The number 42 Dodge Charger was running well. Although it had qualified in 9th position with a top speed of only 177 miles per hour, during the race it was clocked as high as 188 miles per hour and its driver, an amateur racer who made his living singing cowboy ballads at the Grand Ole Opry, was really mixing it up with the professional drivers. The Winston 500 was a big deal and, as one of the premier NASCAR races, there as a lot at stake. Talladega was one of those legendary places that captured the imagination and the attention of every race fan in the nation was focused on the event. For older, more experienced drivers a good performance meant job security while for the new guys, like Darrell Waltrip who was making his first ever Sprint Cup start in the race, a good performance could mark a man out from his peers and maybe garner the attention of one of the big teams. Given the expense, the effort, and the experience that it took to even field a car in the race, how was it that a country and western singer in a car paid for mostly out of his own pocket could be running so well? The answer is simple, he was cheating.
I can’t imagine my childhood without the deep soulful voice of Marty Robbins coming out of the single speaker on my oldest sister’s record player. The voice demanded attention, but it was the words that captured my imagination as they spoke of gunfighters and Texas Rangers, of long forgotten adventures on the vast plains of the American southwest and of a time when men carried big irons on their hips, drank red eye whisky and fought jealously over the affection of dark-eyed women in small town cantinas. Every song, it seemed, painted a picture of a vanished life where men were men and, because of the personal way his songs spoke to me, I imagined Robbins among them, a giant of a man from another era.
The reality of Robbins’ life was somewhat different than what I imagined as a child. Born in 1925 in a suburb of Phoenix Arizona well after the wild west had been tamed, he was not the tall, blond-haired blue-eyed giant of my fantasy. He was instead only a modest 5’4” tall with a slight build and a dark complexion. Like so many of the greatest generation he emerged from hardship. His father was a drinker and as a boy he frequently sought to escape reality through the films of the singing cowboys that were so popular in the 1930s and in the wild west stories of his maternal grandfather.
At 17, Robbins left home and joined the Navy and served as coxswain on an LCT in the South Pacific during the second world war. To pass the time he learned to play the guitar and upon his discharge in 1947 began to perform professionally at local venues in Phoenix. Eventually, after a stint as the host of his own radio show, Robbins attracted the attention of Columbia records and began a career as a recording artist that would eventually see him emerge as a true giant of country and western music and a regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry.
Robbins loved racing. He was the driver of the 60th Indianapolis 500 Buick Century pace car in 1976 and competed in 36 NASCAR races over the course of almost two decades, garnering six top-ten finishes during his fairly limited racing career. He was partial to Chrysler products and owned several Dodge Chargers in the 60s and early 70s and by 1978 was racing a Dodge Magnum. His last race was in a Junior Johnson prepared Buick Regal which he drove in the Atlanta Journal 500 in November of 1982, just one month before he died from a massive heart attack. In 1983, NASCAR honored Robbins by naming the annual race at Nashville the Marty Robbins 420.
Robbins’ performance at Talladega that May day in 1972 was amazing. Turning laps more than 15mph faster than which he had qualified with, he was on a tear. It seemed he could run anywhere he wanted during the race, often jockeying with race leaders and climbing as high as fourth place before eventually losing steam and dropping back in the pack where he finished in 18th place. Despite finishing back in the pack, his performance was so good, that NASCAR determined that he warranted the “Rookie of the Race” award. Robbins, however, knew he could not accept the award.
Like the men he sang about Marty Robbins was an honest man and he knew what had to be done. After the race he drove straight to the impound area and told race officials to check his car. Sure enough, he was running a modified carburetor and Robbins’ finish in the race was voided. He was moved to the back of the pack, receiving just $745 for a 50th place finish and a fine of $250 for his antics. Later, Robbins told people, “I just wanted to see what it was like to run up front for once.”
Robbins continued racing right up to the time he died and although he only competed occasionally he was well thought of by the men he competed with. In 1974 he purposely drove into a wall at 160mph, suffering a broken tailbone, broken ribs, 37 stitches to the face and two black eyes, rather than T-bone Richard Childress whose car had been left sideways across the track after an accident. It takes a lot of guts to do something like that, but that’s the kind of guy Marty Robbins was.
Today, the most compelling story in NASCAR racing is which racer is dating Danica Patrick. The cars are all the same and drivers seem to be raised from childhood with the goal of becoming professional race drivers. They are thrown into karting as children and then move up through the ranks until they finally hit center stage on the big oval. The racing is dominated by just a few teams, each of which field multiple cars and drivers often work together in order to ensure that the team as a whole dominates. The days when drivers were men hewn out of live oak and thrust behind the wheel by their own fierce desire to win at all costs seem to be gone. It’s too bad Robbins is gone as well. I’m sure the songs about those great, bygone glory days, when men were men and they slugged it out on the track with honor, guile and a surprising amount of good humor would be magnificent. Best of all, his place among the legendary heroes doesn’t need to be imaginary, it is something he earned.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.