To be in Australia as a member of the American media sent to cover the first NASCAR exhibition race at the 1.12-mile Calder Park Thunderdome in Melbourne certainly offered adventure and discovery.
I say that from my own personal experiences.
And in the days prior to the Feb. 28, 1988 race, there were plenty of them – some of which I have recounted and, hopefully, you find entertaining.
There were a few others. To wit:
The venture into The Outback to find kangaroos in the wild. Didn’t find one, but a friendly local told us that if we wanted to see koalas instead, it wouldn’t be difficult.
“Surprised you haven’t run over one,” he said.
He was right. After just a few steps we spotted a couple of them atop a Eucalyptus tree. They weren’t alone.
The night before the race a visit to the hotel’s piano bar turned into a musical revue. My buddy Tom Higgins asked the pianist to play “Memory” from the Broadway smash Cats.
It didn’t seem to be a daunting request. After all, a mischievous Higgins had already jokingly asked the guy to play “San Antonio Rose” and the Aussie had responded by playing it chord for chord.
He played a lengthy, lilting introduction to “Memory” and as he began the melody, a young woman sitting across from us began to sing.
She sang beautifully and was joined by other voices, male and female. In perfect harmony, they marvelously struck every note. They had the skills of professionals.
Turns out they were.
“Mate, you’ve been had,” said the piano player. “These tricksters are all members of the Melbourne cast of Cats. They played a matinee this afternoon.”
These “cats” knew NASCAR was in town and peppered Tom and I with questions and drinks.
We both had steadily provided our newspapers with copy all week, but when race day came, it was time to prepare for battle. As far as the world of NASCAR was concerned, the Goodyear NASCAR 500 was going to be a historic event – thus, we had to give it our best effort.
Thunderdome was a handsome facility. Its owner, Bob Jane, had learned a great deal about track functionality and amenities from his many visits to NASCAR country.
Some of it may have been on a smaller scale, but the speedway had everything its larger American counterparts had, including a covered garage area, media center, VIP suites, press box, ample parking, multiple concession stands and restrooms.
For American-style auto racing to take root, Jane was banking on high attendance. He got it. An estimated 46,000 Australians turned out to see “NASCAR-type”, V-8-engined stock cars in competition for the first time.
“Yeah, we heard about this and we decided to come out because we were curious,” I was told by an Australian in attendance. “Do expect the Yanks to have their way today.”
I expected that, also.
There was a hefty handful of Australians entered in the race, many of whom were regulars on Jane’s AUSCAR circuit.
Most of them had purchased NASCAR-legal racecars from their American counterparts with the intent of converting them for use in Australian competition later.
At Thunderdome, none of them figured to have any chance against the handful of NASCAR veterans, which included Bobby Allison, Neil Bonnett, Dave Marcis, Michael Waltrip, Kyle Petty, Hershel McGriff and others from both the NASCAR Cup Series and Winston West [now ARCA Menards Series West] circuits.
Which turned out to be the case.
As if on cue, Allison and Bonnett went at it almost from the start. They engaged in “panel to panel” racing, (as the Aussies called it) lap after lap.
They raced in the type of competition they had shared as friends and rivals for the previous 20 years, dating back to their days on the Alabama short tracks.
Despite that he lost radio contact with his Stavola Brothers pit crew and the power steering went out on his No. 12 Buick, it seemed the 50-year-old Allison had taken the measure of Bonnett by lap 218 of 280.
He passed his fellow member of the Alabama Gang going into turn 2 – nothing new there – but instead of retaking the lead, Bonnett, driving the No. 75 Rahmoc Pontiac, began to fade.
By lap 212, he lost the runner-up spot to Marcis, driving the No. 71 Chevrolet. It was obvious Bonnett was having a problem.
It turned out to be a flat right-rear tire. A pit stop under green would have cost Bonnett a lap or more to leader Allison, but then the 42-year-old driver from Bessemer, Ala., caught a break.
On lap 223 the day’s eight caution period began after a crash in the second turn. That enabled Bonnett to scoot down pit road for fresh rubber without losing a lap.
“It’s amazing how sometimes in racing things go your way,” Bonnett said. “When that wreck happened, I was able to pit without losing a lap and a half. That was a big break.”
As the race progressed, Bonnett passed Marcis for second place. Then, after the final pit stops of the day, the race evolved into a not-unexpected Allison-Bonnett duel.
Allison managed to close within a half-second of Bonnett, but it was to no avail as his tires could not keep up the pace he needed.
Bonnett won by a comfortable 8.3 seconds. He became the first driver to win two consecutive stock car races and a pole position (at Thunderdome) in separate hemispheres. A week earlier he won the Pontiac Excitement 400 Cup event at Richmond Raceway.
A week after the event in Australia, Bonnett won at Rockingham Speedway. Which meant he won three consecutive NASCAR events in three weeks. It was a spectacular return from injuries suffered at Charlotte Motor Speedway the previous October that threatened his career.
Bonnett spoke about his changed fortunes following his victory in Australia.
“This is going to take a while to sink in,” he said. “I know this was a historic event, and I came to win it. I am going to look back on this knowing I was part of something special.
“After Charlotte, there was a time when I thought I might lose my leg. At that time, Bobby came to see me. I was crying, and I asked him how he kept doing this year after year.
“He told me I just had to be tough. He told me I couldn’t give up. I almost wish we both could have won this race.”
As it turned out, neither Allison nor Bonnett ever again had the good fortune they experienced in Australia.
On June 19, 1988, Allison was involved in a wreck on the first lap of the race at Pocono Raceway. He suffered several severe injuries, among them a traumatic head injury.
He slowly recovered, but never raced again.
Bonnett continued to compete until 1990 at Darlington Raceway on April 1. He, too, was involved in a serious accident in which he also suffered severe injuries – including to his head.
He was out of racing until 1993 when he attempted a comeback. He ran in two events and did not finish either.
In 1994, he attempted to compete in the Daytona 500. He lost his life in an accident during practice. He was 47 years old.
The victories at the Thunderdome and Rockingham in 1988 were the last of his 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.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.