Birthdate: Nov. 3, 1952
Hometown: Mattituck, N.Y.
Top Fives: 3
Top 10s: 20
The Daytona 500 is widely recognized as the Super Bowl of stock car racing. The July event has a slightly less prestigious moniker attached to it; longtime fans know it simply as the Firecracker 400. Before the days of the Pepsi sponsorship and lights circling the track; the race started by noon, as the stifling Florida heat and humidity in July made it as uncomfortable for the fans as it did the drivers.
The old adage used to be “On the track by 11, on the beach by three.” In 1985, the most unlikely of drivers would visit victory lane at the World Center of Racing. This week we profile one of the most unlikely of heroes, as surprised at his own success, as were his competitors, Greg Sacks.
The Modified Tour has produced a number of drivers over the years; Geoff Bodine, Jimmy Spencer, Ron and Ken Bouchard and Ricky Craven to name a few. Sacks was as successful as these drivers in the early ’80s, having won 17 events from 1980-1983, including the 1982 Stafford Motor Speedway track championship; the same year Bodine would win Rookie of the Year honors in NASCAR’s premier division. Sacks got his break in the Cup Series by way of his father, making his start in the 1983 Firecracker 400. The under-financed effort lasted just 19 laps before the engine let go, leaving Arnie Sacks’s team with a disappointing 38th-place finish.
Even more disappointing was their share of the purse: $1,150.
In 1984, Sacks teamed up again with his father to run the entire season, posting a best finish of ninth place at the August Bristol event. The team started off 1985 with high hopes after a sixth-place finish at the Daytona 500, even though race winner Bill Elliott was over 2.5 miles ahead as he took the checkered flag. Sadly the team would fold a few weeks later, leaving Sacks to run a few races for driver James Hylton. Following the June race at Pocono, Sacks would make a move to join what remained of Bill Gardner’s DiGard team. Their first race together would be the 400-mile event at Daytona in July.
In an era today of multi-car teams and multi-million dollar sponsors, the notion of any one team serving as a research and development vehicle is scoffed at, though naturally it does happen. The resulting penalties two weeks ago at Sonoma exposed the notion of “everybody gets the same stuff” in a different light when the top-two cars were caught with performance-enhancing body modifications, while the other two teams at Hendrick did not. The No. 5 Gardner team made no bones about it, as it was entered as “Gardner R&D.”
Call it what you will, whatever they had between the fenders, sure did work.
It wasn’t as if Sacks didn’t have a little bit of a competitive advantage. His crew chief was Gary Nelson, one of the most innovative crew chiefs in the sport’s history, who would eventually ascend to director of NASCAR’s Research and Development Center. Nelson helped Bobby Allison to the 1983 Winston Cup championship and, the year before that, a win in the Daytona 500. Sacks was driving an R&D car in support of the No. 22 Miller Lite Buick driven by Allison, who was in pursuit of his second Winston Cup championship.
Elliott was dominating superspeedways in his Coors Light Ford at the time, and it was reasoned Gardner needed to find something to keep pace with the Melling Racing Thunderbird.
Elliott dominated the 160-lap event, leading 103 circuits. Sacks was one of the few cars who could keep pace with Elliott, however, Elliott’s car had developed an issue with the fuel system, and had to make an unscheduled pit stop towards the end of the race. Sacks capitalized on Elliott’s misfortunes and held on to win by a whopping 23.5 seconds over Elliott, about a half a lap ahead of him.
As unlikely as a victory as it was, it would also be the first and last of his career. He would serve as a technical advisor and drive one of the camera cars for the 1990 motion picture Days of Thunder. At the May Talladega race, Greg would finish all but a couple of car lengths behind the Intimidator for a runner-up finish in a Rick Hendrick Chevrolet. He led 41 laps in the event, a race that marked the first time race laps had exceeded 200 mph since the advent of restrictor plates in 1988.
A pole position for the Pepsi Firecracker 400 in July 1990 fueled hopes that a repeat performance from 1985 laid ahead. Those dreams were dashed after the first lap had been completed, as Sacks and another Daytona winner (Derrike Cope) came together. Their combined two Daytona wins collided through the tri-oval, took out Richard Petty and his 10 Daytona triumphs, and triggered the Big One, sending cars scattering through the grass and crashing into one another.
Driving in relief of Darrell Waltrip, who had suffered a broken leg during final practice for the Firecracker 400, Sacks finished second at Michigan in August, less than two seconds behind race winner Mark Martin.
Sacks would win the pole for the season finale in 1994 at Atlanta driving for owner DK Ulrich, but it was not enough to keep his career heading in the right direction. His next shot at a solid full-time ride would not come until 1998, driving for Cale Yarborough. Unfortunately for Sacks, it would be his last true shot at the big time, and it almost killed him. A violent wreck at the 1998 Texas event left him unconscious and with nerve damage that left him unable to walk weeks after the crash. He has since recovered, but has not had a legitimate Cup ride in almost a decade.
As much of a stir as David Gilliland‘s win at Kentucky caused in 2006, Greg Sacks’s win at Daytona in 1985 was that much more impressive. To win in the first start for a new team that was an R&D outfit against Elliott’s untouchable No. 9 Coors T-Bird of the day was truly remarkable. Even though he hasn’t been heard from much in recent years, the fact that he recovered after the near-death experience at Texas in 1998 is a minor miracle. Not quite unlike his win at Daytona in 1985.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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