Nearly three decades later, Waltrip & Hammond reflect on magical 1985 season
Darrell Waltrip won the race on the last turn of the last lap in The Winston All Star race, blowing his motor as he crossed the finish line. Car owner Junior Johnson (L) appeared in victory lane with Waltrip's wife, Stevie at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 25, 1985 in Concord, N.C.
"Junior (Johnson) came on the radio and said, ‘Darrell, do you want to win $50,000 or do you want to win $200,000? You better get up on that wheel.’ Something clicked in my brain and I drove the car like I’d never driven it before."
Those are the words of NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip regarding radio communication with car owner Junior Johnson en route to winning the inaugural NASCAR SPRINT ALL-STAR RACE, held in 1985 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Waltrip a longtime NASCAR on FOX analyst, followed it up the next day with a win in the COCA-COLA 600 and his third season championship a few months later.
This year’s NASCAR SPRINT ALL-STAR RACE, live on FOX Sports 1 on Saturday, May 17 (7:00 PM ET), marks the 30th running of the winner-take-all "dash for cash." Nowadays, instead of $200,000, a $1 million carrot dares a driver to get up on the wheel. But even nearly three decades later, Waltrip, a three-time NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES champion, still ranks the 1985 NASCAR SPRINT ALL-STAR RACE among his most cherished accomplishments.
"I’d put it in the top five or six wins of my entire career because it was the first one ever held," Waltrip said. "There can only be one first-time winner. You always want to win a new event and do something nobody else has done before. That alone makes it pretty special."
Before the first Victory Lane celebration had even concluded, Waltrip and crew chief Jeff Hammond already had set the standard for the work ethic and pride teams showcase in the annual event.
"The effort we put into winning that first race will always stick in my mind because we never worked that hard on another car except for the Daytona 500," recalled Hammond, who led Waltrip to the 1982 and ’85 championships and now serves as a NASCAR on FOX analyst. "To come back and win the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday made that whole weekend unbelievable. It always will be not just a page, but a chapter in my history book because of what went into it."
Despite the blood and tears that built Hammond’s Junior Johnson-owned car for Saturday’s race, they still had to sweat out the closing laps while pit strategy played out.
"We had a 10-lap window in which we had to pit near the end of the race," Waltrip recounted. "Harry Gant and Travis Carter had opted to pit as soon as the window opened, so they got their tires early. Junior (Johnson) and Hammond decided to pit on the last lap of that window and take our tires late. By then, Harry had such a huge lead when I came out of the pits that it seemed insurmountable with such a short amount of time to catch him. Then Junior came on the radio and said, ‘Darrell, do you want to win $50,000 or do you want to win $200,000? You better get up on that wheel.’ Something clicked in my brain and I drove the car like I’d never driven it before and was able to catch him in those last few seconds."
"Darrell was giving all he could, but it seemed like he dug a little deeper when he got that pep talk," Hammond stated. "When Harry started off turn 4 on the final lap, it looked like Darrell had 1,000 horsepower. It was a good thing we didn’t have a big screen on pit road back then because I don’t think we could have handled watching it unfold. We could hear the crowd screaming but didn’t know exactly what had occurred until we heard the PA making the announcement, ‘Darrell Waltrip to the outside of Harry Gant down the back straightaway. Darrell Waltrip is in the lead!’ The moment Darrell came off of turn 4 was one of the most exciting and memorable of my career."
Riding a high from winning RJ Reynolds’ exhibition race, Waltrip and company thought their hotrod could go two-for-two the next day in the 600, and contend it was their understanding from NASCAR that they could race their All-Star car in the 600 as long as they started from the rear of the field. With that in mind, the crew got to work repurposing it for Sunday’s marathon.
"I loved the All-Star car, and after we won, we knew we’d be stupid not to run it in the 600," Waltrip explained. "It was the fastest thing there, so why not run it?"
"We started cannibalizing the 600 car to put the hubs and brakes on the All-Star car and all the little things we needed to be able to run 600 miles, including the engine and the rear gear," Hammond said. "Well, NASCAR checked the rulebook a bit more because we were informed Sunday morning about 8:30 that we couldn’t run it. We had that car almost ready to race."
"Junior was livid and told Hammond to load up the cars; we were going home because we didn’t have time to swap the motors again," Waltrip recalled. "Since Junior was used to winning and we hadn’t won yet in ’85, that had seemed to push him over the edge. He’d had enough and was serious about loading up — he didn’t make idle threats. But since we had been so good on Saturday, Hammond and I knew it was imperative to calm him down so we could run the 600."
"We were in the points race and there was too much at stake," Hammond said. "We told the crew what happened and everybody grumbled for a little while but then had to hurry because the race was starting in four hours. We started stripping that car and worked as hard as I’ve ever worked with a group of men in my life to undo what we’d already done. We rolled it out on the line as they were playing the National Anthem. We took that car and kicked their butts with it."
According to the duo, who together won 43 Sprint Cup points-paying races, backing up their All-Star Race win the next day in the COCA-COLA 600, Waltrip’s third of a record five, was the turning point of their season.
"Bill (Elliott) had such a huge points lead on us, but from that race on, we knew we could beat him if we just worked harder," Waltrip related. "That weekend pole vaulted us and gave us the momentum and motivation we needed to fight Bill."
"We knew how good we were Saturday, so we had confidence we could win in 600 miles," Hammond reflected. "You hate to leave a prize like that on the table just to prove a point. Our point was better proven by taking a car that we felt was not as good as what we had on Saturday and kicking their butts with it on Sunday. That weekend was the pivotal moment in our ’85 championship run and had as much to do with us winning it as anything."
Also near and dear to the two men’s hearts was the fact they were a part of helping RJ Reynolds establish a racing tradition unique to NASCAR — one that has stood the test of time.
"That race was huge because of what RJ Reynolds did for the fans," Hammond said. "They took racing to a different level when it came to recognizing their superstars. When they started saying their drivers were ‘all-stars’ and gave fans the opportunity to meet them and to watch a ‘trophy dash,’ which any fan who has been to a local short track understands, they began changing the perception of what NASCAR racing was at that time. That was huge for the sport."
While the sponsors, owners and drivers in the NASCAR SPRINT ALL-STAR RACE have changed since 1985, the dogged determination to win on the home turf and the ingenuity employed in doing so still resonate today.
"That race was a testament to what our sport really is all about," Hammond said. "The weekend embodied what the heart and soul of what NASCAR truly is — technology, determination and creativity of people trying to make something special, and digging in to make the most of it."
Waltrip is right — there can only be one first-time winner. But for the 22 drivers (as of May 7, 2014) vying for the $1 million on May 17, the 30th time is nearly as sweet as his first.
Note: The NASCAR SPRINT SHOWDOWN, the last-chance qualifier for the NASCAR SPRINT ALL-STAR RACE, also airs live on FOX Sports 1 on Friday, May 16, at 7:00 PM ET. For a complete FOX Sports 1 â 10 Days of Thunder programming schedule, click http://foxs.pt/1mwsvDm