50 Years of nascar racing ~ Triumph, Tragedy, And The Tunnel Turn (Post 65)
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 in Pennsylvania's picturesque Pocono mountains, Pocono International Raceway offers outstanding vistas in addition to being the Daytona of the North. The area is abundant with wildlife, but none quite so wild as the party animals who congregate around the infamous mud pit near turn one twice each summer. With only a little over a month between the two races, the hardiest of that crew barely have time to sober up before the next event. In addition to a good time though, the track has served up its share of exciting and heartwarming moments, as well as some terrible tragedies, especially in the area of the notorious tunnel turn, every racer's nightmare. A sign should be hung at the end of the long backstretch going into that corner that warns, "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here", but for some drivers that corner was no laughing matter.
Originally proposed in the early '60s, Pocono did not open until 1971, and that was an Indy car race. NASCAR's Winston Cup tour didn't make their first visit to Long Pond until 1974, and it wasn't until 1982 that the Twin Summer Classics became a tradition.
For some drivers the track has been both kind and cruel. Jeff Gordon has won twice at Pocono, but he also blew a shift on the last restart in the June 95, damaging his engine and handing an easy victory to teammate Terry Labonte. For Dale Jarrett, his first win with the Robert Yates team came at Pocono in the July race of 1995, just as people were beginning to doubt Yates' decision after DJ's lackluster performance to date. But Jarrett has met the tunnel turn wall as well. Bill Elliott has won four times at Pocono (a track record he currently holds with Tim Richmond and Darrell Waltrip) but he also saw his late race lead evaporate when a poor decision in the pits to go with two tires rather than four cost him a chance to break his long winless streak and drive the storied Thunderbat to victory lane.
Dale Earnhardt has tasted the champagne at Pocono twice, but it was also the sight of one of the worst wrecks of his career in 1979, his rookie season. A blown tire put Dale hard into the boiler plate wall in the tunnel turn while Earnhardt was leading the race and fractured both his collarbones. He missed four races, which effectively ended Dale's bid to win rookie of the year and the Winston Cup championship in the same season. In retrospect, that race also cost Darrell Waltrip the championship that year. Darrell was already having a lousy weekend, having crashed and totaled his car in Happy Hour practice. That forced the Digard team to borrow a car from Al Rudd, Ricky's dad. A rain out on Sunday that postponed the race until Monday gave the team a little extra time to set up the car, and Darrell was one of the dominant drivers in his Rent-A-Racer. Cale Yarborough was leading the race, but Darrell was closing when a late race yellow allowed DW to close right up Yarborough's rear bumper. The DiGard team gambled that fresh rubber would give Waltrip an advantage on the restart and with only eight cars left on the lead lap, he scooted into the pits as did Neil Bonnett. Unfortunately the green flag never waved and the race ended under caution with Yarborough winning, Richard Petty in second, and DW in seventh. He lost that year's title chase by 11 points to Richard Petty . Bad fortune did give an unexpected break to another rookie driver at that race, and he wasn't even at the track. On the first lap, noted road racer Al Holbert and independent driver Roger Hamby were involved in a savage fiery wreck. While recovering from his injuries, Hamby asked a young Bill Elliott to fill in at the wheel of Hamby's Chevy.
While Pocono helped Richard Petty win the title in 1979, the track turned on him savagely in the June race of 1980. Ironically, Richard blew a tire as well, in the same corner as Dale had in '79 and slammed the same wall. The car got airborne and almost rolled but settled down on three wheels. (The fourth was heading for the infield having been torn clean off the car by that point.) Petty was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed as having broken his neck, and he was fortunate not to be left paralyzed. But ever the gamer, Petty told the media and NASCAR it was only a bad sprain so he could continue to at least start each event in his quest for an eighth championship. He had a substitute driver in the car for the next race at Talladega, but went the distance in the race after that at Michigan. The finish of the race was a classic, with Neil Bonnett aboard the Wood Brothers' Ford, chasing down Buddy Baker with four to go and staging a stirring dog fight with Baker to eventually prevail by about half a second. Making his first NASCAR Winston Cup start that day was an open wheel driver, Tim Richmond, who would go on to enjoy much success at Pocono.
Bobby Allison enjoyed three consecutive wins at Pocono from June of 1982 through the June race of 1983, but no one has suffered more cruelly at the Pocono track. To win the June 1982 event Bobby Allison needed an assist from a friend. With the weather threatening, Allison decided to hold off on pitting under a late caution, fearing the race would be red flagged to an early conclusion, so threatening were the skies. The gamble failed when the rain didn't come on cue and Allison ran out of gas on the long back stretch. Long time Allison friend, and good sportsman Dave Marcis was hopelessly out of contention anyway, so he pulled up behind Bobby and pushed him back to the pits. Remarkably Bobby didn't even lose a lap and went on to win a race. Unfortunately the driver he beat, Tim Richmond, was sponsored by the same man as Dave Marcis, JD Stacy, who promptly fired Marcis, in a very un-sportsmanlike gesture. Dave was not the only victim who drove for the mercurial Mr. Stacy either. Mark Martin, Terry Labonte and Benny Parsons were among his other victims.
Unfortunately no friend could help Bobby Allison in the June Pocono race of 1988. On the opening lap of the event Bobby radioed in to his Stavola Brothers crew that he thought he had a tire going down, and that they should be ready for an unplanned pit stop if need be. Tragically, Allison never made it to pit lane. As he entered the tunnel corner in a tight pack of cars, the tire blew and Bobby hit the wall hard and bounced back into traffic. There was no way for Jocko Maggiacomo to avoid slamming Allison's out of control Buick right in the driver's side numbers. Bobby was comatose when the rescue crews reached him and had to be cut from the car. He was taken by helicopter to the hospital with abdominal injuries and a broken leg, but far more serious was a brain injury that had his very life hanging by a thread. The doctors were extremely pessimistic about his chances of ever regaining consciousness, and said that the decision whether to continue life support was in the hands of the family. That terrible decision fell to Bobby's oldest son Davey, who after some consideration decided his Daddy was a born fighter, as witnessed by his racing career, and that the senior Allison would once again defy the odds and pull through. While Bobby Allison did indeed survive the horrific injuries he suffered at Pocono that day, it was a long and arduous rehabilitation, including needing to learn to speak all over again. In the bitterest of ironies, in 1993, just before the 5th year anniversary of his own near fatal accident at Pocono, and having buried his other son the year before, Bobby Allison himself was in a hospital faced with the same terrible decision concerning his son Davey who had suffered a head injury in a helicopter wreck. Unfortunately we know the outcome was the worst possible one….and as Forrest Gump would say, that's all I'm going to say about that. The aching in the hearts of fans caused by Davey Allison's tragic demise has not healed even after all these years.
There was another memorable finish at Pocono that still tugs at the heart strings of race fans who recall that event, in the June race of 1987. Tim Richmond had missed the first 11 races of the season to a mysterious illness that was still publicly said to be a bad case of flu that had led to pneumonia. But by that point, Richmond himself knew the terrible truth. He was dying of AIDS. During the days leading up to the event it was obvious to anyone who saw him that Tim still wasn't well, and there was even speculation as to whether he would be able to race that Sunday. Richmond helped put some of that speculation to rest by posting a strong third place qualifying effort even after that long layoff. As sick as he looked when he tightened down the belts that day prior to the start, once Richmond fired up the engine it was pure magic…it was as if he had never been gone. By the fifth lap Richmond passed Terry Labonte for the lead. While he faded a bit in the early stages of the race, Tim Richmond remained in contention throughout the day, and at the ¾ mark of the event he charged back into the lead. It was a magical thing to behold the way Tim Richmond could handle a car through those notoriously tough corners, running a line within tenths of an inch of the last, lap after lap, as if he and that Monte Carlo had become a single unit. Those privileged enough to have watched him will never doubt Richmond was one of the all time greats. By his own admission tears were streaming down his cheeks as Tim Richmond drove those last few laps, but he held on to beat Bill Elliott by about a second. Even Richmond's crew chief, Harry Hyde, who was about as tough as the brass buttons on a black leather jacket, was misty eyed as he joined his driver in victory lane. Sadly, the Cinderella comeback was short lived and not long afterwards Richmond was back in the hospital, and never drove in a Winston Cup race again. For those who mourn him, what we are left to hold onto are the memories of that day….the memory of a man far too young, but in the twilight of his life, standing there in the golden twilight of a Pennsylvania afternoon, waving to the wildly cheering crowd with his trademark smile, and savoring the moment and the applause just a little longer than most drivers would have, knowing there was not much time left.