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Steve Lehto

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Daytona in July: Forty Years Ago

Posted: 07/01/11 05:24 PM ET

Will you be nostalgic for simpler times during this year's "Coke Zero 400" at Daytona? Think back 40 years if you need a fix of the good old NASCAR days, long before they invented Coke Zero. The 1971 Daytona race was the "Medal of Honor Firecracker 400," and NASCAR saluted the medal recipients before the race. What could be more patriotic than that? Reigning NASCAR champ Bobby Isaac went to the race though, as a spectator. His K&K team was protesting the seemingly arbitrary rules regarding restrictor plates. Many observers believed NASCAR was simply handicapping the teams to counter advances they had made in racing technology. You make your car faster; NASCAR makes it slower.

K&K had not even bothered to bring their car to the track. Team owner Nord Krauskopf flew to Daytona and held a press conference outside of the registration office for the race track. Krauskopf explained his gripe about the restrictor plates -- and how the #71 car was not entered in the race before he got there -- but he had since changed his mind. Knowing that fans might be upset by paying to watch a race they had expected to see Isaac in -- and they'd blame him and Isaac, not NASCAR -- Krauskopf relented and told Isaac to race.

Because the decision to race had been made after qualifying took place, Isaac was dispatched to the 21st position in the starting grid. He had never won a race where he started that far back, but in practice he had run laps that would have started him third if he'd qualified on time. Isaac was unfazed by the position. "It doesn't matter where you start at Daytona. The fastest car is going to win if it stays in." Once the race started, it was obvious that Isaac's car was the fastest on the track as he worked his way to the front in the 62nd lap of the 400-mile race. He clung to the lead, even though being pressed hard by Richard Petty. On the 71st lap, disaster struck as Isaac ran out of gas on the track. He coasted into the pits where Hyde and company refueled the #71 and then had to push his car out of the pit to get it started.

Isaac overcame the lost time from the fuel miscalculation, and retook the lead. With 12 miles left, one of his car's three hood pins shook loose after a bumping incident with Joe Frasson, and the corner of his hood started flapping. His lead over Petty at this time was only 10 seconds, and Petty was closing. If the hood came loose he would have to stop, and if it looked too dangerous, the flagman could drop the black flag on him and force him into the pit for repair. Isaac ignored it -- even as the flapping broke the second hood pin, leaving only one -- and kept racing as Petty closed the gap to 4 seconds. "Everyone was standing in their seats," to watch the drama as the finish approached. With the hood flapping and Petty on his rear bumper, Isaac crossed the line in 1st. He won $16,000 for the win -- a win from the worst starting position he'd ever raced from and won. The race he almost didn't enter also became the most lucrative of his career.

What about the fact he'd almost missed the race? "I just wanted to race. I didn't care about the politics."

Steve Lehto is the author of Bobby Isaac: NASCAR's First Modern Champion and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation.