Tom Higgins: Inman made the winning call
TOM HIGGINS SCUFFS
Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012
To change tires or not to change tires?
That was the question.
And it faced Dale Inman on Feb. 15, 1981, in a Daytona 500 as deep in tension as a Shakespearean drama.
NASCARs biggest race was winding down and it appeared to belong to Bobby Allison, the arch-rival of Richard Petty, whose team was led by crew chief Inman.
With 30 laps remaining on the 2.5-mile Florida track, Petty was running fifth, well back of leader Allison. In between were Ricky Rudd, Buddy Baker and Dale Earnhardt.
Those ahead of Petty began making what proved to be final pit stops for fuel and fresh tires.
Meanwhile, Petty stayed on the track.
Inman saw an opportunity. Changing tires had taken the rival teams several seconds.
Should he gamble on a stop for fuel only!?
Boldly, the no-nonsense North Carolinian made the decision:
Petty dashed down pit road there was no speed limit in that era on the 175th of the races 200 laps and slid to a stop. In a flash the fuel was in Pettys No. 43, red, white and blue Buick, and he was away.
Deciding to disdain fresh rubber enabled Petty to emerge from pit road with a 10.7-second lead. He nursed the advantage to the checkered flag, finishing 3.5 seconds ahead of runnerup Allisons potent Pontiac that had been in front for a commanding 117 laps.
Rudd, Baker and Earnhardt followed on the lead lap.
The stunning strategy, played out before a wildly cheering crowd estimated at 130,000, had delivered the Daytona 500 to King Richard for a seventh time, a record that still stands.
Ive been writing about auto racing for more than five decades. The call by Inman 30 years ago this week is by far the greatest by a crew chief Ive witnessed in all that time.
Its presently very much in mind as Inman gains induction Friday night into the NASCAR Hall Of Fame in Charlotte. A member of the halls third class, he is the first crew guy to be honored.
His enshrinement is deeply deserved. Inman was the team leader for most of Pettys 200 triumphs and all seven of his Cup Series championships. He won an eighth title while working with Terry Labonte.
As the Victory Lane proceedings were coming to a conclusion at Daytona in 81 my fellow media people in the press box and I witnessed something we never thought wed see.
Dale Inman was crying.
I can understand Dale being emotional, said Petty. For him and the crew, this has to be the best of the seven Daytona 500s we have won.
It has been a heckuva time getting here with the new little cars NASCAR ordered us to run this year, down from a 115-inch wheel base to 110.
Then, when we got here, we blew two engines and had handling problems like everybody else. All that together had some of the boys getting mad at each other and everything. Then, we get a win with some fine figuring and performance in the pits.
Petty said he never questioned Inmans decision not to change tires.
Inman explained his call:
I had seen that our tires were working perfectly midway through the race, he said. We could go two pit stops and only wear half the tread.
So I didnt see it as dangerous for us not to take tires at the end. If it had been, we wouldnt have done it.
Petty ran the final 162.5 miles on the same set of tires, essentially unheard of at that time.
A day later came a revelation that further explained Inmans tears.
He was leaving the Petty Enterprises operation of his cousin Richard to join the Rod Osterlund team and Earnhardt. Petty Enterprises was the only team Inman had worked for, joining it in the 1950s when Richards dad, Poppa Lee Petty, a NASCAR pioneer, was the driver.
Inman eventually joined Labonte on Billy Hagans operation, then was briefly out of the sport.
As most stock car racing observers expected, he wound up back at Petty Enterprises.
Now Dale Inman is somewhere else he belongs
Enshrined in the NASCAR Hall Of Fame.