked into the outside wall. When he cut back over, my front end hit his rear end and turned him sideways. That’s when he rammed the wall head-on. When he did that, his front end dug into the wall and he started flipping. He must have flipped from one end of the straightaway to the other. I heard he wasn’t hurt bad and I’m sure glad of that.”

Childress was among the eight drivers involved. “For a minute, it was pure hell on the backstretch,” he said. “Things happened so fast. I really don’t know what happened. Things broke loose so fast. All of a sudden, I saw Bobby Allison’s Mercury flying through the air, coming right at me. I caught the full impact of his car right on the hood of my car. The blow caved the entire front end of my car in. It cracked the windshield and even knocked the top of my car down when he went on over.”

Said Parsons: “It’s hard to explain what it’s like to see a stock car flying through the air.”

MORE: NASCAR Classics: Races at Rockingham

Amazingly, Allison escaped serious injury, with X-rays revealing no broken bones. He was transported to a local hospital with complaints of chest soreness and shock, but doctors reported Allison to be in satisfactory condition that evening.

Allison was bruised but back the next week, winning the pole and placing third at the Richmond, Virginia fairgrounds oval. Credit was given to the safety of the car made by master builder Banjo Matthews, who noted the Mercury’s ability to absorb the impact.

“He was flipping and rolling through the air,” Matthews told The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C. “It’s like a piece of raw hamburger. You throw it into the air and bat it around with the palms of your hands and it doesn’t mess it up that bad. But take it and lay it on a table and smack it with your fist and you splatter it all over the place. In a high-speed crash, as long as there’s no sudden stop and if he keeps rolling, he usually gets out OK. The thing that hurts is the sudden stop.”

Petty was well clear of the bedlam, and his No. 43 Dodge was three laps clear of second-place Darrell Waltrip when the race resumed. As he circled the track during the caution period, Petty watched safety workers attend to Allison, getting a thumbs-up signal from NASCAR officials a few laps later to assure the leader that his rival wasn’t seriously hurt.

“Naturally you are concerned,” Petty said later. “But you feel you’ve still got your job to do. You’ve got to keep trucking along. You are naturally anxious, but you can’t stop. You still have the job to do.”

Petty didn’t stop, save for the occasional blip for tire wear on the gritty banked asphalt. The right blend of horsepower and handling clicked, and he led 362 of the 492 laps – including the final 220.

“It’s just a case of everything working right for us,” Petty said.

Nearly five decades later, the 1976 event still lives in the shadows of the Daytona 500 that preceded it, but it’s remembered as a Leap Day classic on a date that stands on its own.