MRN Flashback: Talladega Triumph

Lennie Pond

Lennie Pond brings his No. 54 Oldsmobile to his pit stall for service during the Talladega 500. (Photo: ISC Archives)

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When you consider racetracks that must be seen in person to be fully understood, Talladega Superspeedway would have to occupy a high position on that list.

A major part of the Talladega legend involves its unpredictability. Starting positions are for the most part irrelevant. There are times that a driver will be in the front of the pack, only to find himself outside the top 20 a couple of laps later. At the same time, it has been possible to make a late-race restart deep in the field yet emerge in Victory Lane. Many Talladega races have not been decided until the final yards of asphalt leading to the checkered flag.

Lead changes happen quickly and often, and since lead changes are tallied only at the start-finish line, the record book is deceptive and doesn’t reflect actually how many times the front position was taken and lost in any given Talladega race. That’s a unique achievement when you consider the record book shows a minimum of 87 lead changes in each of the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races held at Talladega.

The 2.66-mile tri-oval was designed and born for speed, and quickly established a reputation as “The World’s Fastest Speedway” for both qualifying and average race speeds.

From the day Alabama International Motor Speedway opened its gates for the Inaugural Talladega 500 in September, 1969, it has been a place for upsets and surprise victories. Richard Brickhouse won that inaugural event and nine different drivers won the first nine Talladega 500s.

The tenth renewal of the race came on August 6, 1978, and was the 19th event of 30 on the year’s NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule. Many eyes were on the “Alabama Gang” that Sunday. Defending winner Donnie Allison was trying to become the first repeat winner, and started Hoss Ellington’s No 1 Hawaiian Tropic Oldsmobile ninth. His brother Bobby was wheeling Bud Moore’s No. 15 Ford, and started 20th. The Allisons’ Hueytown, Ala., neighbor, Neil Bonnett, qualified 14th in a Chevrolet owned by Californian Rod Osterlund.

At the front, it was a pair of Oldsmobiles on the row one. Cale Yarborough was on the pole in Junior Johnson’s No. 11, while Benny Parsons started L. G. Dewitt’s No. 72 Olds alongside. Surprisingly, the two teams shared the same primary sponsor – 1st National City Travelers Checks (today’s Citi Financial).

In 1978, Harry Ranier was in his first full-season push as a NASCAR owner. Ranier had a highly successful career as a thoroughbred owner in the Kentucky horse country before trading one form of horsepower for another. 38-year-old Lennie Pond was the fifth driver to take the wheel of one of Ranier’s cars. The team gelled quickly, and by the time they arrived at Talladega, they had already tallied nine top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 18 starts.

Although he spent much of the day in the front of the pack, Pond didn’t take the lead for the first time until just before the halfway point of the race. He would lose and regain the lead six times before the checkered flag flew. But, in what had already become a Talladega tradition, the race result remained in question until the final lap.

Pond made what would be the 67th, and final, lead change of the race, passing Parsons with five laps to go. However, the race would take one more bizarre turn before the finish.

With just over one lap remaining, a tire exploded on Bill Elliott’s family-owned No. 9 Mercury. The front spoiler was blown off Ellott’s car. The spoiler hit Parsons’ car, causing his right front tire to blow. Debris from that tire hit Donnie Allison’s windshield, causing him to slow, breaking his momentum. Pond kept his foot in the throttle and beat Allison to the finish line by two car lengths.

Pond set a new world record for the fastest 500-mile closed-course race, 174.700 mph, in becoming the tenth different Talladega 500 winner in ten years.

“It was a long time coming,” Pond told MRN pit reporter Ned Jarrett in Victory Lane. “I feel like when I started the race today, I felt like the whole world was against me. I feel great that I won the race and I’ve got to talk to a whole lot of people and get a few things straight.”

Since he had not yet won, Pond had been dogged by rumors and speculation that he was on his way out of the Ranier ride. Pond said in Victory Lane that people needed to be shown that he knew how to drive a Cup car.

“I think a whole lot of people needed to see it today, the way they’ve been talking lately,” Pond said. “

Although Pond gave Ranier his first career Cup Series owner win, and a tally of 19 top-10 finishes in 28 starts, his performance was not enough to preserve his job. Ranier yanked Pond at the end of the year in favor of Buddy Baker. Ranier won 23 more times with Baker, Yarborough and Davey Allison at the controls of his cars before leaving the series in 1997.

Although he drove in portions of nine more seasons for a number of different car owners, Pond never returned to a NASCAR Cup Series Victory Lane before retiring from the series in 1989. Now 71 years old, he still resides in his hometown of Ettrick, Va.

This week’s edition of MRN Flashback Friday turns the spotlight on one of the great Talladega races and the day everything came together for Lennie Pond. Barney Hall and Jack Arute led the MRN Radio coverage team and you can hear all the action of the 1978 Talladega 500 beginning at Noon (ET) Friday exclusively on MotorRacingNetwork.com.

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