|SOURCE: Brian Cleary|
Fans new to the sport might be surprised to know that Marcos Ambrose wasn’t the first Australian to make it to NASCAR’s top division. In fact, a number ran Cup events in the late 1980s. The spark seemed to be Bob Jane, the four-time Australian Touring Car champion who in 1987 completed work on the Calder Park Thunderdome, a smaller 1.119-mile version of Charlotte Motor Speedway constructed as part of a motorsports complex in Melbourne. The track gave an opportunity for Jane’s fellow touring car veterans, acclimated to road course racing, to try their hand at running ovals. On February 28, 1988, just two weeks after the Daytona 500, the Thunderdome held the Goodyear NASCAR 500, a 280-lap exhibition race matching a handful of Winston Cup and Winston West Series stars against Australian competitors. Neil Bonnett took the victory by less than a second over Bobby Allison with 4th-place Glen Steurer finishing best among the West drivers. The top Australian in the 32-car field was 11th-place finisher Robin Best of Westbury, Tasmania. Best, who started 4th, would win two titles in the new Australian stock car racing series “AUSCAR.”
Though 1988 would stand as the only NASCAR exhibition at the Thunderdome, AUSCAR stirred interest in bringing the Australian drivers stateside. Five of the eight locals from the exhibition would go on to attempt at least one Cup points race each, and four of them qualified. Allan Grice, twice a winner of the Bathurst 1000, ran the Coca-Cola 600 twice in 1987 and 1989, finishing a career-best 34th in the latter. Tony Spanos drove for James Hylton’s team for three years, finishing an impressive 18th at Martinsville in 1987. He attempted thirteen more races, including the 1988 and 1989 Daytona 500, but didn’t make any of them. Hylton hired Robin Best to make the 1990 Coca-Cola 600, but he too missed the show.
Brisbane’s Dick Johnson, a five-time Australian touring car champ and three-time Bathurst 1000 winner, was the most successful of the group. Johnson made his Cup debut in the inaugural Cup race at Sonoma in 1989, then a few weeks later earned a career-best 22nd at Pocono. He would go on to make seven Cup starts - the most by an Australian before Marcos Ambrose. Curiously, Ambrose also made his Cup debut at Sonoma nearly twenty years to the date in 2008.
Terry Byers finished 25th in the 1988 exhibition, his #26 Tooheys Chevrolet involved in a multi-car accident during the first half. Born in Wollongong, New South Wales, Byers made his first Cup Series start in the 1989 Winston Open, where he finished a solid 16th in the 26-car field. A week later, in qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600, Byers bested seven DNQs and earned the 35th spot on the grid for the 42-car field. While the Foster’s Lager-backed Pontiac of fellow countryman Allan Grice dropped out with a blown engine after 294 laps, Byers’ unsponsored #06 Chevrolet finished under power, 21 laps down, in the 21st spot. Byers returned to run both that summer’s races at Pocono, coming home a career-best 19th in the first and 21st in the second, this time just three lap back each time. When Byers returned to the Coca-Cola 600, where Robin Best was one of 12 DNQs, Byers timed in 31st and gained sponsorship from Days Inn hotels. Unfortunately, the engine on his Pontiac let go after 40 laps, leaving him 40th.
Byers’ next race would be July’s Pepsi 400 at Daytona. He’d attempted the race the year before, along with the July round at Talladega, but missed the field both times. The 1990 race promised to be just as challenging. 44 cars showed up to fill the 40-car field. In the end, Byers prevailed, placing him 39th alongside last-place starter Philip Duffie in Row 20. On Independence Day weekend, Byers would stand alone as the only foreign-born driver in the Pepsi 400.
Ten days before the 400, Paramount Pictures released the film “Days of Thunder” in the U.S. Lauded and loathed by those inside and outside the sport, the film featured spectacular stunts mixed with film taken from actual race cars provided by Hendrick Motorsports. One of the many drivers tabbed to help in the production was Greg Sacks.
Sacks, who five years earlier won the Pepsi 400 in an R&D car for DiGard Motorsports, had since become a journeyman driver. Sacks and DiGard had parted ways midway through the 1986 season, and for the next three winless years, he’d switched between single-car teams like the Dingman Brothers, Buddy Baker, and Tom Winkle. “Days of Thunder,” and its tie with Hendrick Motorsports, came at the perfect time.
Sacks was first brought onto the film as both a driver and a consultant. During the production, Sacks found himself in the same position as Robert Duvall’s character Harry Hogge - debating about what a car can and cannot do. During film days where only the movie cars were on the track, director Tony Scott wanted footage of cars running dangerously loose, weaving around the track. Sacks pointed out the dangers of this, particularly when it came to superspeedway racing.
“What I have to keep in mind,” said Sacks during a behind-the-scenes featurette, “is to not let Tony make me go too far. And yet, yeah, I want it to be a great film, so I push myself a little more.”
To get on-track footage during races, Hendrick had to provide race-ready cars and drivers to properly qualify them. Again, Sacks was among those who helped. In 1989 and early 1990, Sacks ran a handful of races in Hendrick’s green-and-gold #46 City Chevrolet that Tom Cruise’s character Cole Trickle ran in the film as a hard-scrabble rookie. The car that ran at Phoenix in 1989 carried cameras that needed to be reloaded constantly, and the ill-handling machine parked at halfway. The cameras came out during the 1990 Busch Clash at Daytona (now Sprint Unlimited), and Sacks finished a strong 2nd to Daytona 500 polesitter Ken Schrader. He qualified 7th with the car at Darlington in April, surged into the Top 5, then fell out with mechanical issues.
Impressed with Sacks’ performance, Hendrick decided to make the “movie car” a permanent team in his stable. With sponsorship from Ultra Slim Fast and a new car number, #18, Sacks impressed once more his first time out, leading 41 laps of the Winston 500 at Talladega before he was edged by Dale Earnhardt by two carlengths. Sacks finished 14th in the Coca-Cola 600, led another 29 laps at Pocono on his way to a 7th-place showing, and came home 26th at Michigan. Next on the schedule was the Pepsi 400, where the news was even better: Sacks’ first career pole.
By starting first, Sacks certainly hoped he’d avoid the dreaded “Big One.”
By the day of the Pepsi 400, six drivers had been sent to backup cars because of crashes. Among them were the #71 Big Apple Market Chevrolet of owner-driver Dave Maricis and Hendrick’s own #17 Tide Chevrolet with driver Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip, the previous year’s Daytona 500 winner, was shaking down his Chevrolet when he encountered oil entering the tri-oval, sending him into a spin. Waltrip avoided the walls as he stopped in the middle of the track, but Marcis also lost control as he entered the scene and slid into him broadside. The resulting collision left Waltrip with a concussion, two broken legs, and a broken arm. Hendrick tabbed as relief driver of the backup car Jimmy Horton, whose #80 Miles Concrete Ford had narrowly missed the field. Marcis, who didn’t have a backup car, worked out a deal with fellow owner-driver J.D. McDuffie, who also missed the race, to start McDuffie’s #70 before handing it over early on. As part of the deal, McDuffie’s DNQ’d #70 Pontiac was renumbered #71 so Marcis could get the Owner Points.
When the green flag flew on Saturday morning, 3rd-place starter Dale Earnhardt once again got the drop on Sacks, cutting low in the tri-oval to make it three-wide with outside-polesitter Bill Elliott up top. Sacks slotted in on the inside line while Earnhardt cleared Elliott in Turn 1. Entering the backstretch, 7th-place starter Richard Petty looked to replicate Earnhardt’s move, cutting low on Sacks to drop him back even further. The move cost both drivers a couple spots as the outside line formed up, turning their battle for 4th into a race for 7th. Trapped on the outside now was 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope and his bright orange #10 Purolator Chevrolet.
Cope, Sacks, and Petty stayed three-wide into Turn 3, bouncing off each other as the top six drivers pulled away heading into the tri-oval. They remained that way in Turn 4, Petty bouncing into Sacks, who leaned into Cope. Sacks and Cope touched again coming off Turn 4 with Petty now a full lane off the apron, holding up the two-lane pack forming up behind them. Petty nudged Sacks again, who fought to keep the #18 straight between the two lines forming on either side of him. Sterling Marlin, running behind Petty, threatened to make it four-wide down low, but Petty closed the door, and the trio fanned out across the start / finish line to complete Lap 1. Sacks slid to the right this time, nudged Cope, then suddenly lost control. He hooked left into the right-rear of Petty’s Pontiac. Sacks and Petty broke loose, slid into the path of Cope, and suddenly 31 cars found themselves headed two and three-wide into a cloud of grey smoke.
At the moment of contact, Terry Byers and Philip Duffie had already lost touch with the leaders and were running by themselves entering the tri-oval. Duffie moved low, slowed, and rolled straight across the infield grass, out of harm’s way. Byers stayed on the track, following another car as they, like Cole Trickle, hurtled through the cloud at full speed. The car in front cut left, and suddenly Byers saw it: the #2 U.S. Racing Pontiac of Charlie Glotzbach, wrecked, turned backward, and sitting directly in his path. Byers and Glotzbach made contact, then spun into the infield grass, his Pontiac stopped facing the shocked crowd. In all, 23 of the 40 starters were involved. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. Many, however, were furious.
Ernie Irvan, whose #4 Kodak Oldsmobile had to settle for 33rd, pointed to the Hendrick team’s setup on Sacks’ #18. “Every other car has a 33-degree spoiler an he (Sacks) had a 25. Something told me he was going to be loose. I could go fast with a 25 degree spoiler, but I knew I might not be around at the finish.” Geoffrey Bodine, whose #11 Budweiser Ford limped around to finish 25th, blamed the new Tom Cruise flick: “Three idiots wrecked. They saw the damn movie.”
The race was red-flagged for 36 minutes and 7 seconds to clear the wreck. Per NASCAR rules, the finishing order in the event of a multi-car crash where several cars are unable to continue reverts back to the order they crossed the stripe the previous lap. By crossing it in 39th a moment before becoming involved, Byers took the spot, followed by fellow victims Rick Wilson in the #75 Dinner Bell Foods Oldsmobile and A.J. Foyt in his #14 Copenhagen Oldsmobile. Richard Petty edged Sacks for the final spot in the Bottom Five - the drafting help from Sterling Marlin allowed him to edge Sacks at the stripe a split-second before the wreck.
The 1990 Pepsi 400, won by Dale Earnhardt in a walk, turned out to be Byers’ final Cup Series start, but it wasn’t his final attempt. At age 45, he once again entered his own car at Daytona in 1995, looking to make his first start in the Daytona 500. While his #82 Ford missed the field, he once again turned in a surprising run, coming home 18th of the 32 starters.
Among Byers’ fellow 21 DNQs was Greg Sacks.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #06 in a Cup race since October 21, 1984, when Mike Potter’s #06 Walker Enterprises Ford fell out with engine trouble after 9 laps of the Warner W. Hodgdon American 500 at the North Carolina (Rockingham) Motor Speedway. It would not finish last in the series again until August 20, 2006, when Todd Kleuver’s 3M Post-It Ford crashed out after 10 laps of the GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #06-Terry Byers / 1 lap / crash
39) #75-Rick Wilson / 1 lap / crash
38) #14-A.J. Foyt / 1 lap / crash
37) #18-Greg Sacks / 1 lap / crash
36) #43-Richard Petty / 1 lap / crash
Thanks for the link to this write-up, sorry it took me two weeks to find it. On the off chance you didn't know, Robin Best's car at the exhibition race in '88, which he also drove to his first championship, was Mort, the ex-Junior Johnson car Darrel Waltrip drove to win the inaugural Charlotte All-Star. Apparently DW threw a fit when he realised the car was being sold, because he wanted to buy it himself. Last I heard it's in the National Automobile Museum of Tasmania, still in Best's white #88 Hoare Bros Earthmoving livery.
I can't help the nitpicking though: Australian NASCAR and AUSCAR were separate series. Australian NASCAR was for Cup cars, either imported or brewed locally under license. AUSCAR was for Aussie Falcons and Commodores and was (initially at least) based more on local touring car tech. Being right-hand drive they turned right around the Thunderdome (and the short track at Adelaide International Raceway). If you want a taster I've covered it on my own blog here:
Thanks again for the link. Take care.
Actually, the Aussie's like Grice and Byers in the 1980s weren't the first from down under to race in NASCAR's top series, despite what was widely reported by Channel 7 in Australia at the time. In 1968 at the American 500 at Rockingham, Australian road racer Frank Gardner qualified and raced a Ford Torino. Unfortunately he lasted less than two laps before the car's engine blew. But he preceded the likes of Allan Grice by almost 20 years.
The AUSCAR will be the V8 Supercars, by fusion with the ATCC, For European public, the V8 is often compare with the NASCAR championoship, in the european style track.
This blog is interesting for a non american public, don't knowing in the NASCAR races. I have more in the page for the Indy champoinship with my country (France) relationship with the Indy championship. The Nascar had two french driver in start, Claude Ballot-Léna and Michel Disdier.
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