At the same time Richard Petty was on his way to a record fifth championship, another driver was setting records all of his own. When Earl Ross won at Martinsville in 1974, the maple leaf flew for the first time in NASCAR, and hasn’t flown since.
Having built his first car in the early 1960’s, Ross would cut his teeth on the local short-tracks of Ontario, winning features and championships into the 1970’s. Having noticed the untapped potential, the Carling O’Keefe breweries sought to put Ross in the Daytona 500 for 1973, in an effort to promote their Red Cap Ale. Larry Smith, who was named the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year for 1972, was also set to return under the Carling banner that year.
Over Christmas break of ’72, the brewery brought in Donnie Allison to prepare Ross, with the outfit having sole access to the high banks of Daytona. Within 10 laps though, the team would expel their supply of engines, putting an end to the tests. That is until Junior Johnson stepped in, providing an engine to the team so they could run the 500. Qualifying in 30th place, Ross would turn 34 laps before, once again, his engine let go leaving him to finish 39th of 40 drivers. Carling teammate Smith fared better in the race, having started 17th and finishing 14th.
Ross would appear in two further races during ’73, placing 14th in the Winston 500 at Talladega, and 33rd in the Motor State 400 at Michigan. Tragedy would strike the team, and NASCAR, midway through the year. During the series return to Talladega in August, Smith would sadly be killed in a turn 1 crash, ending early the 31-year-olds life. In only 38 career starts, he recorded nine top-10’s, with a best finish of 6th coming at Charlotte and Michigan the previous year.
Returning in 1974 with Carling, Ross would enter 21 of the 30 races, starting the year with owner Allan Brooke. Their best success would come in their final race together, where Ross drove to a 2nd place finish at Michigan. Richard Petty won the event which ended under caution, with David Pearson finishing in 3rd. The trio would be the only drivers to finish on the lead lap that day, leading a combined 127 of 180 laps.
Beginning with the Firecracker 400 at Daytona, Junior Johnson once again came on board, this time as car owner. Ross would be teamed with Cale Yarborough for the remainder of the season, with the pair driving Chevrolet’s for the venerable veteran. The team would enjoy modest success for the short amount of time together, combining for 5 victories in only 15 races. Cale won 4 of them, adding to his previous 6 that year.
Earl’s lone triumph came at the fall race at Martinsville, in the Old Dominion 500. The Carling duo dominated most of the race, with Cale leading 288 laps before retiring with a blown motor. Trailing in second at the time Cale’s engine let go, Ross picked up the lead on lap 422 and never looked back. He would lead the final 79 laps in the victory, finishing over a lap ahead of Buddy Baker. For his efforts that afternoon, Ross would leave Virginia $14550 richer and a place in history, the only Canadian to win in Winston Cup race.
Upon seasons end, Ross was named Rookie of the Year, also a first for a driver hailing from the ‘Great White North’. Carling O’Keefe would depart NASCAR in 1975, however, leaving Ross without sponsor and car. He would only make two more starts in Winston Cup, the 1975 World 600 and the 1976 Daytona 500. Upon returning to Canada after the ’74 season, he would return to the local track circuit, picking up right where he had left off a few years prior. Ross would continue to race up until the late 1990’s, before hanging up his helmet for the final time.