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“For a million bucks, you better put on a show.”
That’s the last thing Darrell Waltrip said before hanging up the phone in early May, but as far as the NASCAR All-Star Race is concerned, it’s also probably the most prescient. This Saturday at 8 p.m. at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR fans will get the next iteration of one of racing’s more unique, zany events — and not just for what happens on track.
The All-Star Race started in 1985 as The Winston, a precursor to the storied Coca-Cola 600, and has evolved over time. Today, the All-Star Race has become a breeding ground for new ideas, both across NASCAR and from individual teams’ perspectives. It helps, of course, that the race doesn’t count for any points toward the season-long championship hunt ... and that the winner walks away with a $1,000,000 cash prize.
“I think you could call the All-Star Race NASCAR’s petri dish,” longtime Fox Sports broadcaster Mike Joy said. “Or (it’s) whatever else you want to call their experimental lab. Maybe that’s a better way to put it.”
Regardless, the All-Star Race has produced more than its fair share of historic moments. But which ones truly stand out? With the help of Waltrip, Joy, and CMS general manager Marcus Smith, here’s a chronological look at the top five All-Star moments:
1. Waltrip wins the inaugural Winston, blows up at the finish (1985): Our list begins, fittingly, at the start of All-Star history.
The Winston was concocted as a fan event of sorts, meant to rival country music festivals in Nashville predicated on interaction between fans and their idols. NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, a legendary driver and later a team owner, was especially involved in the race’s creation.
“Junior was determined that in any way possible we would win that race, because he had a lot to do with it and he was close with all those people from (Cup Series sponsor and tobacco giant) R.J. Reynolds,” said Waltrip, who was driving for Johnson at the time. “I helped Junior in the engine room putting some of the engine parts together, and Junior told me, ‘DW, brother, you can’t practice much with this thing because it won’t last long. It’s got a short fuse.’
“And he was right.”
With fewer than 10 laps left in the original 70-lap race — the All-Star Race’s format and length varies almost every year — Waltrip found himself in distant second behind Harry Gant. At that point, Johnson buzzed into Waltrip’s radio:
“He said, ‘Darrell, do you want $200,000 (for winning) or $75,000?’ I said ‘I want the 200!’ He said, ‘Well then you better get your ass up on the wheel and get after it.’”
Waltrip kicked into a second gear, passing Gant on the white-flag lap and eventually winning the race. Like Johnson had warned, Waltrip’s engine blew up right as he crossed the start-finish line. It was a memorable, exciting finish, but more than that, the 1985 race legitimized the All-Star Race as an event for the future. While the race would temporarily move to Atlanta the following year, it returned to Charlotte and has been a yearly fixture ever since.
And, of course, that payday still serves as an incentive for drivers.
“Junior was in it for the trophy,” Waltrip said with a laugh. “I was in it for the money.”
2. ‘Pass in the Grass’ (1987): Making a list without arguably NASCAR’s best-ever driver, Dale Earnhardt, feels like cheating... so we won’t.
Coming to the end of the 1987 All-Star Race, Earnhardt and reigning All-Star winner Bill Elliott were side-by-side as the laps trickled off. Suddenly, as Earnhardt took a slight lead, his famous No. 3 car skirted out to the left and into the infield grass.
Well, maybe for anyone but the “Intimidator.”
“It worked out,” Smith said. “If you haven’t seen it, you see the video and it’s just breathtaking.”
Somehow, Earnhardt hopped his car back onto the track, regained control, and pulled away from Elliott all in one fluid motion. Elliott faded down the stretch, leaving Earnhardt his first All-Star victory.
Said Smith: “That’s literally one of the greatest moments in all of NASCAR.”
3. ‘One Hot Night’ (1992): The only clear-cut choice for this list is “One Hot Night,” as former Charlotte Motor Speedway president and general manager Humpy Wheeler famously dubbed it.
Wheeler and Bruton Smith, who built CMS in 1959, always had a reputation for pushing the envelope when promoting their Charlotte races. But in 1992, they embarked on their most ambitious project yet:
Lights at a 1.5-mile superspeedway and holding a race at night.
“The last time a track anywhere near that size had been lit for night racing was the 1-mile Raleigh Fairgrounds in 1970,” Joy said. “It’s funny, I got that straight from (former NASCAR CEO) Bill France Jr. because I had said this was the first lit superspeedway night race and he called me up and said, ‘No it isn’t.’”
Regardless of the specifics, no track that large had ever experienced night racing, an honor traditionally held for short tracks like Martinsville and Bristol. But Wheeler and Smith, ever-determined, had that goal in mind.
“There was a lot of apprehension,” Marcus Smith said. “I remember my dad and Humpy Wheeler talking about how the drivers were nervous about the lights and all these things today you just totally take for granted.”
Drivers were worried about the glare on their cars, and broadcasters were worried the light wouldn’t be television-quality. But after partnering with MUSCO Lighting, the project got underway.
Eventually it came time to debut the lights. Bruton Smith flipped an honorary switch, and while the lights went off without a hitch, one thing went awry.
“They caught Bruton Smith’s hair on fire when they turned the lights on,” Waltrip laughed. “Something shorted out and it actually singed his hair a little bit.”
The race matched the incredible buildup Wheeler and Smith had hoped for. Kyle Petty, Earnhardt, and Davey Allison were neck-and-neck with seven laps left. Allison managed to capitalize on Petty and Earnhardt battling each other and won the race before crashing, breaking his collarbone and being transported to the hospital via helicopter.
More than the actual outcome, though, “One Hot Night” made night racing a reality at NASCAR tracks around the country, many of which soon followed Charlotte’s lead.
“The way that race turned out, it was certainly the greatest race in the history of the All-Star Race,” Joy said. “Everything about that night was just kind of magical.”
4. Gordon switches cars after crash, wins (2001): Rain in Turn 1 at CMS caused a number of cars to spin out and wreck. Jeff Gordon was among those. But given the non-points nature of the race, NASCAR allowed drivers to go to their backup cars mid-event.
“So Gordon came in, they got another car — I think they took the engine out of the car he wrecked and put it in the backup,” Waltrip said.
In a stunning turn of events, Gordon rallied his backup car through the field and to the lead. By night’s end, he crossed the start-finish line first and captured his then-record-tying third All-Star win (Earnhardt also had three).
“That was pretty groundbreaking,” Joy said, “and very Jeff Gordon of him.”
5. New rules package, new era (2018): Some will argue against last year’s All-Star Race, but it bears inclusion more for what it signified for NASCAR than the actual race.
Marcus Smith and others within NASCAR wanted to again push the limits of what was possible in the All-Star Race. This time around, that meant radically differing from any aerodynamic rules package ever run at Charlotte before.
Restrictor plates, normally reserved for Daytona and Talladega, were finally making their CMS debut.
“There was a lot of resistance to that idea,” Smith said. “A lot of trepidation and concern.”
Most drivers were unsure what to expect. But when the race finally began, and was both competitive and more exciting than other recent races at Charlotte, those fears subsided.
“Last year is the first time I know (NASCAR) openly said, ‘This is something we’re going to try,’” Waltrip said. “The last two, three years, I think everybody has looked at it as a place to try something new.”
Kevin Harvick ultimately won his second All-Star Race, but the bigger takeaway was that NASCAR adopted that All-Star rules package for the 2019 Cup Series season. That broader use of the package has come with mixed results, but the fact that any All-Star Race could have such a substantial impact on a regular season certainly sets the 2018 event apart.
But really, that has become the underlying purpose of the All-Star Race: to try, test and tinker, without having to worry about any consequences for the regular season.
“One of the unique attributes of this sport is that the technology is changing week-to-week. The teams continue to develop new parts, new pieces, new ways to make their car faster than the other guys,” Joy said. “You need some sort of experimental platform to be able to take new ideas and give them a dress rehearsal before you implement them.
“For that reason, I think the All-Star Race serves a very valuable purpose.”
At the Track
6 p.m.: All-Star Open qualifying race (FS1)
8 p.m.: NASCAR All-Star Race (FS1)
Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @BrendanRMarks