In my years covering NASCAR events, I’ve never raced in Nashville—not in what was known as the Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville (everyone called it “Nashville”) or the new Nashville Superspeedway.
I can’t explain it, really. What happened happened. When the Nashville race started, he thought I should have been somewhere else.
The Nashville Fairgrounds track has been a staple of NASCAR for years. Her first race was held in 1958, and was won by Joe Weatherly.
At 0.596 miles, it was one of NASCAR’s short, flexible tracks, which, at one point, were abandoned in droves amid the conquest of super-speed and the reduced schedule resulting from the formation of the Winston Cup circuit.
But Nashville was the first modern-day short course that NASCAR dropped. Its last two races were held in 1984. The first of these two races took place in May of that year. And it has gone down in NASCAR lore as one of the most bizarre, controversial – and in the case of the sanctioning body, embarrassing – events in the history of the sport.
The race is over and there is a winner. However, his victory came with a protest from the driver who finished second. Nothing new about it. However, getting this, the drivers were involved colleagues.
Now, logic dictates that as members of the same team, drivers will accept the conditions in the spirit of teamwork. Apparently, this is not the case. And Nashville is not the only example.
In 1959, Richard Petty apparently won the first race of his career at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta. However, Petty, Richard’s father and fellow Petty Enterprises associate, protested to me.
The eldest Betty said his son had already taken the tied flag, but the recording was wrong. Lee petted his son twice, not once. Richard hadn’t fully hit the missing distance when the race was over. NASCAR agreed and Richard had to wait until February 28, 1960 to score his first victory at the Charlotte Fairgrounds.
In 1984, Junior Johnson formed the first multi-car team in his long career as a team owner. His first driver was Daryl Waltrip, who got on board in 1981 and has already won two Winston Cups. He was joined by Neil Bonet, a rising star from Alabama whose potential Johnson readily recognized.
In fact, it was Bonet who took the checkered flag in Nashville. But it was Waltrip that was declared the victor by a NASCAR official at the Press Trust.
Confusion reigned when Waltrip and Bonet went down the road to victory. Neither of them was smiling as they stood by their cars, surrounded by an astonished crew responsible for the race.
Finally, Bonet was declared the winner based on the interpretation of the “white flag rule” buried in the NASCAR rulebook.
Waltrip and Johnson were furious. File a protest and the accompanying $200 fee.
“I’ve never seen, never seen Neil next to me,” Waltrip said according to the Grand National Scene Report Field by longtime editor Gary McCready. “After that wreck, the white and yellow flags came up and you wouldn’t have to go back to the yellow because we had already taken the yellow. When it came out, the race was over.”
Waltrip did not utter his words. He didn’t, in fact. “This race was ridiculous and NASCAR is just trying to kill someone.”
The controversial final scenario was created by a multi-vehicle wreck with only four laps left. Waltrip and Bonet are forced to race their way around a burning Buick with Bobby Allison on the back.
They were side by side on the fourth turn and then Bonet stepped forward to raise the checkered flag two feet.
NASCAR decided that the white flag was shown first, then the yellow flag. Once this happens, “All cars will be registered according to their locations when the checkered flag is taken.”
But according to Waltrip, that wasn’t the case. Yellow and white flags were displayed together. The race is over.
It took NASCAR 48 hours to make its final verdict. Some skeptics asserted that since the sanctioning body had used its rulebook to award Bonet the win, it took so long to “rewrite the rules”.
Most likely, the truth is that NASCAR took two days to figure out how to interpret its slips and, at the same time, save face.
It was daring NASCAR Winston Cup director Dick Petty who declared that Waltrip was indeed the winner and that the body that imposed the penalty had mistakenly ruled otherwise.
“Our intentions are always in the interest of safety,” Betty said. “Allowing drivers to race a full lap past the yellow flag and pass the crash on the back was not in the interest of safety.
“In this case, the cautionary flag was thrown before the commanders reached the start and finish line and not during the white flag cycle as we originally ruled. The last cycle should have been conducted under caution.”
Petty allowed NASCAR to “misinterpret the rule at the conclusion of the race and fail to incorporate the intent of the yellow flag rule.”
Now, over the years NASCAR hasn’t often admitted a mistake. Apparently 48 hours after Nashville, you haven’t found a replacement.
Years later, Johnson was asked why he was so concerned about the rules. After all, his team would have earned the first and second place money, just as Petty Enterprises did in 1959.
“I knew that,” he said. “But it was kind of fun to watch NASCAR swing by.”
Well, he had a point. After all, it didn’t happen very often.
Steve Wade has been working in journalism since 1972, when he started his newspaper career at Martinsville Bulletin (Virginia). He has spent more than 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president of NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won several State Sports Writing Awards and many other awards from the National Motorsport Association for his motorsport coverage, essay writing and columns. For several years, Steve has been a regular participant on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net, and is the co-author with Tom Higgins of the biopic “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019, he was awarded a Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifelong excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of Podcast Scene Vault.
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