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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Racing at the Beach: Smaller Cars, Fairy Tales & Passing the Torch, 1981-1985

Editor’s Note: The following is part seven of Matt McLaughlin’s 11-part series on the history of racing at Daytona. Miss the first six editions? Don’t worry… we have the links for you here. Enjoy!

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

The 1981 Daytona 500 marked the debut of the so called “little” cars, with a 110-inch wheelbase as opposed to the 115 inches on the old reliable Monte Carlos and Cutlasses most teams had been running for years. The teams and drivers approached that year’s event with a large degree of trepidation. Early tests on the new shorter cars had not gone well, and the new cars turned out to have an alarming tendency to get twitchy at high speed and get airborne once they were out of shape. One team, Harry Ranier and Bobby Allison, showed up at Daytona with a “secret weapon,” a Pontiac LeMans, which was more of a two-door sedan than a coupe like the other teams’ entries. Most importantly, the LeMans had a sloped rear window, which put more air on the rear spoiler and helped keep the car both stable and on the pavement. Right out of the box, Allison showed the other teams that he was the man to beat, winning the pole then running roughshod over the field in the first qualifier.

But even more attention was focused on two wrecks that occurred during that event than on Allison’s dominance. John Anderson spun on lap 28 and the car rose up off the ground, flipped over backwards and rolled five times. Three laps from the end Connie Saylor‘s Olds got sideways on the back chute; the rear of the car lifted straight up in the air and Saylor wound up on his roof as well. Fortunately, neither driver was seriously injured, but both said the cars got out of shape and took off with no warning. As a reaction to all the acrobatics, NASCAR decided to let the teams increase the size of their rear spoilers for the second time in a week, hoping that would lead to a permanent fix of the problem. Meanwhile, Darrell Waltrip won the second qualifier in his new ride, Junior Johnson’s Buick, with a daring last-lap pass on Benny Parsons. After the race, several drivers were extremely critical of Waltrip’s kamikaze driving style during the event and his “take no prisoners” passing, especially in light of how high strung everyone else was about the instability of the new cars.

Engine problems ruined the debut of the Johnson-Waltrip team at that year’s 500, although the duo would go on to achieve much success in the future. Like Buddy Baker, Waltrip seemed to have lousy luck at Daytona. Meanwhile, Geoff Bodine was involved in a scary wreck when he spun his Pontiac in turn 4, went up and over an embankment and into the infield on lap 48. Spectators ran for their lives as Bodine’s errant racecar hit a car owned by reporters from a local television station there to cover the event. Miraculously, no one was hurt, and Bodine managed to wind his way back to the pits and get repairs, winding up 22nd, 22 laps off the pace.

With the Waltrip sidelined, Allison dominated the event and seemed headed for another Daytona win. With 27 laps to go, Allison ducked into the pits for two tires and fuel, with Baker and Dale Earnhardt following his cue. Dale Inman, crew chief to the King, decided the No. 43 team had one last shot to win and decided on a gas-and-go stop. The strategy put Petty into the lead and he managed to hang onto it, despite the badly worn tires, taking his seventh win in the Daytona 500. Ironically, it was also Inman’s last race with the Petty team that year. A few short days later, he announced he was leaving the King, a driver with whom he had shared incredible success, moving over to Rod Osterlund’s team to become Earnhardt’s crew chief. The top-six finishers showed there was a changing of the guard going on in the Winston Cup ranks. Legendary veterans Richard Petty, Allison and Baker finished 1-2-4… but newcomers Ricky Rudd, Earnhardt and Bill Elliott took positions 3-5-6, respectively.

A brash newcomer made quite a splash at the 1982 Daytona 500. JD Stacy owned two teams outright, with drivers Joe Ruttman and Jim Sauter at the wheel, and sponsored five more teams that fielded entries for Terry Labonte, Parsons, Jody Ridley, Dave Marcis and Ron Bouchard. All the teams carried his name on the quarterpanels, giving Stacy sponsor logos on nearly 20% of the field at that year’s race. 1982 was also the first time that the Daytona 500 was the first event on the Winston Cup calendar. Until 1982, the annual road race at Riverside in January had held that honor.

Defending Winston Cup champion Waltrip was loudly criticized by his colleagues after more controversial driving in a qualifier for the 1982 Daytona 500. DW found himself out of the draft and about to lose a lot of positions as rain began pelting the track threatening to end the event early, so he just cut over back into line, shoving Earnhardt out of his way. Judging by Earnhardt’s remarks after the event, he was none too happy. Neil Bonnett, who nearly got caught up in the mess, was equally angry. (Ironically enough, he would later wind up as DW’s teammate.) Baker won the race with “Buttinski” Waltrip on his tail, followed by Ruttman, Earnhardt and Kyle Petty. While the first qualifier lacked the second’s controversy, it did provide a memorable finish, with Cale Yarborough passing Allison down the back straight with help from Labonte, who drafted with him on the last lap. Yarborough ended up crossing the finish line first, with Labonte second and Allison relegated to third after having been leading at the white flag.

There was quite a bit of controversy in the 500 itself. Allison’s rear bumper fell off his car early in the event after being brushed by Yarborough. It was Allison’s first race with DiGard, and many accused DiGard crew chief Gary Nelson with purposely rigging the bumper so it would fall off, including Waltrip, no fan of the Gardners after his stormy tenure there. The rear bumper was known to create a lot of drag and Allison’s car was a rocket ship after the bumper came off, leading almost three-quarters of the 200 laps as contenders fell by the wayside. Favorites Parsons, Richard Petty and Bonnett were all eliminated in a single wreck; Petty got the worst end of the deal, breaking his foot. Waltrip was once again snake-bitten at Daytona, losing an engine on lap 151. Other notables who lost engines included Earnhardt, first-time Daytona 500 participant Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace. Allison cruised on to an easy victory, beating Yarborough, Ruttman, Labonte and Elliott to the line. Once again, the veterans had prevailed.

The 1983 Daytona 500 added yet another fairy-tale finish to the Daytona record books, but at the same time was marred yet again by horror. In the first qualifier journeyman driver Bruce Jacobi was involved in a terrible wreck that left him paralyzed and comatose. Four years later, he died of the injuries he sustained that day. Wallace was also injured in a frightening looking wreck that saw him rolling several times down the backstretch; luckily, he made a full recovery after being hospitalized overnight with a concussion. Earnhardt managed to win the event itself, with Baker tailing close behind. The second qualifier provided one of the closest finishes in Daytona history, with Bonnett passing Richard Petty on the last lap and holding off the King’s determined charge to regain the lead by a fender length at the line.

Yarborough had retired from running the entire Winston Cup circuit back at the end of 1980, and only ran the big events. Of course, they don’t come much bigger than the Daytona 500. Earlier in the week on pole day, Cale had blistered his first lap at an average pace of 200.502 mph. On the second lap, the car got sideways, rolled over and slammed the wall. Yarborough was lucky to avoid serious injury, but the car was totaled. Under NASCAR rules if a team goes to a backup car, their qualifying time is disallowed and they must start the race at the back of the field. The team had run Pontiacs in 1982, and didn’t have a back up superspeedway Chevrolet like the one that Cale had wrecked. Thus, the team had to resort to a Pontiac backup car, ironically enough one that had started life as Allison’s dominant car at the 1981 Daytona 500. Yarborough’s wreck left a surprise pole winner claiming the top spot: Rudd.

The ’83 Daytona 500 was slowed for caution flags six times. Waltrip had an unsuccessful debut in Junior’s new Pepsi Challenger when he popped the wall racing back to the yellow trying to make up a lost lap. A car ahead had slowed down for the flag, DW rear-ended it and hit the pit wall hard; he was hospitalized overnight with a concussion. The caution had flown for Earnhardt’s blown engine, ending his hopes for his first 500 win. There was a long list of contenders felled by mechanical problems as well, including Richard Petty, Parsons, Tim Richmond, Harry Gant, Rudd and Sterling Marlin; Martin was also eliminated, but in a wreck. While all those cars ended up in the garage, the finish turned out to be a thrilling one. Baker was leading on the last lap, but Yarborough in his backup Pontiac was in a three-car draft with Ruttman, who led the most laps that day, and Elliott. The trio ran down Baker and Yarborough blasted into the lead, leaving Ruttman, Baker and Elliott to stage a thrilling door handle to door handle scrap for second. Elliott got runner up honors, Baker recovered to come home third, and a dejected Ruttman, who had had easily the fastest car on the track that day, had to settle for fourth. It was Yarborough’s third Daytona 500 victory, each with a different team owner and each in a different make of car. Aboard for the ride was a prehistoric in-car camera, providing the CBS viewers at home a passenger seat vantage point from the race-winning car.

Yarborough returned to Daytona for the 25th running of the event in 1984 with the Harry Ranier team once again, but this time, he was driving a Chevy. Cale put everyone on notice that he meant to be a contender by taking the pole for the event at 201.89 mph. In the first qualifier, Cale followed that up with an impressive show of speed. Baker had been passed once too often by the slingshot move on the last lap and decided that he wanted to be in second, not first when the white flag flew, so he could use the same trick. He let Cale by early and, well, Cale just motored away from Buddy’s fleet Ford. In fact, once he lost the draft Baker fell into the clutches of Elliott, who took second place. “That didn’t work too good, did it?” a red-faced Baker asked reporters after the event.

Eventual 1996 and 1997 Busch Series champ Randy LaJoie was entered in the second qualifier back in ’83. Well, he bought out a red flag that lasted over an hour by rolling his car end over end and tearing down a section of pit wall. Any more questions why Randy doesn’t want to move up to the Cup league? Allison ran away with the race, beating Gant. Labonte, Parsons and Tim were third, fourth and fifth.

The newcomers had more top-five finishes in the qualifiers than the veterans; but in the 500, experience prevailed. Not all the veterans had rosy afternoons, though; Baker and Allison went out early with mechanical problems, while youngster Wallace was involved in another nasty crash. As the race wound down, the battle for the win was left to Cale and Darrell. Waltrip and Yarborough had been feuding for years, and there was no love lost between them. For most of the race, there were only inches between them as well, as the crowd held its breath. Waltrip had often ridiculed Cale for being too old to handle the heat of a race, but that day Cale demonstrated a trick he had mastered along the way. He patiently waited in second place until the last lap, then used one of his trademark slingshot moves to take the win. Cale became the second man to win the Daytona 500 two years in a row. Cale brought Earnhardt with him when he blew past Darrell, and Dale took second while DW had to settle for third. Bonnett finished fourth, and Elliott scored his third straight top-five finish in the 500. Chalk up another one for the veterans.

The 1985 Daytona 500 can be summed up in two words; “Bill Elliott.” Right from the first practice session that year, Elliott had the dominant car, and he stunned everyone by posting a 205.114-mph qualifying lap. The first qualifier wasn’t much of a race; Elliott had almost lapped the field by the time that the checkered flag flew to end the other drivers’ misery. Veteran Waltrip manning Junior Johnson’s Chevy, Parsons in the Jackson Brothers Olds, and Baker in his first race as an owner-driver finished a distant second, third, and fourth. Cale and Pearson upheld the old-timer’s honors, finishing first and second in the second qualifier. Richard Petty, driving for Mike Curb, finished fourth, right behind his son Kyle making his debut in the Wood Brothers 7-11 Ford. For the first time since ’65, there was no Petty Enterprises car at the Daytona 500. Daytona rookie Davey Allison, Bobby’s boy, didn’t fare as well as Kyle. He finished dead last in the second qualifier after blowing a clutch on the first lap and thus didn’t make the field for the big show.

Well, in hindsight perhaps Davey just spared himself the embarrassment of being grist in the mill for Elliott’s Coors Thunderbird like the rest of the field. The green flag dropped and Elliott checked out, with only Yarborough able to run even near him. Cale popped a motor on lap 62, and that was about all she wrote. Elliott ran an astounding 192 mph pace for the first 100 miles of the event, and engines began blowing like popcorn as other drivers twisted the tigers tail a little too tight trying to keep up. Bobby Allison, Earnhardt, Parsons, AJ Foyt, David Pearson, Gant, Labonte and Marlin all lost engines in plenty of time to watch Bill streaking towards victory from atop their trailers.

NASCAR did add a little drama to the proceedings. Elliott pitted for the final time on lap 145 and made a quick stop, but NASCAR officials noted a headlight block-off plate was ajar and ordered the crew to call Bill back in to repair it. Ernie Elliott used racers’ tape to fix the hole, but the stop consumed nearly 42 seconds. Elliott charged back out onto the track and reclaimed the lead in 11 laps. Bonnett in another Junior Johnson Chevy made one final charge but blew his engine, too. Second place and “best in class” fell to Lake Speed. After the race, a reporter found Waltrip rubbing his chin and staring at the front end of Bill’s car. Perhaps thinking DW was onto something illegal about the car, the reporter asked Darrell what was wrong with it. “Nothing,” DW muttered. “I just wanted to see what the front end of this car looked like, I ain’t seen it all week.” Afterwards Darrell (who finished third for the third year in a row) launched into one of those “Why NASCAR has to slow these Fords down” deals that had become the norm for this decade.

Elliott claimed a monster payday of $185,500 for the win. To put that in perspective, Richard Petty claimed almost as much prize money for finishing 34th that day as his dad Lee did for winning the 1959 Daytona 500. More importantly, that win was the first leg of the new Winston Million that Elliott went onto claim later that year in dominating style. And at last, the newcomers had beat the old timers. The torch was being passed.