1987 "Pass in the Grass" a Defining Moment
Twenty years ago the now legendary "pass in the grass" was born.
No still photograph of the famous maneuver by Dale Earnhardt in the 1987 NASCAR all-star race at Lowe's Motor Speedway is known to exist; instead, it has been recreated by motorsports artists. And the story of the incredible car control Earnhardt exhibited that day has been retold numerous times through the last two decades with, as happens with legends, a bit of embellishment.
The "pass in the grass," which actually wasn't a pass, became the defining moment of that year's all-star event. It was the first time the race consisted of three segments; 75, 50 and 10 laps. And it was those final 10 laps that caused sparks to fly.
The NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, then known as The Winston, had been anything but an all-star quality event in its first two years. Darrell Waltrip won the first ho-hum event, blowing the engine in his Junior Johnson-prepared Chevrolet as he received the checkered flag at Charlotte.
The following year, the race moved to Atlanta. Bill Elliott won that race, but attendance was dismal for the Mother's Day event.
For 1987, the race returned to Charlotte and a new format was instituted.
The pre-race ceremonies contained all of the pageantry for which the H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler-run track has become well known. It was an electrifying environment that left the drivers' adrenalin in overdrive. However, when the race finally received the green flag, Elliott, who started on the pole, humbled the field in the first two segments, leading 121 of the 125 laps in Harry Melling's No. 9 Coors Ford.
It was the final 10 laps, however, that transformed the all-star race into the spectacle for which it is known today.
All of the final 10 laps had to be run under green-flag conditions.
When the field came off Turn 4 for the start of the 10-lap shootout, Elliott was on the pole; Geoff Bodine in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was on the outside of the front row; Kyle Petty was third in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford; and Earnhardt sat fourth in the familiar No. 3, blue and yellow, Wrangler Chevrolet owned by Richard Childress.
The pace car was slow getting onto pit road and that hampered Elliott on the restart. Bodine got the jump on the Georgia native, but in the first and second turns, Bodine and Elliott collided. Bodine spun, but didn't make contact with anything and Earnhardt, who had moved into third, darted to the inside and into the lead.
"We were all trying to get to the same place at the same time," Elliott recalled. "Because the caution car turned off at the last minute, he was in my way when the green flag dropped. Bodine beat me to Turn 1. When he tried to cut down, Earnhardt and I got together and he (Bodine) spun. When I checked up, Earnhardt beat me to the flag and from then on the race was on."
With that incident, the bell had definitely rung on the fight's final round. Bodine pitted for fresh tires as the field prepared for the restart.
"When I pitted, I pushed my radio button and asked who ran into me," Bodine said recently. "Rick Hendrick came on the radio and said, 'Earnhardt.' I was seeing blue and yellow. I was on a mission."
When they lined up for the restart, Earnhardt was on the pole with Elliott beside him. "Every time I tried to pass him, he cut me off right and left," Elliott said about Earnhardt's tactics that day.
Seven laps from the finish an attempt by Earnhardt to squeeze Elliott into the frontstretch grass failed and, instead, sent Earnhardt careening into the grass. Earnhardt, however, kept his car heading straight, plowing through 150 feet of grass, and returned to the track in a remarkable driving feat that kept him in the battle with Elliott; a move that elicited a collective gasp in the press box and was dubbed "the pass in the grass."
"The way the tri-oval is shaped at Charlotte you can give a guy the inside or not. If you want to cut the corner, you can," Elliott said in talking about the race 20 years later. "I had the run on him coming off four. I was already up to his left-rear wheel when he turned left to try to cut me off. Instead, it turned him into the grass. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but from then on, he was ticked off because it looked like I was trying to spin him, which I wasn't.
"I blame it on hype more than anything. Had the last segment started like it should have, they wouldn't have known which way I went."
Not a fan was sitting and the raucous cheering that mushroomed from the frontstretch grandstand rose above the roar of the thundering engines.
Earnhardt's miraculous save was merely the opening act. One lap later, as the two raced into Turn 3, Elliott knew what was on Earnhardt's agenda.
"When we came off Turn 2, he went to the inside and let me go to the outside and I knew what was going to happen when I got to Turn 3," Elliott recalled. "I tried to stay square with him instead of giving him the opportunity to get into my left rear. I knew he was going to spin me when I got to Turn 3. He didn't pull over and let you by for any good reason."
Elliott stayed even with Earnhardt and in Turns 3 and 4 Earnhardt carried Elliott to the wall. Elliott's Ford suffered a cut left-rear tire.
Earnhardt maintained he never touched Elliott, but Elliott contended it was that maneuver that crumpled his left fender, causing the cut tire. A lap later, Elliott had to pit for a new tire and that left him 14th in the rundown. Earnhardt went on to win, but the confrontations weren't over.
On the cool-down lap, Bodine was still determined to get even with Earnhardt for the spin at the start of the final 10 laps.
"We crossed the finish line and I'm still pretty mad at Earnhardt," Bodine said recently. "I body-slammed him. That's when Rick came on the radio and said, 'No. It was Elliott. It was Bill Elliott (who hit you).'
That's when I waved at him like I was congratulating him. I tried to tell everyone in the red truck (NASCAR's mobile office) that I was congratulating Dale for winning, but they didn't buy it."
After Bodine's run-in with Earnhardt, Elliott blocked Earnhardt as they exited Turn 1. On the backstretch, Elliott turned into Earnhardt on the outside, forcing him to hit his brakes so hard that smoke billowed from his car's tires. Elliott then cut off Earnhardt at the pit road entrance and at the garage entrance he again turned toward Earnhardt, forcing him to move to the outside of pit road. This occurred in front of Earnhardt's crew, which had pitted just one space away from Elliott's. Fists were shaken and words exchanged, but no one came to blows.
"It was probably the maddest I've ever been in my career," Elliott said 20 years later. "I waited for him on the backstretch and gave him a love tap, because I was fed up with his crap. He bent the fenders on my race car, and I had to go back and fix it. I was tired of it! This was as far as he was going to push me!
"I told (Winston Cup Director Dick) Beaty that he (Earnhardt) had just stolen $200,000 from my race team and that's why I was so mad about it.
When I went into the meeting after the race with Bill France Jr. and Beaty, France looked at Beaty and said, 'You better get him calmed down before next week.'"
Elliott regained his composure before the Coca-Cola 600 the following week, appearing at a press conference with Beaty to announce the fines imposed by NASCAR. Earnhardt was fined $2,500 and placed under a $7,500 bond, which would be returned over the next seven races, starting with the Coca-Cola 600, if no other incidents occurred. Elliott's penalty was identical. Bodine was fined $1,000 and had to post a $4,000 bond, which would be returned over four races, provided there were no other incidents.
"Dale isn't here to defend himself and that is unfortunate," Elliott said. "I'll give Dale credit, he was a master at what he did, but that day he could have hurt me or a lot of guys in the field. I always tried to race everyone fair and square. I wish they would come up with a format that would give the fans what they want and take care of the drivers' safety."
Earnhardt received threats after the race and giant billboards sporting the faces of Earnhardt and Elliott that had been used in pre-race ceremonies were vandalized. Elliott and Earnhardt didn't carry the ill feelings into Coca-Cola 600 weekend, but Earnhardt and Bodine did.
The confrontations between the two during Saturday's Busch Series race and the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday resulted in both men being summoned to Daytona Beach, Fla., for a meeting with France; an event that was chronicled in the movie "Days of Thunder." It also was the beginning of the strong friendship that existed between France and Earnhardt until Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
"Dale and I both got our butts chewed out," Bodine said about the meeting. "Bill France said if we didn't do it his way, he would find a way to make us do it his way. That stopped Dale from doing all of that bumping for quite a while. It slowed him down and kept peace on the track for a couple of years, then it started again. That was just his style-bump-and-run."
Another chapter in the exciting history of the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge will be written Saturday night, May 19, at Lowe's Motor Speedway as the sport's top stars battle for a $1 million first-place prize.
Tickets start at just $29 and can be purchased by calling the speedway ticket office at 1-800-455- FANS or online at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.