NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: NASCAR Moments Never Forgotten

1. A fitting tribute

In July 1993 I was about to take a week’s vacation that centered around that weekend’s Pocono Cup race. In fact, on the way home I stopped at the corner Texaco to fill up my truck and dirt bikes for the trip and while there picked up a newly released diecast of Davey Allison’s No. 28 car. I went home and was packing my things (OK, packing a cooler) when the news broke that Davey had been badly hurt in a helicopter crash at Talladega.

Overnight Allison passed away and, like a lot of his fans, I felt like it was a death in his family. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to that race that Sunday. In the end, all of us decided to go anyway. As it turned out, it was a heck of a race with Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt going at it, hell bent for leather after the race restarted following a caution flag with about 10 laps to go. Earnhardt prevailed by about 0.8 seconds after about three hours and 45 minutes of intense racing. (Back in those days Pocono races were still 500 miles.) 

After taking the checkered flag, Earnhardt spun his infamous black Chevy around and his team hustled out onto the track to join him. They all knelt down out there for a minute to say a silent prayer for Davey. Afterward, Earnhardt was given a No. 28 flag which he flew out the driver’s side window in tribute to Davey while doing a reverse victory lap in honor of reigning Cup champion Alan Kulwicki who we had lost earlier that season. There wasn’t a dry eye up and down pit road or in the grandstands — or infield for that matter. —Matt McLaughlin

2. A hot and humid day

My most memorable race was the 1980 Coca-Cola 500 at Pocono Raceway. There was a thrilling three-car battle for the win over the closing laps among Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough and eventual victor Neil Bonnett in the Wood Brothers Purolator Mercury. Bonnett was able to break the draft by weaving all over the frontstretch, but the lead was swapped many, many times. A young driver named Earnhardt finished fourth that afternoon. I watched the race from wooden grandstands along pit road with my father. Richard Petty had an awful wreck, and Kyle Petty was given a baby stroller decked out in STP colors (to match his car) for his new son, Adam. There were also two shirtless guys wearing carved-out watermelons over their heads like masks — it was a hot and humid day in the Poconos.

I should add that I was 15 years old, at the time. It feels like ancient history.  —Mark Howell

3. One heck of an introduction

The 2002 Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway was the first NASCAR event I ever attended and it that stands out because of its famous first-lap crash. Coming out of turn one, Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates Steve Park and Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun through the grass toward the infield barrier. Park’s car flipped three times before landing on its roof. Earnhardt climbed out after his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet came to a halt and sprinted over to the mutilated No. 1 Pennzoil car to see if Park was OK. Safety workers assisted him as he got out of his car and the crowd cheered as Earnhardt and Park walked to the ambulance with their arms around each other’s shoulders. I think Earnhardt became even more popular after that crash because NASCAR fans appreciated the concern and friendship he showed for his teammate.

Bill Elliott won the race, which was shortened by 25 laps because it became too dark. It was a wet, miserable day, but I still remember it fondly. My father bought me a Ryan Newman diecast car. At the time, he was the hottest rookie in the series, and it seemed his career would be superior to Jimmie Johnson‘s, who was also in his first year of Cup competition. Obviously, I couldn’t have been any more wrong about that. —John Haverlin

4. Understanding

I have two, and incidentally, neither of them happened at Pocono. The first one, I’ve written about before: the 1997 Jiffy Lube 300 at Loudon. As a race, it may or may not have been spectacular; as will happen, many of the details have faded into the past. It was the first race I’d ever seen, in person or otherwise, and to be completely honest, all I knew about NASCAR was that a lot of people watched for the crashes. I only knew a few drivers hearing about them in passing on SportsCenter. 

That day was magic. I was hooked from the moment the engines fired, and my favorite moment of the race was (and still is) that moment when the pace car pulled onto pit road and the field was about to be turned loose. That moment was so ripe with possibility you could almost pick it out of the air. I learned that racing was about so much more than crashes and raw speed. It was about strategy and using speed to be in the right place at the right time. Everything I loved about that day is ingrained in my soul because I still love those same things today, many years later. The moment of infinite possibility is why I pursued NASCAR, and not a more traditional sport, as a writer. —Amy Henderson

5. Community

To be honest, I could list another half-dozen races that stand out to me, some tragic, others triumphant, but all in some way significant. But I think the other one that has had a lasting effect was another summer race at New Hampshire, three years later. It’s not so much the race I remember (I think Tony Stewart won), but the opening moments of Friday practice. I was sitting in the stands taking it all in but went down below for a few moments between what I think was a Modified or Busch North practice and the opening Cup session. I could hear the cars take to the track but almost immediately it went quiet again, and I went back up to see what had happened. 

Track workers were surrounding the car of Kenny Irwin Jr. down in Turn 4.  The medivac chopper whirred to life…and then it shut down.

I think we all realized at that moment that it wasn’t good. The blue tarp came out, and Irwin’s souvenir hauler shut down a little while later. Everyone knew deep down, even before NASCAR’s announcement came, that we’d lost another young driver, just weeks after the death of Adam Petty in a freakishly similar accident. The utter disbelief turned to despair, and it was the first time I really realized the power of the NASCAR community to pull together in tough times. I’d seen it after Adam, as well, but this time it really hit home for me. I also really understood, at that moment, the actual cost of the sport that everyone at that track loved. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

But the moment that, to me, sticks out the most was later that day.  Out of a clear blue sky, a rainbow appeared over Turn 3, where both Petty and Irwin had crashed. There was no rain. I like to think it was Adam and Kenny letting us all know that somewhere, two young racers were still at it: flat-out, belly to the ground, racing for home. —Amy Henderson

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Scott

Matt, That July 1993 race was my first. I had never watched Nascar on TV let alone attended a race. Someone happened to have an extra ticket and I happened to have a free weekend. Although anyone’s “first race” is significant, this was really a special race. We had Dale and Rusty fans in our crew so those final laps were quite intense in our row of seats. I had no clue who the drivers were or what the Nascar scene was all about. The gang tried to explain the camaraderie of the Nascar family during the first few days event. It truly hit home watching Dale flying the 28 flag after the race and seeing the reactions of every fan in those grandstands. I was hooked for life.

John, I was also in the stands for the 2002 race. Scary stuff, long day!

Thanks for the reminder gang.

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