BRISTOL, Tenn. – The March race weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway just got more interesting, especially for NASCAR history buffs.
Track president and general manager Jeff Byrd on Thursday unveiled a new event that highlights the rich roots of stock car racing.
The first “Saturday Night Special at Bristol Motor Speedway” is the last of three races scheduled on March 21. It will feature a number of the sport’s greatest drivers, including Junior Johnson and Harry Gant, both of whom were on hand to help with the announcement.
“We get so many e-mails from fans who say that racing is just not like what it used to be, and that we need to get back to the way it was in the good ol’ days. So we came up with this idea,” Byrd said.
Former BMS Cup and Nationwide race winners such as Darrell Waltrip, Gant, Terry Labonte and David Pearson will be paired with celebrity partners in a 50-lap Late Model event to benefit the former drivers’ favorite charities.
The NASCAR legends will run the final 35 laps. The celebrities, who will drive the first 15 laps, will be announced later.
“It’s been 45 years since I’ve been in a race car, but it comes right back to you,” said Johnson, 76, whose Bristol resume includes one win as a driver and 20 as a car owner. “It will fun to get back on the track.”
For Johnson, the opportunity to compete against some of his former drivers, particularly Waltrip, adds spice to the unique concept.
“A lot of those guys used to tell me all the time that I didn’t know how to drive,” Johnson said. “So we will see what happens when we start this thing. Especially with Darrell ... I want to root him around a little bit.”
Gant, 69, won the 1992 Budweiser 250 Busch (now Nationwide) Series race driving a Buick owned and prepared by Bristol’s Ed Whitaker. Gant and Whitaker combined for a total of 20 Busch victories.
“Ed was a great guy to drive for,” Gant said. “He always had everything in his car perfect for me.”
Like many fans, the legendary drivers of NASCAR all seem to have vivid memories of Bristol Motor Speedway events. Gant shared one Bristol memory from his formative days in the sport, when tracks still had guardrails.
“I had just started in racing, and I heard they were going to have a big race for us Sportsman drivers,” Gant said. “I thought [Bristol] was Daytona compared to the track where I had been racing in Hickory, N.C.
“Bristol just seemed so big and high-banked. Well, there was a wreck coming off the corner. I came flying around, hit the wrecked car and bounced into the guardrail. That’s the first time I ever saw those little things that float before your eyes.”
Other NASCAR legends who plan to participate are Sterling Marlin, Phil Parsons, Jimmy Spencer and Jack Ingram. BMS officials also hope to involve past winners such as Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott and Ernie Irvan in some capacity.
BMS Vice President of Public Affairs Kevin Triplett said that speedway officials were still finalizing the details of the all-star event Thursday morning.
“This will be unlike anything fans have seen or will see anywhere else,” Triplett said.
The “Saturday Night Special” will be held after Scotts Turf Builder 300 Nationwide race and a l00-lap Late Model event for the United Auto Racing Association.
Many of the legends will drive cars featuring the same numbers and similar paint schemes they use in their glory days. For example, Gant will drive a green No. 33 owned by former Lonesome Pine Raceway track champion Wayne Hale of Piney Flats. Johnson will drive a white No. 21 car from his own shop.
“It’s a real honor to be associated with a racer like Harry,” Hale said.
Byrd said he instructs his team of employees each year to formulate new ideas to entice fans. He’s confident that the “Saturday Night Special” format will resonate with both new and veteran NASCAR followers.
“The criteria is to have stuff going on that will make the race fan in Wisconsin de-winterize his RV and drive to Bristol in March,” Byrd said.
“Our team came up with 33 different ideas this year. Some were crazy, and some were pretty sane. I think this idea is somewhere in between, and it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
Gant, who has kept a very low-profile since retiring as a driver in 1996, is savoring the opportunity to challenge the high banks of BMS again.
“We had a great time in those days, and I look forward to seeing a lot of the guys I haven’t seen in a while,” Gant said.
“If we get through this thing OK, maybe we can do it again.”
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