NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Learning From History: NASCAR’s All-Star Conspiracy Theory

So, let me get this straight…Carl Edwards dominates/dullifies/stinks up Saturday night’s All-Star Race at Charlotte, only to destroy his No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford while taking a celebratory slide through the infield? Edwards swore that he must have hit a drainage grate embedded in a culvert, or something like that, but it appears that the post-race goings-on were more like an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Reporters who surveyed the area said they saw nothing but grass, as did track officials who said there was no such manhole cover or grate near the location of the Ford’s implosion. So, which was it? Was it just a patch of really thick grass (thick enough to tear the front end off a race car), or did Edwards get caught up on a drainage impediment? NASCAR intends to find out. Might there be another possibility to consider? History offers us a precedent for such speculation.

Follow me, fellow conspiracy theorists…

The year was 1985, the afternoon of May 25th at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was the inaugural running of The Winston, a high-profile, all-star event designed to fill out the NASCAR Winston Cup schedule. Never mind that NASCAR’s “All-Star Break” came after the first third of the season, the event promised to be a no-holds-barred spectacle, one that would attract money-toting fans to the Charlotte region for another weekend of exciting racing. Darrell Waltrip, at the pinnacle of his success behind the wheel of Junior Johnson’s No. 11 Budweiser Chevrolet, won the inaugural event after a dominant performance. Waltrip led most of the opening segment, and then erased a 3.1-second advantage held by Harry Gant over the final ten laps of the race. Gant capitalized on a late-race pit stop by Waltrip to take the lead, only to lose the all-star showdown by a margin of 0.31 seconds after Waltrip passed him in Turn 4 on the last lap.

Just after Darrell Waltrip crossed the finish line to take the checkered flag, a bang echoed down the straightaway. As the now-legendary, white-and-red Budweiser Chevy sped towards Turn 1, a cloud of gray smoke poured out from under the car. Upon post-race inspection (as in, “according to anyone who watched the race”), it was determined that Waltrip’s No. 11 Chevrolet blew its engine right as it completed the event. There was no relevant reason to tear-down the motor because there was so little of use remaining of the original engine; most of the “tear-down” occurred along the frontstretch under the flag stand.

Did DW work the motor too hard for too long, or did the No. 11 car have a race grenade (worth $200,000 in prize money) under its hood? All faded into memory as the years passed and NASCAR grew up.

Now jump forward in time to the year 2011.

It’s late May at Charlotte Motor Speedway – the Saturday night running of what is now called The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. The basic structure of the event has been tweaked numerous times since those early days more than a quarter-century ago. Now there’s a “fan vote” to insure appearances by the most-beloved names who haven’t earned a starting spot by winning a prior race, but in years’ past there were other novel innovations like inverted starting grids and “Wheel of Fortune”-type spins to add an air of chance.

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Could Carl Edwards’ celebratory mishap last weekend have been more premeditated than initially thought? History says don’t be surprised. .

During the 2011 version of the all-star event, fans watched, dozed and grumbled as Edwards – one of the more popular and recently-successful drivers in the Cup Series – held court at the front of the field. His No. 99 Ford was owned and maintained by Roush Fenway Racing, one of the more-dominant operations currently competing in NASCAR. Edwards cruised to a seemingly easy win, dropped into the grass to do burnouts, spins, twirls and whatever else one might do with a race car in a patch of manicured turf, and then…whoop! There it was. Edwards’s car crumpled like a dandelion under foot (feel free to insert a Scotts Turf Builder or EZ Seed reference here), and here we go again; was it a matter of really poor timing, a random circumstance, or was it a difficult-to-verify ruse meant to divert attention from an obviously superior winning car?

I’m not saying or insinuating anything here, I’m just mentioning that the coincidence was nothing short of curious. Maybe NASCAR’s hoping that its fan base is younger than dinosaurs like me who remember such earlier goings-on.

Then again, maybe NASCAR simply doesn’t care…

Because it’s NASCAR Hall of Fame induction time! The “Class of 2011” is composed of men who landed just shy of last year’s grouping; the debate over selecting two from the France family, as opposed to adding names like Pearson and/or the elder Petty generated lots of media-sparked debate last spring. What with new inductees each year, it’s quite a no-brainer as to who’s eventually going to be enshrined in the Hall; over the many decades (hopefully) that lie ahead, there will be no shortage of worthy names added to the walls – everyone who deserves recognition will likely receive one in due time. As the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction moves to January in 2012, we’ll be celebrating yet another class before the dust settles around the current one.

Allow me to say right here that if you haven’t visited the Hall of Fame yet, you need to take a day and wallow in the history of our sport. There’s more for big kids than the wee ones, but there’s – as they often say in public relations – “something for everyone.” From the “Glory Road” display that winds through the main part of the Hall, to the exhibit cases stuffed with all sorts of memorabilia from all years of NASCAR history, racing fans can lose themselves among the artifacts that enable time to stop in its tracks.

One aspect of NASCAR history that you won’t see on display at the Hall of Fame is the passing of your own timeline – your personal relationship with the names, machines and events that have resulted in the sport we both live and love. While touring the Hall a couple of months ago with my wife and children, I found myself being transported through the sometimes-cloudy perspective of my memory to the days when I was the age that my kids are now. To look at a display and realize that you actually saw a particular race, or knew a particular competitor, or actually lived through a particular era of NASCAR’s evolution, you suddenly find yourself looking for a place to sit and rest. To my children, much in the Hall is part of a collective history; to me, much in the Hall is part of my personal past. At no time has this been more obvious to me than right now, given the individuals who are entering the Hall of Fame for 2011.

My work with NASCAR has enabled me to spend time one-on-one with three of the incoming class. While seeing Lee Petty and Bud Moore “in action” over the decades, I’ve never dealt with them directly. My experience with the others, oddly enough, however, revolved more around off-track situations than with their efforts in competition. Being a writer allowed me to observe men like Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison, and David Pearson in rather unique situations, ones that were not wholly unusual, but quite unexpected.

I met both Ned Jarrett and Bobby Allison during Race Week in Charlotte back in 1997. My first book about NASCAR had just been published (as in, I stopped at my publisher’s distribution center to pick up the six cases of books while I was en route to North Carolina). The book was going to debut at the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Mooresville, NC. An event was scheduled to be held there called the “Week of Champions”, an entire week (between the All-Star Race and the ‘600’) of driver and crew chief appearances, radio and television broadcasts, and all manner of NASCAR-related activities. Somehow, my new book had been tossed into the mix – and me, along with it. Promotional materials mentioned the list of legendary names to be found at the Hall; names like Allison, Jarrett … and mine? Long story short: I found myself seated at a table alongside both of these men (at different times on different afternoons), each of us poised with a Sharpie in hand and ready to visit with fans. Since the NC Auto Racing Hall of Fame events took place during a work week, in the down time between events at the speedway, the facility was sometimes more quiet than crowded on those mid-week afternoons. As such, I found myself sitting with some of the legends I’d just finished writing about. The men who built the sport of NASCAR were spending an afternoon with me (not by choice, mind you), a young college professor from Michigan who had been around stock car racing his entire life, but never quite THIS close.

Spending time with Ned Jarrett led me to envision hours talking with him about the growth of NASCAR, his second-place finish to Tiny Lund when Lund won the 1963 Daytona 500 on a single set of Firestone tires, and his memories of the 1960s when he raced against drivers like Fireball Roberts. Instead, our conversations leaned toward more everyday matters, like the joys of being a parent, working on our golf games, and trying to plan out a relevant, college-level, course-of-study for his grandson. Jason Jarrett, Dale’s son, was interested in pursuing a driving career, running ARCA races and trying to gain some much-needed experience, but Ned (and Dale) wanted Jason to earn a college degree so he’d have some options if racing failed to pan out.

Suddenly, I was back at my day job, part of which involved advising students (and often their families) about building a useful degree program. Any talk of the glory days at Hickory gave way to suggestions about necessary classes in Humanities and Communications. Ned believed in the merits of a good education, especially given the instability of a driving career. He told me how good college had been for Dale, and how going to school helped Dale realize that there was more to life than just being good at a sport. Ned wanted the same for Jason. Any respect I had for Ned Jarrett, the racer and broadcaster, before that day had been – over the course of a few hours – broadened to include his role as a parent and grandfather.

My time with Bobby Allison followed a similar path. Again, Bobby and I found ourselves with more free time than activity during our shift at the autograph table. I told Bobby how deeply sorry I felt after he lost both of his sons to racing-related accidents, like my condolences would mean anything. It turned out that Bobby Allison, the racing legend, gave way to Bobby Allison, the parent who lived the unthinkable – losing two of his children within the course of one year. For all of the tragedy Bobby had experienced, and that included his own life-threatening (and career-ending) wreck at Pocono Raceway during the summer of 1988, he was excited to talk about the then-recent accomplishments of his daughter, who was a central figure in the management of a new race team.

He was also candid, talking at length about the events of Daytona in 1979 and the “fistfight” he and his brother Donnie had with Cale Yarborough in the infield after the 500. Bobby told me how NASCAR penalized the three of them $10,000 each for actions detrimental to the sport, but then turned around and used the images gathered of that altercation to market the sanctioning body to a curious and ever-growing global audience. Allison said that $10,000 was a lot of money in those pre-mainstream sport days of NASCAR, in the days before huge sponsorships, the “rock star” wages paid to drivers, and today’s supplemental sources of income. NASCAR made hundreds of millions of dollars through its “re-telling” of the 1979 Daytona 500 story, attracting network television coverage and corporate interests that propelled the sport to even greater heights of financial success. Bobby seemed frustrated by such an experience, even though his role in that single event meant a permanent place within NASCAR’s history.

Despite his losses and frustrations, Bobby Allison was a sincere and kind person. I signed a copy of my book for him. He read the inscription, smiled warmly, nodded slightly, and thanked me. His response will be forever etched in my memory. To this day, I can’t recall the exact words I penned to him, but I know that from that afternoon on, Bobby would refer to me by name whenever we crossed paths at an event. One of my father’s proudest moments was the day he accompanied me to a golf resort in the Poconos and heard someone calling for me, only to discover that the person trying to get my attention was Bobby Allison. Bobby called us over, and spent the next hour talking with us about flying airplanes – he had recently acquired one – and what a thrill it was. Coming from a man who lost a son in a helicopter accident, his fascination with aviation seemed unusual, yet perhaps necessary. Maybe it was a healthy way to stand up to the demons that arise from such a tragedy.

Bobby Allison’s addition to the Hall of Fame has gone on to raise more demons of a different sort. His induction revived the controversy over a Grand National win of his (a victory credited to Richard Petty) that NASCAR refused to honor since Allison won the Grand National event in a car from the Grand American series – a ruling that will forever tie Allison with Darrell Waltrip for career GN victories, as according to “official” career statistics cited by NASCAR.com. To re-evaluate the results of that event would mean taking the win away from Richard Petty. Doing so would drop “King Richard” back to 199 career wins, thus altering the historic conclusion (and mythic significance) of the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona. As the NASCAR Hall of Fame strives to record and reward stock car excellence, such unsettled disputes will continue to spark debate and discord. Who said history was either simple or pretty?

My own history with David Pearson is neither of the above. I was given Pearson’s home telephone number by a mutual associate in racing so I could interview him for a book I was working on at the time. Writers are supposed to show some level of objectivity, but that’s going into the ditch here…I’ll admit that I idolized “The Silver Fox” during his driving days when I was growing up, especially the years he spent with the Wood Brothers. That said, one can imagine the mental train wreck I was when I sat down, picked up the receiver (yes, it was that long ago – at least I didn’t have to crank it), and heard David Pearson’s voice on the other end of the line. The man answered his own telephone! Who would have thought such a thing? With all of my deep breathing in an attempt to control my voice, Pearson probably thought he was the recipient of an obscene phone call. Once we began to talk, it was obvious that David Pearson was who he was: a personable older man who was enthusiastic to share his insights into NASCAR’s history. We settled in to do some bench racing – me asking questions, and Pearson dispensing wisdom.

Then my telephone recorder crapped out. Pearson was gracious while I fumbled, shook, whacked, and cursed about the machine that was leaving me in the lurch. We continued to talk even though my shorthand (as it was) was no match for his detailed and fascinating stories (as they were); all-too-quickly, I apologized to David, saying that I’d have to wave off the interview until the recorder worked again. Pearson agreed, wished me luck with the device, and told me to call back anytime; he said he could be found at home most evenings, and that he’d look forward to my next call. I looked forward to it, too. Life, at that moment, was officially very cool, despite the lousy telephone/voice recorder.

The next call came about a week later. I telephoned David Pearson. Once again, “The Silver Fox” answered the phone, and once again I hunkered down to relive some NASCAR folklore. It was David Pearson who then apologized, saying that several neighbors were on their way over for a cookout. We visited for a bit, until I could hear the sounds of a door, and voices of people exchanging what sounded like happy greetings. We waved off call #2 and opted for yet another day. That other day never materialized, unfortunately, as my book deal collapsed and left me with no relevant reason to telephone David Pearson again.

The lesson I learned through these close encounters with NASCAR history was a simple one: the priorities of “real” life easily overshadow the significant events that transform “regular” people into legends. For all of their accomplishments and experiences, men like Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison, and David Pearson are much more than race car drivers; they are humble and thoughtful individuals – fathers who celebrate (and mourn, if necessary) the lives of their children, grandfathers who want the best lives possible for the future of their lineage, and dedicated members of their respective communities. Above-and-beyond everything else, they are people who were fortunate enough to do what they loved, and do it exceedingly well. Their struggles and triumphs have been many, and their individual roles within the evolution of NASCAR will forever be a part of the sport’s folklore.

Time will tell if Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing, and the No. 99 Ford fare as well. The drive from Charlotte Motor Speedway to NASCAR’s R&D facility in Mooresville is brief, unlike the memories of race fans. Maybe that broken front end is available for display at the Hall of Fame? Clean off the dirt and turf, and it’ll look great in a glass case. The $1,203,300 question is: how might that broken equipment be interpreted as a historical artifact reflecting NASCAR’s history?

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