#59 - Temper, Temper! Part 2
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
I got several requests from fans (as well as information on some additional outbursts) for more of the most famous tantrums, outbursts, and momentary lapses of judgment in NASCAR's history. Collected together for your amusement, the incidents below actually happened, though some of the names involved might prefer to forget them.
Neil Bonnett, one of this sport's most beloved drivers, and Darrell Waltrip, the bad boy of that era, scrapped furiously for the win during the Spring Race at Richmond, in 1978. Bobby Allison was leading the race, and making ground on Neil and DW in second and third place respectively. Darrell apparently felt Neil was holding him up, so he put aside manners for a moment and put a front bumper to the rear of Bonnett's Chevy, knocking him into the guardrail. The crowd booed lustily. DW did manage to get around Bobby and take the win, while Neil recovered well enough to come home third, the only other car on the lead lap. But Bonnett was furious with DW, and after the race, went charging down pit road and rammed Waltrip's car before Darrell could reach Winner's Circle. Waltrip's Chevy went spinning, and Dick Beatty, NASCAR's Competition Director before Gary Nelson, tripped over pit wall trying to get out of the way, suffering scrapes and bruises. Both drivers were put on probation. For his own safety, Paul Sawyer, owner of the track, arranged to have police escort Darrell to the press box.
Not all post-race bumping incidents turn out so well for the driver who loses his temper. On the final lap of the June race at Michigan, Darrell Waltrip (yep…again) and Cale Yarborough were fighting for the checkers. There was already no love lost between the two drivers, with Cale having dubbed DW "Jaws" and Darrell nicknaming Cale "Chicken Man." Once again, Darrell tried using the front bumper of his car to persuade Cale out the way. Cale responded by chop blocking down on Darrell and the two cars hit very hard. Both drivers managed to regain control, but Cale had the momentum and went on to win. On the cool down lap, DW decided to pay back his old buddy the Chicken Man the favor, and rammed hard into Cale's car. Both cars got sideways, but Cale saved his, while DW went spinning off the track into a deep mud pit in the infield, where his car remained stuck and eventually had to be towed out. Cale was positively cackling in Winner's Circle, and added that if Jaws had a problem he could meet him at the K-Mart parking lot to settle it, a reference to Darrell's ill-advised challenge to the crowd at Charlotte earlier that year.
Terry Labonte is widely known as the Iceman, the calm at the eye of the storm during a NASCAR race, not given to emotional outbursts. But even the Iceman has a temper, and he melted down during the 1991 Firecracker 400 at Daytona. Terry and the Billy Hagan team had already had a rough weekend, unable to get a handle on the car, and qualifying dead last. In fact, they had endured a difficult season, and the 1984 Winston Cup Champion was mired down in the points after a seemingly endless stretch of mechanical DNFs. Labonte was already talking openly about leaving the team at the end of the season and starting a team of his own. The crew worked all during Happy Hour to try to sort the car out, but Terry was still very unhappy. Almost as soon as the green flag dropped, Terry began complaining over the radio the car was "junk", and all but undriveable. In addition, it had picked up a vibration. Hagan told Labonte to stay out there and they would work on the car during the first pit stop. After eight laps, Labonte radioed the car was so bad he was coming in. Rather than going to his pit stall, Labonte took a hard left, and drove back into the garage area. By the time the stunned team got to their transporter, they found the car sitting there, and Labonte's driver's uniform thrown into the back of the trailer. Labonte had walked to his car and driven home. Ladies and gentlemen, the Iceman has left the building.
Harry Gant was one of the most popular drivers ever to have raced Winston Cup, both with the fans and with others in the garage area. For the most part, Gant had a well-deserved reputation as a Southern Gentleman, and a friendly soul. But at Phoenix one year, Alan Kulwicki got into Gant and after the race, Handsome Harry wanted to have a chat with Kulwicki about it. Harry didn't like Alan's answer or attitude, so after looking around to make sure there were no TV cameras in the area, he punched Kulwicki in the face. (Thanks Hal.)
Drivers can get a little irritated, and irritating over the radio at the races. Lake Speed has always been known to get along well with his crews, and is in general a soft spoken man. But earlier this year at Darlington, Lake was not well pleased with his Cartoon Network Taurus, and was hollering over the radio "This car is junk. Total Junk!" A voice came back over the radio with words to the effect, the car was not junk, and a lot of hard working men had spent a lot of hours to build it. Whatever was troubling Lake, they said they would sort it out during the next pit stop. There was a long silence over the radio before Lake responded, "Well, I guess I ought to hush up now."
Ken Schrader is another of those drivers who rarely has a harsh word for anyone, but he is also a fierce competitor with countless short track wins both on asphalt and dirt surfaces, in addition to four Winston Cup wins. Schrader was on the move during the 1990 Southern 500, until he tried to get around Morgan Shepherd. Shepherd would later take blame for what happened, saying he didn't see Schrader, but adding the contact between the two cars was accidental not intentional. The long and the short of it was Morgan bumped Schrader, and Schrader bumped the wall, while Shepherd drove on with nary a dent. Not right then anyway. Schrader was forced to the pits for lengthy repairs, and sat fuming in his car. No sooner did his crew get the 25 repaired well enough to reenter the fray, than Schrader went looking for Shepherd. He slowed on the straightaway, and when Morgan tried to pass, Kenny took a hard right, right into Shepherd's car, putting them both into the wall. NASCAR suggested that even if Schrader's car was repairable, perhaps he'd better not even think about trying to rejoin the race that day. Bud Moore, who owned Shepherd's car, was not one to mince words. Asked by reporters how he felt about the incident, Bud retorted, "Maybe we better go work over that boy's head with a hammer."
It's one thing for one car owner to fight with another driver, but it is a different matter completely when a team owner and his driver start bickering amongst themselves. Driver Cale Yarborough and car owner Junior Johnson were among the most potent pairings ever in NASCAR history, taking three straight Winston Cup titles. But along with a title drive, there is a great deal of tension. Cale was on edge because he had lost a lot of engines at that point in the 1977, and his points lead had vanished. While he didn't lose an engine, Cale finished second to Donnie Allison at the Talladega race in August. After the race Cale described his Chevelle, as the "sorriest" car he had ever driven, and added if he had somehow managed to win the race, "I'd be in court Monday for stealing." Junior was incensed at Cale's remarks and told reporters, "If Cale starts running his mouth he'll be looking for another team. We don't have to listen to a bunch of lip from him." Ironically his second place finish in that "sorry" Chevy put Cale back into the points lead that day.
Ron, a regular reader of the History Series, pointed out a little footnote to the story of the 1987 Winston I reported on in the article on Winston History. You'll recall that was the race that featured the infamous "Pass on the Grass" and the one Bill Elliott and Geoff Bodine both rammed Dale Earnhardt's car after the race, feeling he had done them dirty. Dale had become business partners in a chain of restaurants around that time, and some reporter looking to get a couple of colorful quotes, asked Dale if he were going to invite Elliott and Bodine to drop by for dinner. "Sure" Dale quipped, "We'll have chicken and shrimp." There is no love lost between the Intimidator and Geoff Bodine, whom Dale once referred to as a "Yankee peckerhead." At one point Dale remarked, "I was going to invite Geoff to go deer hunting, but I didn't think he would look very good with a set of antlers strapped to his head."
Curtis Turner was notorious for one of the hottest tempers ever in NASCAR, in addition to being one of the sport's early legends. Sometimes that temper flared off the track. Curtis was heading home one night, with a pretty young lady, when he got hauled over for speeding. At first Turner tried to be charming, something he was good at, pointing out he was a famous race driver, and offering free tickets and pit passes to the race. The cop was not impressed and wrote Turner up a whopper of a ticket anyway. Turner was so angry he decided to get his revenge. He drove to a phone booth, and used a phone book to find a listing for the cop who had written the ticket. He then had his lady friend call up that officer's wife, in the middle of the night, and ask if he was there. When the stunned woman replied the cop was not, Curtis's date told her, "Well I've been sitting here at this bar waiting for him an hour, so you tell him when he gets home, his loss!"
NASCAR used to have a convertible series, in addition to the hardtop series then called Grand National. Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly were not only great friends, but at a convertible race at Darlington, they were teammates, both driving for Holman-Moody. Still, when Weatherly passed Curtis for the lead, Turner responded by ramming his friends car. During the next pit stop, Ralph Moody told Turner to cut that out, threatening to pull the pit crew if he did it again. Turner did it again. When he pitted the next time, Ralph and the crew just sat there staring at him. Turner was so angry he drove his car into pit wall, wrecking it. Later that week, he decided he wished to discuss the matter further. He drove over to the Holman-Moody shop and drove his brand new Cadillac convertible right through the garage door of the shop. (Literally, right through the door. It was closed at the time.) After chewing out Moody, Turner backed out of the shop and drove off.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.