Grand National stock car driver Lennie Pond wants to win races. That's why he may not be racing this season, the victim of economics and, he feels, some unfriendly politicking.
Since 1973, when he was named Grand National rookie of the year, Pond, 26, has been racing his own team fulltime. He parked his Chevrolet at the close of his best season last year because his primary sponsor, Pepsi Cola, did not wish to increase its annual payment of $41,000.
"It cost me $280,000 to run all 30 races," Pond explained in a phone interview from his new home in Chester, Va. "I paid out $100,000 for engine work and $40,000 for tires. I won about $150,000. With that, sponsorship and other income, I made it."
That's not good enough for Pond. He has an excellent record for a newcomer. While he had yet to win a Grand National race in 97 starts, he has finished among the top five 22 times; among the top 10 48, and won $245,000 in four years. In 1976, he was fifth in the final point standings.
"I could have run my engine easier. But my racing would suffer," he said. "Some drivers go out every Sunday to ride as long as heir car holds together. To me, that's not racing. That's just doing a job to earn grocery money. It's not my way because I love racing.
Pond talked seriously with owner Harry Hyde about driving his Dodge this season when Hyde's driver, Dave Marcis, left for the Roger Penske team. It is reported Hyde pays his drivers one third their winnings and no expenses.
About two weeks ago, Hyde said Nel Bonnett of Hueytown, Ala., would be his driver. Pond was "disgusted and disappointed." "I've been paving my dues for four years," he said. "It didn't mean anything when it came to getting a better ride. My wife and two sons have made many sacrifices so I could race. There's no point in hiding my feelings."
He feels the France family, Bills Sr. and Jr., pressured Hyde to give Bonnett, 29, and with a fair driving record, the ride. That might help them sell tickets to their nearby Talladega, Ala., track. They also own Daytona Beach, Fla., speedway and control NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, which runs the Grand National circuit. That's a lot of clout.
Naturally, the Frances have not commented on these matters. Hyde says Bonnett brought sponsorship for this season's two opening races with him. That was important since Hyde's primary sponsor, K & K Insurance, severely slashed its $400,000 annual racing budget.
"I could have got him a sponsor for two races," says Pond. "He never asked me. I don't think that had anything to do with it."
As for selling tickets, Pond points out Virginia has but one Grand national driver, part-timer Buddy Arrington of Martinsville, while Hueytown, Ala., has three, including the Allison brothers. "I sell tickets. My team has a good name and good record. Virginia fans go to races here and at North Carolina tracks." Those tracks are not owned by the Frances, however.
Pond is positive on one point. "I have to go back better than I ever was before," he said. "I have to go back to win."