50 Years of nascar racing ~ Road Warriors (Post 76)
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.
Located well out stock car racing's Southeastern home, in upstate New York, Watkins Glen has nevertheless been part of NASCAR's top racing series on and off for over forty years now. The first Grand National race was held there in 1957, after which there was a long layoff until 1964 before the heroes of the south once again hauled their taxis to the storied road course. After the race in 1965 there was a twenty one year lay off before NASCAR visited the track again. The track promoters had seemingly been content to host the United States round of the Formula One circuit from 1960 to 1981, during which period the track's infield, particularly the area of the Bog, became infamous as a party zone every bit as threatening as Pocono or Talladega. In fact on one notable afternoon, a denizen of the bog saw fit to steal a tour bus, drive it into the swamp and torch it. So much for the open wheel fan's reputation as the cultured elite of the racing fraternity. Along the way, Watkins Glen has provided stock car racing fans with thrills as skillful road course drivers battled for the win, and no little amusement as lesser skilled road course drivers battled just to remain on the track. To date though, there have been no barbecued buses during NASCAR's forays into the area.
The first NASCAR race at the Glen was held August 4th, 1957, back in the era of tailfins and chromed land barges riding on tires skinnier than the ones under your granny's K car but weighing as much as her house. Buck Baker, who was a tough enough man to wrestle a grizzly bear with an abscessed tooth into submission, wrestled a 57 Chevy around the 2.3 mile road course for a flag to flag win averaging just over 83 miles per hour. Meanwhile, Fireball Roberts and Jim Reed had a good go of it, battling for second until with just over two laps to go, Reed took an off-course excursion into several immovable objects that ended his day. Roberts was credited with second place with he and Tiny Lund the only two other drivers that had managed to remain on the lead lap with the blistering pace Baker set.
It was a new generation of drivers who showed up at the Watkins Glen event when NASCAR returned to the track in 1964. In fact only four drivers who had been in the race in 1957 (Buck Baker, Lee Petty, Al Miller and Marvin Panch) returned to the track. The cars were faster by that point, possessed of much more horsepower, but not much more brakes or tires. Watkins Glen was one of four road courses that the Grand National drivers visited that year. Ned Jarrett and Billy Wade fought over the lead with Wade finally taking the flag by six seconds, a very close gap by the standards of the day. There was some bad blood between Wade and Jarrett over some bumping incidents in races prior to that event and the crowd was kept on the edge of its seats. In winning that race, Wade became the first Grand National driver ever to win four consecutive events. Watkins Glen rookie and the points leader at that point in the season, Richard Petty had to settle for 21st after crashing on the tenth lap, having seemed never to get the hang of the place all weekend. Watkins Glen is in fact one of the few tracks he ever raced at where the King never managed to pull off a win. As a historical footnote, that race at Watkins Glen was the last Grand National race Richard's dad, Lee Petty ever ran.
Marvin Panch celebrated his third trip to Watkins Glen by taking an easy victory in the Wood Brothers Ford in the 1965 event. Ned Jarrett once again settled for second. Buck Baker handed over the keys to the family race car to his son Buddy, who seemed a bit confused by the right turns and not above an occasional off track excursion, but still managed to come home third, a rare good showing for a Mopar product that year, with Chrysler officially boycotting NASCAR. Early in the event Junior Johnson gave evidence of his skills over a twisty course born of countless moonshining runs streaking to an early lead, but a blown engine relegated him to 15th in a field of 19 cars.
After a 21 year layoff, it is understandable that none of the drivers who participated in the 1965 event were on hand for the return to the Glen in 1986. Buddy Baker was still driving but must not have thought much of the place as he turned over his car to noted IndyCar racer Al Unser Senior, for the road event. There were some new faces of bright up and comers at the event, including Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Tim Richmond and Rusty Wallace. Tim Richmond, who had cut his teeth in the Indy car ranks and done a good deal of road racing prior to joining the Winston Cup circuit, took the pole for the event. Before the first lap was over though, Darrell Waltrip muscled his way into the lead. Noted road racer Rusty Wallace also took a turn at the front before the hometown favorite Geoff Bodine, in another Hendrick car asserted himself. The wildly enthusiastic crowd cheered Geoff on, but he spun off the course on lap 63 and did enough damage to the car he was plagued with overheating problems the rest of the day. Tim Richmond, DW and Bill Elliott scrapped over the lead for the rest of the event, with Richmond prevailing at the line, with Waltrip coming home second, and Dale Earnhardt sneaking by Bill Elliott on the last lap to claim third.
By the time the NASCAR circuit returned to the Glen in 1987, it was obvious that defending champion Tim Richmond was not well. In fact, he looked so awful in the drivers' meeting prior to the event, several competitors voiced an opinion to NASCAR he was in no shape to drive. Most felt Richmond was badly hung over. Sadly, we know better now. Rain forced a 24 hour delay in running the event and Richmond seemed a bit healthier on Monday. There was somewhat a surprise in qualifying that year when Terry Labonte edged out noted road racer Rusty Wallace, who along with Ricky Rudd was a road course favorite for the pole. But by the time the field completed a lap, the hometown boy Geoff Bodine who had qualified third, had scrambled into the lead. Earnhardt muscled past him on lap 11 before Rusty Wallace finally took the lead and began building on it. Owing to the sequencing of pit stops, Tim Richmond did get credit for leading seven laps late in the going, but once things cycled around Wallace was back comfortably in control of the event. In fact, Rusty had built up such a lead that he stopped on the white flag lap for a splash of fuel rather than risking running the tank dry and never lost the lead. Terry Labonte came home second and a surprisingly strong Dave Marcis came home third.
In the 1988 race Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd treated the crowd to a vivid demonstration of why they were the two most highly respected Winston Cup road racers. Rudd was particularly impressive that day. Tire problems were rampant during that event and Rudd was among those forced to the pits by prematurely worn tires. The stop dropped him to 30th place in the running order, but Ricky was on a mission after that and fought his way back through the field in convincing style. Of course, he was greatly helped by the record 8 caution flags that flew, causing 36 of the 90 laps to be run under yellow, and late leader Darrell Waltrip's mechanical misfortunes. Rudd reassumed the lead with three laps to go but Rusty Wallace was hot on his tail and the two drivers waged an epic battle as Rusty looked for a way around his nemesis. Coming out of the final turn, Rusty gave Rudd a solid shot to the rear of his car and both cars got sideways. They were still all over the place when Rudd edged Wallace to the flag by about a car length. Bill Elliott stayed out of trouble and on the course to come home third.
Wallace was a repeat winner at the Glen in 1989, greatly aided in his quest for the trophy by Ricky Rudd's blown engine that eliminated him on lap 69 after Ricky had led early. There were some surprises up front that day as well, including pole sitter Morgan Shepherd, Michael Waltrip and Tommy Kendall driving a fourth Rick Hendrick car. In the end the cream rose to the top and Rusty took the win by a little over a second over Mark Martin, who of course has gone on to enjoy more than a little success at the Glen himself.
There was a frightening practice wreck at the Glen in 1990. Junie Donlavey and his driver Buddy Baker had reached a mutual decision to have a road course expert drive the car at the Glen. Troy Beebe got the nod, but during practice he got sideways and Mark Martin and Dick Trickle who were running side by side plowed hard into the out of shape car. The jaws of life had to be used to remove Beebe from the car and he suffered a broken pelvis. Trickle suffered injuries to his foot, but ever the gamer, borrowed a shoe 2 ½ sizes bigger than normal for that foot and drove in the race anyway.
Once again Rudd and Wallace seemed the cars to beat, but Dale Earnhardt seemed determined to do just that and take his first road course win. He was leading when Rusty tried to force a pass and sent Earnhardt crashing off course. A lap later Wallace's engine expired. Earnhardt was clearly annoyed with the move and told reporters in a low growl he wasn't going to talk to them about what had happened, but he was going to go find Rusty and handle the matter himself. Mark Martin also seemed poised to grab the win but slipped back to fifth late in the going. Ricky Rudd's charge to the front was fraught with peril. Before assuming the point he had to recover from a lap 10 spin, three flat tires, and a late race caution that eliminated a safe lead he had struggled to build up. To no one's surprise Ricky Rudd finally asserted himself and took the win with the local favorites, Geoff and Brett Bodine putting on a spirited scrap for second, with Geoff finally winning the battle of brotherly shove. Tommy Kendall's strong run in the previous year's event had earned him a ride that year as well. In the course of the race he, Sterling Marlin and Bill Elliott had gotten involved in a tangle that seemed, on tape anyway, to be "one of them racing deals." Marlin's car owner Billy Hagan apparently felt otherwise and had to be subdued after chasing Kendall around his car swinging his walking stick like a Louisville Slugger.
The 1991 race at Watkins Glen featured a stirring finish, but sadly it will be best recalled as the race where veteran independent driver JD McDuffie lost his life in a fourth lap crash. It is thought that JD lost his brakes going into turn five, the fastest corner of the course at the end of a long straightaway. He brushed against Jimmy Means Pontiac, and went off course into the tire barrier, hitting it with horrifying velocity. Means also went off course and actually drove right under the stricken car as it flipped up into the air. Means was not hurt and ran to try to help McDuffie, but it was evident by how quickly he crawled back out of the car and his panicked waving for help that things were very bad indeed. JD McDuffie lost his life at Watkins Glen that afternoon. There was a long red flag delay to allow the rescue squad to attend to his remains after which the race resumed, though the hearts of drivers and fans alike were heavy. Since that day, a chicane has been added at the end of that straight to slow speeds going into the corner.
Ernie Irvan had the lead late in the going that tragic day, but both Mark Martin and Davey Allison seemed poised to give him a run for the money on the final lap. Going into the first turn, Mark tried to dive underneath Irvan who quickly dove low to block the move. Martin tried to take evasive action to avoid hitting Irvan and spun out. Allison spun as well, trying to avoid hitting Mark's car. Ernie Irvan went on to take the win. Ricky Rudd inherited second after the mishap while Martin got going again quickly enough to beat out Rusty Wallace for third. Allison dropped to tenth in the final running order after limping around the track to the checkers.
The 1992 running of the Watkins Glen road course event won't make anyone's list of classic races. Lousy weather forced a three hour rain delay and threatening skies hung over the entire event. The impending return of the rain played hell with pit strategy as everyone knew it would rain again, but nobody knew when. There was very nearly a surprise victory at that event when Dick Trickle's crew left him out on the track the longest, but the rain didn't cooperate. Kyle Petty was on fresh rubber and forced his way past Trickle who then pitted, just in time for the rain to start falling of course. Four laps of caution were run, which meant Trickle could not advance his position taking advantage of the new rubber, before the rain intensified and with sunset looming, NASCAR finally threw in the soggy towel. Kyle Petty took the win, while Trickle was relegated to a 24th place finish and was once again denied his champagne.
Normally I cut off these historical articles after 1992, which is when most modern era fans began following the sport, but the 1993 race at the Glen was a memorable one, still lamented by Dale Earnhardt's huge legion of fans. That race looked like it was going to be a Mark Martin benefit. Mark started from the pole and comfortably asserted himself in the lead. Disaster struck in the pits in the form of a stripped lug nut and Mark tumbled down to ninth in the running order. Meanwhile Dale Earnhardt was the beneficiary of Mark's misfortune and led twenty laps, looking like he would finally score a road course victory. Kyle Petty muscled past him on lap 76 but Dale stayed in hot pursuit of the defending race champion and made several bold moves to retake the lead. Kyle was feeling the pressure and finally made the mistake Earnhardt was hoping for…but not how Dale needed it to be. Petty hit the curb and spun right into Dale's path. The two cars collided with six laps to go. Petty was eliminated and Dale's chances at victory were finished. Mark Martin was able to capitalize on Dale's misfortune to retake the lead and six laps later, the win. In addition to the normal thrill of victory, Mark had one more big reason to celebrate the win. By starting from the pole and winning the race, Mark was able to claim a nice little $98,800 UNOCAL bonus, bringing his winnings to over $166,000. It was the first of three consecutive victories at Watkins Glen for the Roush driver.
While Dale Earnhardt has yet to win at Watkins Glen he did win the hearts of many race fans, including a bunch of the AB3 (anybody but the 3 car) gang in 1996. Still healing from painful injuries to his collarbone and sternum, in a remarkable display of guts and determination, Earnhardt manhandled his black Chevy around the course fast enough to claim the pole position. On race day Dale did not turn the car over to a relief driver as originally planned, but stuck it out for the whole race and actually led a good ways before drifting back late in the going.
There's no way to predict this year's winner when the Winston Cup gang pays their annual visit to the Glen, but it should be exciting. As of late, the infield crowd at the event has regained a reputation as being terribly rowdy again…so tour bus drivers be warned. Keep the doors locked.
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