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 have 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 its 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! 


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