Cup Champion: 1970
Born: August 1, 1932
Died: August 14, 1977
Hometown: Catawba, North Carolina
Premier Series Stats:
Bobby Isaac possessed the one attribute that all NASCAR drivers crave. He was quite simply; fast. In 1969, he captured the record for most poles in a single season with 19. That record still stands today. In fact, only 38 drivers have achieved 19 or more poles throughout their entire career.
Isaac is probably one of the least known NASCAR Champions. Often described as a loner and reluctant to give interviews, he was most comfortable behind the wheel of a race car.
He was the second youngest of nine children and his father died when he was six. The kids were left to take care of the farm and themselves while their mother found work in town and Isaac eventually quit school at the age of 13. Three years later his mother passed away. Many of the details surrounding his young life vary depending upon who you ask. But most will agree that his life changed when he first set eyes on a race track and that track was Hickory Motor Speedway, otherwise known as “America’s most famous short track.”
He was around 19 or 20 when he decided that he wanted to become a race car driver and he began competing and winning in other peoples’ cars at the local dirt tracks. Isaac became part of a group of racers including NASCAR Hall of Famers (NHOF) David Pearson, Ned Jarrett and Richard Petty who frequented the same tracks.
Pearson had seen Isaac around and introduced himself at one such track in Cowpens, South Carolina.
“He was hard to talk to,” Pearson said. He wouldn’t talk to nobody. He was kind of quiet and everything. I just more or less made him talk to me. I liked him and we became real close friends.”
Isaac spoke about those early days saying, “One time I drove 200 miles to drive a fellow’s modified car with $4 in my pocket. I figured that I’d have enough to buy gas to get down there and eat a hot dog before the race. The gas was $3, but I had to put two quarts of oil in my car so I was broke when I left town. When the feature started my stomach was not only growling but I didn’t have enough gas to get back home. I drove that car as hard as I could and won. I had to win!”
Isaac was making his mark on the dirt track circuit but what he really wanted was to move up to the NASCAR Grand National Series (now Sprint Cup Series). But that required money he didn’t have so he began looking for someone to finance him.
Unfortunately, while Isaac was becoming known as a fierce and successful competitor he was also gaining a reputation as a hot head. If he felt someone had raced him unfairly, he would settle the dispute with his fists off the track or by running a driver off the track during a race.
It has been said that Isaac was one of the most fined drivers in NASCAR history. Although there are no records to back up this claim, his temper is well documented. It soon became a battle of wills; Isaac would get in a fight and NASCAR would fine him. The more he fought, the higher the fine.
The story goes that finally NASCAR had enough and Pat Purcell, the executive manager of NASCAR at the time, laid down the law.
“Racing doesn’t need you,” Purcell said, “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.”
Isaac took the advice to heart and later began to golf, which started off as a way to exercise, but became a way to let off steam.
‘I’m taking my temper out on the course now,” he explained, “not on the race track. That’s no place to get mad. There’s a difference. You break a golf club, you can always replace it.”
The turning point in Isaac’s career came when he got a phone call from the famed crew chief and mechanic, Harry Hyde. K&K Insurance, owned by Nord and Teddi Krauskopf, was financing a team and they wanted Isaac as their driver. The plan was to run 12 races in 1967 with the goal of winning a championship in a few years.
In 1968, he ran his first full season in the Grand National Series and finished second in the series standings to David Pearson. In 1969 his 19 poles and career-high 17 wins earned him a sixth place ranking at season’s end.
The 1969 season also featured what Isaac called his most satisfying victory, even more so than his 1970 Championship. It came at the last race of the year at the two-mile Texas World Speedway in College Station, Texas. It was the track’s inaugural race, the Texas 500, and NHOF nominee Buddy Baker had the win in sight after leading 150 laps. But Baker crashed during caution as he was apparently trying to read the pit board with only 21 laps remaining. Isaac grabbed the win, leading the last 19 laps.
It was Isaac’s 20th victory but his first win at a track larger than one mile.
“We won a lot of short-track races, but we couldn’t pull it all together on the big tracks until the last race of the season at Texas. That win was my biggest moment in racing,” Isaac told Greg Fielden for “NASCAR: The Complete History.”
In 1970, Isaac won the Cup championship scoring 11 wins, 13 poles and 32 top-fives in his No. 71 K&K Insurance Dodge Charger Daytona.
“Winning the championship gave me personal satisfaction, but I’d rank it second to the Texas win,” Isaac said. “The way I look at it, it took me seven years to win a superspeedway race and only three years to win the championship.”
He later came to appreciate the significance of his championship. Isaac appeared in a documentary called “Once upon a Wheel,” hosted by Paul Newman. It was filmed in 1971 and various drivers were asked why they chose to race.
“This has been a life-long ambition for me since I’ve been in racing, to be the Grand National Champion,” Isaac replied. “I had a lot of good friends that was the champion years before me and I like when we’re standing around to feel that I’m as good as they was. They was the world’s champion and I’m the world’s champion.”
Isaac’s claim to fame did not end there. In September 1971, he took his Dodge to the Bonneville Salt Flats and set 28 world-class records in one day. Many of those records still stand today.
In 1972 Isaac walked away from the K&K Insurance team amid problems between owner Krauskopf and NASCAR over rule changes. Those issues led to Krauskopf boycotting some races while Isaac sat on the sidelines. He was also unhappy to learn that the team had agreed to run a second car with Buddy Baker, feeling that it would unfairly divide their resources. More than anything, Isaac just wanted to race every week but he remained appreciative of all the opportunities he had been given by Krauskopf.
“They were awfully good to me. I can’t say anything bad about Nord or Harry. They did what they thought they had to do,” he emphasized. “I won more races in two years than most drivers have in a career.”
Isaac continued racing until 1976, but he never won another NASCAR race after leaving the K&K Insurance team. His final race was at Hickory Motor Speedway on August 13, 1977. With 10 laps to go, Isaac pitted. He asked for a relief driver and took a few steps after leaving his car, but suddenly collapsed.
Dr. Jerry Punch, a veteran ABC/ESPN broadcaster, was a second-year medical student at the time and was in the announcer’s booth that night.
“It was a typical Isaac race, smooth and consistent,” said Punch. “But with about 40 laps to go, he got very erratic. After driving all over the track, Isaac pulled into the pits with 10 laps to go. It looked like a case of heat prostration.”
“They took him to Catawba Memorial Hospital in Hickory,” Punch continued. “When I walked in, they had Bobby on one of the tables. He still had his fire suit on, but it was unzipped, and he had his sleeves tied around his waist. And he told me, ‘That old car just drove so hard tonight. My arms just ache.'”
As Isaac was being examined in the X-ray room, he went into cardiac arrest and the doctors were unable to revive him. He was only 45 years old at the time of his death.
Isaac had a short but impressive career. His quiet demeanor off the track was in stark contrast to the intensity with which he drove a race car. A man of few words, he let his actions on the track do his talking for him.
1970 – Driver of the Year Award from the National Motorsports Press Association
1979 – Inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame
1996 – Inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame
1998 – Named One of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers
2012 – Nominee to NASCAR Hall of Fame
Dr. Jerry Punch quotes http://www.caranddriver.com/features/aero-warrior-the-death-of-isaac-page-1
Bobby Isaac, David Pearson and Pat Purcell quotes: “Bobby Isaac: NASCAR’s First Modern Champion” by Steve Lehto