NASCAR at Sonoma: Recalling 1991 controversy
Published: Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 8:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 9:44 p.m.
You can count on jubilation at the end of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, and frustration, and relief and probably a little anger, too. But how about mass confusion?
Imagine a race in which the car that crosses first does not actually win ... in which two drivers speed to Victory Lane with almost as much gusto as they displayed on the track ... in which the final results aren't determined until hours after the checkered flag is waved.
That was the scene on June 9, 1991, at the Banquet Frozen Foods 300, a race that helped put Sonoma on the motorsports map and rained down a storm of controversy upon NASCAR.
“I'd tell (NASCAR owner) Billy France back then, I'd say, ‘Billy, please don't ever put no team through something like that again,'” said Waddell Wilson, Ricky Rudd's crew chief that day. “Because you wiped out a race team. Relationships was hurt. It was such a bad deal that nobody can realize to this day how bad that was.”
The Toyota/Save Mart 350 returns to Sonoma this Sunday. They called the track Sears Point International Raceway back in 1991, and NASCAR's elite circuit was known as the Winston Cup. Rudd, an aggressive road-course driver, had won the first Winston Cup race there in 1989, and ran from the pole in '91. He was one of the heavy favorites, along with the likes of Rusty Wallace and Geoff Bodine.
But with four laps to go, the leaders were Mark Martin and Tommy Kendall, a road specialist who was standing in for the injured Kyle Petty in the No. 42 Mello Yello car. Behind them was Davey Allison. He had never felt comfortable on road courses, but had managed to hang around the leaders at Sonoma this time.
Watching the race with four laps to go, ESPN analyst Benny Parsons remarked, “If Davey can dodge a wreck, he might be in good shape.”
Parsons was a prophet. On the next lap, Martin went to pass Kendall outside on Turn 7, and Kendall tried to cut him off. It was disastrous for both drivers. Martin's No. 6 spun out momentarily and sustained extensive damage to the left rear panel. Kendall's No.42 wound up with a punctured left front tire.
Allison, almost from nowhere, darted into the lead, with Rudd in hot pursuit.
They might have maintained that order for the rest of the race were it not for Dave Marcis, who had been lapped in the No. 71 car. Instead of yielding to the leader, Marcis raced Allison competitively through Sears Point's S-curves, allowing Rudd to bridge the gap. Allison's team would later insinuate foul play; Marcis and Rudd both drove Chevrolets, while Allison piloted a Ford.
The stage was set for a wham-bam finish. Just before the final lap, Rudd tried to maneuver his Tide No. 5 car underneath Allison's Texaco-Havoline No. 28 in hairpin Turn 11, and bumped him. The impact seemed modest, but Allison spun around backward, his chance at winning seemingly ripped away.
“I was hot enough that you could have boiled water on my head,” Larry McReynolds, Allison's crew chief, said this week.
Not surprisingly, the view of the incident differed, depending on which hauler you were in. Allison's team felt it was blatantly aggressive contact. Rudd's team saw it as good, hard racing, like you see all the time on NASCAR tracks. Other opinions varied, and everybody soon had one.
“I really don't think Ricky in any way meant to go down there and spin him out. I know he didn't,” said Wallace, the recently announced NASCAR Hall of Fame honoree who was trailing the two leaders that day. “But what he did mean to do probably was to bump him and get him out of shape and move him off the track a little bit. He was just gonna drive underneath him and just drive off. But instead he got him spun out and got his (butt) busted for it.”
Rudd motored on from the wreck, presumably to victory. He waved to his crew on his final pass. And then things got weird.
No. 28 team owner Robert Yates, standing next to McReynolds and scanning the NASCAR radio frequency, heard some interesting chatter on his headset. “Tell him to keep going,” the wide-eyed Yates told McReynolds.
Sure enough, when Rudd came around again, he didn't get the checkered flag. Instead, starter Doyle Ford showed him the black flag and waved the checkered for Allison, who had recovered to run second. Rudd's team looked furious. Allison's crew looked perplexed. Nobody cheered.
A black flag signals a driver to immediately return to pit row to consult with officials, but Rudd took off for what he felt was a well-deserved victory lap.
“Davey was always thinking, and he was always smart,” said McReynolds, who now does TV work for Fox, ESPN and, as he will this weekend, TNT. “The course was different than it is now. You could go past the start/finish line and then just go straight up the drag strip. So Davey took the checkered flag, and he didn't make the turn up Turn 1. He went down the drag strip and stopped. He started hollering at the spotter, he said, ‘Tell me when the last car goes by the checkered flag.'”
When the road was clear, Allison drove backward down the front stretch and into Victory Lane, where his team, finally accepting its win, laughed and congratulated one another. Rudd's team was soon in confrontation with NASCAR officials.
“There was a little old shed there that they put us under, that we started tearing the car down, and I could see all the commotion,” McReynolds said. “The NASCAR hauler wasn't 50 feet from us. Waddell was over there, Waddell's boys were over there, half the 5 team was there, Ricky was there, Ricky's wife — everybody was there, absolutely just going nuts. ... I remember Waddell's boy looking at Bill France Jr., who was standing there, and got right in his face and shot him the bird with both hands.”
Adding to the confusion was the absence of NASCAR director Dick Beaty, who missed the Banquet 300 because of a death in his family.
Immediately after the race, stunned ESPN viewers saw a graphic that showed Allison as the winner, with Wallace second and Ernie Ervan, Ken Schrader and Terry Labonte next in line. Rudd was 18th. But that information proved incorrect. Instead of docking Rudd a full lap, NASCAR hit him with a five-second penalty, which put him in second place. Vice president of competition Les Richter, a former linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams, announced the verdict 2 hours, 10 minutes after the race.
“There comes a time when you have to call balls and strikes, to make a judgment call,” Richter said at the time.
McReynolds will always be proud of getting Allison up to speed on Sears Point's twisting roadway. But his memory of the event is bittersweet. Allison, one of his closest friends, died just over two years later, at the age of 32, from injuries sustained when he crashed his helicopter at Talladega Superspeedway.
Rudd would finish 20th at Pocono the next week, and would ultimately rank second to Dale Earnhardt at season's end. The difference between first and second at Sonoma wouldn't have closed that gap, but Wilson insists the result deflated Rudd's momentum.
“That ruined our season,” Wilson said. “We'd just won the race at Darlington, was leading in the points. We had a great season going, but then it turned our whole team upside-down. Everybody was mad. You know, people don't realize how hard it is to win one of these NASCAR races. Then when you feel like you win it and then get it taken away from you, it hurts deep. It hurts today, and that was a looong time ago.”
Wilson insists he no longer bears any flash of anger over NASCAR's decision. But the pain lingers.
“I could live 500 years and still remember that, as bad as that hurts,” Wilson said. “And I have never had one person say that they felt it was the right call.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.