Phoenix: Alan Kulwicki’s Victory Lap A Part Of NASCAR Lore

Alan Kulwicki's first career NASCAR victory came in Phoenix in 1988, where he created "The Polish Victory Lap." In 1992, he won the Winston Cup championship.

It looked like a scene in an old western movie.

Lined atop a ridge and silhouetted against the sky were dozens of Indians mounted on horseback, sitting there as if ready to swoop down and attack a passing wagon train.

The Indians wanted to see a “train” all right, but not one filled with pioneers seeking to settle the Old West.

The train they awaited was a long line of NASCAR Cup Series race cars, going into competition for the first time at Phoenix International Raceway.

The date was Nov. 6, 1988, and among the 43 drivers in the field for the NASCAR big time’s inaugural event in Arizona was Alan Kulwicki.

That event and driver of 24 years ago return to mind as the Cup teams gather again at the Arizona track for Sunday’s Subway 500.

The Gila River Indian Reservation bound the 1-mile Phoenix speedway on one side and the Gila River on the other.

The latter is where the horsemen had ridden from, negotiating the rugged, but picturesque, terrain of the Sierra Estrella Mountains.

They had no idea of the memorable stock car racing history they were about to witness.

Heck, no one in a crowd estimated at 63,000 fans, plus a big press contingent, had an inkling.

Engine failures and crashes on the essentially flat layout led to the race then known as the Checker 500 getting off to a slow start because of repeated caution flags.

In an especially frightening incident, Greg Sacks’ Olds hit the wall during a six-car tangle coming off the fourth turn and spectacularly burst into flame as it careened down the frontstretch.

Sacks escaped unscathed, as did the drivers involved in all the other wrecks.

Meanwhile taking turns at leading for stretches were Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd and Kulwicki, who had moved up from the 21st starting position.

Rudd’s Buick appeared to be by far the strongest car. He had been in front for a total of 182 laps and held a five-second lead when his engine failed on the 296th lap of the 312-lap, 500-kilometer race.

The misfortune of Rudd gave the front spot to the Ford-driving Kulwicki, and he maintained the lead the rest of the way, finishing a whopping 18.5 seconds ahead of runnerup Terry Labonte’s Chevy.

Kulwicki owned his own team and operated on a limited budget. In 1988, the year he won at Phoenix, his Fords received sponsorship from Zerex.

Ironically, Labonte had provided one of the breaks Kulwicki needed to score his first Cup victory after four years of trying and 84 previous starts.

During a restart from one of the caution periods, Labonte noticed the right front tire going down on Kulwicki’s car. Labonte radioed the information to his pit, and his crew relayed the message to that of Kulwicki, who was able to stop for a new tire without losing a lap.

Kulwicki, a driver nicknamed “Special K” who had struggled to build and operate his own team, was understandably emotional as he led the final 16 laps.

“I was almost crying,” said the 33-year-old driver, a native of Greenfield, Wisc., who had moved to Charlotte to pursue his motorsports career. “It had been a long road with a lot of hard work and heartache, but winning made it all worthwhile.”

Upon taking the checkered flag and going around most of the track on the cool-down lap, Kulwicki did the most stunning thing. He made a U-turn in his car while in the fourth turn and started back around the track clockwise.

For some time he had been planning what he might do when – and if – he ever won at NASCAR’s top level. Two months earlier he had decided. And now he was going to share the shenanigan with an amused, appreciative Phoenix Raceway crowd and fans watching the race telecast on ESPN.

“There never will be another first Cup win for me, so I wanted to do something memorable other than spewing champagne and standing on top of the car in Victory Lane,” said Kulwicki. “I wanted to give the fans something to remember me and my first win by, and I figured running the wrong way to celebrate would do it.”

Kulwicki, who had earned an engineering degree in college in Wisconsin, grinned broadly.

“It was my Polish victory lap!” he said.

Kulwicki could joke like that without arousing ethnic anger. His ancestors were Poles.

A bit later a serious Kulwicki acknowledged that some fans might feel he “inherited” the victory because of Rudd’s bad luck.

“I don’t feel I backed into it, ’cause I’ve lost some the same way,” said Kulwicki. “Falling out of races is a part of this sport, and it happens to everybody. I feel I earned the win fair and square.

“I was closing pretty fast on Ricky, driving and concentrating as hard as I could (in cutting an eight-second lead to five). I might have won anyway. We’ll never know.

“I’ve always believed that racing luck averages out. This time I finally got the breaks. I’ve always wondered if the feeling of winning would be as good as I anticipated. It is.”

Kulwicki was to know that feeling four more times. And also the absolute exhilaration of taking the Winston Cup championship in 1992, the last team-owner/driver ever to do so until Tony Stewart last year.

Kulwicki was his sport’s reigning champion when he tragically lost his life, along with four others, in the crash of his private plane on April 1, 1993, on landing approach at an airport in Tennessee while en route to a race at Bristol.

In the following months some other winning drivers, friends of Kulwicki, took “Polish Victory Laps” in his honor.

Through the seasons his clockwise turn of the track has often been copied.

However, Kulwicki’s original two dozen years ago will never be equaled.

The Two-Car Team, With Darrell And Neil, Came In 1984

After the close loss to Bobby Allison in the fight for the 1983 Winston Cup championship, few anticipated any changes at Junior Johnson & Associates.

There was little reason for them. After all, with Darrell Waltrip aboard as driver, the team had won consecutive titles, in 1981 and 1982, and had come so very close to a third in a row – which would have matched the record set by Cale Yarborough in 1976-78 when he drove for Junior.

However, not only were there mere changes, there were almost unprecedented changes.

With the participation of financial partner Warner Hodgdon, Junior re-fitted his entire organization.

It would become something that had rarely been attempted and only once had been successful in NASCAR history.

There weren’t many who believed that what Junior had done could possibly match it.

In 1984 the evidence would come soon enough.

Junior’s commentaries, and more, will return to www.motorsportsunplugged.com in January 2012.

Perhaps the most drastic changes I made at Junior Johnson & Associates came late in 1983 as we prepared for the ’84 season.

Now, I had shaken up things a bit in the past, that’s for sure. Carling Brewery actually bought my team in 1974 and we fielded a car for a Canadian rookie, Earl Ross, as well as one for Cale.

But what was to be a long-term arrangement ended after just one season and I was easily able to buy back my entire team.

Then, in 1982 for the ’83 season, I took on Warner Hodgdon, a California real estate developer, as a partner. I thought his input would be good for the team and, in fact, it was.

The first season with Hodgdon was a very good one despite the fact that, with Darrell driving, we came up short in our effort to win a third-straight championship.

We lost it by 47 points to Bobby Allison, who won the first title of his career – and, as I’ve said more than once, would have captured a whole lot sooner had he raced for me beyond the 1972 season.

But just before the 1984 season started, well, I reckon I let loose with a bombshell.

In November of 1983, I announced, with Hodgdon, that our team would switch from Pepsi sponsorship to Anheuser-Busch for 1984. I had worked with the company before with its Busch brand of beer, but this time it was going to be Budweiser.

And there was something else.

Junior Johnson & Associates would become a two-car team. Hodgdon was going to bring Neil Bonnett over from Rahmoc Enterprises to be our second driver under the Budweiser sponsorship.

We were going to be a multicar team – a rarity in NASCAR. It had happened only a few times in the past. I tired it a decade earlier and as I recall, the Pettys did it a couple of times in the early ‘70s, although not on a full schedule, with drivers Pete Hamilton and Buddy Baker.

And Carl Kiekhaefer made history with his multicar, championship team of the 1950’s.

Darrell wasn’t thrilled with the two-car concept. In fact, he didn’t like it a bit. Except for Kiekhaefer, no one had made it work.

I told Darrell that I’d make sure he wasn’t held back any by Neil’s team. And by the end of the season it was easy to see I kept my word.

The season started just about as well as it could for us. Neil won the Busch Clash at Daytona with a last-lap pass on Baker.

Darrell was masterful in the Daytona 500 but lost it when Cale and Dale Earnhardt came slinging by on the last lap.

By August, Darrell had won four races, at Bristol, Darlington, Nashville and Michigan. On the other hand, Neil hadn’t won but had

Labonte

Terry Labonte, driving for Billy Hagan, won the 1984 Winston Cup championship despite the fact he won only two races. Darrell Waltrip, who drove for Junior, won seven yet finished fifth in points. Waltrip said the points system should be changed to better reward victories - which it does today.

turned in some impressive performances.

Actually he would have won at Nashville if NASCAR hadn’t ruled in Darrell’s favor. Let me explain:

Darrell was leading on lap 418 of 420 when the yellow and white flags flew simultaneously following an accident. Neil passed Darrell and NASCAR gave him the checkered flag.

Darrell protested, saying he had been passed illegally.

Heck, I didn’t discourage him. Whatever ruling NASCAR handed down would be fine with me. My team would win either way – although I do admit I was hoping it would be Neil just for his personal satisfaction.

Two days later, however, NASCAR ruled in Darrell’s favor.

As the season moved into its closing months, Darrell was to win three more times. We ended the season with seven victories, more than twice as many as any other team.

But we didn’t win the championship. Terry Labonte, who had a very consistent season, with 17 finishes among the top five and 24 in the top 10, took the title.

But he won only two races.

As fate would have it, despite the fact that he won more races than anyone else, Darrell finished fifth in points, behind Labonte, Harry Gant, Bill Elliott and Dale. None of them won more than three times during the year.

As you might imagine, Darrell wasn’t very happy. He didn’t think a driver who won the most races should be shut out of a championship.

Heck, I agreed.

“Winning ought to award more points; bonus points,” Darrell said. “We’ve won more than anybody and we should at least be in contention for the championship. We ought to have a system that rewards running to win, not running just to finish.”

You know what? It’s pretty ironic that such a system is just what NASCAR has had for several years now.

Neil didn’t win in his first year with me, but he did have 14 top-10 finishes and wound up eighth in points.

Not a bad start for a multicar team, in my opinion.

However, it was just that – a start.

I didn’t know it at the time but a rocky road was ahead.

Some New Twists For 1983 And, Yes, Another Slugfest With Allison

Darrell Waltrip won his second consecutive career Winston Cup championship with Junior in 1982 and both he and Junior determined there was no reason they couldn’t earn yet another title.

However, things weren’t quite the same in 1983. Junior decided to take on a business partner; a team co-owner who would provide an infusion of money needed during a time when NASCAR organizations were clawing for sponsorships.

And, as had been in seasons past, the year did not start off well. Waltrip was involved in a serious crash at Daytona that left him virtually a shell of himself for a few weeks. Junior believes his driver never fully recovered from the incident.

A strong challenge was issued early from Bobby Allison, a long-time rival for Waltrip and Junior Johnson & Associates.

For much of the season, Junior’s team was up to the challenge – at least it was within striking distance of Allison’s DiGard Racing Co. team, which raced its way to No. 1 in the point standings.

The scenario seemed to be much the same as it was in 1982, when Allison and Waltrip fought it out in a memorable battle for the championship.

But then, the season wasn’t over.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

I know that many folks were stunned with a decision I made prior to the start of the 1983 season, but I did it because the offer was good and NASCAR was enduring a time when teams were scrapping for sponsors – and I didn’t want mine to be one of them.

When California businessman Warner Hodgdon – a real estate developer – came to me in late summer or early fall of 1982, he asked me about buying into my name and into Junior Johnson & Associates.

I took the offer because it was sound. It gave the team additional financial backing and it added to our sponsorship packages. It made Hodgdon my partner.

I had done something like this before, with Carling Brewery, almost a decade earlier. It didn’t last long but it proved worthwhile for me.

I thought it could be the same, even better, with Hodgdon. He had a half-interest in the Bristol, Nashville, North Wilkesboro and Richmond tracks. He sponsored both races at Rockingham and was a co-owner of the Rahmoc Enterprises team and driver Neil Bonnett.

So we began the 1983 season infused with new money, which, as you might think, raised our hopes for yet another championship with Darrell.

I have to admit I thought about how special it would be to win three consecutive titles with two different drivers. That would make NASCAR history.

But it seemed we were doomed almost from the start.

At Daytona, Darrell was involved in serious crash that began after Dale Earnhardt suffered a blown engine. Darrell hit the inside wall along turn four really hard. He was taken to Halifax Hospital where it was learned he had suffered a concussion. He was kept overnight and released.

Darrell couldn’t remember anything about Daytona but he returned to race the next week at Richmond. Looking back, he shouldn’t have done that. He was hurt far more than we suspected. He qualified fourth but dropped out of the race before the halfway point with a mechanical failure.

I thought Darrell was in a fog for the whole Richmond weekend. Sometime afterward he admitted to me that, just like Daytona, he didn’t remember a thing about the race.

I think his injury kept Darrell from accomplishing a lot more in future years. I think he would have done much more if that hadn’t happened.

Darrell has downplayed that over the years but does admit that to race at Richmond so soon after the crash was probably a fool thing to do.

“Hindsight makes you a lot smarter,” he said.

Waltrip

Junior Johnson & Associates sported Pepsi as a sponsor for the Chevrolets driven by Darrell Waltrip in 1983. The team also added a new co-owner when Junior surprisingly agreed to take on Warner Hodgdon as a partner.

After Richmond, it certainly appeared things were going to be just fine. Darrell ran third a week later at Rockingham. He then won for the first time in 1983 at North Wilkesboro to start a streak of four victories in six races, adding victories at Martinsville, Nashville and Bristol.

But we couldn’t get the points lead. After Darrell won at Bristol, for his 15th victory in 20 short-track races, he was just hanging on to the top-five in the standings.

The leader? Do I really have to tell you? After two seasons of head-to-head battles with Darrell, and losing them both, out in front was Bobby Allison, our old nemesis. He was still driving for DiGard Racing Co.

Bobby admitted he was miserable after losing the championship, closely, over the previous two seasons. He said that in 1983 he was going for the title harder than ever and that, sooner or later, he would win one.

I never doubted his resolve.

So the situation was simple: If Darrell and I were to win a third-straight title we’d have to beat Bobby.

Certainly Bobby knew he’d have to beat us to win the championship. And he was going to do everything he could to do just that – even running his mouth.

When Bobby won at Dover in May, he said that we had been cheating all along and that he had won the race because he had been given our “secrets” from a former Johnson-Hodgdon employee. Funny thing, but he wouldn’t divulge exactly what those “secrets” were.

Bobby started a war of words. I knew he was going to lose it and I wouldn’t have to say a thing.

The very next week Darrell won at Bristol. He beat Bobby and they were the only two drivers on the lead lap. As I thought he would, Darrell pounced.

“Obviously we haven’t given away all of our secrets, have we?” he said in victory lane. I loved it.

Unfortunately, Darrell didn’t have the chance to fire off a few more verbal salvos for the next three months. We didn’t win a race. Bobby won only once but his other finishes were good enough to keep him ahead of us in the point standings.

Reckon I knew just how badly Bobby wanted to win the championship at the Talladega 500 in July. Darrell and Dale were fighting for the lead. On the last lap, Bobby tucked in behind Dale and gave him the push he needed to win the race.

Thing about it was, Bobby was a lap down. He had no business getting involved. He shouldn’t have been sticking his nose into it – hey, he was in ninth place with no chance to win. He should have let Darrell and Dale decide it between them.

“No doubt about it,” Darrell said. “Bobby won his one for Dale.”

It showed just how much Bobby coveted the championship; how much he wanted to, at last, take the measure of Darrell and our team. He would do whatever it took. That was obvious.

After Talladega, Darrell was 170 points behind Bobby in the standings. There were 11 races remaining in the season.

There was plenty of time left to make up the difference.

I certainly didn’t know it then, but there was also plenty of time for some of the most unusual events in NASCAR’s history to unfold.


One Race In 1984 Turned The Tide For A Speedway And A Driver

Earnhardt

By the time Dale Earnhardt raced at Talladega in July of 1984 for Richard Childress, he was looking to change his sagging fortunes. That happened in the race and it also altered those of what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway, now Talladega Superspeedway.

It took just one race in 1984 for two significant things to happen:

A major speedway’s soiled reputation was eradicated and replaced with the acknowledgement that it was the fastest and most competitive in NASCAR.

And a driver who burst onto the scene with almost instant success, and had quickly become a sensation, brought his career out of the doldrums.

When it opened in 1969, what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega, Ala., was intended to be the fastest in the world. That wasn’t hard to comprehend given that it was a 2.66-mile, high-banked monster.

Indeed, it was fast; very fast. By 1982, a driver was able to qualify at an astounding 200 mph. That driver was Benny Parsons.

Just a couple of years later many drivers routinely broke the 200 mph barrier. In 1987, Bill Elliott set what remains the speedway’s qualifying record with a lap of 212.809 mph – which never again be approached, by the way, in this era of restrictor plates.

But as potentially exciting as high speeds were, the track never came forward as a NASCAR competitive showplace.

It was plagued with controversy. It erupted quickly at the first race, scheduled for Sept. 14, 1969.

During practices, as tire after tire shredded under the strain of unusually high speeds, drivers became concerned about safety and confronted the track’s owner, Bill France Sr., who obviously disagreed.

Emotions boiled and eventually spilled over. NASCAR’s Grand National competitors boycotted the race. France, determined to stage the speedway’s debut, pulled in a field of drivers from NASCAR’s minor circuits and the event was held.

The speedway never again endured such a situation but that didn’t matter. As the years passed it was besieged by all manner of misfortune.

There were frightening multicar accidents, some of which ended drivers’ careers. There were on-track fatalities and even worse, there were others under condition so unusual – even eerie – that stories about a “Talladega curse” became prominent.

There were many other controversies that involved such situations as cheating and sabotage. It reached the point where some cynical media members, and fans, called Talladega a “white elephant.”

This in spite of the fact there was nearly always speed and excitement on the track. For many, races in Alabama became some of the most anticipated every year.

However, it still had a reputation as a place immersed in controversy, mayhem and misfortune.

In 1979 Dale Earnhardt entered the Winston Cup ranks. He won a race at Bristol and became the circuit’s rookie of the year.

A year later he won five races and the Winston Cup championship. He became the first, and only, driver to win both the rookie and series titles in successive years.

He was a blazing star in NASCAR’s firmament. But in 1981 his career swooned.

Discontent with J.D. Stacy, who had purchased the Rod Osterlund team with which he had won his titles, Earnhardt quit late in the year to drive for former independent competitor Richard Childress.

Earnhardt did not win a race in 1981.

In 1982, he moved over to Bud Moore’s Ford operation. He stayed there for two years, during which he won three races, but was never a title contender and never recaptured the form he had displayed in his dazzling debut.

In 1984 Earnhardt returned to the Childress organization. It was the culmination of an earlier arrangement. Childress had told Earnhardt that if the day ever came when he felt he could field competitive cars that could win races, he would like to have Earnhardt return. Earnhardt agreed.

Besides, Earnhardt never liked racing Fords. He was a General Motors man. Childress ran Chevrolets.

Many observers felt that a Childress-Earnhardt combination wouldn’t work. Childress was a relatively new team owner who didn’t have the experience and resources of the top operations – never mind that he had already won two races with driver Ricky Rudd.

On July 29, 1984, the second race of the season at the “white elephant” was run. Among the entries was the driver who hoped to revive his slumping career with a fledgling team owner.

That race, then known as the Talladega 500, was to be the turning point for both speedway and competitor.

With 68 lead changes among 16 drivers it was highly competitive. Well beyond that, it had a finish that featured 10 cars racing like a batch of angry hornets At 200 mph toward the checkered flag.

This was unmatched in NASCAR’s history.

Earnhardt was involved and broke away from the swarm on the last lap to pass leader Terry Labonte and sprint to a 1.66-second victory.

At the finish he glanced in his rear view mirror and saw a glut of cars racing side-by-side for position. It was then he knew he had won for the first time with Childress.

But behind him the finishing order was difficult to determine. Cars had been racing so closely together, and separated by just inches, that NASCAR had to consult at least three photographs from the photo finish to figure who wound up where.

Buddy Baker was second, followed by Labonte. Then came Bobby Allison in fourth by a fender over Cale Yarborough.

Rounding out the top 10 were Darrell Waltrip, Harry Gant, Lake Speed, Tommy Ellis and Bill Elliott.

The hair-raising, white-knuckle finish prompted many to call the 1984 Talladega race “the greatest in NASCAR’s history.”

That will always be debatable but what is not is that from that year on, Talladega was seldom, if ever, viewed as a “white elephant.”

It had clearly shown that it could indeed provide that for which it was built – speed, competition and excitement.

Earnhardt won another race with Childress in ’84 and finished fourth in the final point standings after leading for several portions of the season. It was his best run since 1980, his title year.

It was obvious he had returned to championship form. That he could succeed with Childress was no longer questioned.

The only real question was, just how successful would Earnhardt become with Childress?

At the time no one could imagine how great it would be.

1978: It Started Differently But Ended The Same – And Then Some

After a second straight Winston Cup championship in 1977, Junior, Cale and the team were primed to go after a third title.

As it had been over the last couple of years, everything remained pretty much intact at Junior Johnson & Associates. There was no reason to think another championship wasn’t within grasp.

But changes happened. When NASCAR decreed that all General Motors models could run the engine once reserved for Chevrolet, Junior had to make a decision.

And that was to switch to Oldsmobile. It would be the first time since 1972 that Junior would not campaign a Chevrolet – a car he helped bring back to NASCAR.

Things started out well enough with the Olds, but they soured quickly.

It reached the point where Junior Johnson & Associates, with Cale behind the wheel, was going to have to salvage the second half of the 1978 season if another title was to be attained.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

Although I would have liked it to be otherwise, the 1978 NASCAR Winston Cup season didn’t start routinely for Junior Johnson & Associates.

By that I mean we just weren’t able to pick up where we left off in 1977, when, with Cale, we won our second consecutive championship.

I reckon I’m like every other team owner. When things work you don’t really want to make changes. Understand, you have to keep up with technology and try to improve on the things that have worked for you.

But you don’t want to tilt the ship. As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

As a team we sure weren’t broke. But there was something we were going to have to fix.

NASCAR enacted a rule that allowed other General Motors cars to use an engine previously restricted to Chevrolet. Now, I played a very big role in bringing Chevy back to NASCAR six years earlier – and, with Cale, we raced it to two straight titles.

NASCAR approved the Chevrolet GM-LM1, 350 cu. in. engine for Oldsmobile, Buick and Pontiac.

I suppose I could have stayed with Chevrolet and made things easier for myself. But then, I thought it might be better to look at the other GM products and at least have the chance to adapt to some new technology.

I decided Junior Johnson & Associates was going to make the switch to Oldsmobile. It just looked like a better car. I thought it was aerodynamically sound. Its design was better suited for what we wanted and I thought it was the best of the General Motors cars at that time.

I wasn’t alone. Team owners L.G. DeWitt, Hoss Ellington, Harry Ranier and M.C. Anderson all shared my opinion – which was that the dropped-nose, sloped-back 1977 Oldsmobile 442 would be the best car on the superspeedways.

Of course, not everyone agreed. Just about every car you could think of was going to race in 1978, and they included the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Malibu, the Mercury Cougar and Montego and the Ford Thunderbird.

Even Richard Petty had to switch. Cars dated from 1974 and earlier had been phased out of eligibility. This was a real problem for Petty Enterprises because from 1974-77, Richard had won 31 races and a couple of championships in his ’74 Dodge Charger.

However, he could no longer race that car. He had to go with the new, bulky Dodge Magnum. It turned out to be a nightmare. He had a tough year. I almost felt sorry for him – almost.

We started out with a bang when the season began on the road course at Riverside in California in January. Cale won the race to give Oldsmobile its first NASCAR victory since Lee Petty won at Martinsville on June 14, 1959.

Man, I thought we had made the right choice with Oldsmobile and we were in for a heckuva season.

It didn’t take long for me to drop that line of thinking.

When we got to Daytona no one liked the Olds. We might have thought its design would be perfect for the big tracks. The problem was it moved around too much at speed. It was real jittery.

Drivers didn’t hesitate to point that out. Donnie Allison, driving Ellington’s Olds, said flat-out he didn’t like the car.

As for Cale, he went out and won the pole with a speed in excess of 187 mph. He remained true to form – he wasn’t going to let anything, especially a car, stand in the way of going as fast as he possibly could.

Thing was, he posted that speed on his first lap and didn’t bother to take a second.

“I couldn’t hold my breath any longer,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how unstable that car is. I don’t know what’s going to happen when we get on the track with other cars.”

To tell the truth, I didn’t either.

I remember ol’ Darrell Waltrip was his usual mouthy self. He said that since he was racing his Chevrolet he knew what he had and was ahead of the rest of us with new cars.

He might have been but in the Daytona 500 he wasn’t around long enough to prove it. He, Petty and David Pearson were wiped out in an early crash.

Bobby Allison won the race in Bud Moore’s Thunderbird. He snapped a 67-race losing streak. Cale finished second. He did a good job of psyching himself up.

A win and a second place was a darn good start to the season. But we went months without another victory. We didn’t even win on the short tracks, where we were usually at our best.

Cale finally won in the Winston 500 at Talladega on May 14 when he slingshot past Buddy Baker’s Olds on the last lap.

Maybe, I thought, the Oldsmobile was going to be the car we thought it would on the superspeedways.

But was it going to be good enough to win a championship? By the start of June, Cale had won only two races yet was hanging around in the point standings.

It all changed at Nashville on June 3. Cale led all 420 laps of that race and vaulted into first place in the standings.

Believe me, it was all “go” after that. We had a great second-half season. Cale won eight races – we returned to form on the short tracks with victories at Nashville, Martinsville, Bristol and North Wilkesboro –and notched the title with a win at Rockingham, three races from the end of the season.

Cale became the first driver in NASCAR to win three consecutive championships, which, as you know, is a record since broken by Jimmie Johnson.

I admit that at the time, I didn’t think any driver would be able to match, or beat, three straight titles.

I also didn’t think too much of the fact that a kid named Dale Earnhardt replaced Dave Marcis on Rod Osterlund’s team at the end of 1978.

Nor did I pay much attention to the reports that Waltrip wanted out of his contract with DiGard Racing Co.

After all, what in the world did that have to do with me?

For A Time Rudd And Wallace Were Unmatched On Road Courses

When the Watkins Glen International road course in New York returned to NASCAR in 1986 it became one of two multi-turn tracks on the Winston Cup circuit.

The other was Riverside International Raceway in California, which had been around for decades, but had only two more years to live.

Prior to 1986, the Glen’s last presence in NASCAR was in 1965, when Marvin Panch won a race known as the Glen 151.8 in a Wood Brothers Ford.

Some observers were puzzled over why NASCAR would add another road course to its schedule, especially since oval tracks were dominant in stock car racing.

But the sanctioning body was just beginning a new phase of expansion – and it certainly didn’t hurt to add a venue located near some large Northeastern markets.

At the time, most of NASCAR’s regular competitors weren’t all that skilled on road courses and some didn’t care to be. So it was that only a handful of drivers did well at Riverside and, logically, were expected to do the same at the Glen.

Darrell Waltrip, for example, won four times in seven races at Riverside from 1979-81. Tim Richmond, Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte combined to win six of the California track’s eight races from 1982-85.

So the reasoning was that these well-seasoned road course drivers would be the prime contenders for victory when Watkins Glen made its debut.

Turns out that, for a while anyway, that turned out to be accurate.

Unlike Riverside, Watkins Glen was awarded only one race on the Winston Cup schedule. The first was held on Aug. 10 and Richmond, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, was the winner.

He also won at Riverside in November, which was preceded by Waltrip’s victory there in June. So it seemed that when in came to road courses, it wasn’t difficult to predict a winner – it was going to be one of the “usual” guys.

But 1987 saw the beginning of an unusual streak at the Glen. Yep, races there were still won by drivers considered road course aces. The difference was that for four years, victory was accomplished by just two of them.

It reached the point where Rudd and Rusty Wallace were so dominant at Watkins Glen many began to wonder if anyone else would win on the seven-turn road course.

Wallace entered the ’87 season having won only on oval tracks. But on Aug. 10 at the Glen he was so dominant in Raymond Beadle’s Pontiac that, with a 22.2-second lead, he could still make a last-lap pit stop for gas and finish nearly 12 seconds ahead of Labonte.

Wallace went on to win at Riverside in November and then was victorious in the last race held there in June of 1988.

When the Bud at the Glen rolled around on August 14, Wallace had won three consecutive races on road courses.

He almost made it four in a row. He caught leader Rudd, then driving for Kenny Bernstein, on the last lap and popped him in the rear end, which caused both their cars to break sideways.

Rudd held on for the victory, his only one of the season.

In 1989, it was again Wallace’s turn. He won a late-race duel with Mark Martin and earned his fourth victory in the last six of NASCAR’s road-course races.

However, one of the two he didn’t win was the inaugural event in June at what was then known as Sears Point International Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

He lost to – you guessed it – Rudd, who won a furious, last-lap bumping battle.

By this time nearly everyone figured that when NASCAR went to either of its two road courses, the day was going to belong to either Rudd or Wallace – take your pick.

That opinion intensified in 1990. On June 10, Wallace won at Sonoma to take his fifth win in seven road-course races. He nudged Rudd out of the way (you could have guessed that) on the 60th of 74 laps and went on to beat Martin under caution. Rudd finished third.

Well, you can just imagine what happened at the next road course race. It was, of course, at the Glen on Aug. 12. Rudd, who had joined Hendrick’s operation, overcame an early spin and three flat tires to ultimately cruise to victory over Geoff Bodine.

Wallace was no factor. His engine blew after just 46 laps.

It was the first win of the season for Rudd and the three-car Hendrick organization, which was very surprising considering that the team’s driver lineup included Waltrip and Ken Schrader.

The victory was Rudd’s third in five road-course races.

Rudd and Wallace won all six of NASCAR’s road-course events conducted from 1987-1990 at either the Glen or Sonoma.

They won four of the first five races at Watkins Glen after its return to NASCAR in 1986.

Together they fashioned a truly remarkable competitive streak and established themselves as the premier road racers in NASCAR.

Then something strange happened. After 1990, neither Rudd nor Wallace won again at the Glen.

Each won only one more time at what became known as Infineon Raceway – Wallace in 1996 (his only road-course victory with team owner Roger Penske) – and Rudd in 2002 while with Robert Yates.

A new generation of drivers became NASCAR’s road-course aces, prominent among them Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Wallace retired after the 2005 season. Rudd followed two years later. History records both as two of NASCAR’s best drivers.

That was never more evident than on road courses during the latter 1980s, when both proved to be invincible.

Another Title Year, But Along Came “Jaws”

After the successful 1976 season, in which he won his first NASCAR Winston Cup championship, Junior felt his team had finally reached its stride. He had no doubt 1977 would be another banner year.

There was reason for Junior to be optimistic. His team and driver remained intact and would campaign a new car approved by NASCAR.

It was the slope-nosed Chevrolet Laguna S-3, judged by nearly everyone to be the car to beat on the superspeedways.

Of course, Junior Johnson & Associates wasn’t the only team that would race the car in 1977. Another was the fledgling DiGard Racing Co., which had Darrell Waltrip as its driver.

Waltrip won two short-track races for DiGard in 1975 and 1976. But he was far from happy. His team failed to finish 16 of 30 races in 1976.

That did not sit well with the ambitious, brash Waltrip, a Kentucky native who had never shied away from expressing his opinions.

Crew chief Mario Rossi was gone before the season started. Replacement David Ifft lasted a month and the job was handed to Buddy Parrott.

As much turmoil as there was at DiGard, all went smoothly for Junior’s team – for the most part, anyway.

For the first time there was discord between Junior and Cale. Also, despite its internal problems, DiGard became a NASCAR force.

It and Junior Johnson & Associates won the most races.

It was just a matter of time before the teams, and their drivers, were at loggerheads.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

My faith in Cale and the team was rewarded just as the season began.

We won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race and followed that with a victory at Richmond one week later.

Then we went on our usual short-track blitz, winning at North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Martinsville. To be honest, everyone thought our team was the one to beat on half-milers, but that didn’t happen often.

Then we went on to win at Dover and Michigan. Cale led the point standings for the first 17 races of the season and, to tell you the truth, I was feeling pretty cocky.

But at Daytona on July 4, we suffered a broken transmission and finished 23rd, 14 laps down, to winner Richard Petty, who had been dogging us in the points all season long. Cale’s lead shrank to 17 points over Petty.

Twelve days later at Nashville, Cale finished a respectable fourth as Darrell Waltrip won. Waltrip, by the way, had been steadily improving – and piling up victories – with DiGard.

We came out of that race with a 12-point lead over Petty.

Then we lost our advantage at Pocono. Cale finished sixth and Petty was the runnerup to Benny Parsons. We lost the points lead for the first time that season as Petty swept into an eight-point lead.

As disappointing as that was I knew it was a lead of little substance. We could get it back in the very next race.

Which we did at Talladega after Cale finished second to Donnie Allison, who had to get out of Hoss Ellington’s Chevrolet after the heat got to him

His relief driver? Waltrip. A bit ironic don’t you think?

Everyone on our team was happy that we had retaken the points lead by 32 over Petty. That is, everyone but a single individual – and that was Cale.

For some reason he thought our Chevrolet was junk. He sounded off about it afterward. He said he had the sorriest Chevrolet in the race and that if he had won, “I’d be in court Monday morning for stealing.”

I thought to myself, “What the hell?” Here we finish second, retake the points lead and Cale has the audacity to criticize our Chevrolet? I admit I was pretty steamed.

I told the media, “Here we are in the middle of a championship battle and if Cale starts to running his mouth, he’ll be looking for another car.

“We don’t have to listen to a bunch of lip from him.”

And I meant it. I wasn’t going to tolerate any of Cale’s guff. I know for a fact he was never one not to speak up when things bothered him. But he knew I meant what I said.

We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Cale would lead the points standings for the remainder of the year and win a second consecutive Winston Cup title.

For us, that was the end of the verbal confrontations, but not those on the track.

In the Southern 500 at Darlington, Cale and Waltrip went head-to-head, and lip-to-lip, for the first time.

They staged a terrific battle for position until, on lap 277 of 367, they finally crashed. Waltrip tapped the rear of D.K. Ulrich’s car, sending him into our Chevrolet. Terry Bivins became involved in the four-car melee. Everyone suffered extensive damage.

Afterward, Ulrich went up to Cale and asked, “You knocked the hell out of me. Why did you hit me?”

Cale told him the truth. He said he wasn’t the culprit, Waltrip was. “I didn’t touch you. Ol’ Jaws hit you.”

“Who?” Ulrich asked.

“Jaws,” Cale heatedly said. “It was ol’ Jaws Waltrip.”

Cale had given Waltrip his lasting nickname – that of the famous movie shark.

I thought that was pretty funny. But I knew Waltrip well enough to know he wasn’t going to take it. He would, somehow, retaliate.

At Martinsville in intense, searing heat, Cale won. But he was completely physically spent. He was red-faced, drenched in sweat and, to be honest, looked like a prisoner of war.

He told the media the length of Martinsville’s races should be cut from 500 laps. It had gotten to the point where driver fatigue was more dangerous than actual racing.

He added that, as far as physical punishment, Martinsville was the absolute worst.

If Cale had asked my opinion, I would have told him to shut up. I knew that the track’s bulldog president, Clay Earles, wasn’t going to stand for his remarks.

He didn’t. He said he would not reduce the length of his races and if drivers didn’t like it, they could stay away.

A week later at North Wilkesboro, Waltrip got his chance. He outran Cale to win and promptly fired the next shot in the verbal war.

“I’d have to say this was a one-and-a-half or two on the ‘Cale Scale’,” he said. Everyone knew what he meant.

“I think Cale’s problem could be his years. I know I’m finding out I can’t do the things I did 10 years ago.”

They weren’t that far apart in years. Cale was 38 years old, Waltrip 30.

Me? I thought the whole thing was funny. I could see where Waltrip was coming from. Cale was on top of the heap and Waltrip did everything he could to knock him off, one way or another.

I got a few chuckles but I stayed out of it. I could easily afford to. After North Wilkesboro we had a 293-point lead over Petty. We won the championship three weeks later at Rockingham, two races before the end of the season. Cale won nine races that year.

Waltrip finished fourth in points with six victories, his best season with DiGard. I knew he was going to be a force in the future.

What I didn’t know is that within a short time, I would become more involved with him than ever I could imagine.

It All Came Together For Cale, Team In 1976

After the somewhat disappointing 1975 season, Junior was nonetheless convinced his team and driver had what it took to win a Winston Cup championship.

He thought, correctly, that three years’ worth of seasoning with driver Cale Yarborough, while it had already paid benefits, could provide bigger ones to come – and more of them.

It evolved that Yarborough and Junior Johnson & Associates did win their first title in 1976. While Yarborough captured nine victories, it was the team’s astounding consistency that brought the Winston Cup home.

The fact that Johnson, Yarborough and the team put together a string of four consecutive victories late in the season certainly didn’t hurt the cause one bit.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

 

When the 1976 Winston Cup season started, believe it or not, I wasn’t faced with a dilemma.

Unlike in the past I actually had a sponsor – Holly Farms, which had signed on early in 1975 after our team began the year without financial backing.

There was very little change in personnel and certainly Cale Yarborough was ready to go again in ’76. We didn’t have quite the year we expected in 1975 as Cale won only three races in 27 starts and we ended up ninth in the point standings.

But I was very optimistic, and there was a reason for that. We were in our third year together and I believed that it took all of that time for our team to mesh with Cale’s talents.

When we lost the championship in 1972 it kinda irritated me. I felt we had the right crew and that everyone, and me, associated with the team was doing their job to win the championship. They deserved to win it; they worked hard to win it.

But when we lost it like we did, I was determined to get back to the point where I had the driver and the team to win the championship.

We had some trial-and-error moments with Cale from the time he came on board in 1973, there’s no doubt about that. Yes, they were a good three years but they had some bad moments.

But, as I said earlier, I felt that starting in 1976 we had the team that could match Cale’s talents.

And I know for sure Cale’s only interests were winning races and championships. I never believed he had a hidden agenda, which I thought Bobby Allison had when he drove for us in 1972.

Cale won nine races in 1976, just one less than in 1974, and we won our first Winston Cup title by 195 points over Richard Petty, who was always in the championship hunt.

Even though Cale won fewer races than he did two years earlier – although three times as many as in ’75 – we were much more consistent. That made all the difference.

Cale had more finishes among the top five – 22 – and finished more times among the top 10 – 23 – than any other driver in NASCAR.

Finishes like that really pile up the points.

Cale wasn’t the dominant driver of 1976. That was David Pearson, who won 10 of the 22 races he entered with the Wood Brothers.

But David and the Woods ran only a limited schedule and were not in contention for the championship.

Let me tell you what consistency is all about.

When you have a guy who gives you 100 percent, who will hang the car on the wall every lap if he has to in order to win, then you are able to extend.

You extend the motors, the chassis setups, the gear arrangements and so forth and you don’t get into trouble when you do that.

That’s because you have a driver with determination yet who is smart enough to do the right thing under different circumstances.

Cale’s determination was unbelievable but he didn’t have to lean on a motor to the point where he tore it up. He didn’t have to hang himself out with the car and take a chance on tearing up the various combinations we had.

He pretty much stayed in the safety zone most of the time. You combine that with our ability to extend and try different things for different races, well, the results are going to be good – and good results always provide consistency.

That’s the way it was for us in 1976.

Now that I’ve said that it pains me to say that we started our season in the Daytona 500 with a blown engine after just one lap. We finished dead last.

It might have been the absolute worst beginning for any campaign, but we recovered nicely.

Cale won in the fifth race of the season, at Bristol. It was one of seven victories we earned on the short tracks in 1976.

We swept Bristol and North Wilkesboro. We also won at Martinsville, Nashville and Richmond. The only superspeedway races we won were the Firecracker 400 at Daytona (nice rebound for us) and at Dover in September.

But I think what really drove the championship home for us was the way we ran in September through the first week of October.

It started on Sept. 12, when Cale beat Bobby at Richmond. A week later he took the checkered flag at Dover ahead of Richard. On Sept. 26, Cale won the rain –shortened Martinsville race and then he followed that with his second win of the year at North Wilkesboro – where the governor, James Holshouser, had proclaimed “Cale Yarborough Day” in North Carolina.

That’s four consecutive victories in four consecutive weeks. Talk about consistency.

I reckon I don’t have to tell you how tickled I was over how everything turned out in 1976. I figured that because we had meshed as a team and were able to make the most of our cars and Cale’s skills, we could do it all again in 1977.

I certainly didn’t know it at the time, but things would turn out to be a tad different. For one thing, Cale and I had our first real disagreement.

Then we went head-to-head, toe-to-toe and lip-to-lip with a mouthy driver from Tennessee named Darrell Waltrip.

The 600 Of 1988 Was Messy – And For Good Reason

There have been many memorable, exciting Coca-Cola 600s at Charlotte Motor Speedway over the years, some of which have been duly recorded in NASCAR lore.

And there have been others that, uh, haven’t been so exciting. They’ve been dull, messy and in some cases, controversial.

Reckon we could say that about every race at every track.

But as the longest race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, and arguably the most demanding, the Coca-Cola 600 is considered one of stock car racing’s premier events.

Also, races at CMS are so well-hyped by the speedway’s creative, indefatigable public relations and marketing staffs that many fans, and let’s face it, members of the media, are chomping at the bit to see what’s going to happen.

So it will be, again, this year.

Let’s hope the Coca-Cola 600 lives up to its billing. I think all of us would like that.

What we wouldn’t like is a repeat of the 1988 Coca-Cola 600, then known as the World 600.

It’s not likely we will because there was a set of circumstances surrounding the 600 of that year, which, thankfully, do not exist now.

Ten wrecks that helped create 13 caution periods for 89 laps marred the race – and injured four drivers, one of whom had his career cut short.

The cause of the vast majority of the wrecks was tire failure. And there was a good reason for that.

In 1988, Hoosier Tire Co. came into what was then known as the Winston Cup circuit. The small company was going to challenge Goodyear, the long-standing sole supplier of NASCAR tires – which, incidentally, had already held off a couple of challenges from other companies.

But Hoosier meant business.

Always looking for an edge, some teams quickly adopted Hoosier tires. And it looked like that would be a good move.

In February, Morgan Shepherd won the pole at Richmond, on Hoosiers for the lightly regarded Winkle team.

Then came a shocker. Neil Bonnett, driving for the Rahmoc Enterprises team, and racing on Hoosiers, won back-to-back races at Richmond and Rockingham.

What became known as “The Tire Wars” was on.

Hoosier and Goodyear prepared new tires for virtually every race. Some had more grip for speed but suffered in longevity. Others were a bit slower but could be counted on to last much longer.

Goodyear and Hoosier feverishly attempted to create tires that had grip and endurance.

Teams had to decide which tire would serve them better as they prepared for each race.

It appeared the selection for the 600-mile race at Charlotte would be simple.

Although Goodyear was intent on surpassing Hoosier, preliminary events at Charlotte indicated the compound Goodyear had developed would not stand the strain of a hot day and very high speeds.

So it was that every driver’s car in the 600 was mounted with Hoosier tires – all but one.

Dave Marcis, intensely loyal to Goodyear throughout his long career, shunned Hoosier.

Darrell Waltrip, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, went on to win the race by .24-second over Rusty Wallace, driving for Raymond Beadle.

It might have been a close finish, but the race itself was a mess.

The Hoosier tires apparently couldn’t stand the heat and speed any better than Goodyear’s. Blown rubber created wreck after wreck.

“We knew about the tire problems that would happen,” said Waltrip after the race. “I had watched guys pass me and then take off, only to see them in the wall a few laps later.”

A blown tire sent Bonnett into the wall on lap 115 of 400. He spent the night in a hospital but was able to race a week later at Dover.

Harry Gant, known as “The Skoal Bandit,” experienced the same fate. On lap 233, his Chevrolet slammed the wall hard in the second turn. Gant broke two bones in his leg and missed the next five races. Morgan Shepherd replaced him.

Buddy Baker, driving for his own team, was swept up in a multicar accident on lap 244. At first he appeared be unharmed.

But, several weeks later, it was discovered that Baker had a blood clot on his brain. After 1988, he made only 17 starts before his career ended in 1992.

Other drivers taken out by tire-related accidents included Cale Yarborough, Jim Sauter, Derrike Cope, Brad Noffsinger and Rick Wilson, who was also taken to the hospital.

Even with Goodyears, Marcis wasn’t spared. Sterling Marlin experienced yet another blown tire grazed the wall and attempted to make it back to the pits.

But he drifted into Marcis’ path. Marcis hit him, sailed into the fourth-turn wall and out of the race.

Hoosier won eight of the first 16 races of 1988, but only one of the final 13.

“The Tire Wars” continued into 1989, but came to an end after Goodyear had, finally, successfully developed a radial tire for racing.

On May 8, one day after the Winston 500 at Talladega, Hoosier pulled out of Winston Cup racing.

The wars were over.

But, certainly, there had been casualties.

 

Today’s All Star Race Is Yesterday’s Stroke Of Marketing Genius


When the NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star Race takes place on May 21, it will be the continuation of a tradition that began with a bold announcement at the NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York on Dec. 6, 1984.

At that time, Jerry Long, the CEO of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Co., and a man who enjoyed the spotlight, announced that his company was going to add to its existing support of what was then known as the Winston Cup Grand National Series.

First, Long said, the Winston Cup point fund would increase by $11.5 million over five years, starting in 1985. Then, a special $1 million bonus would be awarded to any driver who could win three of four selected races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500. The program would be known as the Winston Million.

Finally, a new “invitational” race would be conducted in 1985. It would be based upon an “all star” concept and would be known as The Winston.

The event would be open to 1984 winners only, meaning that a dozen drivers would be vying for their share of a $500,000 purse – with $200,000 going to the winner.

Long said the race would be long enough to have one pit stop but short enough to be known as the richest race per mile in all of motorsports.

As it evolved, it was was configured for 70 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“We wanted to be sure the race was promoted properly,” Long said. “That’s what led us to Charlotte.”

Through its Winston brand, Reynolds had been supporting NASCAR since 1971, when it established the sport’s first meaningful point fund.

Some historians say that without Reynolds support NASCAR may have foundered into non-existence.

It turned out that Reynolds and NASCAR evolved into a relationship that allowed stock car racing to survive, and in some cases thrive, despite some poor economic times that included gas shortages and raging inflation.

By the mid 1980s, the country was back in full economic trim. People had money to spend and so did corporations, including Reynolds.

Reynolds decided to spend a helluva lot of it in NASCAR – and for good reason.

Reynolds was the only company in the United States that sponsored, entirely, a major professional sport. It thus had a singular benefit: Any money it spent promoting NASCAR would also, obviously, promote Reynolds’ products, especially Winston cigarettes. The two were bonded.

Essentially, Reynolds’ marketing departments became NASCAR’s marketing arm (I’m not sure NASCAR even had one, officially).

Reynolds bought magazine, newspaper, radio and TV ads trumpeting NASCAR races. Certainly the sanctioning body and its tracks benefitted, but so did Reynolds.

Reynolds even went around and painted tracks read-and-white, Winston’s colors, which further increased product recognition. So did free cigarette giveaways at speedways, which Reynolds did as long as the government allowed, show car programs, organized driver media appearances and much more.

But by 1984, Reynolds, flush with money, realized it hadn’t done enough. With free reign to do whatever it wished in NASCAR – and that is not to say it did not fully consult or cooperate with the sanctioning body – Reynolds realized it had a chance to create marketing programs unheard of in other professional sports.

And with The Winston and the Winston Million, that is exactly what it did. Among major U.S. corporations that participated in professional sports, none did so on such an impressively large scale as R. J. Reynolds.

The Winston was not the only invitational, or even “all star” event in NASCAR’s history. In 1961, ’62 and ’63, “all star” races were held at Daytona using the same format as The Winston.

In 1979, Anheuser-Busch started the Busch Clash at Daytona, an invitational race that was open only to the previous season’s pole winners. It continues today as the Budweiser Shootout – with many format changes, of course.

Speaking of formats, the one for the first The Winston was simple. A dozen winners from the 1984 season – Cale Yarborough, Harry Gant, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Richard Petty, Ricky Rudd, Tim Richmond, Dale Earnhardt, Benny Parsons, Bobby Allison and Geoff Bodine – were entered.

Set at 70 laps, the race’s mandatory pit stop had to come between laps 30 and 40. Other than that it was simply a quick run to the checkered flag.

Waltrip won the race by 0.31-second over Gant. As soon as Waltrip crossed the finish line his engine blew in a plume of smoke, which sparked the notion that Junior Johnson, Waltrip’s team owner, had run an oversized power plant.

It was said Waltrip was instructed to blow the engine by stomping on the clutch. That done, any post-race inspection by NASCAR was, of course, impossible.

Thus the first of many “all star” race controversies was born.

Reynolds left NASCAR after 2003. Over the years the sponsor of the “all star” race, and its format, have changed many times.

But it remains as it was conceived – a special event that showcases NASCAR’s best competitors while, at the same time, offering stock car racing and its sponsors a unique marketing platform.

 

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