50 Years of nascar racing ~ Road Rage (Post 66)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
A relative newcomer to the Winston Cup circuit, NASCAR Winston Cup races have only been held at the Sears Point road course since 1989, a hasty addition the schedule after Riverside Raceway fell into the hands of a developer with subdivisions in his eyes. Located in Northern California's famous wine country, one weekend a year, the area's wine and cheese reputation gives way to the roar of unmuffled V8s and the cheers of NASCAR fans.
The inaugural Winston Cup event was staged at Sears Point June 11, 1989, and it was clear in practice that some of the "go fast, turn left" crowd were having a bit of a problem turning left when the course went right. Among those who had the combination figured out were two drivers who are still perennial favorites at the track, Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace. Rudd assumed the lead from Bill Elliott on lap 22 and was never headed, though he had a mirror full of Rusty's Blue Max Pontiac close behind him to keep him honest. Mark Martin, another noted road racer who claims his skill on road courses comes from racing his friends down the back roads of Arkansas growing up, seemed ready to give it a go at the lead, but was hit by a bit of bad luck. There was a breakdown in communications in the pits. Martin was under the impression he was getting two tires. The pit crew was under the impression he was getting four. Martin peeled out of the pits with no lug nuts holding the right rear tire on his Thunderbird. The car swerved crazily, headed for a tire barrier and wound up on the roof. Incredibly Martin lost only one lap while his car was returned to greasy side down, shiny side up, and went on to finish 15th. Meanwhile, back up front Wallace desperately sought a way around Rudd and on the 71st lap, with three to go, he faked a low side pass on his competitor going into the notoriously tight turn seven. When Rudd dove low to block the move, Wallace quickly whipped to the outside. Seeing what was about to happen Rudd shot back across the track to try to block that move as well. The cars made contact and Rusty went off the track but never lifted of the throttle. He returned to the track trailing a cloud of dust, and an apparent eagerness to go thank Rudd for the contact but was unable to close the distance before the checkered flag fell. The crowd was screaming. The orthodontists and stock brokers who normally raced at the track in overpriced sports jobs might not have accepted swapping paint as part of racing, but Rusty and Ricky gave the fans an up close and personal look at how stock car racing was done. Bill Elliott came in third, Dale Earnhardt fourth, and a surprisingly strong Lake Speed took fifth. And Rusty chalked a little memo in his black book for the next time the tour came to Sears Point with Ricky's name underlined a few times in red.
The Ricky and Rusty show had a sequel in the 1990 race at Sonoma. Rudd started from the pole but had a flat tire while leading a tight pack of cars on lap 11. Rudd slowed suddenly and Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin made hard contact as they tried to avoid Rudd and assume the lead. Ernie Irvan came out on top, but Rusty was coming hard. Rudd was also able to work his way back into contention through the help of numerous caution flags. There was a genuine Hollywood stunt man, Stan Barrett, behind the wheel of a Rick Hendrick car that day, and Stan must have given driving lessons to Rob Moroso. Moroso lost a tire, climbed an embankment and went sailing over a ravine and nose first into a chain link fence so far off the track the team and track officials were left scratching their heads during a lengthy caution flag, as to how exactly they were going to get the car out of there. Wallace assumed the lead shortly after the green flag flew, but in the late stages of the race, Ricky Rudd came up to challenge him. Once again the scene of the crime was turn seven, only in 1990 it was Rusty who used a little extra race track to protect the lead, and Ricky who made a quick off course excursion after the contact. Wallace held on for the lead and Mark Martin managed to get around Rudd for second when Ricky's brakes began fading late in the race.
The finish of the 1991 race at Sears Point remains one of the most controversial in NASCAR history and once again Ricky Rudd found himself right in the thick of it. No one was surprised when Rusty Wallace led much of the event, but Rusty lost a cylinder, dropping him from contention for the victory, opening the door for a wild scramble for the lead. Richard Petty had an even worse day. The King had recently announced 1992 would be his last season in Winston Cup racing, and the farewell tour would be dubbed the "Fan Appreciation Tour." That day he launched the "Car Depreciation Off Track Tour." Late in the going, Petty seemed to lose his brakes, ran off the course and went into the barrier wide open, hard enough the car was destroyed. The King was transported to the hospital, bruised from head to foot. Ernie Irvan and Chad Little made contact on the track and Ernie spun out. Little must of felt the contact was Irvan's fault, and the next time around Chad ran him off the course. Last year's Trans Am stand out, Tommy Kendall was subbing for an injured Kyle Petty and led for 11 laps, until Mark Martin tried to pass on the outside and the two cars made contact. Martin went off the track spinning, while Kendall was forced to limp back to the pits on a flat tire. Davey Allison inherited the lead with Ricky Rudd hard on his tail. With two laps to go, heading into the tight 11th corner that leads onto the front straight away Ricky got into the back of Davey's 28 car and Allison spun out. While he was able to get the car headed back in the right direction, Rudd had checked out and there was little hope Davey could catch him. But the drama wasn't over. NASCAR threw the black flag on Rudd for rough driving. Ricky ignored it. As he crossed the stripe for the final time, he was shown the black flag again, and when Allison crossed the line several seconds later, he was given the checkered flag. As you can imagine there was an immediate firestorm of controversy. While Rudd and NASCAR argued, Chad Little and Ernie Irvan caught up with one another in the garage area to discuss things. The discussion did not go well. Soon the two drivers and their crews were brawling and at one point Little popped Ernie one right in the eye. NASCAR stuck by their decision to give Allison the win, and finally decided on a five second penalty for Ricky, which was just enough to slide him back to second place. Rudd angrily told reporters that the decision was based on the fact NASCAR needed a Ford to win (Ford had only one win to that point in the season), compared NASCAR to the WWF (rather appropriate considering all the on and off track brawling) and threatened to quit the tour, though he was in second place in the points hunt. Not a red letter day in NASCAR history, needless to say.
A degree of civility returned to the race at Sonoma in 1992, though Ernie Irvan once again found himself embroiled in controversy. On an early restart, Irvan was black flagged for jumping a restart, though he later blamed Ricky Rudd, who had been leading, for accelerating hard towards the green then getting out of the gas. Irvan took his penalty but returned to the track on a mission, thrilling his home state fans with a wide open driving style that saw him taking several positions a lap. Terry Labonte was leading late in the event, but when Irvan caught up to him Labonte wisely decided there was no sense in getting in Ernie's way and winding up in the toolies. Irvan blew past Labonte and led the rest of the race. The points leader, Davey Allison, had a rough day, trying too hard by his own admission to get around his nemesis of the previous year, Ricky Rudd, Allison went off track and Rudd showed no inclination to giving him room to recover. The miserable 28th place finish must have loomed large in Allison's memory after narrowly losing the Winston Cup championship that year.
That incident must have also loomed large in Rudd's memory as it had a part in the outcome of the 1993 race at Sears Point. Surprise pole sitter Dale Earnhardt seemed poised to take his first road course win that day, leading early and often. Of course the usual three suspects, Wallace, Irvan and Rudd were right in there mixing it up as well. Geoff Bodine, who was still driving for Bud Moore, though he had recently purchased the 7 team from the estate of the late Alan Kulwicki, was also right there in the mix. It seemed those four drivers were going to have to settle it amongst themselves for second as Earnhardt seemed to be on rails. Unfortunately, the Earnhardt express was derailed when he hit the spinning car of Tommy Kendall and went from first to worst in the blink of an eye. Despite the fact his car looked ready for the scrap yard, the Intimidator put on quite a show, working his way from 36th to 6th in the final rundown, but he never was able to contend for the lead again. Wallace lost a transmission and then there were three. Bodine, Rudd and Irvan made a show of it, and a lot of paint was swapped. A late race crash resulted in a caution flag, and the green and white flags were thrown together. Bodine had the point but going into turn five Ricky Rudd got into his rear bumper. Apparently mindful of the previous year's penalty, Ricky lifted off and let Geoff regain control. The momentary lift off the loud pedal was enough to let Irvan bypass Rudd and take second, as Bodine held on to win by almost four seconds. A jubilant Bodine did a Polish victory lap in honor of the fallen hero whose team he had purchased that week. Sadly, it was the last time a Bud Moore car has been in victory lane to this point.
As for Dale Earnhardt, he would have to wait until the 1995 race in Sonoma to finally add a road course win to his resume. That day Richard Childress was not at the track, and was off in safari in Africa gunning for big game. But it was Earnhardt who nailed the win in our sport, compared to which "Everything else is just a game."