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‘The “Fire” Story’  -  plus ‘Fussin’ is Nothing New to NASCAR’

More on the Fire Story (Edited) By Mark Aumann, NASCAR.COM  - Jan 28, 2006

(ED: Orig. named countdown: New Hampshire)

It's a story that has been recounted countless times: Tiny Lund rescues Marvin Panch from a burning car, accepts Panch's ride and goes on to win the 1963 Daytona 500.

Ernie Gahan has first-hand knowledge of the details behind that story, and he has the burns to prove it.

"[Driver] Billy Wimble and I had just come through the tunnel and saw Marvin come around, although at the time, I didn't know it was Marvin in the car," Gahan, now 79, recounted from his home in Maine. "And I said to Billy, 'Holy cow, this guy's flipping.'

"We pulled over to the fence there and noticed that the driver was caught on fire, so we climbed the fence. It had to have been about 10 feet high -- but when you're adrenaline's up, I guess you can do just about anything."

At the same time, Lund and several others also were trying to come to Panch's aid.

It seemed to us like it took an hour for the racetrack firemen to get there, but it probably was only a few seconds," Gahan said. "Panch's Maserati had those winged doors, so we were pulling on the doors, trying to get him out of there."

Gahan received severe burns to his hands and face, but his primary concern was to help the driver escape.

"The flames got higher and higher and hotter and hotter," he said. "I yelled at Tiny to pull him out of there because I was worried it was going to blow. They grabbed Panch by the feet and yanked him out. As soon as they got him out, [the fuel tank] blew and knocked me sideways."

The divine providence that propelled Lund to the Daytona 500 win may have been in place for Gahan as well. He didn't win his race but finished first in the Sportsman class despite his own injuries.

"I saw Marvin not that long ago and he said to me, 'Thanks to you, I'm 75,'" Gahan said.

For his efforts, Gahan was given the coveted Buddy Shuman Award for outstanding contributions to NASCAR.

 

‘Fussin’ is Nothing New to NASCAR’  by Hubert Mizell

Not long after World War II, forefathers of NASCAR were moonshine runners six days a week. They eased off long enough to attend Sunday church, before spending a testosterone-heavy afternoon racing their hopped-up, highly illegal automobiles on Carolina back roads.

Even on the Lord's Day, there were devilish differences. Often settled with heated words or willing fists. If things went really clanky, there could be moves to smack noggins with tire irons.

So when you see Nichole Lunders, fiance of contemporary NASCAR celebrity Greg Biffle, spewing combative words at Eva Bryan, girlfriend of controversial 21st century driver Kurt Busch, understand it's a quite tame fracas compared to memorable personal clashes in stock car history.

Forty-nine years ago, long before NASCAR had multimillionaire icons like Junior Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon, drivers would scuffle over a few dollars. Dwayne "Tiny" Lund, a towering 280-pound South Carolinian, got into a money fuss with his car owner, Lee Petty.

Shouting led to punching. Lund was too physical for Petty to handle, so Lee's teenaged sons tried to help. Richard Petty was destined to become the Arnold Palmer of steering wheelers but he and sibling Maurice, budding NASCAR mechanical expert, were easily flung aside by an enraged 6-foot-6 Tiny Lund.

More forces needed.

Lund would soon be blindsided by a woman. Elizabeth Petty used her purse to hammer Tiny's head. He went down, thinking the pocketbook had to be fortified with something beyond wallet and lipstick. Turns out, Miz Petty was packing a pistol. It put a lump on Lund's skull. We're talking Richard's mama. Kyle Petty's granny.

Fussin' isn't NASCAR new.

Mano-a-mano combat has been forever. You think Tony Stewart can be cantankerous? Bobby Isaac, No.1 driver of 1970, was such a clasher he was nicknamed "King of Street Fighters" by horsepower peers.

Tracks were far smaller; a lot grimier. Crowds less voluminous. Purses miniscule compared to now. Corporate money not yet gushing into NASCAR. Decals on race cars were more likely to advertise "Joe's Garage" than "Home Depot."

Hunger was evident.

Most unforgettable dukeout I ever saw came deep into the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500 concluded. Richard Petty again a central figure. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison, two of era's hottest drivers, were scrimmaging for the lead a mile from the checkered flag. Cars collided, allowing Petty to zip past and win. Those wrecked fellows lost a lot of precious prize dough in NASCAR's biggest race.

Donnie was furious at Cale and vice versa. Road rage at the highest level. Both scrambled out of their automobiles and began flailing with fists, helmets and flying elbows. I remember writing in my column, "Good ole boys were goin' bad."

Cheered on by 100,000 voices.

"I was steamed, accusing Cale of causing the wreck that wiped us both out of the Daytona 500," Allison would say. "Real soon, I found Yarborough's nose pounding on my knuckles."

Better than getting pistol-whipped, wouldn't you say? So, when we see one of today's big shots, after a metal-clanging incident, going after a rival driver, have a chuckle and recall when NASCAR heroes were far more likely to loosen teeth or bring blood.

When we see Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick or Ryan Newman playing shovy-duvy with an enemy, these guys know that team members will quickly jump in-between, disallowing real fighting. Keep it in modern perspective.

Stewart, Gordon, Earnhardt and all the ritzy 2006ers, with their private jets and million-dollar buses will never be involved in feuding that compares even with 1989 when Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace - both recently retired and now TV commentators - saw moods get greasy.

Wallace had just won the Winston All-Star race. Waltrip had been spun out near the end, allowing Rusty to rule. Tempers boiled. As Rusty's machine neared Victory Lane, it was kicked hard by Waltrip crewman.

A free-for-all ensued. Old-time slugfest. "Somebody bit my little brother John's ear almost off," said Wallace's crew chief, Barry Dodson. "I think it was very unprofessional."

Wallace commented after recent NASCAR flareups, including the yapping girlfriends, "I think such things are good for the sport. Great for television ratings. It enhances the differences between drivers and teams, which means bigger crowds and more interest for NASCAR."

Rusty is right.

At times, it can seem that pro wrestling czar Vince McMahon has become stock car commissioner. Cars smash into one another at 190 miles an hour, then come the words of fire. Shaking fists. Screaming spectators. But little physical harm.

Nothing like it used to be.

David Pearson, NASCAR's second all-time winner behind King Richard, got a 1984 bellyful of outspoken competitor Tim Richmond. Following the Firecracker 400 at Daytona, when Richmond charged at David with unhappy dialogue over a bump they exchanged on the track, the silver-haired Pearson unleashed a whopper punch to Tim's eye that left a world-class shiner.

Today is comparative kindergarten stuff.

Contact columnist Hubert Mizell at mizell3@cox.net.