By Owen A. Kearns, NASCAR Wire Service
In a different era, in which stock cars driven to and past their limits didn’t break with frequency, there’s no telling how many races or championships Bobby Isaac might have won.
Isaac, the 1970 NASCAR premier series champion, won 37 of his 309 starts. But he was a DNF – did not finish – 129 times.
His 49 poles rank 10th all-time, with 19 – a still-standing, single-season mark – coming in 1969. Only 38 drivers have won 19 or more poles in a career.
Nobody ever had to tell Isaac to “stand on it.”
“Bobby was a never-give-up kind of guy,” said Buddy Parrott, a member of Isaac’s No. 71 K&K Insurance Dodge crew and a 49-time winner as a premier series crew chief for NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip among others. “Bobby had no fear.”
Isaac’s accomplishments are such that he’ll join the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016 along with Jerry Cook, Terry Labonte, O. Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner. Their induction will take place Jan. 22 in Charlotte, N.C. The ceremonies will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. ET by NBCSN.
Isaac, born on a farm near Catawba, North Carolina in 1932, saw his first stock car race at nearby Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway and at age 17 bought a 1937 Ford and put roll bars in it. He flipped the car on the race’s second lap but that didn’t dampen his desire.
Working at a variety of low-paying jobs, Isaac began racing the NASCAR late model sportsman circuit. He survived but sometimes just barely.
“One time I drove 200 miles to drive a fellow’s modified car with $4 in my pocket,” he once said. “I figured that I’d have enough to buy gas and get down there and eat a hot dog before the race. The gas was $3 but I had to put two quarts of oil in my car so I was broke when I left town. When the feature started my stomach was not only growling but I didn’t have enough gas to get back home.
“I drove that car as hard as I could and won. I had to win.”
Isaac, described by some as “mercurial,” went sportsman racing fulltime in 1958, driving for Ralph Earnhardt. He won 28 feature events, competing against the likes of NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and David Pearson.
Isaac, at age 28, competed in his first premier series event in 1961. Driving a Dodge for Ray Nichels, he won his first race in 1964 – a 50-lap Daytona 500 qualifier in which he edged Jimmy Pardue in a photo finish after Richard Petty ran out of fuel.
With factory-supported teams jumping in and out of the sport in the mid-1960s, Isaac went from top ride to no seat at all. His fortunes changed in 1968 when he was hired by Indiana insurance magnate Nord Krauskropf and paired with legendary crew chief Harry Hyde, whose larger than life persona was captured as Harry Hogg in the film “Days of Thunder.”
Over the course of five seasons, 1968 to 1972, the trio’s “Poppy Red” Dodges won 36 times – 17 alone in 1969 when Isaac won 17 times in 50 starts. Bedeviled by 19 failures to finish, Isaac wound up sixth in the championship standings.
Isaac “only” won 11 times in his championship season but the DNFs were reduced to just nine.
The K&K team is remembered best for its winged Dodge Charger Daytona, the needle-nosed, high rear-wing version of the standard Charger. Remarkably, Isaac visited Victory Lane only once in that model, at Texas World Speedway in 1969, his 20th career win and first on a superspeedway.
“We won a lot of short-races, but we couldn’t pull it all together on the big tracks until the last race of the season,” said Isaac in Greg Fielden’s book “NASCAR: The Complete History.” “Winning the championship gave me personal satisfaction, but I’d rank it second to the Texas win.
“The way I look at it, it took me seven years to win a superspeedway race and only three years to win the championship.”
In September 1971 the team took its winged car to the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah where Isaac set 28 speed records, including a 217.368 mph “flying kilometer” mark. “That car weighed 3,900 pounds and it had 650 horses in the motor,” Hyde told Car and Driver’s Bob Zeller in May 2002. “And when Bobby set it sideways, it looked like a hydroplane on water. He came by at 200 mph broadside with a big rooster tail of salt comin’ out the back.”
Driving part-time schedules for a number of owners, Isaac ran his last premier series race in 1976. He returned to Hickory Motor Speedway the following year where, on Aug. 14, he pulled out of a sportsman race feeling ill and was taken to a local hospital where he succumbed to heart failure at age 45.
Isaac was inducted into the National Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1979 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1996. In 1998, NASCAR honored him as one of its 50 Greatest Drivers of all time.
Tickets are available for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Dinner and Ceremony (limited quantities available). Individual ticket and ticket packages are available at ticketmaster.com, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Box Office or by calling 800.745.3000.
Image: ISC Archives via Getty Images