Matt McLaughlin · Thursday December 13, 2012
Attention, NASCAR fans… welcome to Throwback Thursday! Every week, from now until the rest of the season we’ll be giving you, our readers the favorite stories we remember from 2012. Up first is one of our longtime writers, who sadly rode into retirement (well, at least semi-retirement) during the late summer. Matt McLaughlin writes in, with the Daytona 500 two months away of how the Great American Race used to be…
Editor’s Note: This column was originally published in March of 2012.
After Daytona 500 qualifying on Sunday Monday and Tuesday have traditionally been “dark days” at the track with no cars on the track. That changes next year with NASCAR running late models and modifieds on an improvised .4 mile track, something I’m looking forward to. But this year, there was nothing going on that Tuesday.
It’s been freakishly and delightfully warm and snow free this winter in Lancaster County, but that particular Tuesday it was about eight degrees too cold to take the scoot for a scamper. Instead I decided to drop by and visit my long time friend Andrew in his new digs. Again, it was just a bit too chilly to hang out on the back porch as we usually do so we sat in his living room smoking cigars and killing a couple six packs.
There’s an unwritten rule amongst males of the clan that whenever two guys are visiting indoors a TV must be on in the background so you don’t look like a pair of chicks noshing. Preferably said, TV is showing some sort of sports programming. Since Andrew and I are both old car nuts it’s usually racing. As Andrew channel surfed on his cute little antique TV we came across an ESPN Classic marathon of Daytona 500s. Naturally we finished watching that one 500 and then watched three more.
I was particularly taken by the 1988 version of the 500. There are two highlights of that race most of you will recall. On lap 106 Richard Petty wrecked hard and his car rolled violently a dozen times. There was genuine fear amongst the broadcasters that Petty had been seriously injured or worse. (Fortunately Petty suffered only a sprained ankle.) The other notable highlight of the race was a duel between Bobby and Davey Allison for the win in the waning laps of the race. The elder Allison prevailed and Davey finished second. As many times as I’ve seen the footage of Davey pulling up to congratulate his dad I still get a little choked up watching it knowing what the cruel fates had in store for the Allisons.
Fewer people will recall that the ‘88 500 was the first Great American race run with restrictor plates in the modern era. Ironically the plate rules, which were said to be a temporary fix 24 years ago, came about after Bobby Allison’s terrifying flight into the catch fence at Talladega the previous spring, a race Davey went on to win.
Earlier this month pundits, the public and NASCAR had been celebrating the return of “pack” racing at Daytona. But in that ’88 race there were no packs to speak of.
The fastest cars drove to the front. Frequently, the top two or three drivers would hook up and try to draft away from their pursuers. But once that front group got to dicing it amongst themselves (and the racing was notably intense throughout the race, not just at the end), the second group would run them down. To make a pass, the pursuing driver would set up his quarry then use the aerodynamics of the slingshot pass to try to get by. Naturally, the leading driver would use every trick in his arsenal to try to maintain position.
It wasn’t just fascinating to watch the setups, the passing attempts and the various strategies of defense, it was downright beautiful. It was real racing back in 1988 not a three-wide ten-deep pack of cars running wide open until carnage decimated the field. Drivers in 1988 didn’t have to depend on luck, they used skills they started honing on tiny little dirt tracks early in their careers. If NASCAR is going to seek a rules package to return real racing to Daytona they ought to study their tapes of the 1988 race carefully.
Here’s a hint: The cars were far boxier and less aerodynamic back in the day.
As I hinted part of the poignancy of watching the ‘88 500 comes from knowing what happened to some of those racers down the road. Months after his thrilling win at Daytona Bobby Allison was involved in a savage crash on the first lap during the June Pocono race. Head injuries caused by that wreck almost took his life and it did in fact claim most of his memory including his recollections of edging out his beloved son in that year’s 500. Pocono was to be Allison’s final start as a race car driver after a successful career that spanned decades.
Dale Earnhardt the original had won his qualifying race for that year’s 500 and the Busch Clash. That was no surprise as Earnhardt typically was a dominant driver at Daytona. In that year’s 500 Earnhardt was running that familiar black paint scheme we all associate him with for the first time with Goodwrench having taken over from Wrangler as the 3 team’s primary sponsor. He had a strong run in the ‘88 500 as well but it all went awry in the pits. That was Earnhardt’s tenth try at winning the 500; it would take ten more attempts before he finally managed his memorable Daytona 500 victory in 1998.
Three years later he lost his life at the track.
Neil Bonnett in the RahMoc Valvoline Pontiac ran up front all day in 1988 en route to a fourth place finish. He went on to win the next two races that year at Richmond and Rockingham running on Hoosier tires. Richard Petty, following his tumble down the frontstretch at Daytona would rebound at Richmond to finish third, just one week removed from his 1/8-mile barrel roll and resulting t-bone by Brett Bodine.
Bonnett, a close friend of Earnhardt’s, would suffer a severe head injury in a crash that didn’t look all that bad two years later at Darlington. The wreck left Bonnett with such a severe case of amnesia that at first he didn’t even recognize his wife. After a brief but entertaining stint as TV race broadcaster, Bonnett attempted a return to racing in 1993. His comeback race at Talladega didn’t go so well with a terrifying upside down flight into the catch fence. Bonnett also ran that year’s Atlanta season finale with an eye towards running a limited 1994 Cup slate for Phoenix Racing. Tragically, he was destined to die in a practice wreck for the 1994 Daytona 500.
Bonnett lost his career and to a degree his life to post-concussive syndrome from too many crashes into unlined concrete walls. The effect of multiple concussions on drivers in NASCAR is once again a hot button topic. Hopefully today’s competitors recall Bonnett and what happened to him.
Davey Allison who finished second that day in the 1988 Daytona 500 and Alan Kulwicki, who finished 32nd in the Zerex Ford, would both lose their lives to aircraft accidents in 1993. Kulwicki was the reigning Cup champion at the time of his death in a field outside of Bristol. Buddy Baker (ninth) and Greg Sacks (40th) both had their careers ended by too many blows to the head. Cancer took Benny Parsons (31st) from us.
Fate was kinder towards some other drivers who struggled at the 1988 Daytona 500. Darrell Waltrip led 69 laps in the ‘88 500 but finished 11th after he lost a cylinder late in the race. Waltrip was 0 for 16 in Daytona 500s after that event and clearly despondent. He won the following year’s 500 to end that jinx that had weighed so heavily on him.
Bill Elliott finished twelfth that day, a bit of a disappointment to his many fans as Elliott was the acknowledged super speedway master in that era. While that first race might not have been too special for Elliott and the No. 9 team the rest of the ‘88 season went much better. Elliott would win six races and score a total of fifteen top 5 finishes in 29 races to claim that year’s Winston Cup title.
Few people took notice of the driver who finished 41st that day, Mark Martin. Martin had made an abortive attempt to start a Cup career years earlier but the ‘88 500 was his first race with Jack Roush, a pairing that would go on to do some remarkable things in the sport and the grassroots of the organization that took first and third place finishes in this year’s 500.
Another thing that jumped out at me watching that old race was the quality of the race broadcast itself. Ned Jarrett, Chris Economacki, and Ken Squier hosted the CBS broadcast. Some still familiar faces like Mike Joy and Dave Despain were down on pit road. They comported themselves like very knowledgeable good friends that you’d invited into your living room on a Sunday afternoon.
There was no screaming, nobody talking over someone else, and no clowning around. Nobody bought a personal agenda to the broadcast. Nobody was trying to sell t-shirts with gophers on them or solicit hits to their Twitter accounts. (I’m not sure if there were cell phones in ‘88 but I know there was no Twitter.)
Instead, the analysts watched the race as it evolved and reported on what was going on out on the track. Ned Jarrett in particular could often see a wreck developing laps before it happened. He could just see how two drivers were racing each other and how their cars were handling and would gently suggest to the camera crews to keep an eye on that duo. They didn’t miss much back then.
Despite having far fewer cameras and far less technology available to them the broadcast team covered the action in a consistently informative and entertaining fashion. The broadcast wasn’t riddled with promos and annoying graphics. Racing was covered as a sport back in those days, not as background noise to pre-scripted entertainment.
When the Father/Son storyline began to emerge near the end of the race the story was documented and commented on. As the storyline played out, it was clear the broadcasters were happy for both of the Allisons but you got the feeling that if a third driver had come sweeping into the picture and spoiled the party on the last lap, it would have been documented and commented on but there wouldn’t have been any hand-wringing or angst in the booth. Race commentators didn’t play favorites back in ‘88. It was simply a better, more interesting form of race broadcasts way back when that treated the sport and the fans with respect.
Some of today’s broadcasters need to dig up a copy of that ‘88 Daytona 500 and watch how the legends of NASCAR broadcasting actually promoted and grew the sport back in the early days.
As for “pack” racing, the rules package NASCAR ran at Daytona this year clearly didn’t work. There was just too much carnage and not enough racing all throughout Speedweeks. As they look for a way to improve the situation prior to Talladega in May, NASCAR officials should take a look back at the 1988 Daytona 500 and try to understand why that race worked out so well.
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