The 2013 NASCAR season officially starts this Sunday in Daytona, and one of the sport’s most well-known car owners, a former NASCAR driver named Richard Childress, may not be around today if it wasn’t for the heroics of none other than country music’s Marty Robbins.
Here’s the story:
Marty Robbins may be best known at the caramel-voiced singer and songwriter of classics like “El Paso” and a Hall of Famer who charted hits in four different decades, but he also had a pretty serious NASCAR career on the side. This was no lark for Marty. He was a Dodge man and competed in a total of 35 NASCAR races and logged 6 top ten finishes. “You know,” Robbins joked in 1975, “I could win any race I entered. But as soon as I did Cale Yarborough or Richard Petty or somebody would pick up a guitar and start singing. So I let them win out there.”
It was no laughing matter though on October 6, 1974 during the Charlotte 500 when Richard Childress and three other drivers wrecked along the front straightaway on the 2nd lap of the race. Marty Robbins turned his purple and lime green #42 Dodge onto the straightaway doing 160 mph and was shocked to find four cars completely blocking the race track with nowhere for Marty to go.
As a musician and performer, Marty Robbins had to earn the respect of the NASCAR world. In 1974, if you wanted to show your mustard to the other drivers, one of the things you could do is work on your own race car. “Sure, Marty works on his car,” Richard Childress once told reporters. “Just the other day I saw him walking around with a can of wax getting ready to shine her up.” But how Marty would handle himself, barreling down on the side panel of Childress’s wrecked car in the middle of the Charlotte Speedway straightaway would earn Marty Robbins all the respect he would ever need from his NASCAR driving peers.
“The only thing I knew was that there were people in those wrecked cars in front of me and I couldn’t hit one of them because they’d probably not walk away from it,” Marty explains. So what did he do? “I looked down the track and saw Marty coming right at me,” Richard Childress recalls. “I knew if he hit me in the driver’s side I’d either be mangled badly or killed. There was no way of me escaping injury and no way out of his path. Then I saw something I am still not sure I can believe. Marty turned the wheel of the car right and it veered into the concrete wall.”
With a split second to make a decision, Marty Robbins decided to risk his own life by plowing 160 mph into a concrete wall instead of plowing into the pile of cars. The crowd fell into a hush for a full minute until finally Marty Robbins could be seen emerging from the mangled #42 Dodge. The crowd let out a roar as Marty boarded a stretcher from an ambulance and was taken to the infield care center. He was later transferred to the Charlotte Memorial Hospital where he received 32 stitches to close a gash between his eyes (see picture above). He also suffered two broken ribs and a broken tailbone.
After the race, a NASCAR official was quoted saying, “What he (Marty) did out there today saved at least one life and probably kept some other drivers from being maimed. He could have killed himself moving into that wall that way. But in the split second that counted he chose to possibly give his life over hurting somebody else. I don’t think you can be much more of a man than that.”
Richard Childress was quoted after the race saying, “There is no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now if Marty Robbins hadn’t risked his life to save me.”
Marty Robbins passed away in 1982, and the following year NASCAR named their annual race at the Nashville Speedway the “Marty Robbins 420.” Darrell Waltrip, the man who will call Sunday’s Daytona 500, was the winner.
Words and quotes from “Country Song Roundup Magazine” march 1975, and pictures from cottonowens.com.