BRISTOL, Tenn. – To read the front page of the Bristol Herald Courier on July 21, 1969, it would seem like one of the most famous moments in American history was overshadowed the day before, at least at the moment, by the action at Bristol International Speedway.
While David Pearson was driving to a commanding victory in the Volunteer 500 at BIR on a sunny Sunday afternoon with the temperatures approaching 90 degrees, the track announcer told the audience that the “Eagle” had landed on the moon.
According to Dave Sparks, then the sports editor at the BHC, “it failed to faze the crowd, a group obviously infatuated with the weird happenings on the steep BIS turns.”
That is nothing unusual. Racin’ in Bristol, even back then, had a way of overshadowing all else that was taking place for race fans.
Bristol resident Fred Hayter, who was just at the beginning of attending all 117 NASCAR races that have taken place in Bristol since 1961, did the research, recalling this week that Pearson had won the race, but couldn’t remember the announcement that Apollo 11 had landed on the moon at 4:18 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time).
Ironically, a few miles away, editors of the Bristol Herald Courier were ready to report on the news, but a thunderstorm combined with hail knocked out power – including the all-important wire copy machines - causing local flooding, ruining gardens along Commonwealth Avenue and forcing many in Bristol to scramble to radios to listen to the moon landing, deprived of seeing a simulated landing on television.
The BHC actually printed a “second front page” after the regular front page was cleared for the moon landing the following day.
Yet, the rain avoided BIR, where history was also being made.
The Volunteer 500 was the first event at Bristol that included the now famous steep banking in the corners. It made a difference in speed, with Cale Yarborough taking the pole, driving 103.432 miles per hour, 13 miles per hour faster than the previous track record with the lesser banking.
The changes drew rave reviews from fans, but wasn’t as well liked by the drivers.
“It’s a weird track,” said driver Bobby Musgrove. “It’s all different and it might work into something good, real good, but right now it is bad.”
Pearson dominated the race, becoming the first driver to win back-to-back titles in Bristol, having also won the Southeastern 500 earlier in the season. He also became the first driver to win four times in Bristol.
Bobby Isaac finished a distant second, three laps behind Pearson despite blowing a tire with 25 laps to go. Donnie Allison - a full 13 laps back - was third, followed by James Hylton and Cecil Gordon.
It was described by Sparks as “what had to be the wildest race in the history of the half-mile track.”
Many of the biggest names in the event were eliminated early, thanks to numerous wrecks resulting in eight caution flags involving 75 laps. That included an eight-car pileup just 30 laps into the race. Some of the most popular drivers - Richard Petty (23rd), Yarborough (24th), Bobby Allison (26th) and Buddy Baker (27th) - were finished before the 60th lap of the race, but all had respectable finishes.
Isaac, Hylton, Donnie Allison, and Cale and LeeRoy Yarborough all led for portions of the race before Pearson dominated the final 141 laps.
Not surprisingly, Pearson liked the track changes. According to the report, Pearson wore a “CP” patch on his racing suit, which stood for “Competition Proof.” Sparks stated it could have stood for “Crash Proof” since he avoided the wrecks that have long been such a cherished part of racing at Bristol.
“I like it,” said Pearson, whose average speed of 79.737 was the second fastest up to that time in a Bristol race. “This is a two-groove track. The slower cars run on the apron while the faster cars stay up high.”
Among those on hand was Carl Moore, a co-founder of Bristol Motor Speedway and Bristol Dragway. He didn’t recall, upon being reached this week, that Apollo 11 had landed on the moon during the race.
Neil Armstrong would take the first steps on the moon and use his famous phrase. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” that night at around 10:56 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time).
Moore did speak on what an amazing feat it was.
Another area leader, Marlon Luttrell, president and general manager of the Bristol Pirates and vice mayor in Bristol, Tennessee, tried to think back to his days as a 10-year-old on that day.
He didn’t remember the race or a storm taking place on that day.
“I don’t recall that part, but I do remember when we landed a man on the moon,” Luttrell said. “It was just like one of those things you remember the day when John Kennedy was shot and where you were.”
Memories can be hazy, especially trying to recall what occurred 50 years ago.
“I was getting out of school,” Luttrell said. “I think I was in the fifth grade, I believe it was.”
*In other local sports on that memorable day, the Bristol Tigers – in Bristol’s first season of professional baseball since 1955 - defeated the Johnson City Yankees 6-5. Bristol was 15-13 at the time, just a half-game out of first place. They finished 34-34 and in third place in the South Division.
*Another interesting tidbit in the Bristol Herald Courier sports section on that day was a photo of 80-year-old Estelle Hale of Statham, Ga. She won $28,600 in the “Home Run for the Money” contest sponsored by the Atlanta Braves.
That came when Tony Gonzalez hit the long ball for the Braves against the San Diego Padres. The winnings for Hale were more than Gonzalez made for the season.
Now that is ancient history.