50 Years of nascar racing ~ Hot Fun In The SummerTime (Post 75)
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.
Fans attending the July race at Pocono are almost guaranteed that the weather is going to be hot and the traffic is going to be heavy, but equally certainly they're guaranteed some hot action out on the track as drivers fight their way through traffic to the front, three and four wide down the front straight. And sometimes things get just a little too hot for comfort in the tunnel turn.
Based on his comments, fans may surmise Pocono is not one of Dale Earnhardt's favorite tracks, despite the fact he has won there twice. That's probably because he has some bad memories of the place. In addition to the nasty wreck that sidelined him during his rookie year, Dale was involved in a hard wreck during the July race of 1982. Coming down the front straight at almost 200 MPH heading towards the first turn already has a driver's attention, but it's got to get that much more interesting when you go for the brake pedal and nothing happens. Such was the case that day for Earnhardt, who proceeded to nail Tim Richmond's car a solid shot, causing both vehicles to slam the wall hard. Dale went into the boiler plate almost head on, tearing through it, and began a frightening series of rolls, the car so high in the air that he almost took out a stand alongside the track, which the radio announcers used to cover the race. His Bud Moore Ford landed on its roof when all the tumbling was done. Richmond ran to check on his friend, and as Dale recalls it, he thought Tim had come over to let him have it for causing the wreck, having no idea of just how terrible that wreck had looked to others. A trackside photographer and Tim Richmond helped pull Dale to safety, but he was in obvious pain having broken a knee cap. Repairs to the wall took almost an hour, but with threatening weather moving into the area, rather than throw the red flag, NASCAR left the drivers out on the track, behind an extremely slow moving pace car. The race cars were barking and straining at that pace, like pit bulls on a tight leash. The event itself came down to a crapshoot between three drivers who decided to roll the dice on gas mileage. Richard Petty had the lead but ran out of gas in the north shoot, and had to coast to the pits for a splash and go, eliminating his chance for the win. Darrell Waltrip inherited the lead with six laps to go, but two laps later he ran out of gas in the first turn. Bobby Allison took the lead at that point and managed to stretch his mileage just far enough to take the checkers, with his car coughing and sputtering as it crossed the line.
The 1983 July race at Pocono was marred by yet another spectacular crash. Bobby Gerhart lost control on lap 26 and got sideways. Glenn Jarrett (current broadcaster, and Dale's brother) had no place to go and slammed the spinning Buick so hard the car was torn in half. Fortunately, neither driver was seriously injured. Meanwhile, up front there were two relative surprises fighting for the lead that day, Tim Richmond and Dave Marcis. Both needed a final fuel stop to make the distance and Richmond's Blue Max racing pit crew managed to give him an advantage over Marcis that Richmond maintained until the end of the race. The win at Pocono that day was Tim's first on a superspeedway, both his previous victories having been scored on road courses.
Richmond was involved in another memorable finish at Pocono in July of 1986. Tim was hot at that point in the season, having won two of the three previous races, and making a determined charge in the points standings after a lackluster opening part of the season. Rick Hendrick had to have his hands over his eyes that day, as the two principal protagonists throughout much of the event were Hendrick teammates Richmond and Geoff Bodine. Tim added a little drama by getting involved in a wreck where he hit Richard Petty, and lost a lap in the pits getting repairs. Petty got the worse end of the deal, hitting the wall hard, ending his day. While Tim tried to get his lap back, he got involved in a spirited duel with his teammate Bodine, who was trying to keep him a lap down. The two made hard contact but both gathered their cars back up without incident. Bodine had the advantage at the white flag, but Richmond took advantage of the long back straight to muscle past Geoff. Ricky Rudd clung to Tim's rear bumper taking advantage of the draft, and in fact seemed poised to pass Richmond coming out of the final turn, while Bodine scrambled back into contention as well. Tim managed to hang on to take the victory in a photo finish, with the official margin of victory listed as five one hundredths of a second. Tim Richmond's hot streak in those final 17 events of 1986 saw him win seven times and finish second twice more; not enough to catch Dale Earnhardt for the championship, but enough to allow him to pull within six points of Darrell Waltrip for second in the standings, before having to settle for third.
Another driver who made a late season charge for a championship was Bill Elliott in 1988. Earlier in the season it had seemed Rusty Wallace was on the fast track to the Winston Cup, while Elliott was in a bit of a slump. Bill's amazing charge from 38th to first at the Firecracker marked the start of the turn around, but it was at the July race at Pocono he really got things going. Elliott was back to form that weekend, qualifying for the outside pole and grabbing the lead for the first time on the third lap. The old number nine seemed to be on rails, and Elliott remained in contention throughout the event, leading most of the second half. Meanwhile, Rusty Wallace suffered a broken transmission and struggled to a 24th place finish, 11 laps off the pace. Elliott's win pulled him within three points of Rusty in the title hunt, and was the beginning of a see-saw battle for the Winston Cup. Elliott managed to prevail that year.
Bill Elliott also used the July race at Pocono to take a large bite of out a points gap in 1992, but it was under unfortunate circumstances. Davey Allison, the points leader going into the event was involved in a savage wreck. Davey had seemed comfortably in control of the race, winning the pole and leading the most laps throughout the first three quarters of the event by a huge margin. A rare botched pit stop by the Robert Yates' team put Davey back in the pack, but he seemed to have enough car to muscle his way back to the point. Disaster struck when he and Darrell Waltrip went for the same tiny piece of real estate on lap 149. Allison's car got sideways, lifted a good twenty feet off the track and returned to earth doing a violent series of rolls, that saw him almost clobber a rescue truck in the infield. The car finally slammed roof first into the guard rail and came to rest. There was a stunned silence in the crowd, born of the fear that the same track that had ended Davey's dad Bobby's career a few years back might have just claimed the younger Allison's life. After what seemed an eternity, Allison was removed from the car and choppered off to Lehigh Valley hospital. The good news was that Allison had survived the terrifying tumble. The bad news was he had two breaks in his right arm and a broken right wrist. Allison, who had led the points standings all year, came into the Pocono race with a 46-point lead on Elliott, but despite Bill's lackluster 13th place finish that day, he left Pocono with a nine point advantage over Allison. Coincidentally enough, Darrell Waltrip went on to win the race, but the first words out of DW's mouth in victory lane were, "How's Davey?"
Certainly one of the strangest finishes at the July Pocono race occurred in 1991. Rusty Wallace took the win with a little help from a friend, and Mother Nature. The race was marred by controversy after a nasty wreck on lap 71. While the film footage was inconclusive, most of the drivers blamed Ernie Irvan who had gotten a bad reputation and the unfortunate nickname of "Swervin Irvan" by that point. Whatever the cause, Irvan was close behind Hut Stricklin, when Hut looped his car going into turn one. Ironically, both Irvan and Stricklin got through the mess with minimal trouble, while behind them, cars started colliding in a 200 mile per hour chain reaction wreck that swept up 10 cars. Among the unfortunate participants were points leader Dale Earnhardt, pole sitter Alan Kulwicki, and the King, who had been having a good run. Late in the race one of those "out of nowhere toad floater" thunderstorms that are a fact of life in July in the Pocono's, seemed poised to bring the event to an early conclusion. The race was in fact red flagged with 24 laps to go, though not officially called. Rusty Wallace had the lead but was desperately short on gas. He was hoping the race would not restart as if it did he would need to duck into the pits for fuel, and give up the lead. Irvan had already pitted for fuel and seemed poised to take the win if the race resumed, even under caution. During a two hour plus rain delay, Rusty had a chat with Dale Earnhardt who was hopelessly out of contention after having been involved in the lap 71 melee. Dale and Rusty are (usually) friends, and Dale offered to push Rusty around the track a few times under caution if the race were to resume. Perhaps the fact Dale blamed Irvan for the wreck played into the decision as well, because by pushing Rusty, Earnhardt could prevent Irvan from winning. Sure enough, the race was restarted under caution and Dale pushed Rusty around the track for several laps, while Rusty shut down his engine to conserve what little fuel he had left. Rain began falling and NASCAR displayed the white and yellow flags together on lap 178. Because rules forbid a car from getting a push on the last lap, Rusty refired his engine and followed the pace car around to the checkered. Irvan was enraged by the tactic, but found little sympathy in the garage area.
While no one knew it that day, tragically it was the last race veteran independent driver J.D. McDuffie would ever finish. McDuffie came home 25th that day. After failing to qualify at Talladega, J.D. was killed during the race at Watkins Glen that season.
Tragedy weighed down the hearts of race fans who attended the July race at Pocono in 1993. It was the first race staged after the tragic demise of Davey Allison in a helicopter wreck at Talladega. There was a short memorial to the fallen hero prior to the event, but as it seems it must, the show went on anyway, with most drivers running a red 28 decal on their cars in remembrance of a racer not there that day. Robert Yates had made a decision not to run the fabled Texaco car in that event. Despite the specter hanging over the proceedings, it was a fine race. Dale Earnhardt took control of the event during the second half, but a lightning quick pit stop got Rusty Wallace out into the lead under the final caution. Rusty and Dale put on a show, with Bill Elliott right behind them, waiting expectantly for his chance. Earnhardt was able to take the lead back from Wallace with 18 laps to go, and Dale, Rusty and Bill crossed the line nose to tail in that order at the checkers. After the race, Earnhardt spun his car around on the front straight and was joined by his entire Childress crew who knelt in prayer beside the car as Dale dedicated the win to his fallen fishing buddy, Davey Allison. Earnhardt was handed a 28 flag, and made a slow Polish victory lap to honor the memories of Alan Kulwicki and Davey. The crowd in the grandstand roared its approval with nary a dry eye to be found. On that particular day it didn't matter which driver's t shirt the fans were wearing, and even those wearing those familiar t shirts with a red line across the three and "Anyone but Earnhardt" on the back were on their feet cheering so loud the ground shook for several minutes. I was fortunate enough to be in the stands that day, and it's one of those moments I recall being most proud I was a NASCAR fan. During a race, fans and drivers may have their differences, but in the race that really matters, the human race, there's no finer group of folks on earth.
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