By on September 11, 2013

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.

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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.

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60 Comments on “Big Iron: How Marty Robbins Became A NASCAR Legend...”


  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    That was a fantastic story. Well done!

  • avatar

    Pretty sure when Robbins was racing, “Sprint” was only something you did when you wanted to run short distance quickly. It was still Grand National, or a little later the Winston Cup.

    • 0 avatar

      Also, I’m pretty sure they didn’t run restrictor plates at Talladaga until the late ’80′s.

      • 0 avatar

        Most of this comes from Wikpdedia and other sites devoted to Marty Robbins and his racing career. I won’t pretend to be any kind of devotee to NASCAR racing so everything was taken from the research I did while preparing the story. It was also pretty consistent across all the various sources I used so I am confident that what I have presented is as correct as I can get it.

        I stumbled across the story when I found a you tube video of him talking about the incident while I was looking for songs to play for my kids after bath time. I thought it would be fun.

      • 0 avatar

        Looking at it, however, I think I’ll change the phrase to make it a little more ambiguous. Going back to the sources I see what happened explained a couple of different ways – as a carb modification or something. I’ll make it ring more true.

        Thanks for the input.

        • 0 avatar

          Thomas – I’m sorry if I was a bit too harsh, my apologies. It’s a great article, I just wanted to give some feedback to make it even better. I’m an old school NASCAR Nerd, and a pedantic one at that, so again my apologies. Please keep up the good work!

          • 0 avatar

            Thanks Dubyah – I appreciate the feedback. I tend to continue editing things after they get posted (for good reason) so going back to clarify something isn’t too much trouble, honestly.

            The more I thought about what you wrote the more it made sense so I went back and checked again. The information was muddled with some sources talking about a bigger carb, an altered carb or restrictor plates. Like you, I didn’t think they ran them back in the day but what do I know?

            Thanks for taking the time to step up and correct me when I am wrong. I don’t feel you were being harsh at all, I appreciate the effort and the fact your intention was to help.

        • 0 avatar
          69firebird

          He should’ve teamed up with Smokey Yunick,and utilized the ball-bearing,weight-saver frame.

        • 0 avatar
          69firebird

          He should’ve teamed up with Smokey Yunick,and utilized the magical ball-bearing dropping weight-saver frame.

      • 0 avatar
        jrhmobile

        Actually, NASCAR started running restrictor plates in 1971, when they were throttling back the 426 Hemis, 427 Chevys and 429 Fords to run with smaller-displacement engines.

  • avatar
    racerxlilbro

    It’s “Karting,” with a “K.”

    Nice story, though.

  • avatar
    philipbarrett

    Unfortunately I missed the golden days of NASCAR but I think that some of that tin-top daredevil spirit is still alive down-under with the V8 Supercars. As to the modern itineration; even to this die-hard racing fan, it holds no interest whatsoever.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    My favorites are still “El Paso” and “Devil Woman”.

    My father would sometimes walk around the house singing “A White Sport Coat” especially when having to don a suit or prom putting me in a tuxedo.

    “Twentieth Century Drifter” is the song he sung about racing.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Cheating for fun in a big race and then immediately admitting it – pretty cool.

    Thanks for another nice story.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Indeed, or the bit about purposefully driving into the wall, how many times do you see and hear “better him than me” in everyday life.

      • 0 avatar

        The story on that is here: http://www.savingcountrymusic.com/marty-robbins-saves-life-of-nascars-richard-childress

        It’s a worthy read, I think.

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        In fairness, many of us would do the same thing, for example, if you were trying to avoid hitting a child. You’d turn the wheel away no matter what obstacle was there. I suspect Mr. Robbins had the same type of reaction, and the wall just happened to be in the way. Not to take anything from him, though.

  • avatar
    rnc

    God I loved the old days of actual stock cars where the ability to build an engine and being able to keep a car from going airborn*, meant more than the current must look good in a poster, midget wearing the equiv. of a super-undies suit, WWE that nascar has become, haven’t watched in years.

    Think Elliot going 200mph in a thunderbird where you could see the wheels coming off the track here and there…thus begat restrictor plates.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Great story. “I just wanted to see what it was like to run up front for once.” Indeed. During my extremely undistinguished mountain bike racing career, I once found myself leading the pack for a few miles, and it was quite a rush. I don’t fault Marty a bit, but I’m glad he fessed up.

    • 0 avatar
      philipbarrett

      In my similar road bike career I did the same…until I rolled a sew up going into a corner. Pride and a fall taken literally complete with tire marks on my cheek.

  • avatar
    GoFaster58

    I saw Marty race at Texas World Speedway and lead the race until he had mechanical trouble. Years later at one of his concerts I got him to autograph one of the pictures I took of him from this race.

    • 0 avatar
      lmike51b

      I was there for one of his TWS races and remember thinking about this C & W guy racing. Strange but cool. Petty won the one I saw. Totally agree with the boring state NASCAR is now, haven’t watched a race in years.

  • avatar
    Windy

    A nice presentation of the story and kudos to your commitment to making alterations to any errors in the facts as they are made known to you.

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    Great story as usual, at that time in my life I didnt follow nascar, but did read about the races in HOT ROD mag. I have no memory of Marty as a driver but I loved his songs. Smokey Yunick always took advantage of what the rule books didnt say. Yup, that was racing, today not good.

  • avatar
    seabrjim

    Awesome paragraph on Danica and the plastic Hollywood spectacle it has become. It is nothing more than an ego filled reality show that I have not watched since 1995 or so. And to think when Dale was asked what he did for a living, he replied “I’m a welder”. These self centered kids in their computer designed and controlled cars could never run against David Pearson, Buddy Baker etc. They were men. Especially in a 1960′s technology era car with half the traction and a hairy unpolished motor.

  • avatar
    juicy sushi

    I find following modern drivers on twitter let’s you get a much better glimpse of their personalities than the modern media/TV/PR environment would let you see. A lot of them are actually quite “normal,” especially the IndyCar guys who, given the contemporary state of the sport, are not nearly as high-paid as they used to be. Mark Webber has a pretty wry sense of humour that comes through clearly, and Jenson Button seems like a nice guy, but also the total personification of a jet-set lifestyle (not that there’s anything wrong with that if you can).

    In terms of NASCAR, the road races every year are great, most of the rest are not particularly interesting, but most series aren’t as fun right now. Perhaps I’m just getting older, perhaps the economy has really had an effect, and perhaps the sport is losing its soul…

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    Thanks for sharing the racing side of his life. I didn’t realize he was doing the roundy-round thing too.

    During those years he was still on the road–I went with my cousin to see him in a juke joint down in Pearsall, Texas about November-December of that year. He was awesome…

    First time I ever saw a dude take his best girl to a dance in a Peterbilt.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Marty Robbins was a great singer and really had a good octave range. My older brother would play his records and I later collected his music. I loved songs like El Paso, White Sport Coat, and others. He is a country music legend as was Jim Reeves–both greatly missed talents.

  • avatar
    canddmeyer

    Great story, and a perfect summation of the current lot in NAPCAR.

  • avatar
    JaySeis

    Bump.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Sonofagun ~ .

    I never thought I’d see you alls admitting you’re Country fans ! .

    Me too =8-) .

    Marty was great although my taste leans towards pre war & Country Swing .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Scribe39

    Really, Thomas, a good story. I have it somewhere on a DVD I burned from a VHS tape I had previously recorded from TV. It was a tribute soon after his death, and he, Darryl Waltrip and (I believe) Bobby Unser shared the story. I think Unser had something to do with the modification.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Great job Thomas. Don’t stop writing when you ship out.

  • avatar

    I am a western Canadian who grew up a long way from the southern roots of stock car racing. That said,I have been a fan of Marty Robbins as a singer and NASCAR as a sport since the early 60s. The fact that Marty was a Mopar guy and raced under the same car label as my personal hero King Richard Petty just made me admire Robbins even more over the ensuing years.

    • 0 avatar
      Cubista

      King Richard the Hemi-Hearted was my favorite, too…because he was my dad’s favorite. Petty was a Mopar guy, so my dad was a Mopar guy, and thus I too became a Mopar guy. Pop had a Petty-Blue Belvedere that he drove back in the day. After that was done, he followed Petty to the Dodge Charger. From the Charger he had his first brush with a midlife crisis and found himself choosing between a C3 Corvette and a Jensen Healey with a Lotus engine.

      He chose…poorly.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    “Drivers made from steel in cars made of wood.” – Kimi Raikkonen

  • avatar

    I hate writing for the same website as you. Loved this bit. I was a big NASCAR fan when they were good humoured men.

    I remember watching the 93 Talladega race with Neil Bonnett going airborne, taking out some fence and the race being stopped.

    He went to the annoucers booth to call the rest of the race and mentioned he had been tapped. He dismmised it along the lines of “he didn’t mean to do it, I slowed and he had no where to go.” He also mentioned the worst part of the crash was when you stop hearing the tires make noise, becuase you know you are airbonre and the first thing you do is worry about the fans.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who feels a sense of competition with the other writers. I’ve spent the last week asking myself why I never thought to write Peter Egan…

      The truth I, even though I keep an ear out for stories like this one, I never know what I’m going to write until it spills out. The research is he biggest hassle, I know I make more sloppy mistakes than I like when I write, but getting the facts wrong is just unacceptable. The best and brightest know their stuff and they don’t tolerate anything being wrong. The good news is, once I meets their standards I can still claim to have created it.

      Thanks for the complement.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Nate–If you like pre war Western Swing then you should be familar with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Asleep At the Wheel is a later group from the 70′s and on that played Western Swing. Hank Thompson was a post WW II C & W performer whose style was Western Swing. Thompson’s songs include Six Pack To Go, Wake Up Irene, Squaws Along The Yukon, Oklahoma Hills (an old Woody Guthrie song), Green Light, Humpty Dumpty Heart, and a list of others. I saw Hank Thompson perform at Gilley’s in 1985, he was very personable and put on a great performance.

    • 0 avatar
      Cubista

      LOVE Asleep at teh Wheel…good call.

    • 0 avatar
      wstarvingteacher

      I am just assuming it wasn’t a sham but I used to see an old bus with Bob Wills Jr. and the Texas Playboys sign. It was parked on Highway 75 going north out of Conroe Texas. I know a lot more about Marty Robbins than I do Bob Wills but that was an abandoned bar that’s torn down now. I hate urban renewal.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    ” Lone Star Beer & Bob Wills Music…..” =8-) .

    But of _course_ I love him too ! .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Cubista

    This is probably the best thing you’ve ever written. I was at the last race Marty Robbins ran in Atlanta (he still had the same purple and yellow livery with the words “Music City Special” written on the quarter panels where the sponsor name should be), and I remember asking my dad what the hell that country singer was doing out there.

    NASCAR gets a lot of stick from the “Top Gear” crowd and the F1 purists, but for a number of years it really was the most entertaining form of competitive racing on this continent.

    And forgive me for sounding provincial, but the WORST thing to happen to the sport was the corporatization and sanitation that started in the ’90′s (about the time Jeff Gordon -who I generally like- started winning races). Look at the starting field of an older race (which, as indicated in the article, could have been as much as 50 cars or more) and 90-95% of the drivers were from the South. Fred Lorenzen in the ’60′s and Pete Hamilton for a brief period in the early ’70′s are the only drivers who made any kind of a mark in the sport who weren’t from the region at that time.

    These days everyone in the field (except Dale Jr.) is from California or Wisconsin or Michigan or Indiana. They all go to the same finishing school and they all have all replaced the old Deep South driver’s lack of refinement with a corporate NASCAR driver’s lack of personality and I’m sorry, but it does make a difference. The NASCAR that “Talladega Nights” did such a good job of sending up hasn’t existed for some 20 years.

    Very good article. Says a lot about a sport that has lost its way.

    • 0 avatar

      Best thing I’ve ever written? I don’t know whether that’s high praise or an insult. :)

      Thanks for the kind words though. Sometimes it feels like those are in mighty short supply.

      • 0 avatar
        Cubista

        Seriously, you knocked it out of the park. I know you probably don’t want to be pigeonholed as “the NASCAR guy”, but I’ll bet you could do a fantastic piece on Buddy Arrington. He was another character driver back in the day when the circuit was loaded with them. The last Chrysler driver, and if memory serves, the last NASCAR driver ever busted for running ‘shine. And he wasn’t some ’50′s relic, he was driving at the same time as Robbins.

  • avatar
    motormouth

    I got into watching NASCAR when I lived in the US in the 80s and 90s and I still watch it now, although in the UK we only get Saturday’s Sprint Cup races on TV. In many ways NASCAR, especially on the oval tracks, is a better spectacle than F1 or Indy racing and I don’t really get comments saying that it’s not interesting anymore – the balance of high speed and keeping control without smacking the wall is still highly impressive.

    Nice article, too, thought it was a good read, particularly that he turned himself in after the ‘cheating’ race.

    • 0 avatar

      The interview I saw about the event was very light hearted. I sensed a great deal of respect between Robbins and the other drivers. He knew they depended upon winning to make their living but he just loved the sport so much he had to be a part of it. One article I read about the 72 Talladega race said that he actually had enough extra power that he could have led the race, but felt that he really didn’t have the talent to be out front. You have to admire that.

      Cheating is a strong word for what I think he thought of as being basically a prank. NASCAR at the time had a great tolerance for guys who found a way around the rules and he probably could have gotten away with it, but as far as he was concerned it was done in fun. Given the fact that he knew other men needed the money more than he did, I can’t imagine him doing anything else.

      The resepct the other drivers afforded him is pretty obvious in the interviews I’ve seen. He was well liked as a person and a racer. It was a pleasure to write about him.

      • 0 avatar
        motormouth

        Thanks for the reply, Thomas. I was thinking that with his evident speed he would have been a good wingman for a number-one driver, if they even ran two-car teams back then.

        Agreed, definitely more of a prank than cheating.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    My lawn mower repairman meet Marty Robins at a club in the mid-50′s. At that time Marty Robbins had a Studebaker Hawk and was showing it to my repairman and my repairman had a Hawk as well. My repairman has always been a Marty Robbins fan, he said he was one of the nicest people he ever meet and bought a round of beers for everyone.

  • avatar
    korvetkeith

    Part of me knows that cheating is wrong. Another part of me would derive great pleasure from watching all of those insufferable nerds, that I for short time did formula SAE with, get their panties in a huge bunch whining about cheating when you whipped them.

  • avatar
    brid1970

    Thanks Thomas for bringing us back to the days of spontaneity on the track,and among the drivers. Everything today seems so scripted….
    And then you have those prima donnas, regularly riding their comfort zone, in the back of the pack, for what?
    When will seat of the pants racing, for regular Joes, ever come back? As for Marty, there were no airs about him. He was real.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    Thanks for this, what a great read!


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