Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: Tommy Houston

I saw in the news this week that Kroger has renewed as the sponsor of the Nationwide Series race at O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis (then Indianapolis Raceway Park). Nice to see they continue as the oldest race sponsor in any NASCAR series.

One of the wildest accidents I’ve ever seen happened in the 1987 Kroger 200 at IRP. It was the first time Dale Earnhardt came up there to run it. At the practice session the day before, I had Tommy Houston set up for an interview with an Indianapolis TV station when the reporter came over and said his producer called and wanted him to do an interview with Earnhardt instead.

That didn’t sit well with Tommy. “He’s not even a Busch Grand National driver,” Tommy snarled.

You have to remember in this situation that there was also family involved. In case anybody doesn’t know it, Teresa Earnhardt’s maiden name is Houston. Tommy is an uncle. I don’t know if it had any bearing on Tommy’s feelings about Dale, and I don’t really care. Tommy and his family are wonderful people and wonderful friends of mine, and as the next few years went along I got to know Dale and like him, realizing he wasn’t really the crusty curmudgeon everybody thought he was. We actually got to be friends, too.

Anyway, Earnhardt was leading the race in the Goodwrench No. 8. If that sounds familiar, it’s because at the time he liked to run his father’s number in the Busch series. At 70 laps, Tommy was running second in the Southern Biscuit Flour No. 6. This was one terrific battle for the lead, and I was enjoying it. Coming off turn 4 on the 78th lap, Tommy’s right front got into the Dale’s left rear and they went skidding down the front straightaway, both of them sideways. At that point, it looked like it was just going to be two cars spinning out, almost like synchronized spinning.

Unfortunately, Brett Bodine was just coming out of the pits. Brett was driving the Thomas Brothers Country Ham No. 00, a famous car in Sportsman and Busch Series racing made more famous by the movie The Last American Hero. Suddenly it turned into a three-car crash, with all three of them torn up pretty bad inside turn 1. Tommy got his arm broken and had a helicopter trip to Methodist Hospital, but that was the most serious injury.

Earnhardt was a little taciturn about it when Bob Daniels and I talked to him in the infield, and said only, “I like this place. I’ll be back.” Poor Bodine had the best comment. “I was just minding my own business, coming out of the pits, and this freight train ran right over me.”

A week or so later, I was watching a videotape of the incident taken by D.O. Laycock from on top of the turn 1 terrace hill, and noticed that as they came out of turn 4, Tommy’s car suddenly veered toward Earnhardt’s, and that started the whole thing.

Later in the season, at a Busch race at Louisville Speedway, I was talking to Tommy and Martha Houston and remembered it. I told Tommy that it looked to me like he had broken an axle or something. You have to love his answer.

“Naw, I just hit him.”

About the author

John has done it all in racing over the past half-century, filling every position from flagman, to track promoter, to award-winning newspaper editor all over the Midwest. Back with Frontstretch in 2014, John’s e-newsletter column Potts’ Shots appears every Thursday while he dips his toe in the site’s IndyCar coverage. John resides in Indianapolis.

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