50 Years of nascar racing ~ The Bristol Stomp (Post 43)
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.
Bristol Motor Speedway is another long time member of NASCAR's senior circuit, with the first race held there back in July of 1961 for the Grand National cars. The track looked quite different in those days than today, as the towering banked corners were not added until 1969. While the speeds were up dramatically after the banks were added, one thing has never changed. Bristol always has been, is and always will be a tough race track to drive without wrecking, and it rewards drivers with reputations just as tough as the track itself.
Most drivers will admit that Bristol is a tough track to figure out, but like any dance, once you've found the secret to the Bristol Stomp, some drivers just show an ability to master it. Fred Lorenzen won three straight events at Bristol from the summer of 63 to the summer of 64. Cale Yarborough was the next driver to find the secrets and in his career he won four straight Bristol events in 1976 and 1977, and once won seven out of ten races there from the Spring of 1974 to the Summer of 1978. Fittingly it was the all time master of Bristol, Darrell Waltrip, who broke Cale's four straight race winning streaking. Waltrip holds the all time record for wins at the facility at 12. He won seven of those twelve races in a row from March of 1981 to April of 1984, driving for Junior Johnson, who also won a race there as a driver. It seems only fitting that Darrell's last win (to date anyway) was at Bristol in August of 1992. If you want to do the Bristol Stomp, Darrell Waltrip is the man to teach it to you. Other multi-time Bristol winners include Dale Earnhardt who won his first Winston cup race at Bristol April 1st 1979, and Rusty Wallace. The term "finesse" isn't the first word that comes to mind in describing any of the above drivers, nor is finesse the path to victory lane at Bristol.
The high banked reconfiguration of the track between the Spring and Summer race of 1969 didn't receive universal praise from the drivers. The speeds were up remarkably. The pole speed at the Spring event was 88.7 miles per hour. The pole speed for the Summer race was up to 103.4 MPH, but while the cars were faster, they were contesting for the same sized piece of real estate. Richard Petty voiced his opinion... the redesign had ruined a perfectly good race track. That wasn't a case of sour grapes either. While Petty had blown his engine in his Ford on lap 60, he did relieve David Pearson, who had the flu, and drove Pearson's car to victory that day. The race was marred by several multi-car tangles and only 10 of the 32 cars that started the event were still running by the time the race ended.
Slugfests are often the order of the day at Bristol and that was readily apparent during the Winston Cup race at Bristol held April 9th 1989. The racing was interrupted by 20 caution flags, almost all of them for wrecks, that consumed 98 laps. Common wisdom says the safest place to be during an event is up front, but even the leaders weren't immune from trouble that day. Ernie Irvan blew a tire while leading, slugged the wall and bounced into the path of Brett Bodine and Hut Stricklin. All three cars had to be towed back to the garage area. Later, Greg Sacks was leading in a Buddy Baker owned car when he too blew a tire and tagged the wall. Rusty Wallace emerged as the leader late in the race but in order to claim his prize he had to hold off a determined charge by the master of Bristol, Darrell Waltrip. By crossing the line .26 seconds ahead of Waltrip, Rusty added his name to the heroes list of Bristol. The record number of caution flags slowed the average speed of the event to a mere 76.034 MPH, which is a tick slower than the average pace of the Spring race back in 1963, well before the high banks were added.
Speaking of the Spring race of 1963, that event had its fair share of beating and banging as well, and on that day the main protagonists were teammates. Fireball Roberts was making his first start for the Holman- Moody team, who had lured him out of a Pontiac ride with a contract to drive for Ford. Fred Lorenzen was the other Holman -Moody team driver. As two of the top drivers of the day, Roberts and Lorenzen had swapped paint more than once before they became teammates, as at that point, stock car racing was considered a full contact sport and the fans didn't shriek in outrage and wring their hands waiting for NASCAR to fine someone for rough driving every time two cars hit. There was a bit of bad blood between the two drivers (who later got to be friends) at that point, and it didn't make Fred any happier that team orders seemed to indicate Fireball should win his first race in the Ford for publicity purposes. Lorenzen would have none of it, and the two fought tooth and nail for the lead, swapping paint that had been applied in the same shop. Suspiciously enough, Lorenzen's crew failed to get enough gas in his car on the final stop for him to make the rest of the race. Lorenzen was forced to pit again for a splash and go, handing the lead to Fireball, who had enough gas to make it despite the fact he was driving the same car and had last stopped on the same lap.
Nor was that the only race with a good deal of controversy at Bristol in the Spring. On April 12, 1987 Dale Earnhardt had one of those races that helped earn him the nickname "The Intimidator." Actually, that day, other folks were calling him names considerably less polite than that. With threatening weather moving in, Dale was driving in a "take no prisoners" mode, and spun more than a few cars out of his way when he got tired of waiting to pass them. The most blatant of those hits came when he tried to take the lead from Sterling Marlin on lap 252. Sterling refused to yield, as the it looked like the rain would start falling any moment, so Dale put a bumper to the rear of Sterling's car and shoved him out of the way. Sterling's day was over and he was furious. The rain moved in and the race had to be red flagged. During that red flag period NASCAR officials told Dale Earnhardt if there was one more instance of purposeful contact he would be black-flagged off the track. In typical Dale Earnhardt fashion, the Intimidator replied, "Hey, this is Bristol. You have to be aggressive here." Once the race resumed Dale worked his way back into the lead on lap 379 of 500 and led the rest of the race, except for one brief lap while he was in the pits. He held on to beat Richard Petty by about three quarters of a second.
Perhaps the most exciting finish in Winston Cup history at Bristol took place April 8th, 1990. The event was a typical slam bang Bristol affair, with the track surface so slick Geoff Bodine compared it to trying to drive on ball bearings. He, of course, was one of Bristol's victims that day. Other front runners slowed by wrecks included Earnhardt, Irvan and Wallace. On the final lap there was a fierce four way scramble for the lead. Davey Allison had the point, but Mark Martin was giving him all he could handle. Directly behind Martin was Sterling Marlin who was doing his best to hold off a hard charging Ricky Rudd. With the checkered flag in sight, Rudd "Earnhardted" Marlin out of the way. Meanwhile, back up front, Martin had gotten inside Allison and the two Fords were drag racing side by side to the stripe. The finish was too close to call and NASCAR had to rely on a photo finish camera to determine Allison had beat Martin by the smallest of margins. Making the achievement all that much more remarkable was the fact a poor qualifying effort had landed Davey a back stretch pit stall. But the fireworks were far from over. Infuriated, Sterling Marlin waited on the track for Ricky Rudd to come by and tried to run into him. Ricky avoided Marlin, then made a stab of his own at Sterling's car. The two kept at it an entire lap before cooler heads prevailed. On the track anyway. Leaping out of his car Marlin headed for the Rudd trailer with his crew in tow to "discuss things." The discussion got real loud, real fast. One of Marlin's crew members was waving around a sledge hammer during the brouhaha. He was later suspended three weeks... but there's no telling what might have happened to the guy had he not brought along his trusty sledge hammer. Which is, perhaps, why any decent race mechanic will tell you, when you go racing at Bristol be sure to bring along a great big hammer. At Bristol, cars are going to get wrecked and tempers are going to get frayed. A good hammer is almost as useful beating on a wrecked race car, as it is in doing the Bristol Stomp in the garage area afterwards.
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