- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
ESPN The Magazine's Ryan McGee put together a panel of NASCAR experts, then penned a book about the 100 defining moments in NASCAR history. Below are excerpts of moments 10 through 6 from that book, "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments In Stock Car Racing History."
10. Unrestricted Horror: May 3, 1987
All Bobby Allison heard was a big bang. His No. 22 Miller High Life ride was hurtling alongside the longest grandstand in the world in the Winston 500 at Talladega at more than 200 mph when the engine self-destructed so violently that the entire crankshaft blew out of the bottom of the Buick, launching the car into the air.
Allison's 3,600-pound machine smashed into the frontstretch catch fence with such violence that the railing exploded, rocketing metal shards into the grandstand as the race car -- or what was left of it -- helicoptered back onto the track.
As the 49-year-old driver sat stunned on the asphalt, his face covered in oil, he asked safety crews how many fans had been killed. None, they said, but he didn't believe them. It had been too violent. In truth, only five fans had been hurt, and only two of them needed attention at area hospitals.
Even as he watched his son Davey take the victory hours later, Bobby knew that NASCAR [officials] would react swiftly and decisively. They did, introducing the restrictor plate, a piece of aluminum that choked engines and cut horsepower in half.
The drivers didn't like the idea, but the images of Talladega, the gaping hole in the fence, the terror on the faces of fans -- and the unspeakable horror of what might have been -- placed a restrictor plate on their complaining.
9. Another Brick In The Wall: Aug. 6, 1994
In the early 1950s, Bill France Sr. took a trip to Indianapolis to see whether the Indy 500 lived up to all its hype and hoopla. When Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman learned of his visitor's presence, he had France led off the property. Legend holds that Big Bill's parting words were, "Someday I'll own this place!" In fact, France merely figured he'd bring his cars up there when the time was right.
Four decades later, Hulman's grandson, Tony George, and France's son, Bill Jr., concluded that the time had finally arrived.
Open-wheel purists cried blasphemy. But when the gates were flung open for the inaugural Brickyard 400, 70 teams came seeking one of the race's 43 starting positions and more than 350,000 tickets had been sold.
With four laps to go, leader Ernie Irvan felt his Ford wobble on Turn 1. The massive crowd came to its feet as Jeff Gordon, who had graduated from a high school only 20 miles down the road, made his move. The No. 24 Chevy grabbed the bottom groove and the lead as Irvan struggled to hang onto a rapidly deflating right front tire.
Two days earlier, Gordon had celebrated his 23rd birthday. Now he was being hailed as the first man to win at the Brickyard in a stock car.
8. Tobacco Roadways: Dec. 3, 1970
If Junior Johnson learned only one lesson during a lifetime of racing, it was this: Money = Speed. With this thought in mind, the NASCAR legend drove into Winston-Salem in late 1970 to chat up the deep-pockets people of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
Big Tobacco was smarting from a government-issued ban on television advertising, and RJR was more than ready to hear Johnson's car-sponsorship pitch. After all, racing fans were smokers, and Junior Johnson was just about the most popular racer at the track.
But as the conversation shifted into high gear, both parties suddenly realized the potential for a much larger opportunity, and the talk ended with Johnson's pushing Bill France's phone number across the desk.
When NASCAR's top series hit the track for the 1971 season, the Grand National division had become the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. RJR posted $100,000 in year-end bonus money and in return bypassed the ad ban by plastering its rich, red logo on racetracks, race cars and sports pages across the country.
Cigarettes and gasoline: an explosive combination that forever changed a sport.
7. Field Of Dreams: Sept. 4, 1950
Meet Harold Brasington, village idiot.
In 1933, the South Carolina gravel salesman attended the Indianapolis 500 and was so moved by the experience that he began to dream aloud about bringing big-time auto racing to his hometown, 690 miles to the southeast.
The good people of Darlington, S.C., were nice enough to listen to Brasington's grandiose plan but exploded into laughter whenever he left the room.
In a vision straight out of W.P. Kinsella's "Field of Dreams," Brasington cranked up his bulldozer and sculpted a one-and-a-quarter-mile oval racetrack in a cotton field. Still, no one believed that anyone would come to the no-man's-land of Darlington County to run a stock car race, let alone pay money to watch one.
But on Labor Day weekend at the midcentury mark, 25,000 fans came to watch a jam-packed field -- three cars wide, 25 rows deep, with 17 states represented -- take the green flag in the first Southern 500. As the NASCAR regulars attacked the asphalt the way they would a dirt track, Hollywood stuntman Johnny "Madman" Mantz eased his lightweight Plymouth onto the apron and cruised at a pedestrian 75 mph on a single set of bulky truck tires. Against the high-banked turns, teams popped so many tires that crews desperate for replacements went into the infield and stripped wheels off fans' street rides.
After six and a half hours of racing, Mantz pulled into Victory Lane a full nine laps ahead of Fireball Roberts. The Southern 500, the first stock car race ever held on a paved superspeedway, instantly become NASCAR's signature event, and Darlington became a world-renowned racing destination.
Meet Harold Brasington, town genius.
6. Hail To The King: July 4, 1984
After a lifetime of winning, Richard Petty saw a two-decade race to 200 career wins grinding down to an excruciating crawl.
Starting the 1982 season with 195 wins, Petty had nine top-5 finishes but no checkered flags. He won three times in 1983, but the third win came despite two rules violations, an oversized engine and two illegal tires.
NASCAR let the victory stand, but handed Petty a scarlet letter by stripping him of both points and cash. For the first time in his career, The King wrestled with public disgrace. The following year, win 199 finally came, at Dover.
That set the stage for the biggest Fourth of July celebration in NASCAR history. At the Firecracker 400 at Daytona Beach, President Ronald Reagan made history by becoming the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR event. Not that he did much sitting, what with Petty and old foe Cale Yarborough banging doors as they barreled off Turn 4 and screamed over the finish line.
ABC Sports cameras revealed that the No. 43 had won by inches. The wait for 200 had finally ended. No one knew at the time that it would be Petty's final trip to Victory Lane. Even if they had, they wouldn't have cared. There was a celebration to be thrown and a picnic in the garage, complete with a King and a President going elbow to elbow in a family size bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"I won my race," Petty, a longtime Republican, told the man standing next to him, who was up for re-election that fall. "Now you go win yours."
Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of ''ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: The 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History.''
Countdown of the defining moments in NASCAR history, Nos. 10-6.