Thursday, August 18, 2016

8/27/88: Rookie driver Brad Noffsinger caught-up in early Bristol chaos

On August 27, 1988, Brad Noffsinger picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Busch 500 at the Bristol International Speedway when his #98 Sunoco Buick was involved in an accident after 1 of 500 laps.  The finish came in Noffsinger’s 13th series start.

Born in Huntington Beach, California on August 29, 1960, Noffsinger got his start racing motorcycles at age 10, then as he grew older ran his family’s midget and sprint cars.  He proved a quick study in open wheels, earning Rookie of the Year honors in Ascot Super Midgets, the United States Racing Club, and the California Racing Association.  He then signed with the Gardner Racing team and scored back-to-back USAC / CRA championships in 1986 and 1987.  All the while, Noffsinger raced in memory of his youngest brother Todd, who in 1983 lost his life in a racing crash at Ascot Park in Gardena, California.

In 1988, Noffsinger was offered a one-year contract to drive Winston Cup for car owner Mike Curb.  Curb had been active in Cup since 1984, when he became the car owner for Richard Petty’s final two victories following Petty’s controversial 198th victory at Charlotte the year before.  When Petty returned to his team in 1986, Curb fielded cars for Ron Bouchard, Dale Jarrett, and Ed Pimm, securing sponsorship from Valvoline and later Sunoco.  Pursuant to the wishes of business partner Cary Agajanian, whose family had and remains a long-time owner in open-wheel ranks, Curb’s post-Petty cars were numbered #98.  When Noffsinger was unable to make the November 8, 1987 race at Riverside, Pimm returned for the first three races of 1988, but that spring, Noffsinger became his full-time replacement.

Noffsinger made his Cup debut at Atlanta on March 28, 1988 and finished a strong 14th, the Curb team’s best series finish in nearly two years.  But the rest of the season proved a tremendous challenge.  Noffsinger failed to qualify for three of the next 11 races, DNF’d in three of the next four starts he made, and was unable to improve on his Atlanta finish.  He came into his first night race at Bristol 34th in points.

Noffsinger faced another stiff challenge in “Thunder Valley.”  His was one of 40 cars set to attempt the 32-car field, meaning he would have to beat at least eight drivers to earn a spot in the race.  During the series’ last visit to Bristol in April, his car wasn’t fast enough to beat three drivers.  But this time, things were different.  Noffsinger secured the 30th starting spot.  Sent home after time trials were Ken Bouchard, who led the Rookie of the Year standings, local driver Lee Faulk, and owner-drivers Ronnie Thomas, Jimmy Means, Morgan Shepherd, Mike Potter, and J.D. McDuffie.  Also missing the race was Tommy Ellis, who drove in relief of Benny Parsons in the #90 Sunny King Ford.  Ellis’ DNQ marked the first time since 1976 that Junie Donlavey’s #90 failed to make a Cup race.
On Saturday, Rusty Wallace rolled off 17th in a show car unused for several months, having survived a terrifying wreck in practice.  His #27 Kodiak Pontiac blew a right-front tire off the fourth corner and rolled at least seven times.  Wallace, attended to by Dr. Jerry Punch at the track, spent the night in the hospital.  Still, he didn’t miss a step, handing the team notes on the setup from his bed.  Larry Pearson would later relieve Wallace and come home 9th, seven laps down to race winner Dale Earnhardt.  There were also concerns about the track’s asphalt surface “chunking,” or coming up in pieces, requiring a large patch in Turn 3.  NASCAR issued a statement that the surface would be properly repaired by the spring of 1989.  The concrete surface wouldn’t come until 1992.

Starting last was Michael Waltrip, who that year acquired new sponsorship from Country Time Lemonade on his Bahari’ Racing #30 Pontiac.  This September at Darlington, The Motorsports Group is expected to run Waltrip’s throwback scheme for driver Josh Wise.  By the end of Lap 1, Waltrip had slipped up to 31st, dropping Noffsinger to last.  On Lap 2, polesitter Alan Kulwicki broke loose coming off Turn 2 and lost seven spots in the high lane.  Seconds later, trouble broke out at the rear of the field.

Dave Mader III was another surprise in qualifying that weekend at Bristol when he secured car owner Dick Bahre his first Cup start in nearly three years.  At the time, Bahre’s car had only attempted one race, the spring event at North Wilkesboro, where newcomer Alan Russell was unable to make his Cup debut.  Mader, then a part-timer in the Busch Series, was then given an opportunity to make his own debut which he did, bucking the same odds as Noffsinger to secure the 27th starting spot.  Mader would make his Cup debut at the same track where he’d recently won in the NASCAR All-American Challenge Series.

However, going down the backstretch, Mader lost control, slid to the apron, then hooked to the right - directly in Noffsinger’s path.  The two cars collided and slid down the banking.  Mader was able to keep going, eventually coming home 24th after a mid-race engine failure.  Noffsinger’s damage didn’t appear too severe, but it was enough to end his night.  Finishing 31st was Michael Waltrip, who after 54 laps lost the engine on the #30.  30th-place went to Derrike Cope, whose 69 Purolator Filters Ford overheated after 93 laps while 29th belonged to owner-driver Dave Marcis, whose #71 Lifebuoy Soap Chevrolet crashed out after a blown tire and spin on Lap 142.  38th went to yet another driver who made his Cup debut that night: 31-year-old Rick Mast.  The future 1994 Brickyard 400 polesitter was called in to relieve Buddy Baker, whose crash during the Coca-Cola 600 that May ultimately ended his driving career.  Mast’s own turn in the #88 Red Baron Frozen Pizza Oldsmobile vaulted him to the lead from Laps 74-76, but a Lap 208 crash with Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett ended his night.

Noffsinger made just four more starts after Bristol, failing to finish in three of them, and missed the field for five of the last nine rounds.  He finished third in the Rookie of the Year standings, trailing Ken Bouchard and Ernie Irvan, but ranked ahead of Jimmy Horton.  At season’s end, Sunoco left to sponsor Billy Hagan’s return to the sport in 1989, and Curb was forced to close down his Cup team.  Noffsinger attempted to make four more Winston Cup starts with two other single-car operations owned by Skip Jaehne and T.W. Taylor, but failed to qualify each time.  But he didn’t give up on his racing dreams, and returned to running sprints.  Later, he worked with Felix Sabates’ Team Sabco, working as a spotter, crew chief, and team manager.  Bristol 1988 was Noffsinger’s only NASCAR last-place finish.

Noffsinger and Curb both rejoined NASCAR in 1998, when Curb became a car owner in the Busch and Busch North Series.  That year, Noffsinger ran five races for Curb in the former an two in the latter, finishing a season-best 18th in the Busch North race at Loudon.  One of the drivers who shared Noffsinger’s #43 Curb Records Chevrolet in Busch competition that year was a 22-year-old Jimmie Johnson, who finished 33rd in the car at Homestead.  Following Noffsinger’s final Busch start at Richmond on September 11, 1998, he became a driving instructor for the Richard Petty Driving Experience, an owner-driver in USAC Triple Crown competition, and most recently a stunt driver in Jeff Gordon’s 2013 viral video “Test Drive.”

For more on Noffsinger, check out his website here.

Mike Curb would go on to field cars in a combined 336 Busch Series starts through 2013, scoring one thrilling victory with Johnny Sauter at Richmond on September 5, 2003.  He also entered 25 ARCA races from 2011 through 2013, scoring a victory with Kevin Swindell at Chicago on July 21, 2012.  In 2012, Curb returned to Cup competition for the first time since 1988, joining in the merger between HP Racing LLC and Whitney Motorsports to form Phil Parsons Racing.  The Fords driven by HP’s Michael McDowell were renumbered from #66 to Curb’s #98, and remained that way through the team’s eventual sale to Jay Robinson and Premium Motorsports in 2015.  Cole Whitt will run Premium’s #98 at Bristol this Saturday.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #98 in a Cup Series race since November 22, 1987, when Ed Pimm’s own turn in Mike Curb’s Sunoco Buick ended with a crash after 30 laps of the Atlanta Journal 500 at Atlanta.

32) #98-Brad Noffsinger / 1 lap / crash
31) #30-Michael Waltrip / 54 laps / engine
30) #68-Derrike Cope / 93 laps / overheating
29) #71-Dave Marcis / 142 laps / crash
28) #88-Rick Mast / 207 laps / crash / led 2 laps


Unknown said...

Don't pay any attention to Racing Reference stats on Curb Racing. They are completely messed up. For an accurate summary of Curb's NASCAR involvement, check out the Curb Racing article on Wikipedia. Most of it was written/compiled by me after a ton of research. For example, Curb was in the Busch/Nationwide Series from 1996–2010, not 1998–2013. The last race for his own team (not as a sponsor with ownership stake) was in 2011 at California with JR Fitzpatrick.

Matthew L. Lewis said...

Billy Hagan didn't return to the sport in 1989. He owned Sterling Marlin's #44 Piedmont Airlines Olds in 1988 ;)