Thursday, June 2, 2016

6/19/88: Jocko Maggiacomo: the forgotten half of Bobby Allison’s career-ending Pocono crash

SOURCE: Getty Images
On June 19, 1988, Chauncey T. “Jocko” Maggacomo picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Miller High Life 500 at the Pocono Raceway when his #63 Jocko’s Racing Chevrolet was involved in a terrible two-car accident on the opening lap of the 200-lap event.

The finish, which came in Maggiacomo’s 22nd series start, was his first (and the first for car #63) since May 15, 1983, when his #63 Tele-Video Computer Systems Oldsmobile crashed after 39 laps of the Mason-Dixon 500 at the Dover Downs International Speedway.

Maggiacomo, a native of Poughkeepsie, New York, followed in the footsteps of his father of the same name.  The elder Maggiacomo raced everything from motorcycles and midgets to late models and modifieds, and in 2000 earned a spot in the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame.  His son favored road courses over bull rings, and in the mid-1970s was a standout in the SCCA Trans-Am Series.

“Trans-Am was the closest thing between road racing and stock cars,” said Maggiacomo in an interview with the Schenectady Gazzette in 1988, “I had always gotten a kick out of watching Mark Donohue, Parnelli Jones an Dan Gurney run bumper-to-bumper in Trans-Am cars an I got hooked on it.”  Maggiacomo was a quick study, winning the first-ever SCCA race he entered at Lime Rock.  In 1973, he acquired an AMC Javelin that Roger Penske built for Mark Donohue.  His dark blue #63 with yellow striping continued to impress, earning the series title in 1976.  The next year, Maggiacomo eyed a transition into NASCAR.

Pocono saw Maggiacomo’s Cup debut on July 31, 1977.  He stayed with the American Motor Company for the race, this time running the manufacturer’s fleet Matador, and came home 26th in a field of 35 after steering issues.  The only other Matador in the field belonged to 4th-place finisher Bobby Allison.  Allison helped Maggiacomo that year, getting parts from Roger Penske and brining over one of his crewmen to help fine-tune Maggiacomo’s #63.  Tragically, the two drivers’ paths would cross at that same track eleven years later.

Pocono also saw two of Maggiacomo’s three career-best 24th-place finishes in 1979 and 1987.  The second came with team owner Jim Rosenblum, who took over majority ownership of the team from Maggiacomo and his father in 1983.  Rosenblum Racing, later renamed Linro Motorsports, still exists today - Rosenblum fields the #28 Chevrolet part-time in the Truck Series under the name FDNY Racing.  Then as now, the team pitting #63 had limited funding and relied on volunteers at the track to help work on the car.

Maggiacomo never ran full-time in NASCAR, and all but two of his Cup starts came on tracks near his hometown: Pocono, Michigan, Dover, and Watkins Glen.  The exceptions were the final two races on the Riverside International Raceway road course outside Los Angeles.  Maggiacomo’s #63 finished 37th in the 1987 running, then came home 30th in the farewell running in June of 1988.  It was the first race Maggiacomo finished under power in nearly five years.  In the following week’s 500-miler at Pocono, he would run his lone oval track car, a red-and-white Chevrolet.

Maggiacomo was one of the slowest in qualifying for the Miller High Life 500 - 38th in a field of 40 - but managed to outpace veteran owner-driver Buddy Arrington in 39th and future ARCA star Bobby Gerhart who would bring up the rear in his #85 James Chevrolet.  Missing the field were another two owner-drivers: Mike Potter and J.D. McDuffie.  McDuffie was making just his third Cup attempt since he suffered serious burns in a crash during his 125-mile qualifier at Daytona.  Still, Maggiacomo’s hopes were high - the tricky triangle was his favorite, and veteran crew chief Buddy Parrott had joined to fine-tune #63.

When the green flag flew on Sunday, 28th-place starter Bobby Allison, winner of the Daytona 500 that year over his son Davey, reported he had a tire going down on his #12 Miller High Life Buick.  Allison said he would nurse the car around and come in for an unscheduled stop the next time by.  Unfortunately, as the field entered the treacherous second corner, Allison’s tire let go, sending him spinning through the infield grass.  Car after car zipped by the cloud of dust and grass as Allison fought for control of his gold #12.  At first, it looked like everyone had made it by.  Only a few cars were left.

“I was high going into the tunnel turn,” recalled Maggiacomo for The Hour, “Jimmy Means was next to me and there was another car inside of him.  Bobby (Allison) had already gotten out of shape, but was way low.  I wasn’t worried about him coming back because he was so low.  All of a sudden I caught a glimpse of a gold car coming up the track at an angle of about 20 degrees to the left of me.”

“I remember the impact, but then everything went black.  I couldn’t see.  When the paramedics got to me I could hear them, but couldn’t see them.  The asked me if I was all right, and I told them I couldn’t move my left side.  Hey were trying to ask me questions to see if I was alert.  I remember asking them what was the gold thing that came across the track.  Was it a car? Was it Bobby? They didn’t answer.  I think they might have given me oxygen, but I don’t remember.”

In an instant, Allison’s spinning #12 had slid backwards onto the track, the driver’s side directly in Maggiacomo’s path.  At nearly 140mph, Maggiacomo t-boned Allison’s Buick directly in the driver’s side door, smashing the sheet metal on and around it inward and outward so violently that the entire side looked as though a wrecking ball had hit it.

“There is a new curbing around the track,” Maggiacomo explained, trying to piece together the events.  “I believe Bobby’s car was so low to the ground after the tire went flat that the frame of the car hit the curb and shot back.  He came back awful fast.  When we hit it was like an explosion.  I hit so hard the fuel cell and the rear of my car bent upwards.  My crew told me the steering wheel was moved back eight inches.”

“I think what happened was when we got into the first turn we weren’t at full speed.  There was a little contact as there so often is when we start a race.  Bobby got in a racing mode and he just forgot about the tire.  He’s too good a driver to just lose it.  He got caught up in the excitement of competition and was running faster than he had planned to.”

TV cameras only caught the tail end of the wreck.  Allison’s car came to a stop backwards with the driver’s side against the outside wall, the nose facing the entrance of Turn 2.  Maggiacomo’s Chevrolet slid past Allison’s car and turned left before it stopped in the grass, facing the infield.  As the field slowed past the scene, Bobby’s son Davey slowed to check on the scene.  Track workers were there setting to work on extricating Allison from his car.

Much has been reported about the catastrophic injuries suffered by Allison, physical and mental injuries which not only ended a 25-year, 718-race career, but still plague the driver today.  Maggiacomo's condition was never as grave as Allison - in fact, he was released within hours of the crash - but the New York driver left with several injuries of his own.  He'd fractured his left ankle.  26 stitches were needed to close a wound on his chin.  Back at home, he was not only in a state of traumatic shock, but found he couldn't breathe comfortably.  It took three weeks for doctors to discover he'd broken three ribs.

“I hit hard,” said Maggiacomo.  “I hit so hard I couldn’t see.  My left side was paralyzed.  I could hear rescue workers and they asked me if I was okay.  I said I was having trouble breathing and they asked me if I wanted oxygen. . .Even though the straps are tight, when you hit something going 130 or 140, or as fast as we were going, when you stop, everything inside you is going just as fast and it’s trying to come outside.”

Maggiacomo and his team made several calls to the Lehigh Valley Medical Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania where Allison clung to life, but he couldn’t get many details on his friend.  He knew it was bad - much worse than his own injuries - but not much else.

“It’s been a tough time mentally and physically,” said Maggiacomo.  “There was more than one day when I said I don’t want any more of this sport.  I kept thinking of Bobby.  I was really upset the first couple of weeks.  I felt NASCAR could do more for safety.  I still feel that way.  Despite the impact, I don’t believe Bobby’s car should have caved in that way.”

Maggiacomo was at a crossroads.  On the one hand, he was absolved of blame in the accident, and has been regarded by many as the innocent victim of the tragedy.  On the other, his broken bones wouldn’t be healed for several weeks, and the profit margin for running more races was as narrow as ever.  The wreck had destroyed his only oval track car, leaving just one bullet in the chamber - his road course car, the one he finished 30th with at Riverside.  He thought about hanging it up for good, ending his career the same day as Allison.  Maggiacomo’s crew urged him to give it another try, but it was a sudden sponsorship deal that made his return a reality.

Weeks after the accident, Fab Detergent signed on to sponsor Maggiacomo for five races in 1988, then for the 20 of the 29 races in 1989.  Longtime friend Bob Sharpe, partner of Paul Newman’s own SCCA racing effort, provided Maggiacomo with a rubber “cool suit” to deal with the hot summer temperatures for his Fab races.  The first round would come at his next local venue - Watkins Glen in August.  He would drive with a big orange leg brace on his left leg, supporting his broken ankle as he shifted on the road course.  But he would race.  He qualified 31st of 40 drivers in his blue-and-silver Chevrolet.

“This is a first class deal, but we worked hard to get it.  We hired a sports marketing firm (Seiftech Sports Marketing) in Poughkeepsie to help us out.  We’ve done our homework and we’ve got a good organization, but now with the help of Fab, I think we can be an extremely competitive team in the future.”

Sharpe’s “cool suit” came in handy for the hot August race at The Glen, though the suit was too small, leaving a five-inch gap across his chest.  He was running near the back, but still managing despite his injuries.  That is, until Lap 43.  That time by, the engine let go on the front stretch, filling the car with smoke.  Maggiacomo pulled #63 behind the wall and, thanks to his Pocono injuries, had to be helped from the car on a stretcher.

“That’s the first motor we’ve lost in a year and a half,” he said after the race.  “I’m a little tired, but I thought I could go the distance. . .I don’t consider myself a good road racer.  I’ve got a good car and a good crew.  I went to Sears Point (to Bob Bondurant’s driving school in California) for three solid days to become a better road racer.”

Nobody knew it then, but Watkins Glen would be Maggiacomo’s final Cup start.  He managed to buy a new oval track car from the Hutcherson-Pagan shop, but couldn’t get it into two of the season’s final five races at Charlotte and Rockingham.  The team also planned to move their shop from Maggiacomo’s Poughkeepsie facility to Charlotte, but when the Fab Detergent deal fell through, driver and team parted ways.  By the time the series returned to Pocono in 1989, Maggiacomo was replaced by Randy LaJoie.  Rosenblum's team would make 15 more Cup starts through 1993 before his eventual move to the Truck Series today.

Rounding out the Bottom Five that day in Pocono in 1988 were Dave Marcis, whose #71 Lifebuoy Soap Chevrolet lost an engine after 11 laps, second-year driver Ernie Irvan, whose D.K. Ulrich-owned #2 Kroger Chevrolet wrecked on Lap 12, and ARCA driver Bob Schacht, whose #16 Learn Ford blew an engine after the 22nd circuit.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*Maggiacomo was the first driver to finish last at Pocono without completing a lap since July 27, 1980 when Travis Tiller’s #46 Ring Enterprises Oldsmobile lost the ignition on the opening circuit of the Coca-Cola 500.
*The #63 would not finish last in Cup again until March 28, 1993, when Norm Benning’s #63 O’Neil Racing Oldsmobile fell out with handling issues after 1 lap of the TranSouth 500 at Darlington.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #63-Jocko Maggiacomo / 0 laps / crash
39) #12-Bobby Allison / 0 laps / crash
38) #71-Dave Marcis / 11 laps / engine
37) #2-Ernie Irvan / 12 laps / crash
36) #16-Bob Schacht / 22 laps / engine

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