In my, uh, “reading quarters” there sits a dog-earned issue of Car & Driver magazine from July 2009 that features a retro muscle car comparison between a Chevrolet Camaro SS, Ford Mustang GT and the Dodge Challenger R/T. Of the Hemi Orange Mopar they tagged with the phrase, “it stirs up sugary memories like a big orange stick in a cotton-candy machine.”
That phrase certainly comes to mind whenever a Bristol race is on the docket, as it is this weekend in eastern Tennessee. While the spring race does not command the same excitement and demand as its sister race at night in August – credit chances of snow and cold seats – it is a race that has seen more than its fair share of memorable moments throughout the years. Many of these were during what I consider the Golden Age of the modern NASCAR era, the 1990s. The decade that came to define our sport served to elevate stock car racing to the pinnacle of motorsports in North America.
With the styling ills of the Car of Tomorrow having been rectified with the deletion of the front splitter and that ridiculous rear wing, it is not too much of a stretch to say that it is a rather handsome looking machine now. Unfortunately, it is also a homogenized hunk of hung sheet metal and carbon fiber, differentiated by fake headlight stickers and grille appliqués to help bring recognition to each manufacturer’s grocery getter. Back in the 1990s, there were still sedans on the track, but they actually bore a resemblance to the cars they were impersonating.
Davey Allison’s Texaco T-bird and Mark Martin’s Folgers Ford that battled down to the wire to the tune of eight inches (no electronic scoring back in the Paleolithic Era) at the spring Bristol event of 1990, looked like a pair of painted up Super Coupes, but still had some stock pieces on board. The Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac Grand Prix of Rusty Wallace and Kodak Chevrolet Lumina of Ernie Irvan that were nose-to-tail for the win a year later were never available in a rear-drive V-8 configuration, but they sure looked hairy on the high banks of Thunder Valley.
No faux tail light decals needed here; you could tell what they were without squinting.
Some cars just look great on the racetrack… and then sometimes, they’re just lying on the racetrack. Many longtime fans will remember the horror they felt upon seeing Michael Waltrip’s No. 30 Kool-Aid Pontiac obliterated after clipping an opening on the backstretch wall at Bristol in a Busch Grand National (now Nationwide) event in 1990. If there was ever a moment where you had thought they might as well wheel out a hearse along with the wrecker this was it.
Waltrip was essentially seated on the track in a pile of raspberry red sheetmetal, like some Leninist loser at a G-8 Summit protest. Mikey was able to walk away that day, and in turn, provided new automotive engineering insight to the term “crumple zone.”
A quick look through Bristol’s history shows what kind of men it took to tame the 0.533-mile track, buried in the middle of a mountain range: Champions. Quite literally, being the best in the history of the sport is what it took to triumph at Bristol. There is something about this track that always seems to favor those with some tough as nails character traits, and an iron will to win – and survive.
Throughout the decade of the 1970s, the winners list is quite narrow. Cale Yarborough: Eight wins. Bobby Allison: Three wins. The King and DW: a pair a piece. David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and Benny Parsons: one lone victory a piece – but 23 championships total. Charlie Glotzbach and Donnie Allison were the only non-title winning drivers to win from 1970 to 1990; and no driver in the modern era had won a Bristol race until Davey Allison’s 1990 victory.
In short, what it came down to is simple. Bristol: Man’s Game.
The 1990s were little different. With the exception of Irvan and Martin, only winners of the Winston Cup championship won from 1990 through 2000. Earnhardt: Seven titles. Jeff Gordon: Four Cup crowns. Wallace won but one championship in 1989, but five Bristol wins during the decade; he would have had more if Gordon had not notoriously applied the bump-and-run on him during the final lap in the April 1997 event.
Terry Labonte won a pair of titles in his Cup career and won once at Bristol, sideways in 1995. He was on his way to a second win one night in Aug. 1999, when the now famous rattling of the cage occurred. Alan Kulwicki won twice here in 1991 and 1992, the later his lone championship season.
The next spring produced one of the most somber sights in our sport; the No. 7 hauler taking the checkered flag out of a rain – and tear – soaked Bristol, Kulwicki having perished in a plane crash the Thursday before on April 1, 1993.
For Irvan and Martin, the two drivers who never won a title but did win a 1990s Bristol race, both had stories of their own for those wins. It was Irvan’s first victory in 36 starts. It hadn’t been that long before that he was welding up grandstand seating in Charlotte, N.C. – nor would it be much longer thereafter that he was left battling for his life in a Jackson, Mich. hospital – twice.
Martin won his ’90s Bristol race in grand fashion in Aug. 1993, making up two laps – under green-flag racing – no Lucky Dog Wave Around Bonus Mulligan Do Over Double-File Wreck Start, while the brakes burst into flames in victory lane. In 1998 he captured his second Bristol win, just two weeks following the tragic plane crash that claimed his father, stepmother and sister.
Like I said; Man’s Game.
There was something undeniably great about NASCAR racing during the 1990s and even back then you could tell you were part of something special. Not unlike the music renaissance that began the decade, being on the front lines of the racing revolution felt to be of equal significance and importance. Bristol races were no different.
This wasn’t always the two-groove racetrack it has been since 2008. Heck it wasn’t even always concrete. It used to be sealed asphalt that looked like it was bathed in lacquer on a sunny day or at night under lights that weren’t exactly of the quality they are today. Crude cooling devices coupled with head and neck restraints that amounted to a bungee cord were all that drivers used for 500 laps here. After a Bristol race, the drivers all shuffled about like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or sat catatonic like De Niro in Awakenings.
We saw the rise of radial tires and complete season long cable television coverage (no more pay-per-views; Pocono of all places…), and some of the most poignant racing moments caught on camera. Political correctness had not yet run amok and behind closed door meetings in a roped off hauler with a PR representative present were miles away from Billy Hagan chasing Sterling Marlin with his cane, or Felix Sabates going at it with Robby Gordon.
Who needs Digger when you had Buffet Benny? With all due respect to Darrell Waltrip, “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity,” stands a distant second to Ken Squier setting the scene for what made you think was the equivalent of a live lunar mission landing.
Some of that same nostalgic feeling has returned a bit this year. Maybe it was an unlikely Daytona 500 winner in a car that looked more familiar from grainy 8mm movies and over-exposed snapshots in my parent’s photo albums, or one of the last links to that memorable 10-year time frame having returned to the winner’s circle for the first time in nearly two seasons one week later. Could it be because the cars look kind of cool again? That could be part of it, but just being at Bristol again will bring back a lot of those memories that helped get a generation geeked about stock car racing.
So come this weekend, bring on that big concrete cotton candy machine and hopefully make some new memories and continue the momentum that the sport and fans both desperately need to continue for 2011.
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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