The Frontstretch: Driven To The Past: Geoffrey Bodine by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday February 15, 2007

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Driven To The Past: Geoffrey Bodine

Vito Pugliese · Thursday February 15, 2007

 

Height: 5'8
Weight: 160lbs
Hometown: Chemung, NY

Career
Starts: 570
Wins: 18
Poles: 37
Top 5s: 100
Top 10s: 190
Money Won: $16,518,091

As we begin the 2007 this weekend with the 49th annual Daytona 500, we profile a driver who has had his share of up's and down's……and upside-downs at the World Center of Racing. Geoff Bodine came into Winston Cup racing by way of NASCAR's modified division. Driving against the likes of Richie Evans and Ron Bouchard, he made a name for himself on the short tracks of the Northeastern United States. In the mid to late 70's, Geoff was busy setting records and competing against the best the modified series had to offer. He would make the transition to the Winston Cup Series slowly, running a few races in 1979 and 1981. While narrowly edging a Midwestern short track ace named Mark Martin for rookie of the year honors in 1982, he managed to win his first pole position for the July race at Daytona. During his full-time sophomore season in 1983, he caught the eye of a Charlotte, NC area car dealer named Rick Hendrick who was looking to go Winston Cup racing. From there he would eventually cross paths with Dale Earnhardt, setting the stage for one of the fiercest rivalries of the 1980s.

Geoff Bodine was born April 18th, 1949 in Chemung, NY. He began his career racing in a midget class at the Chemung Speedrome, built and operated by his father and grandfather. He is the oldest of the trio of Bodine brothers, with middle brother Brett, now working for NASCAR, and youngest brother Todd, the 2006 Craftsman Truck Series Champion. His modified career was a storied one that resulted in him becoming the all-time single-season wins leader in Modified history, with 55 victories in 1978. He made his first Winston Cup start in 1979, driving owner Rick Beebe's Oldsmobiles. He finished 29th in his first outing in the Daytona 500. He won his first pole in the 1982 Firecracker 400 driving one of Cliff Stewart's Pontiacs, and won his first race in 1984 in the spring race at Martinsville, a track where he had enjoyed much success in his modified days, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, . Geoff's biggest win would come two years later in the 1986 Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt seemingly had the race in hand (again…), however he had to stop for fuel with three laps to go, handing the lead to Geoff Bodine and his #5 Levi Garrett Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS. It was the first race for the new "aerocoupe" Monte Carlo SS with a fastback sloping rear window, replacing the turbulent and unstable notchback of the previous year's Chevrolet. This innovation was needed to help the GM drivers keep pace with Bill Elliott's Ford Thunderbirds at Daytona and Talladega. In 1987 he would go winless in the Winston Cup Series, but did manage to win the International Race of Champions (IROC) series that year, winning 2 of the 4 events, including the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. His other victory came at Watkins Glen in his home state of New York. Geoff also holds the distinction of having won Winston Cup races on the three road courses where the series has run (Riverside, Sears Point, and Watkins Glen).

During the mid 80's, Geoff developed a bitter rivalry with Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt once caught his son, Dale Jr., playing with a toy #5 Geoff Bodine racecar. Dale Sr. took the car from his son and destroyed it. Anytime the Wrangler and Levi Garrett Chevrolets would near each other on the track, it raised the attention of the fans as well as NASCAR officials. Their on-track antics raised the ire of Bill France, who invited the two to lunch one day to discuss their "situation", which was later loosely adapted in the movie "Days of Thunder". It was recommended that they make an effort to avoid each other on the racetrack. Geoff also had a brief rivalry with his younger brother, Brett Bodine, following an incident at the 1994 Brickyard 400. Brett and Geoff were battling for the lead following a restart on lap 100 when a game of bumper-tag ensued. Coming out of turn 4, Brett repaid his older brother with a little tap, sending him spinning out of control, and into the outside retaining wall in front of the entire field. Geoff believed the act to be retaliation due to some recent family squabbles, and aired some of their dirty laundry live on ABC. He did however close his interview with, "He's my brother and I love him, but he wrecked me."

Geoff Bodine left Hendrick Motorsports following the 1989 season to drive Junior Johnson's #11 Budweiser Fords in 1990. The unlikely pairing of the brash Northeasterner and Junior earned them the nickname "The Odd Couple". Geoff would win 3 races in 1990, and 1 race in 1991. In 1991 he was injured in a testing crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway prior to the Coca-Cola 600. He suffered a bruised shoulder and a punctured lung in the crash, and would miss that event as well as The Winston all-star race. He exacted revenge on that same track in October, when he drove his #11 Budweiser Thunderbird to victory.

Geoff went on to drive the Bud Moore Motorcraft Thunderbirds in 1992, winning the season opening Busch Clash at Daytona, and back to back races at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro. His mastery of the paperclip shaped track carried over from his modified days, as he edged out Rusty Wallace by less than .20 of a second to take the win on a Monday afternoon. Following yet another Monday rain date the following week at North Wilkesboro, the race went caution free, allowing him to lap nearly the entire field, except for 2nd place finisher Mark Martin, a driver he had also beat for Rookie of The Year 10 years earlier. In the 1993 Daytona 500, Geoff's roof cam gave us a bird's eye view of an attempted pass for the win, and a thrilling finish between Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett.

Following the death of 1992 Champion Alan Kulwicki in a plane crash, Bodine purchased the #7 Kulwicki team. In 1994 with Exide Batteries on the quarter panels, and Hoosier tires under the fenders, he would win 3 races, as well as the 1994 Winston All-Star race and the Busch Pole Award for winning the most poles that year with five. Geoff would win his last Winston Cup race fittingly in upstate New York, winning the 1996 Bud at The Glen. He would continue with his team through 1997, finishing a disappointing 27th place in points and eventually selling the operation to Jim Mattei for the 1998 season. He joined forces with former driver/owner Joey Bessey in the #60 Power-Team Chevrolet for 1999. The #60 team showed flashes of promise from time to time, but would finish again 27th place in points.

Safety innovation has been at the forefront of the sport since his rival Dale Earnhardt's untimely passing in 2001. Geoff Bodine was an innovator in this field as well, and is credited with helping to introduce power steering and full-faced helmets to a series that did not previously employ them. Geoff also designed a special spring-loaded driver's seat that is in use by drivers in several racing series today. That innovation was probably the single most important piece of safety equipment Bodine had developed, as he credits it as the reason we are talking about him in the present tense instead of the past tense.

On lap 56 of the 2000 Daytona 250 Craftsman Truck Series race, Geoff Bodine was involved in a wreck when the machines of Kurt Busch, Lyndon Amick, and Ron Shepherd collided. Amick was sent sliding into Bodine, sending his truck hurtling off the ground and up into the catch fence on the front stretch. What happened next was one of the most violent and terrifying crashes in the sport’s history. The result was a massive explosion, sending a fireball 100 feet in diameter into the grandstands, injuring 9 fans. The fence barely restrained the flaming truck from entering the spectator area, and it was flung back onto the racetrack. As debris and large pieces of his shattered machine rained down, the driver's compartment separated from what was the rest of the truck. It was still intact but engulfed in flames, barrel rolling down the short chute into Turn One, with nothing protecting it or it's occupant. The resulting mass was struck by other trucks unable to slow down or avoid the wreckage that was strewn all over the racetrack. Fans and television commentators looked on in shock and horror, as it was unclear if Geoff Bodine was even still in the driver's seat, or had been ejected upon one of the several impacts he suffered. Replays were shown repeatedly, as rescue workers and emergency responders attended to the scene of the accident, the remains of the truck still smoldering in the infield grass. One camera angle finally showed that Geoff was still in the truck, as the roll cage and driver's compartment came to a rest….while the truck's engine pirouetted by him across the track like a tumbleweed, spewing engine coolant. Video of the accident can be found by searching You Tube.

Geoff was removed from the truck and thanks to his specially designed seat and full-faced helmet, he managed to escape with "only" a broken cheekbone, shoulder, wrist, ankles, and toes, but no life threatening injuries. He would spend the next several weeks in a hospital recovering from his injuries. He was battered, bruised, and shaken, but thankful to be alive. If there's any doubt why racecar drivers are a devout group of individuals, it is scenes such as these. After a recuperation period, he was able to make 14 starts in 2000, and his first race back at Richmond netted him a solid 13th place finish. He would notch his best finish of the year at the Brickyard 400 with a 12th place run. He has competed sparingly in recent years, and in the 2002 Daytona 500 managed a surprising 3rd place finish driving for James Finch. He backed it up later that year in the July race with a 10th place run. His most recent Nextel Cup start was at the 2004 MBNA America 400 at Dover, where he lasted just 40 laps due to a failed oil pump, finishing in 39th position. He was to attempt to make the 2007 Daytona 500, but could not secure a ride with a team in time to make the event.

Geoff is still currently semi-retired. While he hasn't competed in a couple of years, he may return to competition at some point in a one-off ride if he can find one. He still maintains his involvement with the Bo-Dyn Bobsled program for the US Olympic Bobsled team, and recently held a fundraising Race in Lake Placid, NY to benefit the Olympic Team. The race featured several drivers, both current and retired, and was won by Boris Said. While Geoff Bodine can thank his pioneering of safety equipment for saving his life in the violent Daytona crash in 2000, there are several other competitors that can thank him as well for introducing safety equipment that looked out of place in 1979, but is now industry standard. They can also thank him for power steering, which probably makes an afternoon at Martinsville or Bristol a lot easier to endure.

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