The Capri has enjoyed a very successful competition heritage in European road racing with drivers with the names of Stewart & Fittipaldi, at places like Le Mans and Spa, and those exploits have been written about extensively by Jeremy Walton and others. The Capri also has raced at such storied tracks like Daytona, Darlington, and Bristol, with drivers of the names of Pearson and Jarrett, but until now, that portion of racing history has largely been unknown to Capri enthusiasts.
When automobile racing first started in America, like Europe, the races were run on public roads with the Vanderbilt Cup and Savannah Races being a couple primary examples. These early racers were originally modified stock cars driven by wealthy sportsman driver/owners. Road racing on public streets however, presented a couple of major issues. Closing the roads and keeping exuberant spectators, farm equipment, and errant animals off the course was a major challenge. In addition it was nearly impossible to limit entry to only those who had purchased a ticket. There was one easy solution to both those problems; every single county in had a horse racing track at the county fairgrounds, and thus, the unique American style of oval track racing had begun. The races were run counter-clockwise, the same as the horse races.
It was now possible to run frequent races all over the country, and soon racing was a sport to be undertaken by "hired guns" of a more modest background, driving high-powered specialized machines, as well as those who wanted to strip down a Model T and take it to the track. The photo to the right is of Barney Oldfield and his FWD Christie. FYI, Walter Christie was the inventor of the modern tank.
After WWII, the number of dedicated racetracks just exploded and there are currently over a thousand oval tracks all over the country. Columbus Motor Speedway, where we will be racing the autocross tomorrow, is one of them, and it was built in 1947. Michigan and Ohio alone have approx. 75 tracks between them racing every weekend with thousands of cars, so you can see how widespread oval track racing in this country really is.
Bill France and others founded NASCAR in 1948 and, like most stock bodied racing back then, most of the cars were souped up pre war Flathead Fords. The impact of moonshining on Southern culture after WWII cannot be glossed over, and quite a few of the early races in the South had fields composed of so-called "liquor cars." Unfortunately, in the last several decades, NASCAR has attempted to remove all references to moonshining from its heritage, but it was an integral part of the sport in the early years.
France wanted to separate his organization from all the others, so he hatched the idea to create the NASCAR "Strictly Stock" series that utilized cars right off the showroom floor. Having a new car was still a luxury to many Americans, so the idea that someone would buy a brand new car and race it was considered pretty crazy. The real appeal to the fans of course, was brand identity, and the racing became very popular in the South as people wanted to brag that their Hudson was better than the other guys Oldsmobile etc. There was no clear-cut "best" car, so almost anything could and did hit the track. Here is one of my very favorites: a Tucker!
Nobody in the rest of the country really paid an awful lot of attention to NASCAR until 1951, when they scheduled a race at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. Naturally, representatives from the auto manufacturers were in attendance, and they quickly realized that the publicity from racing might very well sell a lot of cars, so they jumped into the sport big time. As the racing developed during the 50’s , the rules started allowing some leeway from the strictly stock concept as the manufacturers developed so called "export" packages with hotter cams, higher compression, bigger carbs, and HD suspensions, but the race cars were still built from street cars right out of the showroom.
During the decade of the 60’s, the factory teams really were pouring in the $$$ and the cars went from being prepared individually by small local garages into the mega race shops like Holman Moody, where, given the right factory connections, one could buy a turnkey car ready to race. Here is a cool picture of the Benny Parsons restored Holman Moody 1969 Torino that a friend owns. This is the pace lap for the 2010 ARCA race at Toledo Speedway, with former Parsons’ crew chief Ralph Young behind the wheel, while yours truly is riding on the passenger side floorboards. You can see how much the cars have changed since 1969 when compared to the Dodge of pole winner Patrick Sheltra.
As you can tell, good or bad, NASCAR racing had strayed far beyond what was envisioned when it was created, and as they entered the 70’s, with higher gas prices, a smaller size car was suddenly popular with consumers with the subcompact class.
In 1973, an independent NASCAR owner/driver named Bill Ellis owned a combination drag strip/road course near North Wilkesboro, NC. Bill encouraged a few of the local fellows to take their small cars and race among themselves on his road course. A few others decided to get in on the fun, and later that year, they decided to form the Baby Grand National Racing Association for the 1974 season, with Charlie Triplett named as the president. The top NASCAR series was at the time was named the Grand National Series (now Sprint Cup), so that is where the Baby Grand name came from. As you can see from the rulebook, the key goal was listed in big letters, "The Poor Man’s Way To Race." Along with this statement; the "BGNRA is racing the largest selling cars in America today." At the time, this was a grassroots independent organization and was not affiliated with NASCAR in any way.
The rules were relatively simple; the class was limited to "domestic" 4 cylinder subcompacts with a minimum weight of 20 pounds per-advertised-horsepower. These cars were essentially stock, with the only modifications allowed being race shocks and springs up front, weight jacking screws, roll cage, headers, and cylinder head modifications of hotter cam, ported/polished heads, and exhaust headers allowed. Carburetion was limited to a 2 bbl. The cars that were used were Vegas, Pintos, Opels, and yes, Capris. I can only assume that since the Mercury Capri and Buick Opel were sold under a domestic nameplate that they fit the scope of the rules. After the first year of the BGNRA, it was obvious to NASCAR that the popularity of the subcompact cars was going to continue, so they elected to add the series to their portfolio.
This actually wasn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to create a division for small cars; in 1960 they established a "Compact Car" division and raced for a couple years using the Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant and Chevy Corvair among others. The series raced with many of the top drivers at the Daytona road course, but never really caught on and was dropped after 1963. Below is a photo on the Daytona high banks with a Valiant, a Corvair, and even a Volvo, which is being driven by well known female road racer Denise McCluggage.
The Baby Grand series raced on the big speedways at tracks like North Wilkesboro, Darlington, Atlanta, Charlotte, and& Texas, as well as short tracks like Bristol, Hickory, Richmond and Nashville. These races were run in conjunction with the top NASCAR series as a support race. The cars performed very well; at the race at North Wilkesboro, the pole winning Vega set a time that would have allowed it to start 11th in the top Grand national race the same weekend with lap speeds over 130 mph! In race trim, most of the cars were developing around 160 horsepower. Since it was an entry level series with relatively inexperienced drivers, the action could be quite exciting to say the least. In fact the NASCAR Baby Grand rulebook stated "No car will be allowed to run more than two consecutive race meets minus fenders lost in previous competition."
While the early fields mostly consisted of Vegas, and Pintos, there were quite a few Capris as well. I recently spoke with Mike Clements, who drove a Vega in the series, and he told me that his first car was found at a junkyard, and cost him $2000 to build including the engine. His father, Louis, was a former champion NASCAR crew chief, so he had some good help. His first race at North Wilkesboro, he started 4th and finished 3rd, so you can see how economical it was for a beginner.
Mike said they had a race at Atlanta with a whopping 68 entries, with the pole speed being 142 mph and 38th position at 108 mph, so there was quite a disparity in speed between the front and the rear of the field. He said that originally, the use of 13" race tires was required, and then over time they increased the allowable tire outer diameter, which of course required the fenders to be cut out. NASCAR later went to a 15" diameter wheel/tire like the other NASCAR series, which then allowed you to run big brakes etc., so over time the series started straying from the original low budget concept. One of Mike’s future plans is to build a replica of each of the cars that were used in the series including a Capri.
The most successful Capris were entered by David Watson of Boone, NC, and driven by drivers such as Larry and Ricky Pearson, sons of David Pearson, and later on Dale Jarrett, son of Ned Jarrett.
Here is an early David Watson Capri driven by Larry Pearson. You can see the widened Rostyle wheels and how the rest of the car is essentially a stock Capri with the bumper over riders and fake vents still attached.
Larry’s dad David Pearson is a three time NASCAR champion, and second on the all time win list, so they painted Larry’s Capri to match David’s Wood Brothers Mercury that was so successful during that time.
Here is David sharing some of his considerable knowledge with Larry.
In preparation for this presentation, I was able to speak with David Watson about the series and more specifically, the Capris that he built and entered for Larry Pearson, brother Ricky Pearson, and Dale Jarrett. Here is the first-hand information as told to me from David Watson.
David, How did you get involved with the Baby Grand Series?
"Well there was someone that had a drag strip and road track, and I was doing drag racing at the time. They had been running those Baby Grand cars on that road track and asked me if they built me a Pinto, would I race it. I started out racing that Pinto, but I didn’t like it, so I built myself a Capri instead."
What made you decide to race a Capri?
"I liked the body style; it was slick. The windshield angle; everything was real slick. No way could they catch us on those big tracks. They would have needed an extra 30 horsepower to make up for that. One time we lapped the whole field at Nashville. When the 1976 Capri II came out we changed to that."
What did you need to do to prepare the cars for racing?
"I bought them wrecked and fixed them up for racing. Hardest part was getting that MacPherson strut front suspension to work. Took me a month or so to figure out how to redesign it. I had to shorten the struts and move everything down lower. The rear suspension had to be stock, so we took the springs and hammered them flat to get the rear to sit lower and lowered the front to match. Transmissions and rear ends were all stock. Later on after we raced the Capri II, they let us use a straight rail front frame and a Mustang II front end, so we cut it off at the firewall and changed it."
David, what could you do to the engines?
"We started out using the 2000 engine and later used the 2300 with the Capri II. I was good friends with Wayne Gapp from my drag racing days. Wayne owned a drag racing team with Jack Roush and was doing some R & D work for Ford in Michigan and gave me a bunch of stuff. We ported and polished the heads and installed some bigger valves. We took at total of .060" off the head including decking the block. Wayne also gave me some stroker cranks and blocks to use. I tried using some of the Clifford and Offy intakes, but they didn’t do anything, so I just stayed with the stock intake and carb."
David, tell me about your drivers? You had a couple that ended up doing pretty well.
"I knew David Pearson, and he kept asking me to let Larry drive. Larry was right out of High School and hadn’t really done any racing before. He even came and lived with me for about a year. Larry won a bunch of races in my cars. His brother Ricky and even David himself also drove for me. One race I had both Larry and Ricky driving my cars and they were 1st and 2nd on the last lap. They ended up trying too hard to beat each other and ended up crashing coming out of Turn 4 hitting each other head on. Being it was two brothers, the crowd went wild, but I ended up with two tore up cars. Another time at Charlotte, David Pearson was leading Larry, and they both started spinning right at the checkered flag with David doing everything to make sure that Larry got the win. I was also good friends with Ned Jarrett, and he asked me if I would let his son Dale drive. "
What was the Baby Grand series like in those days?
"We raced at Charlotte, Bristol, Dover, North Wilkesboro, Nashville, Rockingham and Texas. I really liked the Baby Grand series and it was how I first got started in oval racing. I stayed in the series as a car owner until 1990."
Here are a few more pictures of David Watson’s cars with Larry Pearson.
David, I see that Louise Smith was one of your sponsors. Can you tell me about her a little?
"Louise raced in NASCAR in the 50’s racing Hudsons. She and her husband owned a big junkyard in Greenville, SC with their house right in the middle. They had no kids and she just loved all the Pearsons, so they gave us money to race. She was a real nice woman; she passed away a few years ago."
Louise Smith was a real pioneer as a female racer in NASCAR right from the very beginning. She actually went to Daytona in 1947 as a spectator, decided to enter the races on a whim, and ended up destroying her car. She took the train home and told her husband that the car was totaled in a highway crash in Georgia. Unfortunately for her, he pulled out a newspaper with a picture of the crash! She raced until the mid-50’s or so, and here are a couple pictures from later on in her career.
In addition, one thing that I thought was pretty cool was that even though it has been nearly 35 years since he raced the Capri, David Watson still has a passion for the cars and knows quite a bit about them. After I told him I had a 1973, he immediately asked me what engine I had; a 2000 or 2600, and that it should have the chrome bumpers. He also said that there was no 1975 Capri and that the Capri II came out in 1976, so he knew his stuff. He said he has always wanted another Capri.
The Baby Grand series continued on for many years and was renamed the NASCAR Dash series. It lasted until 2009, but by then had strayed far from its original roots. They were no longer needed on the NASCAR tracks as a support race, so other than Daytona, they raced on a variety of short tracks with little purse money, and no TV or media coverage.
Pontiac introduced a racing version of their Iron Duke 4 cylinder engine in the early 80’s, and costs quickly rose to $20K apiece for those engines. This was a far cry from the < $1000 that teams were spending for engines just a decade earlier. For that kind of money, younger drivers could go to ARCA and race actual older NASCAR Cup cars on the same tracks as the Cup cars, which made a lot more sense. In addition, NASCAR never promoted the Dash series, and other than the season opener at Daytona, no one ever paid much attention to it, so they finally elected to let it die.
Besides Larry Pearson, and Dale Jarrett, other Baby Grand/Dash graduates include Ronnie Thomas, 1978 NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year, Michael Waltrip, and Phil Parsons. Larry Pearson ended up winning back-to-back NASCAR Busch Grand National Championships in 1986-87, while Dale Jarrett won the Daytona 500 three times, the Brickyard 400, and the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup championship.
Not only was I privileged to speak with David Watson, the owner and builder of the Baby Grand National Capris, I also had the great honor to talk with driver Larry Pearson, who was so successful in Watson’s cars. There is nothing better than hearing firsthand accounts from those who were there, to understand what the racing and the cars were like. Here is what Larry Pearson had to say about the Baby Grand series and his years in racing.
Larry, I really appreciate you taking the time with me to discuss the Baby Grand series and the Capris. What do you remember most about the series?
"You know you take a lot of things for granted at the time, but later you look back and realize just how much fun everything really was. There was no pressure and no sponsors to worry about. That is what I remember the most; it was just a lot of fun."
You were right out of High School weren’t you? How did you get started in the Baby Grands?
"I was still in High School! I went to Ashville Speedway with my Dad to test out a Late Model Stock car and did a few practice laps. The Baby Grands were there and David Watson asked me if I wanted to drive it. He had it painted up like my Dad’s car, so of course I wanted to run it. David Watson later called me back and told me I could drive it at North Wilkesboro. That was the first race car of my own. I was running 2nd in the race and right near the end I got a flat tire. I was really mad, but that was it and I was going to race it the rest of the year."
Wow, I figured that he painted it up like that after you were driving for him. Say, Larry, it had to be pretty fun at that age racing at all those big NASCAR tracks like Darlington, Daytona, and Rockingham.
"It was, but not nearly as much fun as the road trips going out there. David Watson was a great guy. We got along really well, and played a lot of jokes on each other. It was really, really fun."
What do you remember about the Capris? They were essentially stock cars, weren’t they, including the brakes?
"Yes, you could run race springs, and do some things to the engine with heads and cams, but not much else. We had a roll cage and also a fuel cell in them. We had good tires, but there was no power steering, so they could be tough to drive at some of those tracks. The transmissions and rear ends were also stock, but we could change the rear gear. Some of the tracks we would run the transmission in third gear. We used the stock front and rear glass in them. The interiors were gutted, but we did use the stock seat and steering wheel. We built up the sides of the seat to hold you in better. We used the stock wheels, but widened them, so the tires would fit."
Those Baby Grand Capris went pretty fast for essentially stock cars, didn’t they?
"They were strong cars and really well made. I never had any problems with suspensions or anything. David Watson built some really good race cars for me. We ran very well; we would always run in the top three. The Baby Grand cars didn’t have a lot of power, so we would run wide open at over 123 mph at places like Daytona and Atlanta. There was only one Vega that could run with us, but he cheated all the time. (laughs) Larry Caudill was one of those I raced with, he also drove for David Watson a few times. He and I talk a lot about those days in the Baby Grands and how much fun we had."
I have a picture of one of the early Capris with your dad leaning in giving you some advice. You are wearing a T shirt; was that what you wore back then when you raced?
"Was it striped? With the stripes going sideways? That would have been my 2nd race ever at North Wilkesboro!"
I also have a picture of a #16 Capri; do you know who drove that one?
"That was my brother Ricky’s car. He and my dad built it for him to race. It was a good car; one time mine was wrecked and Ricky went with my Dad to Vegas where Dad was receiving an award. They told me I could race it at North Wilkesboro, someone wrecked me and I backed it hard into the wall."
Knowing how brothers are, I’ll bet Ricky was pretty mad at you.
"Yeah, He was pretty mad; My Dad also told me what he thought about it too."
Larry, you did very well in the Busch Grand National series. Some of those drivers you raced with like Jack Ingram, Tommy Ellis, Sam Ard, and Butch Lindley were tough! I think you raced in the right era, you know what I mean.
"I loved racing in the Busch series when I did. It seemed like so much more fun than it is now. We would yell and holler at each other after the race, and if you wanted to fight someone, you just did. The next day, you would then go out to dinner with them and that would be it. Now days they leave their helmets on and just push each other around a little."
Kind of like little schoolgirls, right?
(Laughs) "Yeah, what’s that all about?"
You ran a few years in the Cup series with you and your dad owning the team. How was that?
"We had a lot of fun, but didn’t do as well as I would have liked. If we ran bad, Mondays weren’t really very fun at all as my Dad would try and figure out what we did wrong. We just didn’t have what we needed."
Well, Larry, I really enjoyed talking with you, and thanks a lot, I really appreciate it.
Besides David Watson’s Capris, others are pictured below:
Randy Cox in the #43 (Painted to match Richard Petty’s car) Also raced by Shane Reins.
Ricky Pearson in the #16 Capri
Even though the NASCAR premier series used stock-appearing cars, the Modified stock cars were still very popular in certain parts of the country, primarily in the Midwest, New England and the Eastern Seaboard. Pictured is a friend of mine, Joy Fair from Michigan in his radical Supermodified #719.
This one is of Ohio star Jim Cushman and in 1958 Jim was notable for introducing the first known use of a wing in racing. The two rudders steered opposite the front wheels. This car was raced at Columbus Motor Speedway, the site of the CCNA autocross race tomorrow.
New England still had their Modifieds as their top class at the local tracks and it was very popular. They used the big blocks and the old coupe bodies up until the early 70’s. Pictured is Carl "Bugs" Stevens.
The modifieds were facing a major dilemma in the early part of the 70’s. Not only were the old coupe bodies becoming scarce and difficult to obtain, some of the fans had a tough time relating to them. A few race teams decided to debut a different type of body and they were very successful. Soon all the other car owners followed suit and a new era in Modified racing had begun.
While Pintos and Vegas became the most popular, there were a few instances of Capris hitting the track as well. Here is a beautiful #14 owned by car owner Art Barry of Connecticut, and driven by both Ed Flemke Sr., and Bob Potter.
Bob Park, father of NASCAR driver Steve Park with the #19.
While the New England area is the hotbed of NASCAR Modified racing, the cars are also popular in the Carolina’s and Virginia.
Here is a flaming hot Modified #19 driven by Roger Hill.
The current NASCAR Modified Tour no longer use anything resembling a "stock" body and are now fabricated out of aluminum as pictured below. Progress, I guess?
The last form of American racing with Capris I wanted to mention is the 4 cylinder Mini Stock or Pony Stock classes that are run at many local tracks, both asphalt and dirt. These classes were originally designed to be an entry level class for an aspiring driver, and are run at hundreds of tracks across the country. Some tracks did allow quite a few modifications, including Esslinger heads, etc., however most did not and limited the modifications to safety items.
While the cars of choice were usually the Pinto, Mustang II, and Fox Body Mustang, there were also a few Capris in competition banging fenders and slinging dirt. Here are a couple pictures of some Capris racing in Florida. Due to the limited availability of rear wheel drive subcompact cars in recent years, many of the Mini Stock and Pony stock classes have gone to rules mandating front wheel drive, but it really depends upon the specific track and rule book.
Finally, the last bit of oval racing I need to mention is Banger racing, as it is called, that is popular in the UK. Calling it "racing" may be somewhat of a misnomer to a purist like me, although I don’t mean to disparage the passion of those participating in it. As I understand, it is may be more correctly described as a rolling demolition derby and contact is encouraged. It appears to be similar in some regards to the 24 hours of LeMons events that have been popular over here the last few years. Many of the car enthusiasts in the UK are very concerned that the supply of restorable classics is being used up by Banger racers. At one time, the car of choice in our short track racing was the 1955-57 Chevrolet, so I certainly understand where they are coming from.
Here are a couple pictures of a banger Capri. These are not for the faint of heart by the way.
Special thanks to Mike Clements, David Watson, Larry Pearson, Joy Fair, Norm Murdock for his inspiration, and especially all the members of the CCNA.
Copyright © 1997 Capri Club North America. All rights reserved.