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At '94 Brickyard, first race was just to get in

July 23, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

At '94 Brickyard, first race was just to get in
Drivers reminisce on chaotic 1994 Brickyard 400 qualifying

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Everybody knows how it ended, with members of the Rainbow Warrior crew hopping over the pit wall and into one another's arms, Jeff Gordon rolling into a Victory Lane so choked with people there was hardly room for the car, and the future four-time champion standing with both arms raised. But how it all started -- well, that's another story altogether. Because the race just to get into that inaugural NASCAR event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway two decades ago was every bit as frenzied as the race to win it.

Enough cars showed up to fill two full starting fields. Drivers came out of retirement. Open-wheelers slid into vehicles with fenders. Qualifying took hours, and practice was choked like midtown Manhattan during the evening commute. Everybody who could scrounge up a race car, it seemed, wanted to be a part of it. The prestige was massive. The money was huge. The pressure was enormous. With 83 teams trying to wedge their way into that first Brickyard 400, just making the race was a victory.

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"There were cars everywhere," remembered Bobby Labonte, who would go on to finish 16th.

"It was very chaotic," recalled Rick Mast, who won the pole.

For stock-car drivers, qualifying at Indianapolis has always been an adventure -- the notoriously temperature-sensitive track has long left competitors watching the sky for passing clouds that could mean the difference in 10 rows on the starting grid, critical on a narrow layout where most winners come from the front. That process takes on a new wrinkle this weekend, when group qualifying debuts on the 2.5-mile rectangle. But from a NASCAR perspective, nothing will ever beat 1994, and the crazy scramble which entailed enough entries to fill two races at Indianapolis, much less one.

Everyone knew it would be a big deal. That first Brickyard promised a huge payday, to the point where last-place finisher Jimmy Spencer would earn more in purse winnings at Indianapolis ($21,825) than Ricky Rudd would collect for finishing fifth the next week at Watkins Glen ($20,875). But the history-making aspect of that first NASCAR race, coming at a track which prior to that point had hosted only one event each year, turned grizzled drivers into little kids on Christmas eve. Everybody wanted to be a part of it.

"You're right in the middle of the explosion, and you didn't even know it," Mast said, referring to the tremendous growth NASCAR experienced around that time. "The Indy thing was just part of that explosion. And in the year leading up to it, that’s what it was all about -- the Indy race. And I'm talking drivers. I've never seen that much anticipation from drivers. … So when we got there, everybody who had a race car, or ever had a race car, or ever dreamed of having a race car, showed up with a race car."

 Did they ever. The great lion A.J. Foyt, who had been retired for over a year, was lured back to give it a go. So was Charlie Glotzbach, who had set that first speed record at Talladega back in 1969. So was Ken Bouchard, who hadn't started a premier-series event in five years. The ageless Hershel McGriff came from Oregon, the ageless James Hylton from South Carolina. Butch Gilliland, father of current Sprint Cup Series driver David, entered the race. So did open-wheelers Geoff Brabham, Danny Sullivan and Davy Jones, none of whom had ever raced a stock car, and Gary Bettenhausen, who hadn't raced one in two decades. Regional and touring series drivers showed up like deer flushed from the woods.

There were so many entries -- a total of 83 cars would take qualifying laps -- that the NASCAR regulars began to worry about just making the race. Understandably so, given that only three provisional spots were available at the time, and not even past series champions were guaranteed a spot.

"I was very nervous at the race, because I was one of those having to make the race on time at Joe Gibbs Racing," said Dale Jarrett, who won the event twice and will call Sunday's race for ESPN. "… I'll be quite honest -- I was as nervous in qualifying as I'd ever been. I wanted to be a part of that first Brickyard 400. To be quite honest, I think it's probably the most loose and out of control I ever drove in a qualifying lap that I didn't crash. But we made it, and that was important. It was just a huge weight lifted off our shoulders whenever we ran the time. We ended up (14th). It was tremendous, but the pressure was immense."

Ricky Rudd could relate. "It had a lot of people concerned about making the race, people that would normally make the race," said the 1997 winner. "Obviously at that time provisional spots were laid out a little bit differently.  There were quite a few Indy teams that put stock cars there for the first time -- never been in stock car races, but fielded a car for the first Brickyard 400. It was a little intimidating knowing how much pressure was on qualifying. Definitely it wasn't just about a starting place, it was about making the race. A lot of guys were concerned."

The setting only added to the anxiety. Then as now Indianapolis has its own unique set of policies and procedures, with an expansive cadre of yellow-shirted security officers in place to enforce them. There were certain gates to be used, certain passes which were required, and certain rules to be followed -- for instance, cars had to be pushed into the garage area rather than driven in. "Intimidation by the yellow shirt guys, intimidation by the race track, intimidation by can you make the race," Labonte called the experience. All this with 83 cars piloted by 83 nervous drivers, many of whom weren't exactly sure where to go.

"Heck, we'd never done anything like that," Mast added. "Half the time you'd forget and come in with the motor running, and they'd come down and chastise you. You'd have cars running everywhere, and pulling out in front of you, and you'd try to get on the race track and there's 50 cars sitting there waiting to go. Everything was like a pack of dogs chasing a piece of meat, and nobody sure of where to go. That to me added more to the confusion part than just the sheer numbers."

Still, the steer numbers were overwhelming. Kyle Petty told reporters on the scene that the track was "too crowded to practice." Qualifying itself was a marathon. "It felt like it took a week," Mast said. The first driver out was H.B. Bailey, a Houston native who had made just one premier-series start the past six years, at just after 3 p.m. local time. Mast went out  a half-hour later in 13th, and laid down a lap of 172.414 mph that bumped Dale Earnhardt off the provisional pole. With still over 50 cars remaining to go, the pride of Rockbridge Baths, Va., headed back to the garage area.

"I finally just laid down on the dadgum bench and took a nap," he remembered. "To hell with this, man. Everybody's walking around nervous. 'Y'all leave me alone. Lord a-mercy. I can't run another lap. We've done all we can do. Just chill out a little bit.' So I just went over to the bench and laid down. Took a nap, woke up, and they were still qualifying."

That first day of qualifying, 70 cars made attempts. Rick Bickle was among the 20 who secured spots in the event. "Many times I have seen crews exhibit far less joy after winning a race," wrote Charlotte Observer reporter Tom Higgins. NASCAR regulars like Terry Labonte, Harry Gant, Darrell Waltrip and Petty were among those who would have to try again the next day, when 54 drivers made second-round attempts. Foyt snagged the 40th starting spot, the final one awarded on speed. The third and final provisional went to Mike Case, then the points leader in what is now K&N Pro Series West. The last driver to try and qualify was also the first -- Bailey, who again came up short.

Dozens went home. Bettenhausen and Jones. McGriff and Hylton. Bouchard, Glotzbach and Gilliland. P.J. Jones and Stan Fox. Dick Trickle, Ron Hornaday, and Randy LaJoie. The pole winner Mast earned $50,000 and a new van, both of which he split with owner Richard Jackson. And the next day in the driver's meeting, all 43 fortunate starters received a stern message from NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. -- who might have been specifically addressing Mast and Earnhardt, the two men who would comprise the front row.

"He was looking right at me and Earnhardt, but was talking to everybody," Mast remembered. "He said, 'Boys, when they drop that green flag and all y'all get down in the first turn, do not screw up. We’re not coming up here and embarrassing ourselves in the first turn of the first lap at Indianapolis.'"

They didn't -- in fact the exact opposite happened, and a day capped by Gordon's dramatic and popular victory helped raise NASCAR to a new level. It was more than the sport could ever hope for, though for Mast, the afternoon remains bittersweet. "My car was just perfection then. Just perfection," he recalled. That was, until the fourth turn of the second lap, when he lost a cylinder and had to race the remainder of the day with seven instead of eight. He finished a deflating 22nd. "That kind of supersedes everything for me," he said.

And yet the legacy of that weekend remains. Even now, two decades later, Mast estimates that once a month he opens the mailbox to find a memento from that inaugural Brickyard race along with an autograph request. "It still comes up all the time," he said. Understandable, given that coming out on top of perhaps the craziest, most chaotic, and most nerve-rattling qualifying session in modern NASCAR history was quite an accomplishment in itself.

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