Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: In 1984, a Mostly Cynical Media Covered Richard Petty’s Historic 200th Career Victory

The 1984 Firecracker 400 NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway has been recorded as perhaps one of the most iconic in the sanctioning body’s history.

This isn’t simply because it was a compelling race with an exciting finish – there were plenty of those at Daytona through the years.

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And it wasn’t because seven-time champion Richard Petty had his 200th career victory in sight. Yes, Petty had long since established the NASCAR record for wins, but the looming 200th had captured anticipation and interest among competitors, fans and media.

It was because the summer event was going to be attended by a sitting United States President. Ronald Reagan was scheduled to fly into Daytona aboard Air Force One, give the command for drivers to start their engines and watch the concluding laps before sitting down to lunch with all the competitors in the garage area.

Indeed, for NASCAR and Daytona, this Firecracker 400 was going to be big time. Sure, presidents, presidential candidates, Senators, governors and other well-known politicians had visited stock car races, but only for a short while to make a speech or ride in the parade lap.

The story was that Reagan was on the lookout to do something special for America’s birthday. He had plenty of options, but he learned that a NASCAR race was held on or near July 4 – and it had never been attended by a President.

And Reagan, a conservative Republican, would likely be welcomed with open arms. NASCAR, and a sizable amount of its competitors, shared his political philosophy – as did many fans.

The conclusion was reached that Reagan would convey a patriotic, positive image spending time with the “good ol’ boys” and their fans at a major NASCAR race in the predominantly conservative South. 

The whole thing was a darn good idea. Certainly, NASCAR thought so because of the nationwide attention and publicity it would bring.

Not everyone was thrilled, however.

Now, say what you will about the media. I will allow that it has its good and bad. In other words, some members do good work while others don’t and there are those who have earned accolades and respect while others never will. In that sense, it’s pretty much like any other job.

And I will also admit the media can be a cynical bunch. It seems at times they don’t like or trust anyone or anything. But I have always thought that this is partly because they very often get dismissed outright, lied to and stonewalled.

This didn’t happen often to NASCAR’s beat writers. But they weren’t much different.

“Why the hell is Reagan coming to Daytona?” they said. “This is going to mess up everything. As if we don’t have enough to do. Couldn’t he have stayed at the White House and watched the fireworks?”

Of course, not all members shared such sentiments, but you get the idea.

But we all knew things would, indeed, be different. If nothing else, Reagan came with the Secret Service and its army of agents. That meant, in the interest of the President’s safety, there would be changes to our routine.

Sure enough, on the morning of the race a group of us headed toward the speedway’s press entrance and discovered that it had been covered in black tarp, as had the lone stairway to the press box. 

“Great,” said one writer. “Now we are going to have to walk up steps in the dark.”

“We’ve walked down plenty of times here in February,” another responded.

“Yeah, but at least we had lights.”

Once we entered the press gate, we found ourselves in a dusky tent manned on both sides by Secret Service agents standing behind small, fold-out tables. We were told to put our briefcases on the table and open them so they could be searched. 

Remember, this was the pre-computer age. Our typewriters awaited us in the press box.

The process was time-consuming, of course, and many of us couldn’t help but think that we might be whisked away if an agent discovered, oh, say, a suspicious stapler.

We did find out what could happen if we went afoul of the Secret Service.

One member, more cynical than most of us who often expressed negative opinions in a very loud voice, entered “the tent” in full volume.

“This is ridiculous!” he bellowed. “Got to practically strip search for old Ronnie. Yessir, America, this is your hard-earned taxes at work!”

He was immediately accosted by two agents and pushed into an even darker corner. We did not see him again until the race was 30 minutes old.

Once in the press box and in our seats, we couldn’t help but notice there were at least four Secret Service agents walking among us. We were told that we had to have permission to go to the rest room.

No problem, I thought, I can hold it … I think.

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Reagan gave the command to start engines by phone from Air Force One, and afterward, things settled into pretty much routine.

The race conclusion was a doozy. Petty and Cale Yarborough dueled for the victory and the matter wasn’t decided until the next-to-last lap.

A caution period ensued after Doug Heveron crashed in the first turn. The winner would be the first driver to take the yellow flag. Petty blocked Yarborough’s attempt at a slingshot pass to earn his historic 200th victory.

Reagan, who by this time had made his way to the MRN booth adjacent to the press box and had exchanged banter with commentator Ned Jarrett, saw it all.

A few hours later, he had made his way to the garage area to indulge in a Kentucky Fried Chicken lunch with an army of competitors.

Still in the press box, the media knew they weren’t going to make it to the motels for the usual 3 p.m. date on the beach.

When they did begin to leave, they quickly discovered a horrifying situation:

“Hey, the tarp is still over the stairs! Can’t hardly see a damn thing!”

It was the first and only time I ever walked down a press box stairway holding another guy’s hand.

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.

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Steve Leffew

Great Story!

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