Today marks the 25th anniversary of Brett Bodine’s first – and only – NASCAR Sprint Cup victory. Bodine, who now drives the pace car in Cup events, won the First Union 400 on a sunny afternoon at North Wilkesboro Speedway, the famed .625-mile oval that hosted NASCAR races from 1949 to 1996. Brett’s win was a controversial one over Darrell Waltrip – who argued against Bodine’s win to no avail – but one that helped push NASCAR into the modern era with the eventual acceptance of electronic scoring.
A lot of life has gone by since that Sunday afternoon in North Carolina.
A 26-year old driver named Kenny Wallace (yeah, THAT Kenny Wallace) made his Sprint Cup debut that day. Wallace spun his No. 36 Pontiac in turn 1 on lap 321 to bring out the race’s 10th and final caution. Yellow-flag pit stops took place just moments after Bodine pitted under the green for tires and fuel. NASCAR told the pace car to pick up Dale Earnhardt since it looked like the No. 3 – in the midst of confusion during a rash of pit activity – was leading the event.
Scoring was still done by hand back in those days, and the system was anything but foolproof. Long story short: it took NASCAR officials 18 laps under caution to sort out the scoring snafu and decide that Bodine’s No. 26 Buick was the proper leader of the race. Waltrip and team disagreed with the decision, and even ESPN’s broadcast team was confused by the standings (they had three cars on the lead lap – Earnhardt, Waltrip and Ricky Rudd – with Brett a lap down in fourth).
Once the green flag dropped again on lap 339, Brett Bodine maintained his lead for the final 83 circuits and took the checkered flag .95-seconds ahead of the No. 17 Tide Chevrolet to earn his first career Sprint Cup win. For the 31-year old driver from Chemung, N.Y., it was the crowning achievement of his life’s work.
I first met Brett Bodine in 1981 when he drove a NASCAR modified out of a race shop in my hometown of Dallas, Pa. Brett rented a mobile home behind the shop and earned a pittance (less than $100 a week, if my memory serves me) for countless hours of work to make races all through the Northeast. I helped a bit with his modified when he raced at Shangri-La Speedway near Owego: the same track where Jimmy Spencer cut his teeth when hoping to make the big time down South.
By 1990, Brett was living in North Carolina and driving for King Racing and drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein, while I was now the one living in a rented mobile home. Mine was in the tiny farming village of East Salem, Pa., and I was in the process of completing my Master’s degree at Penn State University. I didn’t have access to ESPN, so keeping up with race results back then meant Sunday evening telephone calls from my dad.
On April 22, my dad called with the news that Brett had won his first Cup race. Everyone in my neighborhood was pretty thrilled given that Brett was something of a local guy. He was following in his brother Geoffrey’s winning tire tracks, no matter if his win at North Wilkesboro was clouded by controversy.
As far as the NASCAR record book is concerned, a win is a win.
The 1990 First Union 400, by today’s standards, resembles an artifact one might find in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Many drivers in that day’s lineup are no longer competing: recognized names like Harry Gant, Spencer, Morgan Shepherd, Rudd, Mark Martin, Kyle Petty, Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader and Hall of Famers Bill Elliott and Dale Jarrett.
Two other Hall of Famers – Waltrip and Rusty Wallace – eventually made the transition from the driver’s seat to the broadcast booth. Such a career transition was anything but unusual, however; Ned Jarrett and the late Benny Parsons were part of the ESPN team covering the First Union 400 that day.
Looking back at that Cup race in 1990 – today we see not only drivers Waltrip and Wallace doing network TV commentary, but also two crew chiefs who worked on pit road that afternoon: Jeff Hammond (who was Waltrip’s crew chief) and Larry McReynolds (who was crew chief for Bodine’s winning car).
Here’s hoping old grudges eventually transition into distant memories over time.
Other transitions that led to wholesale change in the Cup Series involved the loss of makes once common in NASCAR competition. Brett Bodine steered a Buick into victory lane that April day. Terry Labonte finished 15th in an Oldsmobile while Michael Waltrip came home 27th in a Pontiac.
Other losses to come during that quarter-century were more difficult to take. Drivers Ernie Irvan and Mike Alexander had their careers cut short because of serious head injuries. The deaths of legendary drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison and Earnhardt rocked NASCAR Nation to its roots, while the deaths of then-Rookie-of-the-Year contender Rob Moroso (who died in a drunk driving accident soon after the race at North Wilkesboro that fall) and Dick Trickle (who committed suicide nearly two years ago) spoke to larger, more pressing issues facing the world of professional sports.
One other tragic loss to come in the 25 years since Bodine’s victory at North Wilkesboro is that of the speedway itself. Once North Wilkesboro was dropped from the Sprint Cup schedule by NASCAR in favor of adding intermediate-sized tracks in more populated and marketable areas, the historic oval fell quickly into disrepair.
I drove by North Wilkesboro Speedway a few years ago on my way to Charlotte. Seeing the once-beloved stop on NASCAR’s calendar with peeling paint, rusted fences, and grass growing through cracks in the asphalt turned my stomach.
The years since Brett Bodine’s win in the 1990 First Union 400 may have seen much by way of growth in NASCAR’s popularity, but that period of time has also reflected much by way of how too much growth too soon can be a bad thing.
Some points to ponder on this April 22 as we mark the anniversary of one very significant NASCAR race run at one very significant (and missed) speedway. We’ve all changed over the past quarter-century, but maybe not entirely for the better.
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