Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: Richmond 1988 — How 1st Race on a Transformed Track Unfolded

The 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season was one of dramatic change for the speedway known today as Richmond Raceway.

The track is one of the oldest in all of stock car racing — in Cup, it is second-oldest, only behind Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It opened the year before North Wilkesboro Speedway and Martinsville Speedway. It has undergone many transitions since its first race in 1946, won by Ted Horn on a dirt track known as Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds.

On April 14, 1953, the speedway’s first NASCAR event was won by Lee Petty.

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One of the many transitions the track has undergone is its very name. I doubt there is any other speedway that has experienced as many titles:

Richmond International Raceway, Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway, Virginia State Fairgrounds, Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds, Rural Exposition Fairgrounds, Richmond Fairgrounds.

Whew!

For all of NASCAR’s “Modern Era,” post 1971, until that point, Richmond had been paved and 0.542 miles in distance. Its guardrails made way for concrete walls, and, in time, where the media once had to file from the fairground’s offices, there existed a small media center and press box.

The real change came in the late summer of 1988. Richmond’s long-time president, Paul Sawyer, managed to meet a self-imposed challenge he had faced for several years.

On Sept. 11, the first race at the “new” Richmond — the Miller High Life 400 — was conducted. The track had become a dog-leg oval at 0.75 miles in distance, the only NASCAR facility at that length, which obviously made it unique. 

Not only that, but Richmond also boasted handsome new grandstands, a garage area, a media center, VIP suites and more. It was hard to imagine that any track could have gone through such a massive transformation.

As the sports editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote at the time: “We always wanted to have a high-class speedway here. We do now.”

Naturally, the first Winston Cup race on the new speedway attracted a lot of attention. The grandstands sold out, filled with fans anxious to see how drivers would fare on a track with a new configuration and racing surface.

The media also turned out in greater numbers, filling up the new media center and, on race day, the press box.

Being a debut event didn’t provide the only spark of interest. The 1988 season has become forever known as “The Tire Wars,” so named because of the competition between upstart Hoosier and established behemoth Goodyear.

The two tire companies did all they could to get the best of one another. They utilized different tire compounds which sometimes provided speed over durability or vice-versa.

There were times when both companies opted not to provide tires at selected races in favor of overall safety — or so they claimed.

The teams, meanwhile, found themselves driven to distraction. They had to select one tire over another or, if need be, change from one to another during a race if circumstances warranted. 

It goes without saying that competition expenses rose accordingly.

Amid this scenario came a race on an unknown entity: a three-quarter mile, dog-leg track with new asphalt. In addition to many other challenges, teams had to determine which tire would be best, Goodyear or Hoosier? Or a combination of both?

The answer came quickly. Qualifying provided the evidence that Hoosier had the quicker tire. The vast majority of the fastest cars in time trials were equipped with its tires.

But durability remained a question. To find an answer, on the Saturday before the Winston Cup race, teams dispatched numerous crewmen to positions on pit road. Their job was to check the tires that came off cars in the 200-mile Busch Series (now the NASCAR Xfinity Series) race to determine if the faster Hoosiers would stand up to the strain of the new track surface.

The answer wasn’t long in coming. The Busch Series cars made their first pit stops early. And after the Winston Cup crews examined their tires, they sped for the Goodyear facility like they were part of the Oklahoma Land Rush.

I happened to be in the garage area and stood in almost disbelief as one crewman after another ran past me. I wondered if there was free beer somewhere.

But one look at the Goodyear facility and hearing the pop and whir of one tire after another being mounted by the tire busters told me what was going on.

Hoosier was being dropped for Goodyear. Teams had chosen durability over speed.

There was one problem, however.

NASCAR had implemented a rule which said any team changing tire brands after qualifying must start at the rear of the pack.

Nine of the top-10 qualifiers on Hoosiers were forced to start in rows seven or higher. One of them was Alan Kulwicki, who had won the No. 2 starting spot but fell to No. 31 when he switched from Hoosier to Goodyear,

The pole winner was a young driver who was in his second year with team owner Harry Ranier. Unlike so many others, Davey Allison opted to start the race with his Ford Thunderbird on Hoosiers.

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Switching to Goodyears proved to be the right strategy, as Allision came in and made the swap after just six laps.

Allison made up his lost distance and was trying to chase down leader Ricky Rudd. He did so with 53 on 400 laps remaining and went on to beat Dale Earnhardt by more than three seconds.

It was the fourth win of Allison’s young career. He won twice in 1987, the year he won Rookie of the Year honors.

In 1989, noted engine builder Robert Yates bought the Ranier team and, with Allison on board, would go on to great success and become part of NASCAR lore.

Next week on Waid’s World: How the last race at the “old” Richmond revived a popular driver’s career.

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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