NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. always had a great vision for the sport of stock car racing, and a big part of that master plan was to take the sport from its Southern roots and spread it across America.
One of his tools was the old “Northern Tour.”
From the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, when the series now known as Sprint Cup left Daytona International Speedway after the Firecracker 400 on the Fourth of July, a caravan of racers headed north.
The “Tour” usually made a stop at a short track in Virginia then continued on to several of the popular short tracks around the New York/New Jersey area. The Tour also featured a race at one of the major tracks in the area, typically either Trenton Speedway in New Jersey or Watkins Glen in New York.
The 1965 Northern Tour saw the Wood Brothers, who now field the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion for Ryan Blaney, and their driver Marvin Panch dominate the races on the tour.
Panch, who passed away last New Year’s Eve, started on the pole on July 9th at Old Bridge Stadium in Old Bridge, N.J., and dominated the 200-lap race for the first 141 laps before surrendering the lead to eventual winner Junior Johnson, who recorded his 10th win of that season and the 47th of his career.
On July 14, the tour moved to Islip Speedway in Islip, N.Y., a relatively tiny .2-mile paved oval. Panch again started from the pole, but this time he led all 250 laps and was a lap ahead of second-place Dick Hutcherson when the checkered flag fell. It was Panch’s third win of the season, the first two coming via a sweep of the races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
From there the tour moved to Watkins Glen. With qualifying cancelled, Panch started third, but took the lead on Lap 14 and led the remainder of the 66-lap run over a 2.3-mile course. Only runner-up Ned Jarrett was on the same lap with Panch at the finish.
It was the fourth and final win that season for Panch and the eighth and final one of his career aboard the Wood Brothers’ Ford.
After 1965, Watkins Glen dropped off the Cup schedule and did not return until 1986. Panch was invited back to serve as Honorary Starter for that race, and afterward, the green flag, with the signatures of all the drivers in the starting field, was given to Panch, whose daughter, Marvette in turn presented the flag to the Wood Brothers.
Overall, the Wood Brothers have competed in 24 Sprint Cup races at the Glen, with a runner-up finish by Morgan Shepherd in 1992 and a third-place by Marcos Ambrose in the team’s most recent Glen race, in 2008. Ambrose drove his way to a podium finish after starting 43rd.
Team co-owner Eddie Wood said that even though Blaney has never driven in a race at Watkins Glen, he’s optimistic based on his young driver’s skill at road racing and the fact that the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team tested there a week ago.
“I think we will be OK,” Wood said. “There’s always a lot of strategy played there, and if we can work it right and get track position at the end, we’ve got as good a chance as anyone to get a win.”
Wood said a good finish at the Glen is important, especially with only five races remaining in the 26-race regular season and Blaney still in the hunt for one of the 16 berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I’m hoping for a good run to keep our Chase hopes alive,” he said.
Blaney enters this weekend’s Cheez-It 355 at the Glen tied for 17th in the driver standings.
Panch, Wood Brothers Ruled Watkins Glen, Northern Tour in ‘65
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