An Oral History of the '84 Firecracker 400
July 02, 2014, Matt Crossman, NASCAR Illustrated, NASCAR.com
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NASCAR has had days of great individual achievement. It has had days that pushed the sport into the national consciousness. But only once has it had both in the same day — the Firecracker 400 on July 4, 1984, at Daytona International Speedway.
That's the day when the King met the president.
On the Fourth of July, 1984, Richard Petty won his 200th race, President Ronald Reagan gave the command, "Gentlemen, start your engines" from Air Force One and the whole country seemed fascinated by both.
Thirty years later, the men involved still can't believe all that happened that day.
Prerace: It takes a lot of work to bring the president to the King.
MIKE CURB (Then: Owner of Richard Petty’s car; former lieutenant governor and acting governor of California; Now: owner, CURB Records): In 1983, I got a call from Bill France Jr. He said to me, "Mike, I thought you said when you were through being acting governor you were going to come back to NASCAR." I said, "You're right, and I still have my shop in Kannapolis. But I don’t have a driver." He said, "Are you sitting down?" I said, "I don’t need to sit down, if there's a driver you want in my car, just tell me."
In those days, if Bill France Jr. called, you said yes.
He said, "No, are you sitting down?" I said, "OK, I’m sitting down." He said, "I want to put Richard Petty in your car."
I said, "Why?" He said, "Did you see what happened in Charlotte?” (Petty’s car was determined to have an illegal engine after he won a race there in 1983, and his Petty Enterprises team was heavily penalized.)
I guess the decision was made, and I don’t know anything about it, except they made the decision that Richard would leave his family's team for a couple of years. They weren't ready to ban Richard Petty. It would be like banning Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick right now.
MIKE JOY (Then: MRN play-by-play broadcaster; Now: FOX Sports anchor): Richard was not expected to win anything that year. Frankly, they were not competitive. They got that win at Dover. I had people (saying to) me, "200 wins, the next win is 200." And I go, "Man, that’s going to be tough, because he’s just not competitive." People within the sport were telling me, "Don’t worry, he’ll get it."
I would not go so far as to say the fix was in either at Dover or at Daytona, and there still were tracks and still were places where Richard was really competitive. But by and large, he had seen his best days by the time that happened.
CURB: By now, I was in Washington, D.C., and I was the chairman of the National Finance Committee, working for Ronald Reagan. But I was allowed to keep my race team and my business because I wasn't taking any salary from the government.
We were in a meeting about what Ronald Reagan was going to do on the Fourth of July. There were probably seven people in the room with the president, talking about what his schedule would be. Somebody said, "It’s the Fourth of July, he shouldn't be making a political speech."
He was running for re-election. He was way ahead. He was going to lay a wreath at Arlington, and they were trying to think of something for him to do.
I said, "Mr. President, you used to love calling auto races when you were in Iowa. What about going down to Daytona?" He said, "I love NASCAR." By then, it had been on TV for a few years. We talked about the '79 Allison-Yarborough fight. He said, "Who are those two guys who got in the fight?" I could tell from talking to him that he knew about the race. He didn’t mention them by name, but he remembered the incident. So he had been watching NASCAR to some degree.
I said, "Why don’t you come to Daytona? The airport's right next to the speedway. They'd probably even let you call the race if you wanted to."
The people in the room were horrified. They thought I was crazy.
Then all of a sudden, President Reagan said, "You know, I think I would enjoy that."
Immediately, everybody in the room changed their mind. What a great idea!
So then I called Bill France Jr. and said, "Bill, are you sitting down?" He said, "Mike, if you have somebody you want to bring to the track, just tell me."
I said, "Bill, you made me sit down when you were telling me about Richard Petty driving my car. Now I want you to sit down, because I don't want you to collapse."
He said, "All right, I’m sitting down." I said, "The person I want to bring is Ronald Reagan. There's only one problem, I don't know how to arrange it."
Bill France said, "Well, I do."
JOHN McMULLIN (Then: president and general manager of MRN; Now: retired): The thing I remember about it is all the work leading up to the race. The Secret Service came in and interviewed people. They put up barriers leading up to the suite (where Reagan would watch the race) for protection.
DANNY "CHOCOLATE" MYERS (Then: crew member on Dale Earnhardt's team; Now: SiriusXM radio host): Back in those days, we spent a lot of time testing. We were at Daytona probably two or three weeks before the president got there. At that time, I didn't understand how big of a deal this was.
(Reagan's) security came into the race track that day. They took a camera and put it down in the manholes, and they were going into all the manholes looking to make sure it was all clear.
When they would bring the camera out of the manhole, they would put the manhole covers back on. There was a guy with a welder, and he would weld them shut so they would know if someone had been in them. That's when I knew how important that man was, the president. They searched under the race track.
Then we heard all the crazy stories that some of the Secret Service guys were (posing as) hot dog vendors. Were they? I have no idea.
JOY: My understanding is they even went so far as to borrow spare crew shirts for the Secret Service to wear so they would blend in, both during the race and at the barbecue, so they would blend in like race fans. Somebody dressed like Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in "Men in Black" and wearing a pair of aviators is going to kind of stand out like a sore thumb at a NASCAR race.
McMULLIN: At the time (the Indigo Hotel) was probably one of the best hotels around the speedway. Secret Service took residence there leading up to the race. I was told they absolutely destroyed that place — putting wires in, drilling holes in the wall for communications. The government paid to have the place rebuilt.
NED JARRETT (Then: MRN color analyst; Now: NASCAR Hall of Famer): I was contacted by Motor Racing Network a couple weeks in advance of the event, that he was coming, that I had been chosen, I guess, through a series of meetings they'd had, to be the person who would interview (Reagan) on the air on MRN.
I had to go to Daytona a couple days early to meet with the Secret Service. They had meetings upon meetings upon meetings. It was really interesting. They'd have 6 o’clock in the morning meetings, and they'd have another one at 8.
It just was incredible. But they wanted to be sure that everything was just perfect.
CHRIS WALLACE (Then: NBC chief White House correspondent; Now: "FOX News Sunday" host): I was the pool reporter, so I was on Air Force One. We were called up, which was very rare, to the front of the plane, to the presidential quarters, from the press area section in the tail of the plane so we could see the president on the telephone, say, "Gentlemen, start your engines." One, it was cool that he was starting the race on the telephone from Air Force One. Two, it was pretty unusual, very unusual in my case, that we were invited to the front of the plane. I think it was the only time that it happened in the six years that I covered President Reagan.
RICHARD PETTY (Then: driver of the No. 43 Pontiac; Now: Hall of Famer): We could hear him, they put him on the loudspeaker. Everyone was setting in the car waiting to go.
It was a fuzzy day. There was so much happening, so much going on — July the Fourth, president announced crank your engines. After that was over with, we forgot about the president. The racers were just out racing. We didn't realize what a big deal it was going to be.
WALLACE: I had never landed at the airport at Daytona. You feel like you're coming down on the race track. It was amazing. Because by the time we got there, it was the middle of the race. Cars are buzzing by, and it looks like you're going to land right on top of them, which was a totally amazing scene.
MIKE HELTON (Then: GM of Atlanta Motor Speedway and attended the race as fan; Now: NASCAR president): You could see the plane land. There was no grandstand in the back, so the airstrip was more visible than it is today. It was almost surreal.
It's like those moments that you get, whether you were watching Neil Armstrong step on the moon, or I remember as a kid, watching my father fly off on a commercial airplane for the first time, and just the "oh-my-goodness" part of watching something that’s so magnificent because you've never seen it before. I had never seen Air Force One or heard the president's voice live.
MYERS: I think I remember hearing Dale go, "Hey, the president in Air Force One is landing over here on the backstretch." He was able to see it.
There's no picture that’s ever been made any prettier than the one of the 43 going down the backstretch with Air Force One landing behind it.
JOY: The president was driven under the grandstand once he arrived, and he was taken up to the Frances' suite.
JARRETT: There was an open area behind the seating. I was just supposed to be standing back over there in the corner when he came in. Somebody was supposed to intercept him and take him to his seat. Well, the man walked in, he looked around and nobody was coming that way.
I was the only person who was in sight, standing back in the corner, trying to be out of the way. I thought, "That man's lost, I'm going to go over and help him." So I went over and introduced myself and he said, "Yeah, I understand we're going to talk on the radio after a while."
He had been briefed, to know my name once I introduced myself. About that time, the Secret Service rushed out there and grabbed him away from me and took him on in and sat down. I thought, "Uh-oh, they're going to fire me, I'm not going to work this deal. I did something I wasn't supposed to do." But it worked out fine.
McMULLIN: I think the president was kind of taken aback by how fast the cars were. Back then, that suite was probably 200 feet from the race track. It was close. You were maybe one level up from the top of the banking. You're right on top of those cars coming by. When you sit in that trioval, it's exciting to see those cars go by. You feel it. You felt the cars and the noise.
JARRETT: It was one of the highlights of my life to be chosen to do that and get to spend that time with the president. What a down to earth, neat person he was.
He made you feel so at home. You'd think that you'd be nervous and forget what you were even there to do — forget about what was going on on the race track. But he just made you feel so at home. He fit right in. We just had a big time in there. I think it was while we were on the air, I know he mentioned to me one time, "I understand that you have a son racing in this race." That was Dale's first race on a big track in what was then the Winston Cup Series. He had been briefed pretty well on the situation.
The race: Petty made a dash on the track to win and then a dash across it to celebrate.
PETTY: We'd been kind of loafing along there, me and Cale. Neither one of us was running wide open. We were just idling along, making time. Then just as we come across the start-finish line, we saw a car turning over down in the first corner (on the 198th of 200 laps). So both of us went wide open.
KEN RAGAN (Then: driver of the No. 77 Chevrolet, finished 26th): Petty and Cale Yarborough were coming. Back in those days, we raced back to the yellow flag. Whoever was going to lead that lap was going to be the winner.
JOY: Doug Heveron will always be the footnote to history that his wreck caused the run to, not the checkered flag, but to the caution flag, that gave Richard that win.
He was a good driver. He was an excellent super modified driver, maybe one of the best in those open-wheel super mods, and probably had a chance or two to go to Indy.
DOUG HEVERON (Then: driver of the No. 01 Chevrolet, finished 28th): I always say, if I didn't make it, at least I'll be a trivia question. There were three or four laps to go. I was pulling out to pass (another driver), and Benny Parsons was in my blind spot. I didn't know he was there. We didn't really have the best spotter. I pulled out, and he just caught my right rear bumper. It got me a little wormy. Of course, it went left, and I was skidding sideways. When the windshield left, I said, "Well, this isn't going to be a whole lot of fun."
The thing took off and just went up and landed on the driver's door. I had mud inside my helmet. I had an open-faced helmet then. There was mud everywhere. Thank God it rained, because I believe I hit my head on the ground.
The car came to a sliding halt. Petty and Yarborough were racing back. I walked over to a creek. I was kind of washing my hands and face off in it. I hope it was water.
There was a guy standing on a motorhome going, "Hey, hey, you want a beer?" I said, "No, I've got to go to the hospital first." He was wasted. I remember he had jeans on, no shirt, a beer. I remember the guy clear as a bell. It was funny as hell.
It knocked me silly a little bit. But did it hurt? Not really. I hit the wall in qualifying there at 199 mph one year head on. That hurt. A lot of people bring it up. It doesn't bother me. I'm glad I was part of it, that's for sure. I like telling the story. I think it's a hilarious story, actually.
YARBOROUGH (Then: driver of the No. 28 Chevrolet, finished third; Now: Hall of Famer): When the caution came out, I was too close to (Petty). I was right on his bumper. If it was the last lap, I would've been four or five car lengths behind him coming out of Turn 2. I was too close on his bumper to get a good slingshot move.
PETTY: (Yarborough) finally caught me at the end of the backstretch and drafted by me. When he did, he was going a little bit faster than he had been running, so he went up a little bit. I was able to fit in the opening and come under him. Then we just ran side by side. It was up to the cars then. Both of us had done all we could do.
RAGAN: They were beginning to catch me, fixing to lap me. I was trying to get out of the way, make sure I was down far enough to be out of the way because I knew they were racing back to the start-finish line. I could see in my mirror, they were leaning on each other. You could see smoke. I knew they were racing hard to get back to the line. They always show that replay on TV. You'll see us right in front of Richard as we cross the finish line.
I wanted to do all I could to stay out of the way. Yeah, I was pulling for Petty. I was a Cale Yarborough fan, too. But I knew one thing: I didn't want to be the driver who kept Petty from winning that race with the media and the hype and the president being there and Richard racing for his 200th win and all.
YARBOROUGH: I got caught out of position. But I made a run on him and got by. If I had that race to run over again, Richard would still be at 199. I would have gotten a little wider, taken up a little more room.
PETTY: From the middle of Turns 3 and 4, both of us just tried to keep from knocking each other completely out of the way and waited for the car to win. Until we got to the start-finish line, it was still anybody's race. We were just holding on. We beat him by two or three feet.
CURB: They were pushing on each other, Cale and Richard. We could not tell who won. I looked over to Bill France Jr. I said, "Who won?" He said, "Hold on. Hold on. They're going to call it. Hold on."
I said, "Did we win?" He said, "Hold on."
He joked about 1959 — the Lee Petty-(Johnny) Beauchamp situation where they called it wrong (at the end of the first Daytona 500). He said, "Wait until they call it."
He said, "Well, Mike, they're calling 43." It's a miracle that I'm alive, that I survived that.
Postrace: Just your average Fourth of July barbecue with President Reagan, Tammy Wynette and dozens of drivers eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in the garage area at Daytona International Speedway.
PETTY: As quick as the race was over, I stopped at the start-finish line and went up (into the suite) and talked to (Reagan).
HELTON: You could see the cowboy hat. He's grinning and waving. Then he kind of disappears because the crowd's all standing up. I can remember that just like the plane landing on the backstretch, those are the snippets that you register with when you're talking about that race.
That's when it transcended everything else. That moment. That's why I think I remember seeing the image of that white two-piece driving suit, with the cowboy hat and that mustache and that big grin and the sunglasses walking up through there. That's when I think I subconsciously said, "Oh my gosh, this has been one of those days."
CURB: He came up instead of going to victory lane. He came up through the crowd to the suite. That was done for security purposes. We were afraid that if something was going to go wrong, it was going to be in victory lane. It didn't seem like spraying any kind of liquid on the president was appropriate. We were thinking through everything. Reagan's the kind of guy who would have laughed.
WALLACE: When Reagan was in the room, he was the star. Not just because he was the president. He had a tremendous presence. But when he was there with Petty, you got the sense there were two stars in the room.
PETTY: I sat on one side of (Reagan) and Bobby Allison sat on the other side. Sitting with the president of the United States for July the Fourth dinner, a picnic. It was great.
We definitely didn't get into politics. I think we got into some of his history, where he'd come from. He'd been an announcer. I didn't know that.
It was one of those deals where it passed too fast, and we didn't take it all in. It was a big, big deal. I told him when it was all over he had done a pretty good job. He got NASCAR and the racing on the front page. We got him in the sports page. It worked out really good for both of us.
BOBBY ALLISON (Then: driver of the No. 22 Buick, finished fourth; Now: Hall of Famer): I got to speak to him a tiny little bit at that lunch deal. But that was a push-push, shove-shove type of deal. By then, we had a group of the PR guys that had become very important, at least in their own minds. They wanted the thing to be Richard Petty the King, and Ronald Reagan the president. But I got to speak with him a little bit.
JOY: Anybody who went had to be cleared by Secret Service. It was a very strict guest list. There were no add-ons after the fact. If you wanted to bring somebody, all of those names and Social Security numbers or whatever had to be vetted by the Secret Service well prior to the day of the event. They cordoned off the garage area. They wrapped the garage fence in an opaque plastic just to prevent prying eyes.
WALLACE: I did a little bit of research (recently) just to recollect. I thought it was great authentic fried chicken. I think it may have actually been Kentucky Fried Chicken. Which is certainly good but isn't quite as special as I remembered. But I remember it was absolutely delicious. I remember President Reagan on stage with Tammy Wynette as she sang "Stand By Your Man."
McMULLIN: I'll never forget it. I took my wife. My kids were with me. We're sitting 20 feet from the president of the United States. And we're all eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was probably one of the greatest things that I can ever remember being a part of. I remember a lot of details about it. The president (ate) something different. He wasn't eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even though they made it look like he was.
EDDIE GOSSAGE (Then: manager of racing for Miller Brewing; Now: president of Texas Motor Speedway): It was the first time Bobby (Allison) had been exposed to the White House press corps. It can be very disconcerting. They travel with the president, and they have areas where they're allowed to go into. It’s within shouting distance of the president. They will shout, literally, things at the president, to try to get him to respond.
So Reagan is sitting at this picnic table with Richard and Bobby and others. Sam Donaldson, I guess, made his mark as a White House correspondent because he had the loudest voice.
He was hollering while Reagan and Bobby and Richard and all them were having this picnic and talking. He's shouting the whole time with questions about, I don't even remember what it was, whatever the hot subject of the day was for this administration.
Reagan was ignoring him. Bobby finally had enough. He went over to Sam Donaldson and said, "If I hear you one more time, I'm going to knock you out." He said, "Have a little respect here. I don't want to hear you anymore."
Sam Donaldson zipped it.
The aftermath: "I've never had a moment in my life like that moment."
JOY: The whole sport after that walked around for several months with its chest puffed out. They had an event, and a celebration and a thrilling finish in front of the sitting president of the United States.
GOSSAGE: I would say it was a bigger deal than it would be today. No question. It gave, I don't want to say legitimacy, but the sport was not as widely accepted in 1984 as it is today, clearly, 30 years later.
JARRETT: You couldn't have scripted it any better. It was uncanny. And unbelievable. I'm just thankful that I was there.
HELTON: When you watched the news that night and saw the pomp and circumstance that the world attached to it, all of it, 30 years later, you're still sitting here saying, "Wow, I can't believe all of that happened."
When he came to Daytona that day, he brought the world with him, for us. That’s something you keep grinning about.
CURB: While (I'm talking) about it, my heart is beating at 100 miles per hour. I'm remembering each detail of it, remembering how close it came to not happening, how a lot of the president’s advisers were worried about his security, all the things people worry about.
It could have rained. Something could have happened and there could have been a national security issue and the president could have had to cancel, at which time Bill France Jr. might have never spoken to me again.
I honestly couldn't believe it. We've had other things happen in our life — like winning the championship with Earnhardt or we even won the Indianapolis 500 in 2011 with Dan Wheldon — but I've never had a moment in my life like that moment.