In all my years of covering NASCAR events, I never worked a race in Nashville — not at what was known at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville (everybody called it “Nashville”) or the new Nashville Superspeedway.
Can’t explain that, really. It just happened. When a Nashville race rolled around, reckon I had to be somewhere else.
Nashville’s fairgrounds track was a staple in NASCAR for years. It held its first race in 1958, won by Joe Weatherly.
At 0.596-miles, it was one of NASCAR’s resilient short tracks, which, at one time, were being abandoned in great numbers amidst the invasion of superspeedways and the reduced schedule created by the formation of the Winston Cup circuit.
But Nashville was the first of the modern-era short tracks to be dropped by NASCAR. It held its last two races in 1984. The first of those races was held in May of that year. And it has gone down in NASCAR lore as one of the most unusual, controversial — and in the case of the sanctioning body, embarrassing — events in the sport’s history.
The race ended and there was a winner. However, his victory came under protest from the driver who finished second. Nothing new about that. However, and get this, the drivers involved were teammates.
Now, logic dictates that as members of the same team, drivers would just accept the circumstances in the spirit of teamwork. Apparently, that’s not the case. And Nashville isn’t the only example.
In 1959, Richard Petty had seemingly won the first race of his career at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta. However, Lee Petty, Richard’s father and teammate at Petty Enterprises, protested.
The elder Petty said that his son had indeed taken the checkered flag, but the scoring was wrong. Lee had lapped his son twice, not once. Richard hadn’t fully made up the lost distance when the race ended. NASCAR agreed and Richard had to wait until Feb. 28, 1960, to earn his first career victory at the Charlotte Fairgrounds.
In 1984, Junior Johnson had formed the first multicar team in his long career as a team owner. His initial driver was Darrell Waltrip, who came on board in 1981 and had already earned two Winston Cup championships. He was joined by Neil Bonnett, a rising star from Alabama whose potential was easily recognized by Johnson.
It was Bonnett, in fact, who took the checkered flag at Nashville. But it was Waltrip who was declared the victor by a NASCAR official in the press box.
Confusion reigned as both Waltrip and Bonnett went to victory lane. Neither one of them was smiling as both stood by their cars, surrounded by dumbfounded crewmen and race officials.
Finally, Bonnett was declared the winner based upon an interpretation of a “white flag rule” buried in the NASCAR rule book.
Waltrip and Johnson were livid. They filed a protest and the accompanying $200 fee.
“I couldn’t see, I never saw Neil beside me, said Waltrip according to the Grand National Scene report field by long-time editor Gary McCredie. “After that wreck, the white and yellow flags came out and you don’t have to race back to the yellow because we’d already taken the yellow. When it came out, the race was over.”
Waltrip didn’t mince his words. He never did, as a matter of fact. “This race was ludicrous and NASCAR is just trying to kill somebody.”
The controversial final scenario was created by a multicar wreck with just four laps to go. Waltrip and Bonnett were forced to race their way around Bobby Allison’s burning Buick on the backstretch.
They were side-by-side in the fourth turn and then Bonnett edged forward to take the checkered flag by two feet.
NASCAR ruled that the white flag had been displayed first, then the yellow flag. Once that happens, “all cars will be scored according to their positions when taking the checkered flag.”
But according to Waltrip, that was not the way of things. The yellow and white flags had been displayed together. The race was over.
It took NASCAR 48 hours to make its final ruling. Some cynics maintained that since the sanctioning body had consulted its rule book to give Bonnett the win, it took it that long to “rewrite the rules.”
Most likely, the truth is that it took NASCAR two days to figure out how to explain its gaffe, and at the same time, save face.
It was NASCAR’s intrepid Winston Cup Director Dick Beaty who announced that Waltrip was indeed the winner and that the sanctioning body had mistakenly ruled otherwise.
“Our intentions are always in the interest of safety,” Beaty said. “Allowing the drivers to race a full lap after the yellow flag and pass the accident on the backstretch was not in the interest of safety.
“In this case the caution flag was thrown before the leaders reached the start-finish line and not during the white-flag lap as we originally ruled. The last lap should have been run under caution.”
Beaty allowed the NASCAR “had misinterpreted the rule at the conclusion of the race and failed to incorporate the intent of the yellow flag rule.”
Now, over the years NASCAR hasn’t admitted to a mistake often. Seems that 48 hours after Nashville, it couldn’t find an alternative.
Years later, Johnson was asked why he bothered with rules. After all, his team was going to take home first and second-place money, just as Petty Enterprises did in 1959.
“I knew that,” he said. “But it was kinda fun to watch NASCAR squirm.”
Well, he had a point. After all, it hasn’t happened often.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.