There are two races than really stand out in my mind.
First, the 1981 Talladega 500, when Ron Bouchard, a great NASCAR Modified driver who made it to the Cup level, passed both Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte on the bottom of the track in the tri-oval and beat them to the finish line by a foot or so. It was one of the most exciting finishes I had seen. Bouchard became the 12th different driver to win the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway.
The other was the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at my favorite track, Darlington Raceway, when Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch did everything but wreck between the fourth and final turn and the finish line, with Craven edging Busch by 0.003 seconds, which to this day stands as the closest finish in NASCAR history.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim is the vice president of corporate communications for NASCAR.
The 1988 Pepsi Firecracker 400 … And Many Others
From being a sunburned 5 year old in attendance at the 1981 Firecracker 400 with my parents’ replica Richard Petty hat on my head and my white T-shirt that had a picture of the ‘76 STP Dodge Charger, I’ve had so many experiences that revolved around watching NASCAR on the television and in person that I really don’t know where to begin.
There are stories like the time we took folding metal chairs into Atlanta International Raceway (my home track) and sat behind the chain link fence at the top of the grandstands during the early 1980s, only to come back the next year and find a tall white picket fence. Then there’s the time I met Neil Bonnett at AIR in November 1985 during an autograph session with him, Michael Waltrip, Ken Ragan (David’s dad for those of you that don’t know!), and the late Davey Allison in the ticket office. My dialogue with Mr. Bonnett as a 9 year old Bill Elliott fan that day ended up as part of the write up on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports section the next day!
Then there’s the memory of getting to tour pit road that same day as part of an open house the track had, and they even had things like trivia where they gave away board games and Miller Racing seat cushions. And these weren’t easy questions, "What NASCAR official finished dead last in the first Atlanta 500?" There were a couple dozen guys there, all at least three and as many as four or five times my age that couldn’t get the question. So you can imagine their surprise when this nine-year-old little boy shouts out "Bill Gazaway" and walks off with their trivia prize!
Anyone who attended NASCAR races during that time can remember all the public appearances the drivers would make, at places you visited on a regular basis! It wasn’t uncommon to be able to go to the local Nationwise Auto Parts and get an autograph from Richard Petty, or down to Southlake Ford and meet the racing Elliotts of Dawsonville the Thursday night before the Atlanta race. And no autograph tickets! To me, those times are every bit as memorable as any race I’ve attended over the years, because you realized that these people we grew to idolize over the years were regular people just like us. They smiled and genuinely seemed happy to meet you and say thanks for your support. In an era of seemingly never-ending sponsor commitments, that’s one of the biggest things I’ve seen change over the years. I wonder if anyone has walked up to the current NASCAR flagman and have him be so friendly, just like Harold Kinder was to me during the rain delay of the 1986 Firecracker 400? He signed my hat, posed for a picture, and was as nice a man as I ever recall meeting.
But when it comes to the best race I ever saw in person, I had to think about it for a while. I’ve seen some outright confusing ones, such as the 1987 Firecracker 400, when Bobby Allison won the race but everyone in the grandstands was convinced the race for the win was going on between Buddy Baker, Dave Marcis, Ken Schrader and a hornet’s nest while Allison sped away. I’ve seen races where guys had no business winning the race, like the 1992 Motorcraft 500. In case you don’t remember, Bill Elliott caught a timely caution and trapped everyone a lap down although he had one of the slowest cars in the field, and went on to win his third race in a row. I saw Ken Schrader escape with his first win at Talladega in 1988, and I honestly don’t remember a day as hot as that one was.
I settled on the 1988 Pepsi Firecracker 400, simply because of the circumstances that went on that day. And it didn’t hurt that my all-time favorite driver, Bill Elliott, was the beneficiary!
For some reason, my family and Daytona Beach vacations went together. It was not uncommon for us to take 6-8 trips a year to Daytona. And the week of July 4 was always a given that we would be there. For years, my dad went to the Firecracker 400. Sometimes I’d get to go, but a lot of times that was contingent on how sunburned I managed to get in the pool of the Grand Prix Motel in the days leading up to the race!
Anyway, in 1988 my cousin and I accompanied my dad to the track for the race. I remember we had seats off turn four, near the gate opening before the entrance to pit road. If qualifying was any indication, I didn’t have much hope for the race. Bill Elliott had qualified in 38th spot for the race, and at the time that was so uncommon for Awesome Bill. When you came to Daytona, at the very least you could expect to see Bill on the front row! Of course, I can remember how everyone use to suggest Bill was always "sandbagging," not showing all his cards until it was time to go.
That was the reasoning I was forced to use as the cars rolled off pit road. There was an early wreck that collected several other Ford Thunderbirds in the early laps. Alan Kulwicki blew his engine off turn four right in front of us, and Benny Parsons and Brett Bodine were among those that got collected. Bill managed to slow down in time to avoid the trouble. But it got a lot worse before it would get better. Bill had a slow car in race trim, and couldn’t muster a lot out of the Coors/Motorcraft Ford in the first half of the race. As a matter of fact, the leaders came up to lap him.
And then a funny thing happened. The day before in practice, Bill got to drafting with Rick Wilson in the No. 4 Kodak Oldsmobile, and reeled off some very fast lap times. But the catch was that Bill had to be the lead car in the draft. If Wilson led the pack they slowed down. Well wouldn’t you know it? Wilson was the leader when they came up to lap Elliott, and Bill suddenly got REAL fast — enough to stay on the lead lap until the caution flew.
So then during the caution, Wilson has trouble in the pits and ends up at the tail of the field. Just in front of him on the restart — you guessed it — Elliott. The green flag flies, and Elliott and Wilson systematically march toward the front until they take the top two spots in the race. Wilson waits until the last lap to slingshot Bill, but he can’t clear him before they get off turn four. Bill gets the draft back and they start nudging and rubbing, side by side to the flag where ...
Bill wins the race by 18 inches!
I specifically remember Bill coming around on the cool down lap, with the side of his car all scraped up from the hard racing, fist shaking out the window and the crowd going nuts. Mind you, this was during a time when Elliott Mania was at its peak. I think what made that win all the more special to me was that it was the first of two wins I got to see my lifelong hero take in person. And to this day it’s one of the best finishes of all time, not to mention one of the unlikeliest winning cars based on performance.
Come to think of it, I can’t remember if we bought an extra roll or two of Kodak film for the camera that day. We probably should have!
The 1987 Winston 500 At Talladega Superspeedway
I recently received the DVD of the 1987 Winston 500 as my prize for winning one of the weekly trivia contests. Thanks for shipping it so quickly. I’m really going to enjoy watching it because I was at this race – my first at Talladega.
A friend of mine and I sat on the frontstretch a section to the right of the starter stand. I watched my first Daytona 500 from atop a motor home in the infield as a teenager. But this was my first time to watch a superspeedway race from the grandstands, and what a sight it was.
The home state crowd was all jacked up over both Bobby Allison and his rookie son Davey being entered. Davey ran a white-hood Ford at Daytona back in February, but now his Ranier Ford had the Havoline Star emblazoned on the hood and full sponsorship on the quarters.
The race had only been underway a short while when we heard the unmistakable “boom” sound of an exploding tire in the tri-oval. In an instant, fencing was being shredded right before our eyes. Fortunately, we were a section or two away and didn’t get any of the shrapnel up in our area. But for a moment we didn’t know what was going on or who was involved.
Immediately, multiple cannon shots were heard as everyone else piled into the wreck and also blew tires. Only when the red No. 22 Miller Buick came to a rest did we realize it was Bobby. I vaguely remember a bit of hush although it was probably just the remaining cars having raced out of sight. There was certainly a murmur everywhere as everyone started trying to figure out what they had just seen. And I remember the absolute roar once we all realized Bobby was OK.
As the race went on, the crowd went absolutely nuts as Davey was clearly in a position to win. However, as a Petty fan, I was keeping my eye on another car – the No. 7 Wood Brothers Citgo Ford driven by Kyle Petty. In the waning laps, Davey was clearly in control and raced on to his first career win before the home state crowd. Kyle pressed hard and passed a ton of cars late to end up third – the best finish of his career I ever got to see in person until seeing him match it at the 2007 Coke 600 in Charlotte. Thanks again for the DVD.
The 1963 Rebel 300 At Darlington Raceway
I Enjoy your Web site and the history of NASCAR!
I attended the 1963 Rebel Twins at Darlington, S.C. I was only eight years old at the time, and my father carried me, for which I was very grateful. Some of (the races) are just a fog, but I do remember them running it in two parts. The first was won by Joe Weatherly in a Bud Moore Pontiac and the second was won by Fireball Roberts in the No. 22 Holman Moody Ford (see editor’s note below). Weatherly was credited with the win. I don’t remember how they determined it.
Since it was a long time ago, if you could bring fans some information and facts as to how they came up with this format, it would be an interesting topic. I don’t think they ever did it again.
I did not miss a Southern 500 from 1963 to 2003. It was never totally rained out. Also, all the races at Darlington were run on Labor Day Monday and Saturday for the Rebel 300 in deference to the churches in the area.
Again, just thought you could investigate how they created the Rebel 300 one-and-two format. It would be a great history of NASCAR subject.
EDITOR’S NOTE: That is a great story!!! I have an answer for you, from Greg Fielden’s Forty Years of Stock Car Racing series. If you’re interested in racing history, this is THE series of books to have. They’re long out of print, so if you can find copies, snap ‘em up. Here’s what I came up with from the book, Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Superspeedway Boom 1959-1964: "Raceway President Bob Colvin devised a complicated and confusing system of determining the Rebel 300 winner. The event was broken into a pair of 110-lap races. This was the first time the spring race was not staged for Convertible stock cars, and Colvin felt it was necessary to conceive a new twist to attract a good crowd. "(Joe) Weatherly took the lead in the final lap of the first 151-miler when the Chevrolet of Junior Jonson stripped its rear gearing. (Weatherly) wound up second to Richard Petty in the second half of the race. Weatherly’s consistency enabled him to rack up 197.8 points in the ‘involved’ point system used solely to determine the winner of the race. "It was possible for a driver to pocket first-place money without ever leading a lap. ... The official rundown released by NASCAR was even more confusing than the races themselves. Johnson completed 110 laps and finished in 25th place, yet Herman Beam was listed one spot ahead of Johnson while running only 57 laps. Ned Jarrett completed 197 laps and got paid for 20th place, while David Pearson’s 180 laps were good enough for 12th place. "Only days after the race, NASCAR ‘suggested’ to Colvin and raceway officials that such a system had to go." Hey, the scoring for that race doesn’t sound any more complicated than the rules for getting a starting spot in the Daytona 500, does it?!?
The 1992 Hooters 500 At Atlanta/2003 Kroger 200 At IRP
The 1992 Hooters 500 was significant personally because it was the first race I was ever actually paid to cover. Just before I left, I got a check from my boss at the newspaper to cover my expenses for the weekend. Amazing. Talk about walking in tall cotton … that was me.
However, the race itself would turn out to be one of the most significant in the history of our sport. Going in, we knew it would be Richard Petty’s last race and Jeff Gordon’s first. Think about that crossroads for a minute, Old School meeting New NASCAR for the first and only time on the race track.
Which brings to mind, again, one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever seen at a track. After Petty was involved in a crash, his crew struggled to get him back on the track so he could take the checkered flag in his final race. After piecing the car back together, Petty climbed back in, put his helmet on, strapped the belts on and put up the window net.
How nice it would’ve been had he been left alone with his thoughts, but he wasn’t. A fan stepped up to the car — again with Petty in the car, strapped in, with his helmet on and his window net up — and tried to get The King to autograph something. He was quickly shooed away … thank goodness. It was one of the most awkward things I ever witnessed in the garage, and I felt bad for Petty.
That said, the Petty and Gordon storylines weren’t the only thing to watch. Six drivers came into the race with a mathematical shot at the title, and this was long before the contrived Chase. Davey Allison led the point standings heading into the finale, and after the pain he’d experienced in 1992, he was most certainly a sentimental favorite. He’d spent the night in the hospital after crashing with Kyle Petty at the finish of The Winston. He’d wrecked violently at Pocono, flipping heaven only knows how many times.
And his brother Clifford had been killed in a crash during Busch Series practice at Michigan.
Surely, Allison deserved to win the championship. A crash with Ernie Irvan — how ironic, as it would so sadly turn out just a year later — ended his chances. After that, it came down to Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki. Who would lead what lap? When would they pit? Would it be enough? Back and forth it went, with Kulwicki finally sealing the deal by leading the most laps.
That was the most important race I ever attended, but the best racing, period, that I covered was the 2003 Kroger 200 Busch Series event at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Over the last 100 laps or so, Brian Vickers and Shane Hmiel battled each other for the win like there was no tomorrow. They rubbed fenders, seeming to be glued together.
And if that wasn’t enough, Jason Keller and Scott Wimmer were locked in mortal combat just behind them. Hmiel led more than 150 laps, but it was far from a runaway. Vickers was on him like white on rice. Hmiel’s tires eventually faded, dropping him to fourth in the final rundown. Wimmer also spun late in the race, leaving him 12th. Still … dang … what a race.