Who was Bobby Isaac? Few People Really Knew
By Michael Smith
Granted, we might be hard-pressed to get intimate details about Red Byron (NASCAR’s first champion) but the so-called “Modern Era” champions are pretty much an open book with one possible exception: Bobby Isaac is arguably the most misunderstood and obscure of NASCAR’s champions from the past three decades.
Bobby Isaac’s upbringing was tough and unstructured. Born on August 1, 1932 or 1934 (accounts vary) to Jerry and Kathy Isaac, Bobby was the second to the youngest of nine children. The family home sat on 12 acres that provided the family income from cotton and corn crops.
When he was six, Bobby’s father died and before long, his mother took a job in a furniture store to provide additional income for the family. Bobby was left pretty much on his own during the day. “If I didn’t want to go to school I didn’t have to,” Isaac recalled in a 1971 magazine interview. At the age of 13, Bobby dropped all pretense of attending school and quit altogether. Three years later, his mother passed away, leaving Bobby and his brothers and sisters totally alone. The lack of formal education beyond the sixth grade led to perhaps the greatest myth of all; that Bobby could neither read nor write – an inaccuracy that has been repeated in a widely published history of NASCAR’s legendary heroes as recently as 1999. Isaac resented the persistent lie and worried that it might prompt other aspiring drivers to follow his path.
“I’ve made it,” Isaac said in 1971. “But I may have made it faster if I had finished my formal education. I really prefer not to talk about it. I think that if a boy is sincerely interested in auto racing he should finish school, go to college and get an engineering degree.”
Left literally to his own resources, a teenaged Bobby Isaac took a job in a sawmill, knocked off for a year, doing little or nothing, then hired on as a helper on an ice truck. Eventually, Bobby got fed up with job-hopping and living hand to mouth, and he set out hitch-hiking his way out of the farm country of North Carolina.
Fate intervened in Bobby’s plan, however. Bobby’s sister Goldie, ten years his elder, happened by and picked him up. Goldie convinced Bobby to come live with her and her husband Carl Setzer. Bobby took a job in yet another sawmill, working with his brother-in-law. Bobby remained with his sister until about the age of 19 when he married. However, within a year the marriage was over and Bobby went back to job-hopping.
In the meantime, Bobby had taken to racing. Bobby had seen his first race at about the age of 17. Right around the time of his first marriage, a track was built in Hickory, North Carolina and for reasons he couldn’t explain later, Bobby went to see a race. Bobby went home with the itch to run the dirt track.
Bobby bought a 1937 Ford and put roll bars in it. “I thought it was a race car,” Bobby recalled years later. Bobby’s first local race ended abruptly when he flipped the Ford on the second lap. The wreck did little to dampen Bobby’s drive to race full time.
Bobby continued to work, jumping from the sawmill to a pool hall, then to a cotton mill while getting in whatever weekly racing he could. Then, in 1956 Bobby went racing full time, racing a sportsman division car with Frank Hefner four or five nights a week. Bobby pulled down between $100 to $125 per week during the 1956 and 1956 seasons, more than he could make as a regular working man. In the off-season, Bobby bided his time working with his brother-in-law farming and drilling wells.
In 1958 Bobby took another important step when he spent the season with Ralph Earnhardt. During that season Bobby won some 28 feature events racing against the likes of Ned Jarrett, David Pearson and Ralph Earnhardt. “I got to know some of the drivers, but not well enough for them to let me have a car,” Bobby remembered wistfully, years later.
The inaugural World 600 at Charlotte nearly gave Bobby an opportunity to turn hot laps in a Grand National event. Not knowing the effects of running a 600 mile race, Jimmy Thompson’s team asked Bobby to act as a stand-in, just in case Thompson should become too tired to finish the event. Bobby took the car out for practice and turned laps in the 116 mph range. Unfortunately, Thompson’s car gave up before he did and Bobby didn’t get a chance to fill in during the actual race.
In the next World 600, Bobby piloted Junior Johnson’s main event car during one of the mandatory 100 mile preliminary races. Johnson, wanting to save his World 600 car, asked Bobby to take two laps and park the car, which Bobby obligingly did, without fanfare or compensation. “…I was still happy to do it,” Bobby told a reporter years later.
While continuing to show his prowess on the shade tree, small town, dirt track modified circuit Bobby received a call from a wealthy young man by the name of Bondy Long. Long had recently purchased a Plymouth from the Petty camp and wanted Bobby to run for him in the 1963 season. Unfortunately, Bobby failed to finish his qualifying race and missed out on the Daytona 500. After a couple short track efforts, the team realized they needed better equipment. Long approached his mother, who seems to have been not only wealthy but more understanding than most. Momma Long fronted the money to purchase a car from the powerhouse Holman-Moody shop. The new car arrived less than a week before the Atlanta 500. Bobby qualified the car in 21st position and finished in 20th when a blown engine sidelined him late in the race. Mechanical woes sidelined them more often than not during the next few races and a rift grew between Bobby and the chief mechanic Mack Howard. Following the Southern 500 Bobby stepped out of the car, knowing that it would have to be him or Howard. “Bondy had his choice. Mack or me. I went.” Nevertheless, Bobby would wind up being a friend of Mack Howard’s.
Bobby took a chance and called Smokey Yunick to inquire about piloting a car for the “Best Damned Garage In Town.” Smokey needed a driver for the National 500 in Charlotte so Bobby stepped into the car, but after being involved in a couple of accidents, Bobby pulled the car behind the wall.
In the winter of 1963 Bobby got what was perhaps his biggest break when Bud Allman, a former mechanic for Ned Jarrett, went to work for Ray Nichels. Once in the Nichel’s camp, Allman began to push to have Bobby installed as the driver. Bobby eventually got the job, but later learned that had he even once complained about the car, he would likely have been passed over for Paul Goldsmith.
Bobby married Patsy Ann Story on December 22, 1963 and enjoyed four short days together before Bobby hustled off to be with the Nichels’ team. “It was my first factory ride, and I wasn’t going to give it up,” Bobby explained years later.
At the 1964 Daytona 500 Bobby dashed to a surprise victory over Richard Petty and Jimmy Pardue in the second qualifying race – his first start for the factory backed team. The finish was not without its excitement however. Coming to the checkered flag, Richard Petty had nearly a half lap lead when he ran out of gas and coasted across the line doing about 45 mph while Bobby and Jimmy Pardue whizzed by at nearly 170 mph. The photo finish camera clicked but produced a blank sheet and the call went out for anyone with pictures of the finish. Meanwhile, Bobby, Richard and Jimmy shared the spotlight, each holding on to the trophy. Four hours later it was announced that Bobby had been the winner.
Bobby and the Nichels team ran 19 races in 1964, earning 7 top ten finishes including their win in the Daytona qualifier and a top ten in the Daytona 500 despite engine woes. The story of Bobby’s 1964 season seems to be “close but no cigar” as time and again he was narrowly edged out on the super speedways. He finished second to Fred Lorenzen in the Atlanta 500 and second to A.J. Foyt in the Firecracker 500 when Foyt made a pass for the win on the last lap.
Following Big Bill France’s veto of the hemi engine in 1965, Ray Nichels took Bobby and the team to the USAC circuit. Bobby looked back on that stint somewhat fondly. “We had a pretty good season up there. I won two races and I led several others before we returned to NASCAR late in the 1965 season.”
The Nichels team returned to NASCAR racing late in the season but Bobby didn’t last long, quitting the Dodge-backed effort to drive for Junior Johnson who had recently received backing from Ford for the 1966 season. That season turned out to be not so stellar for Bobby.
On track wrecks, coupled with Ford’s boycott of NASCAR for part of the season, conspired to hamper Bobby’s effort. To make matters worse, when Ford returned, Bobby was released as driver. “It wasn’t a good year for me. I wrecked in seven or eight races. Ford quit for awhile and when it came back I was fired. I still made about $15,000 despite a bad year. Ford paid me a salary of $200 a week while it was out of racing and even after I was fired. I also got $100 weekly salary from Holly Farms.” Not bad for part-time, back-of-the-pack racing.
The future did not look bright for Bobby Isaac in mid-1966. As he explained himself a few years later, he had quite a Dodge team and Ford didn’t want him. The prospects for being picked up by any team seemed dim indeed. Even a ray of light at the end of the season flickered and died. Asked by Cotton Owens to fill in for David Pearson in the season’s final race, Bobby gladly obliged but seemingly like his career, the car developed a mechanical problem and he was forced to drop out. There seemed to be no end to Bobby's struggles.
Next Time: Part II of the Bobby Isaac Story.
copyright 2001. Michael Smith