Auto Racers in Vietnam in December 1971
Operation Keystone – Bringing the Boys Home
1971 was a hot combat year in Vietnam with 2414 U.S. deaths but the main focus of the year was the pull-out of troops, Operation Keystone. July 1, 1969 through August 31, 1969 there was Operation Keystone Eagle, the pull-out of the 9th Infantry Division. There would be 13 more Operation Keystones, in alphabetical order: Blue Jay, Cardinal, Eagle, Mallard, Oriole Alpha, Oriole Bravo, Oriole Charlie, Owl, Pelican, Pheasant, Robin Alpha, Robin Bravo, Robin Charlie, and Wren.
Back: Ray Marquette, Art Pollard, General Creighton Abrams, Richard Petty, Butch Hartman, Captain Fettis
Front: Wally Dallenbach Sr., Don Garlits
On December 6th, a contingent of Don Garlits from NHRA drag racing; Wally Dallenbach Sr., Art Pollard, and Bill Vukovich Jr. from USAC open wheel racing; and Butch Hartman from USAC’s stock car division headed to Vietnam to visit American servicemen. When rain postponed NASCAR’s season-ending race by a week, Richard Petty had his scheduled altered as well. After his win in Texas on December 12th, the King departed for Vietnam on Monday, December 13th.
Ray Marquette, who accompanied the racers to Vietnam, was a long-time reporter/photographer for the Indianapolis Star. He later became USAC’s Vice President of Public Affairs. He, seven other USAC officials, and the pilot were tragically killed in a plane crash in April 1978.
General Abrams, included in the photo with the drivers, was appointed to Chief of Staff of the US Army in June 1972 – about six months after the drivers’ visit. The army’s M1 Abrams tank is named in his memory.
In his book Tales from the Drag Strip, Garlits recalls about the trip to southeast Asia:
Back during the Vietnam War, President Nixon asked a bunch of racers around December if we’d go over to Vietnam and visit some of the kids who were fighting and weren’t going to make it home for Christmas. So I spent 16 days rooming with Richard Petty in Saigon. I’ll tell you, it was something I’ll never forget when we had to helicopter out to where the troops were in the field.
We took fire as we flew over the jungles, and we returned machine gun fire with the Viet Cong. Luckily, we were flying high enough that they couldn’t hit us, but we could hit them. But the time I spent with Richard showed me he is a real person. What you see is what you get.
An AP wire story published about six months later in the San Bernadino Sun reported:
The troop of drivers were barely unpacked, the story goes, when Garlits and Hartman delighted the soldiers with an impromptu race in two 20-ton tanks. After Garlits had edged Hartman at the wire, one of the soldiers shouted, “Garlits, you jumped him, you jumped him.” “Aw.” said Garlits, “I heard him rev’ing his engine and figured it was time to go.”
As far as I know, the Racers group didn’t cross paths with the Bob Hope group in December 1971 but this video gives you a good feel of what American Culture looked like in December 1971. I was 15 and this was an exciting time to grow up in. webmaster David Owen