1980 Talladega 500: 20th Century Drifter Robbins

Marty Robbins

Although best known for his hit records and three decades on the Grand Ole Opry, Marty Robbins' NASCAR roots were equally deep. (Photo: Grand Ole Opry Archives)

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“First place could be just a dream but I'm gonna chase it
Finishing out of the top ten is nothing but bad
And a junker won't ever be first I might as well face it
First class equipment is somethin' a man's got to have” 
    --- Marty Robbins, “Twentieth Century Drifter” (1974) 

 

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is off this week, but the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series are at Nashville Superspeedway. It’s a perfect opportunity to remember the career of Martin David Robinson.

You know him by his professional name: Marty Robbins.

Although he is best known for his 16 songs that made it to the top spot on the music charts, auto racing played a major part of his life. He started racing micro-midgets in the 1950s. By the 1960s, he advanced to modifieds on the fairgrounds track in Nashville. The racing bug’s bite led Robbins to compete 35 times at NASCAR’s highest level over 15 seasons beginning in July 1966. He qualified 17th, but finished 25th after mechanical woes put him out of the race early at Nashville.

Although he spent three decades as a member of The Grand Ole Opry, his connection to NASCAR-sanctioned racing was the catalyst for what would become a long-standing tradition for the venerable “Mother Church Of Country Music.”

According to historians at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Robbins began performing the last segment of the Saturday night Grand Ole Opry broadcasts on WSM radio so he could continue racing at the Nashville Fairgrounds. In the summer of 1968, he pulled out of a race early to make sure that he was ready to go when it was time for his Opry segment.

He made it from the track to the Ryman Auditorium to find out that the show was running behind, and that his time might be cut short. Once he hit the stage, he stayed on not only for his scheduled time, but for additional time. Robbins’ defiance of Opry management became a regular occurrence whenever Robbins appeared on the Opry thereafter and became a long standing tradition that fans came to love.

A legend about that night in 1968 says that Robbins was actually leading the race when he had to pull off the track to make it to his Opry performance, so it’s easy to understand his defiance.

Marty Robbins’ love of NASCAR racing turned out to last a lifetime. On November 7, 1982, the Atlanta Journal 500 was Robbins’ final race. He was driving a Junior Johnson-prepared Buick, but a crash ended his day early on Lap 89. He passed away one month later on December 8.

Fans seem to love racing at Talladega Superspeedway. It’s entirely possible that Robbins did as well. Ten of his 35 career Cup Series starts were on the Alabama superspeedway. Perhaps the best way to remember him would be with one of those Talladega events.

On August 3, 1980, NASCAR’s premier series traveled to what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway for the 20th race of 31 that season . . . the Talladega 500. The track’s official name may be different now, but the racing was just as fierce then as it is today. Eleven different drivers swapped the lead 36 times during the 188-lap race.

Talladega master Buddy Baker and an up-and-coming member of the Alabama Gang, Neil Bonnett, started on the front row. Robbins’ No. 6 Dodge took the green flag from the inside of the 19th row, and he battled his way to a 13th-place finish.

Bonnett spent his day among the leaders but when a late-race caution came out, it looked like his chances for a homecoming win were going to be wiped out. However, Bonnett had a major ace up his sleeve: Leonard Wood horsepower. He had enough time to get his No. 21 Purolator Mercury up to speed, and beat Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Benny Parsons and Harry Gant to the finish.

This week’s edition of MRN Flashback Friday turns its attention to the 1980 Talladega 500. Barney Hall leads the MRN Radio team in this special online rebroadcast and you can hear it beginning at Noon (ET) Friday exclusively on MotorRacingNetwork.com.

Click Here To Listen Friday

Click Here To Listen to Marty Robbins tell MRN's Ken Squier during the 1976 Daytona 500 about his racing and singing career

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