Daytona's only leading Brit
David Hobbs had a couple of NASCAR outings courtesy of a complicated contra-deal. He was quick, but it was only luck that he led a lap at Daytona
You’ll have to delve deep into the record books to back up his claim, but David Hobbs really does have a unique place in NASCAR history. He is the only Briton, and almost certainly the only European, to lead the Daytona 500. That his moment of glory came through a mixture of happy coincidence and ineptitude doesn’t make it into the statistics, of course.
Hobbs was running midfield when the yellow flags were thrown for the first time at Daytona in 1976.
“There was a caution – and there were no radios in those days, remember – and everyone rushed into the pits except for me,” remembers Hobbs, then a star of the US Formula 5000 and sports car scene. “I stayed out and led. I must be the only European to lead the Daytona 500, even if it was by mistake.”
Hobbs was in the 500 courtesy of an unusual contra-deal that resulted in NASCAR legend Benny Parsons joining him in the factory BMW team at the Daytona 24 Hours (see Busman’s Holiday, April 2006). Two weeks later, Hobbs would race Parsons’ back-up car, a 1975 Chevrolet Chevelle, in the Winston Cup opener – all courtesy of sponsor Coca-Cola.
“I stood around for a week after the 24 Hours and then we finally got around to practising,” remembers Hobbs, who didn’t get any pre-event testing. “That’s when it all started to unravel.”
Hobbs couldn’t get the Chevelle within 10mph of the pace, and his team was at a loss to explain why. “My crew chief was a guy named Tex Powell – a scruffy bloke with three tools: a hammer, a screwdriver and an adjustable wrench. Finally we persuaded Benny to drive the car and he went no faster than
I did, so I just had to make the most of it.”
Come the 125-mile qualifying races, the Chevelle “suddenly got cracking”, says Hobbs. “I had enough to hang in there and was able to run in the second group.” The 36-year old made it as high as sixth and ended up an impressive eighth in his heat.The main event didn’t go quite as well.
“The thing started to push [understeer] like hell and the right front tyre let go into Turn 1. I grazed the wall and brought the thing back to the pits. We worked on it but couldn’t fix it.”
Daytona 1976 wasn’t Hobbs’ first brush with NASCAR, nor would it be his last. He’d practised for the 1962 event on his first trip to the US and he would also compete in the Michigan 400 later in 1976. This time he raced for long-time NASCAR entrant WC ‘Junie’ Donlavey, once more with Coke backing.
Hobbs again showed a flash of form. “I didn’t qualify that well, but in the race I started humming right along, passing people on the high side, passing people on the low side. All of a sudden, I’m third and the only guys ahead of me are Darrel Waltrip and Cale Yarborough. I soon put it right by spinning.”
Hobbs ended up losing a couple of laps, but he did manage to post what would be his one and only NASCAR finish.
“I never followed up on NASCAR. I guess I was engrossed in F5000 and sports cars,” he says. “We all thought NASCAR was terribly hick and never going to go anywhere…”