The 1986 NASCAR Cup season ranks as one of the most compelling in stock car racing history for several reasons — some of which had little, if anything, to do with on-track competition.
Perhaps the most notable occurrence was NASCAR’s return to Watkins Glen International, the 2.45-mile road course located in upstate New York. The track, nestled among the region’s beautiful terrain of forests, mountains and lakes, was well known and respected as the long-time home of the United States Grand Prix, the only American event at the time for the distinguished Formula One Circuit.
The new race was eagerly anticipated by NASCAR fans who were anxious to see how the rumbling stock cars would perform on a track long reserved for the sleek, faster open wheel cars.
It took only a bit of research to learn that the race would not be NASCAR’s first on the Watkins Glen course. There was an event there in 1957, won by Buck Baker. There was another in 1964, won by Billy Wade and Marvin Panch was the winner of the 1965 event. NASCAR would not return for 21 years.
As newsworthy was the Watkins Glen return was in 1986, other matters also made headlines — and, I might add, created controversy.
Debate began even before the season did.
Since 1949, NASCAR had applied the name Grand National to its top series. That changed in 1971, when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. helped create the Winston Cup Series, which led to a new name, the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Series. Then, in late 1985, NASCAR President Bill France Jr. announced that “Grand National” would no longer be used and the elite tour would be known as simply the NASCAR Winston Cup Series beginning in 1986.
You might well have thought very little about all of this. After all, what’s in a name, right? So what?
But it created an uproar. And the media were right in the middle of it.
Seems the writers and broadcasters of the day had little problem using the Winston Cup name. However, their bosses routinely dropped it in favor of the Grand National tag. They fell back on that name because most newspapers, radio and television networks at that time had strict limitations as to how much free corporate advertising they were going to permit. Thus, they informed their outlets to avoid using corporate sponsor names when reporting on sports. In NASCAR, that meant Winston Cup was to be replaced by Grand National.
To their credit, NASCAR and Reynolds knew this would happen. So “Grand National” was applied to the Busch Series, considered a Triple-A league which had replaced the Late Model Sportsman name in 1982. But the media’s financial existence was based on advertising and that helped create a dilemma. If they were stuck with the Winston Cup tag, and thus required to use it, they would be giving Reynolds a virtually unlimited amount of free advertising dollars.
Egad! That was utterly unacceptable.
“There wasn’t a thing broken,” wrote one veteran motorsports writer. “But NASCAR chose to fix it anyway.”
Another writer was more ominous: “In some quarters, stock car racing is considered more as an advertising billboard than a sport. Other sports do not attempt to force commercialism on the media as does this new Winston Cup circuit.”
Many media outlets continued to use the “Grand National” and “Sportsman” names in an effort to curb what they felt was raging commercialism — which did more to confuse their audiences than anything else.
I had my own opinion. “Hey, we don’t have a problem calling a golf tournament the Kemper Open. So, what the heck is the difference?”
Suffice it to say that in a relatively short period of time, the name controversy ended. Everyone came to their senses. After all, accuracy is the foundation of journalism, which means the reporting of actual names. So, if it’s the Winston Cup circuit, by golly, that’s what you call it.
Another episode that seemed more of a tempest in a teapot than anything else was the debate over NASCAR’s youngest-ever race winner.
Historically, the Talladega 500 held at what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway every summer, had a way of producing upset winners. Such was the case on July 27, 1986, when young Bobby Hillin Jr., driving for the Stavola Brothers, won the race is a thrilling finish over Tim Richmond and Rusty Wallace. Almost immediately, Hillin, aged 22 years, one month and 22 days old, was declared the youngest driver ever to win a NASCAR race on its top circuit.
That was widely reported … but wait a moment. Quick research revealed that Fireball Roberts was the winner of an August 1950 race in Hillsboro, N.C., when he was 21 years, six months and 24 days old.
It evolved that some NASCAR historians dug deeper into the records and learned that a kid named Donald Thomas of Olivia, N.C., won his first NASCAR race in November of 1952 at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta. Thomas, the younger brother of NASCAR legend Herb Thomas, was born on July10, 1930 — or so it was thought.
When he died in 1977, it was learned that he was really born on July 10, 1932, which made him 20 years, four months and six days old when he won at Atlanta. So Thomas is part of NASCAR history as the youngest driver to win a race, followed by Roberts and Hillin Jr.
A name and an age were just two subjects that helped boil the waters of the 1986 season. There were more: Did Richard Petty really achieve his 1,000th career start? Would Dale Earnhardt recover from one of the most severe post-race penalties levied by NASCAR?
And would the dashingly handsome winner of the first Watkins Glen race establish himself as the superstar he appeared to be?
As the old saying goes, “To Be Continued …”
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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