News & Media

Aumann: Vegas brings legitimacy to Truck Series

March 08, 2012, Mark Aumann,

The 400-mile Sprint Cup race on Sunday will draw the biggest crowd this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But it wasn't that long ago that NASCAR's Vegas headliners were driving pickup trucks.

The Truck Series hit the Strip two full years before the Cup cars made their Vegas debut. And the 1996 Carquest 420K -- which established series records for attendance, purse money, entries and average speed -- was perhaps the race which "legitimized" the series in the eyes of many observers.

1996 Carquest 420K

Results: Top 10
2. Bill Elliott Ford
3. Joe Ruttman Ford
4. Michael Waltrip Ford
5. Dave Rezendes Ford
6.Robby Gordon Chevrolet
7.Mike Skinner Chevrolet
8.Ken Schrader Chevrolet
9.Bryan ReffnerFord
10.Ron Hornaday Chevrolet
21.Harry Gant Chevrolet
28.A.J. Foyt Ford
29.Ernie Irvan Ford
39.Geoffrey Bodine Ford

After running short tracks and flat, mile ovals, Las Vegas was the first time the trucks had attempted to run on a banked intermediate track. Owen Kearns, longtime series publicist and senior manager of sport services for NASCAR, said for everyone involved, "it was a really big deal to get to race there."

It was a big deal for the teams, as 61 trucks were entered. The field included six Daytona 500 winners: Bill Elliott, Ernie Irvan, Darrell and Michael Waltrip, Geoffrey Bodine and A.J. Foyt. It took a pair of qualifying sessions -- led by Brian Reffner's pole-winning lap of nearly 158 mph -- and a last-chance race to set the 40-truck field.

It was a big deal for the fans, as well, as more than 51,000 showed up to see how the trucks would handle such high speeds.

"If you look back at the pictures, aerodynamically they certainly don't look like they do now," Kearns said. "They look pretty much like stock pickup trucks, pretty square. When they decided to do Daytona is when they really changed the aero.

"Even when we went to Texas the next year in 1997 -- the one that Kenny Irwin won and rookies finished first, second and third -- the trucks were basically stock."

It was even a big deal for Dale Earnhardt, who was there to celebrate a championship as owner of Ron Hornaday's Chevrolet.

Unfortunately, the racing didn't live up to expectations. Once the green flew, the trucks quickly settled into a single-file running order, and Kearns remembers it being "relatively incident-free."

The race eventually came down to a two-truck battle between Jack Sprague in one of Rick Hendrick's Chevrolets and Irvan, driving a Ford he co-owned with Mark Simo. The two had swapped the lead several times, with Irvan grabbing the lead on Lap 110 and maintaining his advantage over Sprague.

However, Irvan's engine began to sputter on Lap 147. As Sprague went by for the lead, Irvan turned into the garage. Despite a late charge from Elliott, Sprague was able to hold on by two truck-lengths for his fifth victory of the year -- all on tracks of a mile or longer -- and take home a series-record winner's share of $80,125.

The average speed of the race: a blistering 120.782 mph -- faster than all but five pole-winning speeds during that season.

And Sprague's win was part of a budding rivalry between some of NASCAR's biggest teams, one that carried down from the Cup level, Kearns said.

"Jack had probably as good equipment as anybody in the series, racing for Hendrick," Kearns said. "But it was a great war in those years between [Jack] Roush and Rick and Earnhardt. And you had Richard Petty's team in there, as well. And Darrell Waltrip's team almost won a championship."

The race was the final hurrah for a pair of veteran drivers. Foyt finished 28th, closing the books on a 40-year career that included four Indianapolis 500 wins, seven USAC national championships and the 1972 Daytona 500. And ageless Harry Gant -- who won eight Cup races after the age of 50 -- finished 21st in his last NASCAR appearance.

Hornaday finished 10th to wrap up the overall championship, beating Sprague by 53 points. One year later, it would be Sprague's turn to celebrate a title at Las Vegas.

"Vegas figured in that great championship finish between Hornaday and Sprague the next year," Kearns said. "It's just always been a great place for the Trucks."

Since its debut in 1996, the Truck Series has raced once at year every year at Las Vegas except for 2000. The race served as the season finale for three years: 1996-98. The 16th series race at Vegas will be held on Sept. 29.