Bobby Isaac was the champion of NASCAR in 1970, but he is little-known today. He disliked giving interviews to the press and he died in 1977. For a brief period of time though, NASCAR fans knew who he was. One year he won 17 races. Another, 20 poles. Later, he set 28 World land speed records at Bonneville. This story isn't about that. It's about his temper.
One impediment to Isaac's racing career was his temper. At small tracks, Isaac thought nothing of dispensing his own justice after a race – perhaps punching a driver who had bumped him unfairly – or during a race, by running a driver off the course if the infraction couldn't be ignored at the time.
Some said, "When Bobby Isaac runs, one of two things is going to happen – he's either going to win the race or the fight afterward." No one accused him of starting fights without being provoked – Isaac only went after people who clearly deserved it. At least, deserved it in his opinion. Authorities believed differently.
Isaac's methods of settling scores drew fines from the sanctioning bodies of the tracks he raced. Sources claimed that Isaac was the most fined driver in NASCAR history, although no one kept exact track. A battle of wills ensued; Isaac would start a fight, and he would be fined.
He would pay the fine and fight again at the next race. To discourage him, officials kept raising the fines, until they were double his winnings. The executive manager of NASCAR at the time, Pat Purcell, was known as a man whose tolerance had limits. "Let me handle it. I'll cure that little bastard," he said. He waited for the right occasion.
Isaac kept fighting, until one day – following a weekend in which Isaac was involved in fights at two different tracks on two successive nights – Purcell received a phone call from Isaac. It was 1960, and Isaac fought in Columbia on Thursday night and Myrtle Beach on the Friday of the same week; the second fight was "getting under way when the law stepped in and broke it up." Isaac knew the call was inevitable and made it himself to get it over with.
"When I told him who was calling, he flat cussed me out, three dollars and ninety-five cents worth, because that's what the phone bill was," Isaac said.
But at the end of the cussing, Purcell calmly explained it to him:
"Racing doesn't need you, but it's up to you to decide if you need racing. Racing is going to get along without you unless you change your ways and learn to use your head instead of your fists. Now it's up to you." He slammed the phone down without waiting to hear Isaac's response. Recounting the call later, Isaac said, "That day I got the message."
Once he focused on racing, Isaac's career took off. Instead of his temper, some reporters dogged him about his education. He had dropped out of school quite young but didn't see the relevance of discussing it with reporters. "I've made it, but I may have made it faster if I had finished my formal education. I really prefer not to talk about it."
A writer for Car and Driver wrote about Isaac in October 1970, saying, "he'd have been an armed robber" if he hadn't been successful as a racer. The article detailed Isaac's lack of education, suggesting Isaac was illiterate and that his wife "teaches him a new word over the breakfast table each morning."
Isaac didn't take it as good-natured ribbing. The writer later said, "The next time I saw Bobby Isaac was from the carpet of the Mission Inn in Riverside, California. I'm standing there shootin' the shit with David Pearson, and Isaac walks up behind me and coldcocks me over the ear."
It turned out that he could read.
This story was excerpted from Steve Lehto's book Bobby Isaac: NASCAR's First Modern Champion, which is available on Kindle for $2.99. Lehto interviewed David Pearson, Ned Jarrett, several members of Allison's crew, and dozens of others including several who were at the race the night he died.
Steve Lehto is an author, attorney, and educator. Most recently he wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: Detroit's Coolest Creation, which you can read a chapter from here.