When Bobby Isaac drove a race car, you never had to wonder how fast the car could go.
“Bobby was fearless,” said Patsy Isaac, who was married to Isaac during his glory years in NASCAR’s top racing series. “He didn’t have any problems with speed, and he loved to go fast. And he didn’t just like to win – he loved it. He would take all kinds of chances to try and win because he hated losing so much.”
Said Pete Taylor, the mastermind engine builder from Charlotte who provided the firepower for Isaac’s championship season in 1970: “If Bobby could go to the front, he went to the front.”
Isaac, who died in 1977, will be one of five men inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte on Friday night.
From Catawba, N.C., Isaac was only 45 years old when he died of heart failure shortly after stopping during a race at Hickory Motor Speedway because he felt ill. But he packed quite a life into those 45 years – 37 wins in NASCAR’s top series, as well as 48 poles. Isaac also was married three times and had three children.
“Bobby grew up in abject poverty,” said Patsy Isaac, the second of Isaac’s three wives. A schoolteacher for 30 years, Patsy was married to Bobby from 1963 to 1975 and will give a speech on behalf of Bobby’s surviving family members on Friday night at the Hall of Fame event.
“Bobby was the second-youngest in a family of nine children,” she continued. “His father died when he was 5, and his mother died when he was 12. From that point on, he shuffled between older brothers and sisters and was kind of on his own. Racing was his way to overcome all of that.”
Bobby Isaac didn’t go to school past the sixth grade, Patsy Isaac said. Although there was an “urban legend” in NASCAR circles that he was illiterate, Patsy Isaac said, she added that was a myth. Bobby could indeed read and write. He once punched out a reporter who had suggested otherwise in print, she said.
The long road
He started at the lowest levels in racing, racing on the weekends and working all sorts of odd jobs (sawmill, ice truck, farming) during the week to try to make ends meet. A great dirt-track racer on shorter courses, it took a while for Isaac’s talent to be recognized. At one point, he fibbed about his age, Patsy Isaac said, to make himself appear younger to those who might hire him for a full-time ride.
Although in a race car Isaac loudly announced his presence with his lead foot, off the track he was hesitant to engage in any conversation outside his inner circle.
“Bobby was very quiet,” Patsy Isaac said. “He was very shy with strangers.”
Taylor built engines for several years for Bobby’s legendary crew chief Harry Hyde (Robert Duvall played a fictionalized version of Hyde in “Days of Thunder”). Taylor was so good at it that he once coaxed six victories out of a single engine – although he had to rebuild it at his Charlotte shop after the first three.
Although Taylor was around Isaac dozens of times during Isaac’s finest years, he said Isaac would sometimes come in the shop where his engines were being constructed, walk around, look at everything and then leave without ever saying a word to anyone.
In 1998, NASCAR honored Bobby Isaac by naming him as one of the sport’s 50 greatest all-time drivers
“He talked to Harry Hyde, and then Harry would later tell us what was on Bobby’s mind,” said Taylor, who is sharp at age 86 and still builds the occasional engine at his home in Charlotte. “Bobby was just a very quiet man, but he was a heck of a race car driver.”
Isaac won a remarkable 17 races in his red No. 71 Dodge Charger in 1969 but only finished sixth in the overall standings. In large part that was because of 19 DNFs – the dreaded “did not finish,” which was the downside of pushing a car as hard as Isaac drove it all the time.
In his title year of 1970, Isaac won 11 times. With Taylor building the engines and Hyde (who died in 1996) shepherding the team, Isaac was at his peak.
“Harry Hyde was like the father that Bobby had never had,” Patsy Isaac said. “They had that kind of special relationship.”
The following year, in 1971, Isaac would win four more times and go to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah (with more of Taylor’s engines) to break 28 different speed records, including one in which Isaac traveled 217.368 mph.
After that, though, Isaac’s career took a downward turn. In 1973, during the Talladega 500, he quit midway through a race under mysterious circumstances.
Isaac said a “voice” told him he needed to leave the race because he would die otherwise. His fears might have been exacerbated by the fact that another driver had been killed earlier in the race (and yet the race continued).
“As soon as he got out of the car and to a telephone at Talladega that day, he called and told me about it,” Patsy Isaac said. “He said that everything had become very quiet in the car – no motor noise, nothing – and then he heard this voice tell him that he needed to get out of the car. He shared all that with me, and I don’t have any doubt that he experienced that. Now whether that was in his mind or a verbal voice, I don’t know.”
Isaac “retired” from racing that day, but he ultimately couldn’t stay away.
“Like many athletes, he couldn’t stay retired, but he never had the success he had before,” Patsy Isaac said.
Four years later, in 1977, Isaac died of heart failure after the Hickory race. By then he was running a part-time schedule and driving with limited success, mostly on the short tracks where he had gotten his start.
“His final years were sad from a racing perspective,” Patsy Isaac said. “But during those years in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he really had it all.”
If you go
▪ Tickets are still available in limited quantities for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Dinner and Ceremony. Individual ticket and ticket packages are available at ticketmaster.com, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Box Office or by calling 800-745-3000. For more information, visit nascarhall.com, and for accessible seating, call 704-654-4400.
▪ The ceremonies will be televised live on NBCSN starting at 6:30 p.m. with the pre-event ceremonies and then the induction ceremony at 8 p.m.