Bobby Isaac's journey to become the 1970 NASCAR Grand National champion is a classic rags-to-riches story. The son of a mill worker and one of nine brothers and sisters, Isaac didn't own a pair of shoes until he was 13. Lacking parental supervision, he quit school in the sixth grade, racked balls in a pool hall, and did a lot of aimless hitchhiking.
It wasn't until 1956, when he was 24, that he went racing full time. "I used to race four or five times a week. I raced wherever and whenever I could," he said. During his tenure in the Modified and Sportsman bullrings, Isaac became one of the winningest drivers of the late 1950s and early '60s.
He also established new standards for being fined by NASCAR executive manager Pat Purcell. After a heated battle on the track, Isaac would tend to settle "paybacks" with a huge right hand. It took a few years for Purcell to break Isaac of this habit. "He told me that I needed racing a lot more than racing needed me," reflected Isaac. "Racing would do just fine without me, and if I wanted to be a racer, I'd have to get a handle on my temper."
In 1963, a more mature Isaac broke into the NASCAR Grand National ranks driving Ford and Plymouths for Bondy Long. His impressive finishes in equipment regarded as second rate caught the eye of Ray Nichels, who headed a Dodge and Plymouth factory team. Nichels seated Isaac in a Dodge for the '64 season.
Isaac won his very first start for Nichels in the 100-mile qualifying race at Daytona, nosing out Jimmy Pardue and Richard Petty in a three-car photo finish. In 19 starts during the 1964 NASCAR Grand National season, he posted five top-five finishes, including a second in the Atlanta 500.
Boycotts by the automobile manufacturers marred the 1965 and '66 seasons, and Isaac was forced to sit out most of '65 while Chrysler was on the sidelines. He joined the Junior Johnson Ford team in '66 and was again trapped in a corporate dispute.
Meanwhile, Nord Krauskopf, owner of the K&K Insurance Co. in Ft. Wayne, Ind., was forming his own NASCAR team. He hired Harry Hyde to turn the wrenches, and, in '67, persuaded Isaac to drive the car. Krauskopf announced a five-year plan to win the NASCAR championship.
Isaac ran a partial 12-race slate in 1967 with a top finish of second at Charlotte. In '68, the K&K Dodge team entered all the races and nearly won the title. With three short-track victories, Isaac finished second to David Pearson in the final standings.
"We were basically a new team," said Isaac. "Harry was relatively new to NASCAR and we didn't have any factory help that year. Getting beat by Pearson with all his experience and factory help wasn't too bad."
In 1969, Isaac won 17 races, including his first on a superspeedway at the new Texas track, and earned 20 poles. The 20 poles in a single season remains an all-time NASCAR Cup Series record. "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," said Isaac.
The following year, Isaac and the K&K team jelled into one of stock car racing's most formidable teams. They won 11 races and snared the championship. "Winning the championship gave me personal satisfaction, but I'd rank it second to the Texas win," said Isaac. "The way I look at it, it took me seven years to win a superspeedway race and only three years to win the championship."
Isaac went on to win five more races for Krauskopf's team, never again running a full schedule. In 1972, he suddenly quit the team. He never won another race.
In 1973, he teamed with Bud Moore, who was developing a small engine for future use in NASCAR competition. At the '73 Talladega 500, Isaac called Moore on the radio and told him to get another driver because he was quitting. Isaac brought the car to the pits, climbed out and said he was retiring. The retirement lasted six months. From 1974 to '76, he ran only a few NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National events. During his big league NASCAR career, Isaac won 37 races in 308 starts.
In the twilight of his career, Isaac was back in the saddle of a Sportsman car, competing weekly at his old Hickory Speedway stomping grounds. On the night of Aug. 13, 1977, he suffered a heart attack after getting out of his car during a 200-lapper. He died early the next morning.
Bobby Isaac elevated himself from a world of poverty to one of the most successful stock car racers in the country. He made his own way. Nobody gave him anything.