By Vincent Delforge, special to KickinTheTires.net
The 500th race in the history of the current ARCA Menards West Series, then called the NASCAR Winston West Series was held on November 29, 1981 at Phoenix International Raceway located in Avondale, AZ. The Warner W. Hodgdon 250 being the 14th and final race of the season. A season marked by the battle between the 1980 champion, the Canadian Roy Smith, and the Americans Jim Robinson, who has been gaining momentum for three seasons and the double champion Bill Schmitt (1977 & 1979). To this trio, we must add the surprising Don Waterman who, in the absence of a victory, was very consistent in the top 10 and even very successful in the races combined with the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
It is therefore a quartet that will fight to win the championship. But as since its arrival on the West Series calendar in 1977, the Phoenix race attracts the stars of the Cup. And this year 1981 is no exception to the rule with the presence of Richard and Kyle Petty, Bobby Allison and Neil Bonnett. The enthusiasm for the Phoenix track can be explained by the fact that Cup drivers are already on the West Coast at this time in their calendar. But there are also the nice racing bonuses and also that it is rumored that Phoenix will soon join the Cup calendar. This rumor is true even if it will be necessary to wait until 1988 for it to come true!
This asphalted one-mile oval has hardly changed since its creation except for the recent change in its start-finish line. It is still on the West Series schedule. The track has even been visited twice a year since 2021, starting and ending the championship.
Let’s go back to the race that interests us in this article, that of 1981. Roy Smith arrives as the championship leader with only nine points ahead of Robinson and 58 over the Schmitt-Waterman duo. Neil Bonnett in his Wood Brothers Ford will take pole position, his second here after that obtained in the inaugural race in 1977. The regulations have since changed, which explains why this year’s pole is 2.5 miles slower. He is ahead of Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Bill Schmitt, fourth, the best representative of regular West drivers. The third row is occupied by Kyle Petty and Hershel McGriff. Roy Smith, who does not particularly appreciate this oval is only in ninth position. The other championship contenders are respectively seventh for Robinson, and 14th for Waterman.
The start is given under a blazing sun for 156 laps or 251 kilometers. Neil Bonnett took advantage of his pole position to lead a small group made up exclusively of Cup drivers with the exception of Bill Schmitt. The second group is led by McGriff, the two Jims, namely Bown and Robinson and the Canadians Gary Kershaw and Smith.
McGriff is the first of the ‘big guys’ to quit. From the 10th lap his Buick lost speed. He will have to give up on breakage of his transmission. In front of Bonnett, Petty and Allison widened the gap. The first yellow flag came on lap 32 when Steve Pfeifer and Chuck Pittenger collided on turn 4. The leaders took the opportunity to go through the pitlane to change tyres. Leaving command to Roy Smith and Don Waterman.
But as soon as the green flag was waved, Bonnett regained the leadership of the race. Very bad strategy for those who stayed on the track. With their old tyres, they will quickly lose a lot of time and even lose a lap on the leaders. Note that Johnny Kieper spun on the oil lost by Bob Bondurant but without causing a yellow flag.
The second and final yellow flag came on lap 73 when the group fighting for sixth position, made up of Jim Robinson, Gary Kershaw and Don Waterman, collided on turn 3. For Robinson, it was retirement. He will not be champion. Waterman will repair but lose a lot of time, also losing all hope of winning the title. The leaders take advantage of this to return to the pitlane for a new set of tires.
At the restart, Neil Bonnet leads the pack ahead of Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. Schmitt and Kyle Petty follow but a contact between the two will eliminate Schmitt from the battle for victory. This long run under green flag will be cruel for the West regulars. Goodyear having reserved its best tires for the star drivers of the Cup. What was common at the time to the great anger of the underdogs.
Richard Petty, already winner in 1979 and 1980, will take command on the 94th lap with Allison clinging like a leech to his rear bumper. But Bonnett will quickly regain second position from Allison. And he will reduce the gap on Petty in the last laps to fail, despite several attempts to overtake, to three tenths of a second! As in 1977, the pole position did not succeed in Bonnett. ‘The King’ Richard Petty takes the victory, his third in Phoenix. It is also his third and final victory in the West Series.
Kyle Petty and Bobby Allison finished third and fourth respectively, on the leader’s lap, but a good distance away. Bill Schmitt completes the top-five but two laps down. Roy Smith is right behind him and this sixth position allows him to win the championship. His second in a row with his owner, Seattle, WA businessman Robert Beadle. Jack Johnson, his crew chief, won his first championship.
Featured Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Steve Verbug via Vincent Delforge.