Terry Labonte drove a '57 Chevy to more than 40 victories during the '75 season.
Surrounded by a semicircle of reporters and cameramen during a preseason media event at Hendrick Motorsports, Terry Labonte answers questions in the easygoing, thoughtful manner that has become his trademark. When he's asked about a 1975 photograph of a '57 Chevy headed to Victory Lane, though, Labonte's demeanor brightens as he recalls his days of running short tracks around Corpus Christi, Texas. The ever-present Labonte smile turns up a notch and his eyes sparkle as the memories come rushing back.
"I hope that I have another car that I win as many races in as I did that one," says Labonte. "That was my first car, a '57 Chevy. We ran at Cuddihy Raceway, a dirt track. There were two tracks down there, an asphalt track and a dirt track, and I was the only guy who ran both of them. I would run one Friday night and one Saturday night with the same car. The people at the dirt track didn't like the asphalt people and the asphalt people didn't like the dirt people, but we got along with both of them. We ran both places. I think I won 40-some races at both places that one year in that car." Nothing stirs the soul of a racer quite like the memories of old race cars and past short-track glory. Drivers who have reached NASCAR's highest level, particularly those over 40 like Labonte, can reflect on a time when the sport was simpler, the paychecks smaller, and the passion for racing was shared equally with spectators at dirt tracks or small asphalt bullrings around the country.
A Different World
Labonte, a two-time Winston Cup champion who has 21 victories in a career dating to 1978, has watched the sport change over the decades. He's watched both from the perspective of a driver and as a parent/team owner trying to help his son, Justin, jumpstart a career in stock car racing.
"Back when I got started there weren't as many teams," says Labonte. "The spread was so much different between the top teams and the lesser teams, so you could do it for a lot less money and be more competitive and hopefully have a few good runs. But today you can't really do that. It's very difficult. Money is pretty important."
Long gone are the days when even the top drivers in NASCAR pulled their cars on open trailers and ate bologna sandwiches while motoring toward the next race in some small Southern town. But you don't have to turn the clock back 30 years to see how profoundly the sport has changed. Fundamental changes began to take place in big-league stock car racing in the late '80s when engineers began to invade the sport and sponsorship packages began reaching into the millions of dollars. By the time the '90s arrived, race shops were being measured in square footage, not by the number of "bays" they contained. Shops became "compounds" or "complexes."
Drivers have also changed, with most being groomed by media coaches and sent out to represent sponsors and appear in television commercials. Ah, but the memories ... fueled by old photographs of grimy Saturday night appearances in Victory Lane at some obscure short track ... or photos of bushy-haired young men kneeling proudly beside their cars ... or of fresh-faced youngsters trying to make their way in a sport populated by men who know what it's like to pull an engine from a car and get it ready for the next race.
Few active drivers bridge the gap between the sport's simpler times and the mega-business of today better than Bill Elliott, who was still turning wrenches deep into his career as a Winston Cup star.
Bill Elliott claimed his first pole position start at Darlington in 1981.
"Well, there is no comparison (between the eras)," says Elliott. "You look at what technology has brought today. What you've got to look at today is everybody has to look at every avenue as a specialist, from shocks to tires to aero and every part of the race car. You've got to dissect what's there to get the most out of everything. Back when I started, we went down to the Monroe truck and got four shocks. You went over here and got the other ingredients and put it all together and that's all you did. You didn't go with every bit of technology that was out there (because) there was very limited technology back then. Today, it's just a whole different world."
Back in the '70s when there were fewer barriers to enter the sport--and, significantly, as Labonte pointed out, the cost was lower--some competitors took a route similar to the one taken by Elliott and his brother Ernie, now a respected Winston Cup engine builder. The two gained experience by running what was actually a limited number of local races before they made the jump directly into Winston Cup.
"I ran Dixie (Speedway) every Saturday night, which is a racetrack outside of Marietta, Georgia," recalls Elliott. "We roamed around and ran different places, but not a ton. My dad kept kind of pushing me to NASCAR, whether running the Sportsman division at that time, which is now Busch Grand National, or something along those lines. I felt like he realized that NASCAR was the future. If you're going to drive, then this is where you need to be, and he just kept kind of prodding me along. As I progressed, we ran very little local stuff."
There were dues to be paid, nonetheless, as Bill and Ernie struggled to get the family team into a competitive mode in NASCAR's top division. The brothers competed part time and entered 86 races during their first eight seasons, beginning in 1976. Their most noteworthy accomplishments were 10 Top-5 finishes and a couple of pole positions, including their first pole at Darlington in 1981.
Real success came only after the brothers teamed with industrialist Harry Melling and formed a partnership that blended Melling money with the ingenuity and talent of the Elliotts. The pairing produced Bill's first victory in 1983 at Riverside Raceway, a road course in California no longer in existence. The tide really began to turn in 1984 when the Elliotts won three races and four poles. The team then reached the pinnacle of stock car racing the next season.
The '85 season, in fact, was monumental for the sport and for the Elliotts. Bill and Ernie, along with younger brother Dan, led the Melling team to heights few could have foreseen a few seasons earlier. In 1985 they won 11 races, captured 11 poles, claimed the first Winston Million, and turned the sport on its ear. But in retrospect, what the Elliotts accomplished seems light years removed from the parity that now marks the sport and from the mega-teams that exist today with hundreds of employees.
"Really, Ernie and I were the only two who were there when we first started," says Elliott. "We had people who came in and helped us on the side, but it was just the two of us. In 1981 when we ran 12 races (actually 13) for Melling, just Ernie and myself, I worked on the car and he did engines and that was it. In 1985 there was only 11 of us, counting myself. That was the motor shop and the chassis shop.
"We worked ourselves to death, but we had some great accomplishments back then. I told somebody the other day, when we were in Daytona testing and talking about different things that have happened throughout the years, that when you look at where it came from back then to where it is today, it's pretty unreal."
Mark Martin was a four-time ASA champion before finding his groove in Winston Cup.
Mark Martin was a 15-year-old kid when he started winning stock car races regularly around his home state of Arkansas. Backed by his father, Julian, a well-to-do trucker, Martin developed strong short-track roots in the '70s and was successful from the start. His ability to powerslide a car through the turns of Arkansas dirt tracks, while battling much older and more experienced drivers, helped put him in Victory Lane time and again.
In 1978, at age 19, Martin--by then a veteran racer--won the American Speed Association title and followed with two more ASA championships in 1979 and 1980. He made a foray into Winston Cup in 1981 and claimed two pole positions in his first four (of five) races that season. He competed in Winston Cup for the full schedule the next year, driving 29 races in a car he owned. But success at stock car racing's highest level was slow to arrive, especially when compared to the early success he had on the short tracks in the Midwest. Martin drove for three car owners in 1983 while competing in 16 Cup races.
Frustrated, Martin returned to his short-track roots the next season and did not compete in Winston Cup in 1984 or 1985, but he claimed his fourth ASA title the next year (1986) while also competing in five Cup races. Although he entered just one Cup race in 1987, the Winston Cup dream was not over, and he signed with team owner Jack Roush in 1988. Martin has been in Roush's No. 6 Ford ever since.
It took Martin nearly a decade of trying before he found success at the highest level of stock car racing. Bulldog persistence was apparently one of the biggest traits Martin developed as a short-track prodigy in the '70s. "I found out after being married with four kids that I was going to have to live a pretty lean lifestyle on what I could make ASA racing," Martin says of his determination to make it in NASCAR. "There was a motivation for me to do better for my family, and there had always been the motivation to be the best."
Television viewers who tuned in to ESPN on Thursday nights in the late '80s caught a glimpse of the youngster who would single-handedly change the NASCAR landscape. Those "Thursday Night Thunder" USAC sprint and midget car races brought Jeff Gordon onto the oval-track racing stage and helped introduce him to viewers nationwide. Although Gordon became a household name by virtue of his phenomenal success in NASCAR, it was the Thursday night battles on ESPN that first began to shape the relatively unknown teenager into a media and motorsports superstar.
Weekly races telecast on ESPN helped propel a teenage Jeff Gordon to stardom.
It's common knowledge that Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford, introduced him to racing at age 5, and Gordon soon became a quarter-midget terror, displaying a flair for going fast and winning races. Bickford then continued to nurture the young Gordon's career, eventually moving from California to Indiana to enable Gordon to make the right moves up the racing ladder. While Bickford's steady decisions kept Gordon on a successful path, Gordon's appearances on ESPN helped him climb even further.
"At that point I had been just racing mainly local stuff, a little bit of all-star World of Outlaws sprint cars, but none of it on television," Gordon recalls. "I don't think many people knew who Jeff Gordon was, especially not down here in the stock car world. I think by getting on live ESPN races, having success, and winning, it certainly got the Jeff Gordon name and face kind of out there in the racing world and it allowed me to get some opportunities to come here and do all this."
"All this" includes 61 Winston Cup wins and 4 points titles in his first 10 seasons. Gordon's success at such a young age (he was 22 when he won his first Cup race and 24 when he claimed his first points title) changed the way team owners looked at prospective drivers and paved the way for other young drivers.
Not only has Gordon won nearly everything significant on the track, he's become one of the leading NASCAR personalities by appearing on talk shows and magazine covers and even hosting Saturday Night Live earlier this year. And the roots for much of his success--both the trophies and the TV appearances--can be traced to those Thursday nights when ESPN brought him right into America's living room.
"It's funny because I had mainly been racing dirt and I grew up more on pavement and dirt together, and the first time I drove a midget on pavement at Indianapolis Raceway Park, I won the race," says Gordon. "So it obviously did a lot for my confidence because I won my first race. From then on we were on fire at those types of racetracks. I just kind of said, 'Wow, look at what I've been missing out on here. Why didn't I turn to this sooner? And it's on live ESPN television.'"
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Before the Busch Series titles, the multi-million-dollar Winston Cup contracts, and the attention that comes from being a NASCAR star, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just another Late Model racer trying to make his way in the sport--albeit as the son of one of the most famous stock car racers ever. Success was fleeting; pressure to perform was not.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a Late Model competitor in the Southeast before finding stardom in
"I had more pressure on me in Late Models because I couldn't produce and couldn't really win races or be dominant or get a handful of wins at any racetrack we went to," recalls Earnhardt Jr. "We would run pretty good. We would run in the Top 5 pretty much everywhere we went, but we couldn't win any races. So I felt like I was wasting my daddy's time and money doing what I was doing. I was kind of like, 'Man, this is a lot of fun. I wonder how long it's going to last' kind of deal."
Earnhardt Jr. can still recite the stats from those days spent banging fenders with local hotshots at short tracks within a few hours of his stomping grounds in Mooresville, North Carolina. "One-hundred, fifty-nine starts and three wins," he says.
Earnhardt Jr. competed in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series, mainly at half-mile Myrtle Beach Speedway, but also at short tracks in Nashville, Florence (South Carolina), Concord (North Carolina), and Hickory (North Carolina), among others.
Gary Hargett, a short-track veteran now in his fifth decade as a car owner, teamed with Earnhardt Jr. for a few races in 1992, the year Junior turned 18, then they ran the full Late Model schedule at Myrtle Beach Speedway for three consecutive seasons (1993-1995). Hargett first noticed Earnhardt Jr. when he and his older half brother, Kerry Earnhardt, were running a Street Stock at Concord Motorsport Park.
"Junior was just as wild as wild could be, but he would run wide open all the way around that racetrack in that Street Stock, just smoking the tires," says Hargett.
Although Earnhardt Jr. was fast right off whenever he and Hargett began racing regularly at Myrtle Beach, he still needed some refinement. "He would run sideways all the way around that racetrack. Could not get it out of him," Hargett says.
When Earnhardt Jr. and Hargett were not racing or working on the car during those Myrtle Beach weekends, they spent their free time doing what many tourists do at the beach--riding go-carts, playing video games, and generally just hanging out. Earnhardt Jr. admits missing those carefree days "really, really bad" and says, "I just miss how much simpler things were." "It's kind of different these days," he adds. "I miss going down to Myrtle Beach, taking a couple of checks, one for tires and one for pit passes, and having a great time, you know?"
Despite the lack of wins, Earnhardt Jr. looks back at his Late Model days as a learning experience.
"It was a good time," he says. "I learned an awful lot about driving and quite a bit about race cars. That's really the only time in my career where I worked on my own equipment. And for the most part, I did probably 80 percent of the job on my car, getting the car down to the track and driving it. Doing those things was fun. It was great because you were on your own schedule pretty much and you knew what you had to do to get the car ready for the next race."
Before Rusty Wallace became a top Winston Cup driver, he was a short-track ace in the Midwest. As a 16-year-old in 1973, Wallace made his driving debut at Lakehill Speedway in Valley Park, Missouri, and quickly became known as a driver to be reckoned with on area short tracks. By the end of the decade he had compiled over 200 feature wins.
A fuzzy-haired Rusty Wallace was ASA champion in 1983.
Finding Wallace at one of those Midwestern short tracks in the '70s required little effort. You only had to look for the kid with the fuzzy head of hair who was winning all the races. In 1973, Wallace was Rookie of the Year in the Central Racing Association; he ran the USAC stock car circuit in 1979 and won five races and finished second in points while earning the Rookie of the Year title; and he claimed the American Speed Association championship in 1983.
By the next season, 1984, Wallace was a full-time competitor in Winston Cup, where he promptly claimed the Rookie of the Year title. Wallace's supremacy on short tracks continued in Winston Cup. No active driver today, in fact, has more short-track victories than the 24 by Wallace. Jeff Gordon, with 13 fewer short-track wins, is second among active drivers.
When it's time to make changes on his car or communicate with his crew on what adjustments are needed during a race, Wallace is one of the most proactive drivers in Winston Cup. That expertise has helped him claim nine wins at Bristol, the half-mile battleground where he recorded his 1st and 50th Cup victories.
But a stock car chassis--like the sport itself--changes constantly. "I think in the nine times I won at Bristol, we had nine different chassis setups," says Wallace. "Nothing ever stays the same."