The NASCAR Monster Energy All Star race will be conducted this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway and it will be the latest in a series of special, exhibition events that have taken place since 1985.
The race has provided some of the most dramatic, exciting moments in NASCAR’s history.
That’s largely because of its format. It’s changed so many times over the years it is hard to keep track. But suffice it to say that the structure of the race – including segments, pit stops, inverted starts and a 10-lap free-for-all for a finish – is designed to provide controlled mayhem.
And for the most part, it’s worked.
It wasn’t always like that, however.
The first race, called The Winston by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. – NASCAR’s prime sponsor and creator of the all-star event – was something of a simple affair.
The format was simple. The race would be held among the 12 winners from the 1984 season. That’s all. It would be 70 laps in distance with no segments, breaks or anything else, at Charlotte.
It was much like the Busch Clash that began at Daytona a few years earlier. It was a short race open to pole winners only.
In 1985, the number of victories in 1984 determined starting positions. There was no full-scale qualifying.
Therefore, 1994 champion Terry Labonte was accorded the pole position. Alongside him was Darrell Waltrip, who was in his fourth season with team owner Junior Johnson.
Waltrip immediately took the lead when the race started. However, there was a $10,000 bonus for the driver who led the 20th lap and Labonte made sure he collected the money when he passed Waltrip down the backstretch.
Pit stops, which were necessary because of the race’s length, began on lap 31 when Harry Gant, driving for Hal Needham, went down pit road.
After the cycle of stops ended, Gant held a comfortable lead over Labonte and Waltrip.
Suddenly, Waltrip became inspired.
“Junior got on the radio and asked me if I wanted the $200,000 to win or $75,000 for second place,” Waltrip said. “I decided to give it my all.”
Sure enough, Waltrip began to cut away at Gant’s lead. It was a steady process as Gant had older tires.
On the last lap Waltrip slipped by Gant in turn four to win by 0.31-second and create an anticipated dramatic finish to the first all-star race.
But then came the unexpected – and accompanying controversy.
Just as he crossed the finish line the engine in Waltrip’s Chevrolet blew in a huge plume of smoke. It was almost as if it had been timed to happen.
Immediately the conspiracy theorists began to rumble. They determined that Waltrip raced with illegal, oversized engine – something Johnson was certainly capable of providing – and then mashed the clutch at the finish line to avoid detection.
If NASCAR suspected anything there was nothing it could do about it. How does it inspect a blown engine?
For his part Waltrip, who was $200,000 richer, said only that his engine was designed for ultimate power and a short lifetime.
“Before the race the boys told me not to run it any harder than I had to,” he said. “It wasn’t going to last long.”
That didn’t halt suspicions, which continue to this day.
The Winston was deemed a success. But there were issues.
At first it was decided the event would be held at multiple tracks so all of them could share in the glory and anticipated income.
But Charlotte remained steadfast. It declared that with its marketing skills and noted penchant for creating splashy spectacles it should remain home to the all-star race. It only made sense.
But Reynolds decided the race should share the wealth. Thus it was moved to Atlanta in 1986.
The number of laps was increased to 83 but there were only 10 entrants – all winners from 1985.
The race was an unadulterated snoozer. Bill Elliott led all but one lap – Dale Earnhardt got credit for leading lap 40 on pit road – and went on to win by more than two seconds.
The inaugural The Winston drew 110,000 fans at Charlotte. Only 18,500 attended at Atlanta.
There was a good reason why. The Atlanta race was held on Mother’s Day. NASCAR never raced on that day and still doesn’t.
It’s one thing to take dad to a race. It’s quite another to take mom. Take her to brunch.
The race returned to Charlotte the next year and has been held at the track ever since. There’s no longer any talk of moving it.
Over the years there have been multiple format changes and entry requirements.
They, among other things,have helped make the race better and bigger than could have been imagined in 1985.
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