The first NASCAR Cup race at Watkins Glen International was held on Aug. 10, 1986, and remains a significant event because, for stock cars, it marked a return to the venerated road course that was once the home of Formula One’s United States Grand Prix.
NASCAR had held three races at The Glen many years before its long-awaited return in 1986. Buck Baker won in 1957, Billy Wade in 1964 and Marvin Panch in 1965. It was the second road course on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. The series had already been racing at Riverside International Raceway in California for several years.
Riverside, however, gave way to commercial expansion in 1988, one year before another California road course, now known as Sonoma Raceway, made its debut.
As much as The Glen contributed to the notoriety of the ’86 season, there were at least two other factors: the name changes for NASCAR’s elite circuits and the rise of young, flamboyant driver Tim Richmond.
Prior to the start of the ’86 campaign, NASCAR made a starting announcement. After 36 years, the NASCAR Grand National circuit would no longer exist. Instead, it would be known as the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, an homage to the series’ sponsor since 1971.
“Grand National” would be transferred to the Busch Series, now to be known as the Busch Grand National Series.
You might find this hard to believe, but this caused a bit of a ruckus. The media, mainly newspapers and television, were appalled. To use these new titles flew in the face of their rule – mainly, do not use the name of a product because it creates free advertising. That’s a no-no.
For years, the media had ignored Winston in favor of the name NASCAR Grand National. As for the Busch Series, many outlets still called it the Late Model Sportsman tour – its name before Anheuser-Busch sponsorship began in 1982.
Several media types suggested that NASCAR was simply engaging in crass commercialism.
“Until NASCAR does a better job of selling the sport instead of beer and cigarettes, it will continue to be a sport largely ignored by the mainstream media,” one reporter wrote.
Television had used the names NASCAR Stock Car Racing and NASCAR Grand National and declared it would continue to do so.
Today, where product names and professional sports are inescapably linked – and which has long since gained media acceptance – such controversy seems a bit ludicrous. But it happened.
Not long after 1986, the media adapted and that hasn’t changed since.
Richmond was a young driver out of Ohio who had some experience in IndyCar racing. In fact, it seemed he was establishing a solid career.
But he got into a few accidents and, as the story goes, his mother asked him to give up IndyCars and race something safer.
So, he came to NASCAR. He had a few rides with either new or underfunded teams before he got a career boost with team owner Raymond Beadle in 1984.
But his big chance came in 1986. Team owner Rick Hendrick observed Richmond’s natural talent and made him a part of his two-car operation. Richmond was set to be reunited with feisty veteran crew chief Harry Hyde.
The two struggled for the first half of the season. Richmond ran well but did not win.
He may have been disappointed or frustrated, but he never showed it. In fact, Richmond acted as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He was witty, outgoing and blessed with movie star looks. He dressed impeccably. He was often seen with attractive women.
And he had raw talent. Richmond got better as Hyde instructed him how to go fast without tearing a car to pieces.
However, it seemed 1986 was going to be a bust – until the second half of the season began.
Richmond went on a tear. He won seven of the season’s final 17 races. He rose into title contention, threatening Dale Earnhardt’s point lead, and finished the year as the winningest driver of 1986.
It was during a stretch of 10 races from Pocono Raceway to Richmond Raceway that he really made his mark. He won six times.
The fourth win of the streak came at Watkins Glen. Richmond passed Darrell Waltrip with 12 laps to go and held on for the victory.
Richmond went on to win at Darlington Raceway, Richmond and Riverside and wound up third in the final point standings.
What many observers thought was the rise of a superstar ended tragically. Two weeks after Riverside, Richmond checked into the Cleveland Clinic where he was diagnosed with double pneumonia triggered by the flu.
It was the beginning of his downfall, which ended with his death from AIDS (a disease many quietly speculated he had) in 1989. He was 34 years old.
Today, there are many fans who remember Richmond and say he was one of the most talented drivers they had ever seen. They speculate what he, and NASCAR, could have been had he lived.
Kyle Petty once said, “He was the guy who would have taken this sport into a new era. He had the appeal that would have drawn 18-year-olds into NASCAR. He would have been the Pied Piper.”
As it is, Richmond is part of NASCAR lore. When it returned to Watkins Glen after its 21-year absence, he was the man who took the checkered flag.
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