Talk about Culture Shock. Sure, the names were familiar—Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip—all latter-day saints (or sinners) of NASCAR's Winston Cup stock car series. And the turns on the track were among the most famous (or infamous) in American motor sports history—the Ninety, the Esses, the Loop. But the turns are legendary among road-racing fans, who for four decades swarmed the autumn slopes of Watkins Glen to watch the U.S. Grand Prix for Formula One cars. Now here were the Deep South's roundy-rounders in the jungle heat of midsummer, racing flat-out on the killer road course. What was all this?
It was the third annual Budweiser at the Glen, that's what it was, and as exciting and suspenseful a race as any the venerable circuit has ever witnessed. And after an estimated 100,000 fans joyously rebel-yelled themselves hoarse at the hairbreadth finish, the race had firmly established NASCAR's foothold north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Though there were a track-record eight caution periods that lasted more than a third of the race's 90 laps (nearly 90 of 218 total miles), nobody complained. Certainly not Ricky Rudd, who just barely staved off a bumper-bending charge by Rusty Wallace in a Pontiac to push his Buick home first.
"Rusty hit my back bumper such a lick he turned me sideways," Rudd said later. "But he got out of shape too. He was coming on the outside so I gave him the dirt. I was just trying to keep enough momentum so even if I did spin, I'd cross the finish line ahead of him...." Rudd did, staying barely in control through a miasma of burnt oil, dirt and chawed-up grass to win his ninth career Winston Cup race, and $49,625, by a half second.
Wallace pulled it back together to take second, ahead of Elliott. Twenty-two cars (out of 40 starters) finished the race on the same lap as the winner—a Winston Cup record for any course, road or oval—and there had been 13 lead changes among 10 drivers. But clearly not all NASCAR regulars were happy with road courses. "Road racing! What's that?" griped Davey Allison. "There ain't no room to do nothing when something happens. If you get on the grass, you're in the wall. If you try to get through it, you get in it."
Wallace, however, wasn't whining. "I did everything I could," he said. " Rudd was real slow on the last lap. He blocked me, but that was the thing to do." Like so many drivers, Wallace had more flat tires than he could overcome. "Three or four of them. I could run hard for a couple of laps with new tires," he said, "but I couldn't keep it up. I was afraid we'd wreck a tire. On that last lap, I got so far behind I about killed myself trying to catch up." Said Terry Labonte, who seemed set to be in the middle of the final-lap fray until he crashed into the car in front of him, "What you got is a bunch of guys who can't stay on the darn racetrack and throw rocks up on the track. They cut your tires, that's the problem."
For the sweating, sunburnt fans, though, that was half the fun. Sweltering in a smog of beer suds and barbecue smoke, pumped with adrenaline as the thundering stockers slid and spun in front of them, the spectators nonetheless maintained their decorum—a refreshing change from the Glen crowds of yore. The Grand Prix races had been held in October, often under cold, slashing rain that turned the infield to a quagmire. Toilets were few and foul, "rent-a-cops" surly at the gates. The Bog, a gooey hellpit near the south end of the track, harbored hordes of college-age vandals who could have ridden with Attila. In their most notorious act, the Bog People captured a bus chartered by Brazilian race fans in 1973, sent them packing in horror, then sank the bus in the Bog and burned it—bag and baggage.
The track went bankrupt after the 1980 race. Grass sprouted through the neglected and frost-heaved pavement. Then Corning Glass Works and Bill France Sr.'s International Speedway Corporation bought the Glen in 1983 for a fire-sale price. The new Watkins Glen International, Inc. pumped $5 million into the facility; the track was repaired and already half of it has been totally re-paved. New toilets—and plenty of them for a change—actually worked. Watkins Glen International hoped to attract campers and a "family ambience." It has. When the NASCAR stock cars took the green flag in August 1986, a new mood was established: Rebel flags. Yankee accents, phalanxes of RVs and wide-eyed youngsters were everywhere. No more Bog People. The Bog itself was filled in and for a while a "petting zoo," of all things, operated on the site.
One observer last Sunday was most impressed with the new Glen scene. Vladimir Sukhoi, a New York-based political reporter for Pravda (circulation 10.7 million), was on hand to report the race—the first Soviet journalist ever to cover an American motor sports event. Sukhoi, alternately stone-faced or wide-eyed depending on whether the caution flag was flying or not, watched the race from the press box. "What a finish!" he said when the checkered flag fell. "The Russian people would like this."
Rudd, who started fifth on the grid, admitted he had been tempted to duel for the lead in the early going but conserved his car instead. "I could have gone out and run with the leaders early on and looked good on national TV," he said later. "But you pay a price for that." Instead, he waited for his chance. It came with just four laps left, on the restart after the final yellow flag, which had been caused by Hershel McGriff's spin into the guardrail at the Esses. "I was faster than Rusty on three fourths of this track, but he was strong from Turn 5 [of the Glen's 2.428-mile short course's seven turns] to the finish. My-tires weren't as fresh as his—I'd changed them about 40 laps from the end. But track position was more important than new rubber."