Race Weekend Central

30 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 30th (1988) Daytona 500

Today, the 1988 Daytona 500 is likely best known for the battle for the victory between Bobby Allison and his son Davey. A classic moment in the history of NASCAR for sure, a feel-good moment at minimum.

However, there were a lot of stories surrounding the Daytona 500 on Valentine’s Day 1988. It was very much the beginning of a new era in the NASCAR Cup Series, especially in superspeedway races.

The previous few years prior to 1988 was something akin to an arms race in NASCAR at superspeedways. Technological improvements, more power and more streamlined bodies (partially due to changes in street cars, such as the move towards sealed-beam headlights instead of all-in-one rectangular units) led to increased speeds.

Cale Yarborough set the first lap at Daytona International Speedway over 200 mph on his first qualifying lap in 1983. He didn’t get to start there since he flipped the car on his second lap. From there, the speeds only increased, up to 205 mph in 1986.

See also
31 Days 'Til Daytona: The 31st (1989) Daytona 500

1987 saw a rule change that actually increased speeds even more. At the behest of Goodyear, NASCAR dropped the minimum weight for Cup cars from 3,700 lbs. to 3,500 to relieve some of the stress on the tires. As a result, Bill Elliott won the pole with a lap at 210.364 mph, still a record to this day.

At these speeds, the fear of airborne crashes was very real. The Twin 125s in 1987 saw a scary crash where Phil Barkdoll spun in the tri-oval, flipped over and nearly hit the catchfence upside down. He walked away after clambering out of his Oldsmobile Delta 88 on the passenger side.

No changes were made after Daytona other than to cut qualifying from two laps to one at superspeedways. Elliott then won the pole at Talladega Superspeedway at 212.809 mph, an all-time record.

It didn’t take long in the race for trouble to erupt. 21 laps into the race, Bobby Allison’s Miller American Buick LeSabre suffered an engine failure in the tri-oval. A piece broke off of his engine and blew the right rear tire, resulting in the No. 22 spinning out and getting airborne.

This was one of the most frightening moments in NASCAR history. The catchfence did its job well to keep the LeSabre out of the grandstands, but fans were injured in the aftermath.

It was this crash that convinced NASCAR that the ever-increasing speeds at Daytona and Talladega were no longer tenable. For the July superspeedway races, NASCAR used 390 cfm carburetors, the type used at the time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. These slowed speeds a little. The pole speed for the Pepsi 400 that year was a little over 198 mph, while it was nearly 204 mph at Talladega.

For 1988, NASCAR came up with a new temporary solution: the restrictor plate, a metal plate with 1-inch holes placed on top of the intake manifold, designed to cut horsepower and slow the cars down.

The idea was far from new in NASCAR. Such a solution was used in the 1970s as part of an engine equalization formula during the times in which big block and small block engines raced in the Cup Series at the same time. Those rules were in place for all tracks, not just superspeedways.

Regardless of the newness of the package, the results were clear. Ken Schrader’s pole speed of 193.823 mph was 16.541 mph slower than Elliott’s pole speed from 1987. What was also apparent was that the field was much closer together. Sound familiar?

The Gatorade Twin 125s saw a number of examples of what happens when you get a lot of drivers in ultra-loose racecars close together (setups became looser in order to keep speeds up). You got drivers wiping out underneath one another and multi-car incidents.

JD McDuffie suffered serious burns in a crash early in the second Twin 125 after crashing with Ralph Jones and Delma Cowart. His injuries were made worse due to a cretin stealing his driving gloves, forcing McDuffie to race gloveless.

Richard Petty spun while racing with Ernie Irvan. Jimmy Horton crashed trying to avoid the STP Pontiac and DNQ’d as a result. Yarborough wiped out underneath Darrell Waltrip while racing for the lead and backed into the wall. Farther back, a multi-car wreck broke out in reaction to Yarborough’s crash that took out eight more drivers, three of whom failed to make the race.

Today, such shenanigans at Daytona and Talladega are pretty commonplace. The races also see behavior that is exponentially more aggressive than one saw in 1988. At the time, such crashes at Daytona were considered to be quite peculiar. While yes, there were crashes before this, but multi-car wrecks were pretty rare in that era of superspeedway racing.

The true desire around slowing the cars down was to prevent blowover flips and prevent cars from getting into the catchfence. Did it work? Not at all.

Outside of the Allison family battle for the win, the race is best known for a horrible crash involving Petty on lap 106. Exiting turn 4, Petty was spun by Barkdoll. The STP Pontiac spun into the Oldsmobile of AJ Foyt. The car then blew over and it was on from there, including interaction with the catchfence.

Petty’s crash seemingly left everyone dumbfounded. It more or less repudiated everything that NASCAR was trying to do by slowing the cars down. Petty got out of the wreck without being injured too seriously. He suffered a broken ankle in the crash and spent some time at Halifax Medical Center before going home to North Carolina. He didn’t miss any time and scored what turned out to be his final top-five finish a week later at Richmond Raceway.

To be fair, even with a lot of the current tech in play to prevent blowovers, it is unclear whether Petty’s flip could have been prevented with the facts that we know. Barkdoll all but ran over Petty from behind, which gave him an extra push as compared to similar incidents. The contact with Foyt caused the flip, though. Had that not happened, things would have been different. That’s not dissimilar to a number of wrecks since then; Schrader’s crash at Talladega in 1995 is just one example.

Outside of the big wreck, the race was competitive. A number of drivers were able to put themselves in the hunt. The Allisons were in this group, as were Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace and Harry Gant. Somewhat surprisingly, some unheralded drivers such as Lake Speed (before he blew his engine) and Phil Parsons were in the mix as well.

See also
33 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 33rd (1991) Daytona 500

Bobby Allison entered the race as something of a prohibitive favorite based on his form (he won his Twin 125, then won the Goody’s 300 the day before). He appeared to have the most outright speed. Meanwhile, Waltrip had the best fuel mileage and likely had the best handling car. He dominated parts of the race prior to Petty’s crash.

Gant crashed out of the race with 23 laps to go, which brought most of the leaders in for the final stop. Parsons didn’t pit and stayed out to take the lead over Davey Allison, Waltrip and Bobby Allison.

On the restart, Waltrip was able to draft past both Davey Allison and Parsons with the help of Bobby Allison. Bobby Allison then swept inside of Waltrip and took the lead with the help of Davey. Bobby then held off his son to win his third Daytona 500.

Parsons was third, then Neil Bonnett and Terry Labonte. Waltrip faded late to 11th. Victory lane was a jovial affair with the Allisons celebrating together.

The 1988 Daytona 500 turned out to be something of a dividing line between the old and the new. It was the final victory for Bobby Allison in NASCAR. Four months later, he was critically injured in a first-lap crash at Pocono Raceway that ended his career.

Petty’s career declined quickly after Richmond. A year later, he was having trouble making races. Yarborough crashed out and Benny Parsons was uncompetitive after finishing second the year before with Hendrick Motorsports. Both retired at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, drivers like Wallace and Davey Allison were on the rise to join Earnhardt, Elliott, Labonte and Waltrip. The result was a competitive couple of seasons with close championship battles.

Petty’s crash proved that NASCAR had plenty of work to do to prevent rollovers. To its credit, it continued to try to develop new ways to try to control speeds and keep the cars on the ground, with varying degrees of success. The plates used in this Daytona 500 only lasted five superspeedway races before they were swapped for ones with smaller holes. That was the beginning of plate changes that occurred on a regular basis until they were phased out of the Cup Series in 2019.

Aerodynamically, additional changes were made. First were the vertical strips added to the roof that run parallel to the door, which quickly became permanent at all tracks. These were later extended down the rear window and onto the trunk by 1991. There were also small flaps added between the hood and windshield.

After six rollovers between Cup and Xfinity in 1993 (three of which were blowovers) and multiple additional wrecks where cars got airborne, NASCAR mandated roof flaps for 1994. The flaps have gone through multiple generations since then, but they are still in use to this day.

Even with all and time and money spent trying to keep cars grounded, blowovers are still prevalent in NASCAR today. Ryan Preece‘s crash in last August’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona is just the latest example of one. The work to prevent these crashes is still ongoing.

About the author

2021 Phil Allaway Headshot Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

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.

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Joshua Farmer

When the danger factor in NASCAR is negligible or zero, I will stop being a fan. The skill it takes to control the cars is why I watch…unlike the senseless chase for a football…there is a point to racing.

And why the Xfinity race is only 250 miles now is another stupid thing NASCAR has done. The cars are more durable than ever…make the drivers have to be in peak physical form to be professionals.

Last edited 4 months ago by Joshua Farmer
Share via