- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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CONCORD, N.C. -- Alex Zanardi had just completed an amazing comeback, going from last place and almost a lap down to first without the benefit of caution to win the 1997 Cleveland Grand Prix.
He was so excited after taking the checkered flag in the CART race that he could barely contain himself.
Or as he says, "I lost control."
Instead of driving the car immediately to Victory Lane as most did, he drove to the front straightaway, put his foot on the brakes, turned the wheel and pushed the gas pedal to the floor.
The tires began churning out white smoke and the rear end of the car began spinning to create an almost perfect circle.
"I had to express my joy doing something," Zanardi said. "I ended up doing some doughnuts, some burnouts."
He got so good at it over the next few months that he was nicknamed the "Doughnut King."
A year or so later -- Zanardi isn't sure exactly when -- the winner of a Sprint Cup race in NASCAR did a doughnut and the commentator said, "Oh, he's doing a Zanardi."
Thus the birth of burnouts, which will be celebrated as a preliminary to Saturday night's Sprint All-Star race with Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch competing in the inaugural Pennzoil Burnout Contest at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Each driver must complete a full drag-racing, tire-smoking burnout in a Petty Driving Experience race car and two 360-degree doughnuts before racing to a designated Victory Lane on the front stretch at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
It could be more exciting than the race itself.
"I didn't invent anything," said Zanardi, who lost both legs in a 2001 racing accident at EuroSpeedway Lausitz. "But it's pretty funny to see now everybody is doing it."
Contrary to popular belief, burnouts haven't been a part of NASCAR since they raced on the sandy shores of Daytona Beach. Before they became popular, drivers simply drove to Victory Lane or around the track with the checkered flag waving from the window.
If somebody really wanted to be flamboyant he would do the Polish Victory Lap -- a drive around the track in the opposite direction of the race -- in memory of Alan Kulwicki.
Some credit Dale Earnhardt with being NASCAR's burnout pioneer when he did doughnuts in the infield grass in 1998 after capturing his first Daytona 500 on his 20th try. Some say it was Ron Hornaday Jr., who did burnouts in the Craftsman Truck Series before Earnhardt's win while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Some say it was Kevin Harvick, who did one in 2001 after his first win for Richard Childress Racing at Atlanta following the death of Earnhardt.
But before any of those drivers began spinning tires and creating ridiculous amounts of white smoke, Zanardi was doing doughnut-style burnouts in CART across the United States.
"Zanardi is where I saw it start," Mark Martin said. "That doesn't mean that's where it started, but Zanardi did them big time. He was winning every week and he was doing them like crazy, and that's where it seemed to have started from."
But they didn't really become popular in NASCAR until Harvick's burnout in Atlanta. Since then everybody seems to do them.
Well, not everybody.
"I think they're real juvenile," Martin said. "It would embarrass me to do one because I would think that was either being a copycat or it was something to be expected.
"For these kids, if they didn't do it, it would probably embarrass them, so that's what you do."
Jack Sprague had just captured the Truck series race at Richmond in 2001, the first race after the three-quarter-mile track had been resurfaced. As he came back around on the front stretch he began spinning his tires so fast that the new sealant ignited.
"My crew chief yelled, 'Dude, you're on fire!'" Sprague recalled. "I didn't know what he was talking about so I started driving toward the infield. The whole back was on fire. It was basically throwing flames out from under the tires.
"It burned the back of the truck all up. The paint and decals melted off and we burned the chassis."
After the celebration Sprague saw Harvick in the garage. The two had exchanged sheet metal over the final five laps and he was nervous about a confrontation.
"Instead he started telling me, 'Man, that was cool!'" Sprague said. "I've seen a lot of burnouts on TV, and for some reason they seem to overlook that one because it was in the Truck series. But it was by far the coolest burnout I've ever seen."
He gets no argument from Harvick or practically anybody who saw the fire show.
Johnson has tried several times to duplicate that one with no success.
"I've actually blown the tires out in the process, and then as you bring the car to Victory Lane NASCAR is looking at you like why are you blowing the tires because it does damage to the car," Johnson said. "I feel bad for my crew guys because as those tires come apart it rips the body apart and everything underneath it apart.
"So I've given up on trying to light them on fire just with all the damage it does."
Johnson tried so hard after his first Cup win in 2002 that he destroyed the engine. Harvick had a similar experience after winning the 2003 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He spun the tires so hard that they ripped to shreds and tore the back end of the car up as well.
Nobody seemed to mind.
"At the end of the day, when you're able to do a burnout you don't give a crap if you tear it up," said Harvick's crew chief, Todd Berrier.
As impressive as Sprague's burnout was, Skinner believes he did a better one last year after a win in the Truck series at Martinsville -- figuring in the degree of difficulty on the narrow front straightaway.
"I kept the left front in one place and turned the truck around four or five times and never lifted on the throttle," Skinner said. "It was pretty cool. When I won the second race there NASCAR waved it off and told me I couldn't do it. There was oil and safety dry on the track and they didn't think it would be the safest thing to do.
"I want to try to duplicate that burnout again, but I don't know if I ever will be able to."
Zanardi can't believe how popular burnouts have become.
"But I'm glad somebody has come to that extent," he said. "The first time I tried to do that I received a lot of criticism. People were saying he's a big head, he's showing off, he's creating danger.
"The reality [is] they were jealous because of my success of winning and doing the doughnuts in the right way."
To each his own
Johnson stopped his No. 48 Chevrolet near the start-finish line at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this year and began spinning the tires. Smoke was so thick inside the car that you couldn't see the two-time defending Cup champion.
"Brake is important," Johnson said. "You need on the cool-down lap to make sure you get all the front brake in the car and as many gears as you can grab. The faster those rear tires are spinning the better.
"First gear you're all over the chip, and I've blown an engine messing around that way, so if you can get into second or third gear you're gonna have a lot of smoke."
Every driver has his own style. Some like to get on the bank and spin the tires as the car slides sideways down the track. Some like to do doughnuts. Some like to spin in place. Some like to park the nose of the car against a retaining wall and create havoc.
"Let her eat," Bowyer said of his philosophy. "Obviously you need to try to adjust some front brake in to pull the rear brake out of it and ride the brakes and control the throttle. If you give it too much throttle they tend to want to spin out and not continue to go straight.
"Just kind of keep it going. I've got to win more races so I can get more practice."
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said the key to a good doughnut is lots of smoke.
"I have never been very good at burnouts," he said. "If you can do a burnout and slide the car -- you know, keep the car sliding sideways through the corner of down the straightaway -- that can be good, too."
Team owner Richard Childress isn't particularly fond of burnouts because he has to pay for the damages. He said Earnhardt, who won six of his seven titles at Richard Childress Racing, felt the same way watching Hornaday.
"He said it was too hard on the motors," Childress said. "The only time I remember seeing him do a burnout was on the grass in Daytona in '98."
That didn't create smoke, but it did accidentally cut a 3 into the grass, an impressive scene for fans of the driver of the black No. 3.
"That was the coolest one I've ever seen," Hornaday said.
Practice makes perfect?
Bowyer tried to be a little too cute as he practiced a burnout during a recent promotion to announce the contest and smacked the pit road wall at LMS.
"I'm just glad it wasn't my real car," he said with a laugh.
Nobody really practices burnouts, although there was a session late Monday night following Nationwide testing. Busch has had plenty of on-the-track practice this season, having won three races in the Cup series and eight between Cup, Nationwide and Trucks.
His signature move is to create as much smoke as possible, stand on the window seal and bow to the crowd.
I think the best style points are probably just blow the tires out. That's what I'm going for. Just pop the tires.
-- Kevin Harvick
"I think it's cool when Kyle gets the smoke going, then all of a sudden he jumps out of the car like David Copperfield or something," said Carl Edwards, who celebrates with a backflip off the car window instead of a burnout. "That's pretty neat."
Childress practiced burnouts before he ran in an All-Star event at Pocono a few years ago, and then got to demonstrate his skills after the race.
"I drove down the street [near the shop in Welcome, N.C.] and did a couple of burnouts," he said. "I got a lot of strange looks from people. It's not a lot you can do. Just put your brakes on and let it eat."
LMS president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler believes the burnout competition will become as popular as baseball's home run derby and the NBA's slam dunk contest.
He's challenged Bowyer to do a pirouette down the front straightaway on the right rear wheel.
Harvick's goal is to flatten the tires.
"I think the best style points are probably just blow the tires out," he said. "That's what I'm going for. Just pop the tires."
Johnson hasn't revealed his strategy.
"I don't want to give away my secrets because I think I have a pretty good burnouts," he said.
Most who do them believe theirs are the best, including Zanardi who says, "Of course mine are."
"But please let me bring it down to the level I believe it deserves," he continued. "The most difficult thing is to win the race, to be in position to do these doughnuts.
"If I got something to be jealous of guys doing doughnuts today it's not so much the doughnuts but race wins."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The perfect doughnut? Alex Zanardi, the original "Doughnut King," says lock the brakes, crank the wheel, then mash the gas, writes David Newton.