One of the biggest brawls among NASCAR pit crews was kick-started.
It happened on May 21, 1989, two decades ago, at Charlotte Motor Speedway moments after conclusion of an all-star race then named The Winston.
Nowadays, the track is known as Lowe’s Motor Speedway and the event, scheduled Saturday night, as the Sprint All-Star Race.
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As ’89 winner Rusty Wallace drove off pit road and slowed to maneuver into Victory Lane, crewman Sandy Jones of arch rival Darrell Waltrip’s team gave Wallace’s Pontiac a kick in the right rear quarter panel.
Instantly, it was on.
Arms flailed. Fists flew. Feet kicked. Teeth bit.
The crews of Wallace’s Raymond Beadle-owned team and Waltrip’s Hendrick Motorsports-fielded outfit lit into each other.
The incident led to some of the juiciest quotes in NASCAR history.
But this is getting ahead of the story
Then as now the race was split into three segments. In ’89 the first increment of 75 laps was won by Wallace. The second segment of 50 laps was taken by Waltrip.
A 10-lap dash for a $200,000 winner’s prize thus was set up at the 1.5-mile track.
Waltrip whipped his Chevrolet to a .38 second lead, but with just over a lap to go the Pontiac-driving Wallace caught him.
In Turn 4, Wallace’s right-front fender made contact with Waltrip’s left-rear. It appeared a light touch, but it was enough to send Waltrip spinning for 300 yards into the grass between pit road and the racing surface as Wallace took the lead.
NASCAR officials ordered a yellow flag. Since caution laps didn’t count in The Winston, a lap of racing was left when the field went back under green.
Wallace was the leader, with Chevy drivers Ken Schrader and Dale Earnhardt lined up 2-3. Ford stars Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki completed the top five. Waltrip, who had pitted for four fresh tires, was pinned back in the field.
Wallace got a fine restart and took the checkered flag .23 seconds ahead of Schrader with Earnhardt a bit further back.
Rusty hardly slowed on the so-called “cool down” lap because he knew Waltrip would be coming after him. And he was, fast as his car would go.
Wallace got onto pit road and turned to enter Victory Lane before Waltrip could catch him.
Darrell didn’t get to punt Rusty, but Sandy Jones did.
Wallace’s gleeful team, led by crew chief Barry Dodson, was arriving to celebrate with Rusty about this time and saw the kick.
The fuse had been lit for a fight that had a crowd estimated at 84,000 roaring in delight and encouragement.
After about a minute or a little more, NASCAR officials and track security personnel were able to separate the two crews.
They stopped the melee, but couldn’t quite the mouthing.
“I hope Rusty chokes on that $200,000!” said a furious Waltrip. “He knocked the hell out of me. A lot of guys let greed overcome speed. I had him pretty well covered.”
Countered Wallace: “I barely touched him. I didn’t intentionally wreck him. I ran out of racing room. He ran out of racing room. It happened on the most treacherous part of that corner. That’s why he went around so easy. I stand on that.
"I’d be crazy just to drive up behind a guy and wreck him intentionally in front of God and everybody.
“If you’re out for a gentleman’s drive on Sunday afternoon you don’t need to be in this race.”
Waltrip had this to say: “Rusty said after a race here last year that if he could have gotten a bumper to me he would have taken me out. Today he did. At least he lives up to his word.
“I haven’t seen Rusty yet. I’d say if I never did I’d probably be just as well off. You don’t ever want to get in an argument with a fool.”
Waltrip’s crew chief, Jeff Hammond, now is a member of the Fox TV team, along with Waltrip, working NASCAR telecasts. In the minutes after the ’89 Winston, Hammond initially tempered his remarks.
Then he spoke.
“What Rusty did was a bush league move,” said Hammond. “Anybody can wreck another driver with a race car. It doesn’t take a lot of finesse.
“Rusty had been trying to get under Darrell, and that one time, coming off the fourth corner. He just stood in the gas and never lifted.”
Waltrip’s teammates generally backed Jones’ kick.
Schrader and Earnhardt were asked their views of what happened in Turn Four that day.
“If I could have caught Rusty I might have done the same thing to him,” said Schrader. “He would have known it. You go in knowing stuff like this is going to happen in The Winston.”
Said Earnhardt: “I saw a lot of smoke. I’m not getting in the middle of this. But I would like to have been up there with Darrell and Rusty in the middle of all that heat, going for the win.”
Added Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s team owner: “I’m with Rusty on this one. If I was still driving and in that situation, I’d probably spin out Dale Earnhardt if I could.”
About an hour after the race Wallace was escorted to the press box by a sizable security contingent for the winner’s interview.
Rusty was met by not only the media, but by officials of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, sponsors of both the all-star race and the season-long Winston Cup series. The RJR people were jubilant, drinking champagne from the bottle. They were celebrating because they knew the wild finish and fight were going to bring them nationwide exposure.
Wallace insisted there was no heavy contact between his car and Waltrip’s.
“My car doesn’t have a scratch on it,” Wallace steadfastly maintained.
This was confirmed by NASCAR Winston Cup director Dick Beaty.
Wallace’s green and white Pontiac might not have sustained any marks, but some crewmen in the melee did, getting slight bumps, bruises and — in one case — a little bit worse.
Barry Dodson had accompanied Wallace to the press box and, in a private interview, he uttered what to me ranks among the most memorable quotes I heard in a motorsports writing career now in its 52nd year.
Still seething, Dodson said, “During the fight, somebody almost bit off my little brother John’s ear. I think that’s very unprofessional.”