Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Schaefer 500s revisited

Back in 2010 - a lifetime ago in my blogging practices - I posted about each of the Schaefer 500 USAC Indy car races at Pocono. At the time, I threw them together quickly.
  • the date
  • the winner
  • a link to the results
  • a photo or two
Over the last week, I've edited each of them with more details about the race, additional photos, plus an article or two as well. I left the entries with their original posting date though I did add an 'edited' date. Here are links to each of the posts.
Bench Racing's series of Schaefer 500 posts ... the one blog to read when you're reading more than one.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

June 21, 1975: Neil and Woody in Nashville

With a subject line of Neil, Woody and Nashville, one might infer this post would be about folk protest music. Instead, it's one about racing as is always the case here ... well, that and Schaefer beer.

A couple of times in the mid to late 70s, my family went to Nashville's fairgrounds speedway for a dual ARCA / NASCAR Late Model Sportsman night. Both races were 200 laps...I think. While I don't remember the specifics of any of them including the winners, I do remember a few general themes:
  • My dad wanted to see the a handful of drivers race: L.D. Ottinger, Harry Gant, and Butch Lindley.
  • The ARCA race always seemed to have a lot of wrecks which extended its duration and delayed the start of the LMS race.
  • My dad groused about how late it was getting without the LMS race being completed. (He is now 79 and still whines about that situation.)
  • I just wanted to see cars race lap after lap regardless of the time.
On June 21, 1975, the track hosted such a double header though the LMS race was only 100 laps and didn't draw as many of the national touring drivers. I don't think we attended this race as our regular visits began in 1976.

The late model sportsman race was sponsored by Uniroyal Tires. As a promotion, track promoter Bill Donoho brought in the stunt driving team of Uni, Roy, and Al. Yes, seriously.

Except that particular evening the trio simply made an appearance and distributed photos vs. thrilling the crowd with their driving skills. I'm guessing in retrospect the appearance fee probably wasn't quite large enough to cover the stunts.

The Tennessean - June 20, 1975
Darrell Waltrip, the all-time wins leader at the the time at the fairgrounds and a two-time track champion in 1970 and 1973, had moved on to the Winston Cup series. As matter of fact, he'd won his first Cup race a month or so earlier in the Music City USA 420. In June, he returned to the fairgrounds with the plan to run in both races.

The Tennessean - June 21, 1975
The late Neil Bonnett raced a Bobby Allison-prepared 1972 Chevy Nova to the win in the 100-lap LMS race. The car was similar to this one (perhaps the same one) that Bonnett raced in the 1975 Falls City 200 at the fairgrounds earlier in the month.

Credit: Russ Thompson
Ohio driver and beer distributor, Woody Fisher, won the opening 100-lap ARCA feature. Coo Coo Marlin, a four-time Nashville late model champion, stepped away as did Waltrip from his regular gig as a Cup driver to race in the ARCA event. He laid down the quickest lap in qualifying in his Cunningham-Kelly Chevrolet - almost as if he might know how to get around the place!

Waltrip's night for the fans didn't go very well. He lost an engine in his borrowed car during qualifying for the ARCA race and missed the race. In the LMS race, he did what he could to pursue the bumper of Bonnett's car. But he experienced engine issues in that car as well, and he dropped out of the main feature.

Fisher has been featured in this blog previously - based on his piloting of a Petty Enterprises built Dodge Charger to a win in the 1977 ARCA 200 at Daytona.

Source: Chris Hussey
The Tennessean - June 22, 1975


Thursday, June 12, 2014

June 1982 Nashville Raceway: Sterlin vs. Mike

Though I've been a Petty lifer for 40 years, I followed the local late model hot shoes of Nashville's fairgrounds speedway (web | Twitter) from the mid 1970s through the early 1980s.

As the country celebrated the nation's bicentennial early and often throughout 1976, our family spent several Saturday nights at the track watching the rise of the Kiddie Corps. Four drivers had really caught the attention of the fan base as the track transitioned away from its earlier legends such as Darrell Waltrip, Flookie Buford and Coo Coo Marlin. The Kiddie Corps was comprised of:
  • Coo Coo's son Sterling
  • Mike Alexander, a bit of a protege of Waltrip and the son of R.C. Alexander for whom DW raced at Nashville
  • P.B. Crowell III, the son of another Nashville legend P.B. Crowell Jr. as well as a former owner for Waltrip
  • Dennis Wiser
By 1980, Marlin and Alexander had separated themselves from the other two. Crowell suffered a couple of tough wrecks, and in time he faded from the scene. Wiser didn't have the success of the other three, and his racing career wasn't lengthy.

Sterling, Mike and their teams had a full-on rivalry in the early 1980s. Both had an opportunity to race at the Cup level a few times though neither had yet made the full-time move. Week to week, it seemed the two were battling for the win. Whoever won, the other one often protested. After the inspectors tore the winner's car apart, the team needed a week or two to get back in the saddle giving the opportunity to the other one to win for a while. Back and forth it went.

Alexander was the first of the two to nab a track championship in 1978. Marlin countered, however, by winning back-to-back championships in 1980-1981.

On June 5, 1982 with the track having been renamed simply Nashville Raceway, the rivalry may have reached its apex. Alexander wrecked hard, and he and his team directed the blame towards Marlin.

The Tennessean - June 11, 1982
Marlin made a change around the same time that may have been as controversial as his run-in with Alexander - at least in his mother's eyes. Being a good ol' country boy, he often didn't enunciate the 'g' in his name. Hey, that's just the way we talk in middle Tennessee. I pronounce it the same way to this day: Sterlin vs. Sterling. So he dropped it - from his car...

...and from his uniform.

Larry Woody, beat writer for The Tennesseean, acknowledged the change and referred to Sterlin Marlin in his columns. Later, however, the 'g' returned. Apparently Marlin's mother made it very clear she named him STERLING. So honoring his mother's scolding, he returned to Sterling. (Though we all still just say Sterlin.)

The Tennessean - June 12, 1982
So while the heat from his mother over a 'g' may have affected Marlin, the pressure from Alexander, NASCAR, track officials, the fans, etc. did not. On June 12, a week after Alexander's wreck, Marlin continued his winning ways at Nashville by winning the 82-lap Tammy Wynette Grand American feature.
Throughout his Cup career, Marlin was known as a laid-back, Krystal Sunriser eating, no frills, throwback driver. He didn't talk smack and didn't court controversy. On that June night, however, Marlin went a little off script. He not only won the race, but he applied a faux-rookie stripe to his Coors Light Camaro just to add a bit of agitation to all of the critics. A yellow middle finger if you will.

The Tennessean - June 13, 1982

The Tennessean - June 16, 1982
Sterling continued his winning ways and three-peated with another track championship in 1982. He then caught a break and was hired by Roger Hamby to race for Winston Cup rookie of the year in 1983. Though he was no longer a fairgrounds regular week-to-week, he did return for certain races.

I went to the Cup qualifying session for the Marty Robbins 420 at Nashville in May 1983. In addition to the Cup cars being in town, the late model locals also ran a feature race. Sterling returned for double duty - this time with a new Pepsi / Beaman Automotive sponsored Pontiac.

And who else was there? Yep, Alexander. I remember my eyes shifting from one car to the other as the teams readied the rides for racing - with the occasional glance towards the other one.

Ah yes, racing rivalries. Nothing better.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

June 3, 1978: My first Cup race

As has been mentioned a time or two here over the years, one of my mother's older brothers introduced me to racing in 1974. For all the years I've known him, my uncle has seemingly lived a life of Laissez les bons temps rouler. I don't think there was any advance plans to go to Nashville's fairgrounds speedway that night. He just decided he wanted to go, drove to Nashville from about 90 minutes away, dropped by our house, asked my dad and me to join him, and off we went. I was hooked from the drop of the first green flag for the night's mini-stock races.

My aunt and uncle also took me to my first Winston Cup race - again in Nashville - on June 3, 1978 for the Music City USA 420. Again, he just made the decision to drive to town and stopped by my parents to see if I wanted to go. Though I can't recall specifically leaving our driveway, I'm sure I was in the car before my uncle could hug my mother and shake my dad's hand.

I bought my first race program that night - and still have it.

Only recently did I learn Nashville bought a ready-made program that was also sold by North Wilkesboro a couple of months earlier for its spring Gwyn Staley 400 race. I have no idea why someone would have approved the proof of the cover with U.S.A. 420 in quotation marks.

As noted on the program, Nashville's race was originally scheduled for Saturday May 13th. A week earlier, however, Talladega's Winston 500 was rained out. NASCAR rescheduled it for the following Sunday, May 14th - the day after Nashville's night race. As a result, Nashville was then forced to move its date to June 3.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
One of the pre-race stories written by Larry Woody, the long-time racing beat writer for The Tennessean, was about Jimmy 'Smut' Means. Means was the fairgrounds' local late model champion. In 1976, he made the decision to head for the big time and invest his efforts and resources into Cup racing. He remained an independent driver on the circuit for almost 20 years, and he remains in the sport today as a Nationwide Series car owner for driver Joey Gase. (Twitter)

Source: The Tennessean
Most remember Means for racing car number 52 in Cup. When he raced at the fairgrounds, however, he raced number 92. His car number was used in a promotional decal for the track in the mid 1970s. Billy Hagan's Stratagraph team with driver Skip Manning was regularly using 92 when Means got to Cup, so he adopted 52. 

I remember perusing the limited inventory of the souvenir stands on the concourse behind the grandstands (no driver-specific trailers in those days) - as my uncle presumably sought out a couple of cold beers. My aunt bought me this photo of Richard and Kyle Petty - a pic I still have. After holding it for all these years, I finally had the King autograph it at Phoenix in fall 2013. Next goal: Kyle.

Another long-time independent driver, Lennie Pond, won the pole for the race. Cale Yarborough qualified second, and two-time Nashville track champion Darrell Waltrip timed third in his #88 DiGard Gatorade Chevrolet. Dave Marcis and Benny Parsons rounded out the top 5. 

For the 1978 season, Pond caught a break and latched on with upstart car owner Harry Ranier. Pond had four other poles in 1978 - the second Nashville race, one at Bristol, and both Martinsville races. He also won his only career race in the Talladega 500 that summer. Yet he lost his ride after only one season. 

King Richard had an incredible run of success from 1972 through 1977 with the STP Dodge Charger. The body style became obsolete after the 1977 season, and Petty Enterprises chose to race the ill-fated, boxy Dodge Magnum. Though Petty led several laps in the Daytona 500 and at Wilkesboro, the car rarely had a nose for the front. The 43 accumulated a few top 10 finishes, but the finishes masked how non-competitive the Magnum was. The team raced the Magnum only six more times after Nashville before ditching it for a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. 

The nine-time Nashville winner qualified seventh for the 420. (Cup regular and former Nashville track champion Coo Coo Marlin started eighth. He needed relief driving help during the race and got it from his son, relative Nashville newcomer Sterling.)

Photo courtesy of Russ Thompson
The Magnum did find a second life, however, as the starter car for Kyle Petty. In his first professional race in Daytona's ARCA 200 in February 1979, Kyle won it racing one of Richard's discarded Magnum.

Back to Nashville...

The race wasn't very memorable - unless you were a Cale Yarborough fan. The Timmonsville Flash led every stinkin' lap. Green ones, yellow ones, during pit stops, all of them. Even with the 11 car pacing the field lap after lap, I was mesmerized as the track's lights rebounded from each of the cars on a muggy Nashville night.

Source: The Tennessean
Four races later, the Cup teams returned to the fairgrounds for the Nashville 420. Cale took it a bit easier on the competition by leading only 411 of the 420 laps. Four races after the second Nashville event, Cale dominated the Volunteer 500, Bristol's first race under the lights. The victory gave the #11 Junior Johnson team three wins in Tennessee's four races that season.

Pond showed his pole run was no fluke by finishing second to Cale - albeit two laps down to the winner. The 43 Magnum surprisingly had a good third place finish. Again, however, the finish wasn't reflective of the gap between the Dodge and other teams because Petty finished four laps down to Cale.

Unfortunately, the pre-race, feel-good story about Smut Means having success at a track he knew well didn't happen. He had ignition problems, lasted only 12 laps, and finished 30th - dead last.

Following the race as was the norm in those days, the track opened the gate in the fence below the starter's stand. Fans were allowed to cross over the track and mingle among the cars, crews and drivers. I had a single objective - find the King. As we pressed towards the transporters, my uncle grabbed me by the shoulder to slow my roll and said "Here comes Cale and Junior."

They were apparently being led back across the track for media interviews. In a decision based on teenaged Petty fandom and one I now regret, I looked at my uncle as if to say hell no. The 11 car had just punished the field by leading every lap and pummeled the 43 by four laps. Why would I want his autograph? A few years later, I had another opportunity to meet Junior Johnson and DID get his autograph. To this day, however, I've never had the second opportunity to meet Cale.

As my eyes searched for the day-glo red and Petty blue Magnum, I spotted a Petty Enterprises crewman who looked vaguely familiar. Then it clicked - it was Kyle Petty! He was one day beyond his 18th birthday and nearing his high school graduation. Then as is the case 30+ years later, he was kind enough to this kid to stop for a picture with my GAF 110 camera and sign my program with my pathetic Bic ballpoint pin.

Having the chance to meet Kyle affirmed my decision to pass on Cale and Junior. But quickly I resumed my search. Finally, I spotted the STP transporter! It was a box truck with an open flat-bed trailer. The car wasn't there yet, but I was trying to get in a position so my aunt could take my photo with the transporter in the background. As she was about to snap, my uncle walked up and started laughing. He pointed to a car being pushed to the trailer. It was Buddy Arrington's #67 Magnum instead of the 43. Arrington, yet another independent driver of the era, often bought gently used Petty equipment with his limited funds - including the transporter. I had a lot of admiration for Buddy, but I was clearly at the wrong spot.

My panic mode began to amp a bit by then as I tried to figure out where the car was. If you've ever seen an STP race car live, you know how vibrant that day-glo red can be. How could I not find it? Finally, we spotted it already loaded on the truck down near the 'garage' area entrance by turn 1. (Nashville's garage was actually just an inner loop between the quarter-mile inner race track and the .596-mile outer speedway.)

I broke into a run to get there and made it in time. I didn't meet the King, but at least I did get to stand by my hero's car. Looking back, perhaps I should have taken the time to seek out Richard, Maurice Petty, Dale Inman, or any other crewman. Shoot, by then my 'in' was Kyle who I'd just met. Maybe I should've leveraged my friendship with him! But as it was, I had a smile permanently pasted on my face after seeing the car up so close.

We returned to the pits where we ran into two drivers who later sadly lost their lives doing what they loved - racing.
  • J.D. McDuffie
  • Neil Bonnett
After we got home and went in the house, I of course told my folks about the 43 car, meeting Kyle, and such. My uncle then announced "He's coming with us for the night." He was working a construction job in Hartsville, TN, about an hour from Nashville. He and my aunt were staying with friends in the area during the duration of the job. He didn't ask my parents if I could go with them to spend the night. He told them I was going. It was just his personality style that my parents knew well.

I don't remember if I fell asleep on the way there - or if I babbled all the way (likely the latter). But after all these years, I do remember how much it meant for them to take me to the race, help me find the 43, and treat me as if it was me who was the king that weekend.

As the decades have passed, my uncle and I don't get to see each other as often. But when we do, the conversation always and quickly turns to racing.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

May 13, 1972: Grand National East at Nashville

From the 1960s through 1970, NASCAR's Grand National (Cup) schedule averaged about 50 races each season. In 1971, R.J. Reynolds climbed aboard, and the Winston Cup Series was born. The series had a transition year in 1971 with 48 races before dropping back to around 30 that became the staple until the mid 1990s.

When the schedule was dramatically slashed, many traditional tracks - particularly in the eastern time zone - lost their race dates. Perhaps as a way to ease their way out of relationship vs. leaving cold turkey, NASCAR formed the Grand National East series. The series only lasted for a couple of years; however, NASCAR later formed the Busch North Series in the mid 1980s to fill a similar role.

The series ran several tracks discarded from the Cup schedule such as Columbia, Hickory, Myrtle Beach and Kingsport. In 1972, the series ran the Mr. D's 200, its one and only event at a track that remained on the Cup schedule - Nashville Speedway.

Mr. D's was a fast food seafood restaurant created by the parent company of Shoney's restaurants. The chain's name was a nod to one of Shoney's founders, Ray Danner. Its first store was opened in Donelson, a suburb of Nashville, and happens to be where I grew up and lived from the late 1960s through the early 1980s.

Within a year or two of its opening, the name was changed to one more widely recognized today - Captain D's. I guess Cap'n had more of maritime, 'fishy' name than Mister. (For those unfamiliar with Captain D's, think Long John Silver.)

On Saturday May 13, 1972 - Mother's Day weekend - the GNE series raced at the Fairgrounds. The race was co-sanctioned with NASCAR's Grand American division, a series made up of pony cars such as Mustangs and Camaros.
Source: Russ Thompson - Nashville Fairgrounds blog
Some of the drivers who entered the event were Winston Cup regulars - albeit independent drivers and/or those who weren't typically considered amongst the front runners. The field included such drivers as:
  • Jim Paschal who raced Cup actively through much of the 1960s and won frequently as a driver for Petty Enterprises
  • NASCAR HOFer Buck Baker whose heyday was in the 1950s when he won 2 GN titles
  • D.K. Ulrich - long-time driver and owner for a multitude of up-and-comers including Al Loquasto 
  • Richard Childress who struggled for 15 years as a driver before striking gold as the owner for Dale Earnhardt
  • Elmo Langley, a two-time GN winner who later became NASCAR's pace car driver
  • Dick May - an independent who later became a rep for STP
  • Wayne Andrews - a regular participant and winner in the Grand American series
  • Tiny Lund, winner of the 1963 Daytona 500 and a multi-race winner in the GNE division.
  • Cup regulars and brothers, Bobby and Donnie Allison
The Cup series raced on May 7th at Talladega but didn't run again until May 28th in the World 600 at Charlotte. Having a couple of weeks off gave some of the Cup regulars a chance to run the Nashville event (and presumably pocket a little show money from track promoter Bill Donoho).

Bobby Allison brought a #49 Coca-Cola Mustang Fastback to Nashville. The car was owned by Mel Joseph and had been raced in a few Grand National / Grand American combo races - including at Winston-Salem's Bowman Gray Stadium in 1971. Allison took the checkered flag over Richard Petty in the Mustang; however, NASCAR did not (and still doesn't) recognize the victory as an official Winston Cup win for Allison. (Interestingly, Petty wasn't given the win either.)

Perhaps as expected, Allison laid down the quickest lap to nab the pole. But the margin to second was maybe closer than he had counted as veteran Paschal showed he still knew the quick way around the track. (Paschal won three consecutive GN races at Nashville in 1961, 1962, and 1963).

Darrell Waltrip, Nashville's 1970 late model champion, won the preliminary late model race. He won the short, 30-lap feature six days after making his Cup debut in the Winston 500 at Talladega. The fans were winners because some of the national drivers also raced in the late model event plus were out-qualified by many of the locals.

Source: The Tennessean - May 13, 1972
For a while, Waltrip raced P.B. Crowell's creamsicle orange-and-white #48 Chevelle. But in 1972 as a new sponsor came aboard, Waltrip's 48 sported a transitional white with blue accent scheme.
Credit: Russ Thompson
Paschal had to give up his front-row starting spot after puking a motor in practice. Tiny Lund who was injured in a bizarre accident when a tire fell on him moved to the front row to take Paschal's vacated spot. With his injuries, however, his team made a driver swap at the first caution. Waltrip who'd won earlier in the day and obviously knew the track well took over for Tiny. (I am curious about how well Tiny's seat fit Waltrip back in those days!)

The Fairgrounds once had the oddest of pit roads. Drivers came through turn 4 on the .596-mile track, crossed the start-finish line, turned left onto the inner quarter-mile track, pitted, returned to the track, crossed the start-finish line again (though not completing another lap), and headed for turn 1. Drivers, officials and scorers were frequently confused as to who was on what lap, who had pitted, etc.

The confusion was present again during the GNE race. Rather than slow or stop the race to sort out things, officials let 'em race and tried to figure it out on the fly. As a result, the scoreboard was bouncing around with 'lead changes' though no passes were being made on the track.

Allison got out front about one-third of the way through the race. Waltrip tried to make the best of a good opportunity in Lund's car and did his best to track down Bobby. But after running like a scalded dog, Waltrip's car lost an engine with about 15 laps to go. Allison then cruised home to take the victory. Waltrip and Allison would wage many more battles over the next 10-12 years - especially in the early 80s on the Cup level.

Source: The Tennesseean - May 14, 1972
Courtesy of Russ Thompson
As Russ Thompson noted in his blog post, NASCAR apparently enjoyed what they saw at Nashville that weekend. Perhaps as a result, the track earned a second date on the Cup schedule. From 1973 through 1984, the Fairgrounds featured two races a season - a distinction several tracks didn't have, then or now.

I encourage you to visit GrandNationalEast.com authored by Jeff Droke, long-time crewman for James Hylton, for more information about the series.


Monday, May 12, 2014

May 12, 1984: Nuttiness At Nashville

My introduction to stock car racing was at Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway in 1974. While I won't swear to it, I think the evening's feature was a 200-lap NASCAR late model sportsman race featuring drivers such as Jack Ingram, L.D. Ottinger, Harry Gant, Morgan Shepherd and Butch Lindley. The date, the race, who won, etc. have all been forgotten, but I do remember my eyes being wide open and my heart pumping.

The first time I got to see Cup cars live was during qualifying for the 1976 Nashville 420. My first Cup race to attend was naturally at Nashville - the 1978 Music City 420. During the second half of the 1970s, I was a bigger fan of the local favorites such as Steve Spencer, Alton Jones, Sterling Marlin, Mike Alexander, Tony Cunningham, P.B. Crowell III, etc. than I was of the Cup series. After leaving for college, however, I found it harder to keep up with the local guys and really went all-in as a Cup fan.

The original ownership group sold to another in the late 70s, and the track was renamed Nashville International Raceway. California real estate developer and racing outsider Warner Hodgon bought into the ownership group (as well as stakes in Bristol and North Wilkesboro), and 'International' was dropped from the track's name. Yet then (and now) I always just referred to the track as 'the fairgrounds'.

After being known as the Music City USA 420 through the 1970s, the spring race took a title sponsor coinciding with the ownership change. In 1984, the race was branded as the Coors 420 - though a car with Po' Folks restaurant was featured on the program. Go figure. (One of the local guys was sponsored by Po' Folks ... I think.)

Coors sponsored the race as well as a car in the race - the #9 Harry Melling Ford. The team's driver, Bill Elliott, was still a season away from exploding in the NASCAR consciousness with his dominating 1985 season. A different beer brand, however, sponsored the two cars that became the story of the race - Budweiser.

In 1982, Junior Johnson announced two sport-shaking deals. One, he announced Hodgdon was investing in his team. Also, he planned to expand his operation to a two-car team in 1984. Outside investors and multi-car teams in NASCAR were both rarities up to that point. Generally speaking, the second car was way off the primary car.

Darrell Waltrip was already on board with Junior's championship winning #11 team. Neil Bonnett joined him in 1984 in a matching Chevrolet after spending a transition year in 1983 with Rahmoc Racing and 'sponsorship' by Hodgdon. Both cars were sponsored by Budweiser and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the team was quickly dubbed Double Thunder.

The team should perhaps have been nicknamed Double Trouble. Though the two teams had common ownership, sponsors, and car makes, the 11 and 12 bunch did not function as a team as is the model for contemporary NASCAR racing. Led by crew chiefs Jeff Hammond (for Waltrip) and Doug Richert (for Bonnett), the two cars were perhaps more competitive with one another than with other cars on the track.

Yet - they were quick. On short tracks where Junior's cars historically had run well, they raced even better with DW and Neil behind the wheel.

As the Winston Cup series rolled into Music City for the 10th race of the 1984 season, Waltrip was ready to race with a high level of confidence.
  • He was a two-time late model champion at the track in 1970 and 1973.
  • Waltrip earned his first Cup win at the track in 1975.
  • The 11 team was the defending champion of the race having won the Marty Robbins 420 a year earlier.
  • DW had two wins and eight Top 10s in the first 9 races of the year. 
Sure enough, the 11 team laid down the quickest qualifying lap on Friday night to nab the pole. Ricky Rudd qualified alongside Waltrip in his Wrangler Jeans Bud Moore Ford. A couple of unsponsored drivers made up the second row: Geoff Bodine in Rick Hendrick's Chevy and Ron Bouchard in Jack Beebe's Buick. Dale Earnhardt rounded out the starting five in a second Wrangler ride, Richard Childress' Chevy.

Bonnett qualified 15th, about mid-pack, but a quick, single-lap wasn't his measurement of greatness for the weekend. Two weeks earlier, he wheel-hopped the curb at Martinsville. Doing so caused his steering wheel to spin quickly to the right - so quickly that he didn't have a chance to loosen his grip. The spin snapped Bonnett's wrist and dislocated his thumb. He incredibly popped his thumb back into place while at speed, and finished the race in fifth place. Only after returning home to Alabama was he able to have the bones set and a cast applied. The awkwardness of the cast and persistent pain when racing were challenges he had to face, yet Neil did not miss a start.

When the green flag flew on Saturday May 12, Neil spent the first 20 percent of the race working himself methodically towards the front. He finally went to the point on lap 87 and led sizable chunks of laps throughout the race. When the night was done, he'd led 320 of the 420 laps - with a broken, throbbing right wrist.

With about 10 laps to go, Neil was being hounded by the #5 Chevy of Geoff Bodine. Two weeks earlier at Martinsville, Bodine won the first Cup race for himself and Hendrick Motorsports - the race in which Bonnett had broken his wrist. Bodine got past Bonnett, but Neil fought back in an effort to reclaim the lead. Instead, he spun himself out with seven to go.

Remarkably, Bonnett was able to gather his car and pit without losing too much track position. Bodine ducked in the pits as well knowing he'd have to race Neil hard again. The race resumed with three to go with Waltrip out front (who chose not to pit). Then all sorts of a mess broke out. Cup upstart Rusty Wallace trashed his Gatorade Pontiac coming out of turn two. Bobby Allison, the reigning Cup champion, got collected, caught fire, and drove in reverse down the backstretch through three and four and then down pit road.

Bonnett was humping it on the high side as he tried to catch Waltrip. Then the King inexplicably spun his STP Pontiac and Kyle Petty looped his car into the inner wall to avoid t-boning his father's 43.

Waltrip flashed under the starter's stand taking the white and yellow flags. He checked up some to make it through the debris from the wrecks yet maintained good speed. Bonnett still went full bore, caught DW in turn four, and nipped the 11 at the line. Waltrip, his crew, and the TV announcers initially believed DW was the winner because the caution had flown a lap earlier. Bonnett believed the track was essentially still 'green' because the yellow flew as the last lap started vs. at the end of the next to last lap. In that era, cars raced back to the line when a caution happened vs. the 'frozen field' model used today.

NASCAR's officials then went into Keystone Kops mode. They directed Bonnett to victory lane. Within a minute or so, they had Waltrip drive to victory lane and had Bonnett leave. But again within a few minutes they switched back to Bonnett as the winner. The collective set of officials seemed unable to determine when the yellow flag flew and what was permissible in terms of racing back to the finish line.

As the crowd left the stands and TV left the air, Bonnett was indeed in victory lane as Waltrip's team was left fuming.

Source: Gainesville Sun via Google News Archive
Interestingly, Warner Hodgon (in slacks and buttondown shirt and getting Waltrip's glare) was part of the winning and losing end of it all. He was a partial owner of both Bud teams as well as an investor in the track whose reputation was getting dinged because of NASCAR's ineptness. But the disputed finish would soon be the least of his concerns.

Waltrip wasn't finished. He defiantly protested the finish. Junior Johnson had the unenviable position of protesting the victory by his own car. (Such a protest by a car owner against another of his own cars wasn't unprecedented. Lee Petty protested his own son's win in 1959 at Lakewood Speedway.)

Three days later, NASCAR sided with Waltrip's protest and declared him the winner and moved Bonnett back to second.

Source: Hendersonville NC Times-News via Google News Archive
A young Dave Despain - with hair on his head but not on his face - featured highlights of the controversial race on his weekly racing magazine show, Motorweek Illustrated.

I remember the confusing finish, but I don't remember if I saw the race on TV or listened to it on MRN. I'm thinking it was likely the latter. I was away at college, and we didn't have a TV in our dorm room. We had a TV in the rec room, but I know no one would have allowed it to be dominated by a race on a Saturday night. The guys had more important things to watch ... such as music videos on MTV.

The Coors 420 is available as part of MRN's Classic Races Podcast series. The original broadcast can be heard below, at MRN's site, or streamed through MRN's iTunes channel.

Nashville Speedway put its hooks deep into me 40 years ago, and it's amazing to think 30 years has passed since this particular race was run. Back then, I toted fewer pounds and bigger dreams. I had visions of spending many future years watching Cup racing there. No way it could ever end ... or would it?

Hodgdon's non-racing financial situation took a quick tumble in the mid 80s. His fall was so precipitous that his racing interests were drawn into the abyss. Suddenly, Junior Johnson was faced with losing his two teams and life's work as a car owner. He was able to craft a deal to buy back Hodgdon's equity and get him out of the picture.

The fairgrounds track wasn't as fortunate. The track hosted its annual summer race in July. Bodine won the Pepsi 420, but his win turned out to be the final Cup race in Nashville. With many questions surrounding Hodgdon's finances, the long-term viability of the track, and other legal complications between the track and it's landlord, the city of Nashville, NASCAR chose to withdraw its sanction after the 1984 races.

Racing continues to this day at my home track - and it's truly hard to believe three decades have passed since the final year of Cup racing. But at least The Fairgrounds' Cup days went out with a bang as two teammates had to scrap like foes to settle the score.

Big thanks to Russ Thompson for many of the photos and video clip!