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Tom Higgins: 'Where did he come from?'

TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFS

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Thursday, Apr. 14, 2011

Among all the fantastic finishes at Talladega Superspeedway, one forever will remain especially surprising and thrilling.

It happened 30 years ago at the track then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway.

Rookie Ron Bouchard – “A Massachusetts Yankee In King Richard Petty’s Court” – stunned NASCAR followers everywhere by edging savvy veterans Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte to win a three-abreast charge to the checkered flag in the Talladega 500.

Bouchard roared across the finish line about two feet ahead of Waltrip. Labonte was another two feet back.

It took officials several long, agonizing seconds to determine who had won. Finally, Bouchard’s car number, 47, began flashing on the scoring pylon.

His Race Hill Farm teammates went wild on pit road. And an estimated 75,000 stunned fans roared approval in the grandstands and infield.

Recollection of that rousing outcome resurfaces this week as the Cup Series teams will gather once again at the Alabama track for Sunday’s running of the Aaron’s 499.

In addition to the fans, the speedway’s promotions people loved the Bouchard victory, too. It provided them with an easy, ready-made way to plug the track’s next Talladega 500.

In winning, Bouchard became the 13th different driver to capture that particular 500 in all of its history, dating to 1969. So the promo advanced to “13 Races, 13 Faces.”

The streak of different victors, a NASCAR record, ended in 1982 when Waltrip repeated.

Bouchard drew hardly any attention leading up to the '81 race. And that’s understandable.

He had only 10 previous Cup starts, none of them on a big, fast track like the 2.66-mile, high-banked Talladega layout.

Most of his experience had been on the short tracks of New England, driving modified cars. He had been champion five times at the Seakonk Speedway in Massachusetts.

Bouchard got his Cup chance when Harry Gant resigned from the ride owned by Jack Beebe, also the owner of Race Hill Farm. Gant left to become “the Skoal Bandit,” driving a car owned by director Hal Needham and movie star Burt Reynolds.

Crew chief Leo Jackson built and maintained cars for Gant.

Race Hill’s crew chief, Bob Johnson, convinced Beebe to give Bouchard a shot. The two had worked together four years while racing in New England.

Beebe agreed and got a Talladega victory as a reward.

At that time, Bouchard triumphed as a rookie quicker than anyone in NASCAR’s modern era, in his 11th race. Earlier that season, Cup newcomer Morgan Shepherd had won at Martinsville in his 15th big-time start.

Young Trevor Bayne blew this distinction for rookies away when he won the Daytona 500 this February in his very first Cup start.

But back to Talladega in ’81…

An elated Bouchard, 32, at the time and a divorced father of four, said in the press box he was lucky to have found his car parked next to Buddy Baker's in the garage area.

“We got a big break when that happened,” said Bouchard, who traced his ancestry to France. “What a super guy Buddy is. If not for him, I doubt I would have been in position to win the race.

“I’d never really met Buddy before, but even so he came over to give me advice. This is a guy who had won races at Talladega giving advice to a rookie he was going to run against. He told me where to pass and we’d go out on the track to practice together.

“If Buddy hadn’t done all this, I probably wouldn’t have won the race. I might not have realized in time that the inside lane was open on the last lap as Darrell and Terry dueled up high.

“So I drafted up there alongside them. It happened just as Buddy had told me it might. It pulled me right to them.”

Bouchard grinned.

“When it comes to drafting, I believe Buddy Baker could find air off a paper bag!”

“Coming off the fourth turn the final time, Darrell was leading. Terry swung to the outside to try and slingshot by him. Darrell drifted up to try and take the high side away from Terry.

"When he did that, it left a clear shot for me down low. I don’t think Darrell saw me.”

The three roared through the tri-oval as if welded together.

“I thought I got them right at the flag stand,” Bouchard said. “But I wasn’t sure until I saw my number flashing on the pylon.”

Said Waltrip: “Terry and I got to racing each other and completely forgot about ol' Ron.

"Where did he come from anyway? When we got three abreast there going for the flag, I was doing all I could to keep off Terry, and along sneaks Bouchard.

"What a helluva race. Nobody know what’s going to happen at this place.

“Bouchard went by me and Terry like we were tied to a tree.”

Said Labonte: “I thought I had Darrell right where I wanted him. And then Bouchard just slips by.

"It was a great move. I congratulate him for it.”

Rounding out the top five were Gant and Bobby Allison, the home-state favorite. Allison appeared en route to victory, leading 10 times for 108 laps. But with just eight laps to go, his engine lost a cylinder, slowing him considerably.

The Talladega track is known for its sinister, spooky incidents, and the 1981 Talladega 500 was no exception.

With just 16 laps left, a major South Central Bell Telephone transformer failed during a severe thunderstorm about 15 miles from the speedway. That knocked out the CBS video capability. The audio continued, but the CBS crew wasn’t even able to make tapes to show later.

So fans watching the race had to agonize in the unusual experience of just listening to the action as described on their TV sets!

It was a freak situation, to say the least, and it was too much for at least one fan.

Bouchard’s father, Robert, was watching the race in Massachusetts when the TV images went kaput. The elder Bouchard, described by his son as an excitable Frenchman, began beating his set. Then he threw it onto the floor in disgust.

Sad, sad, sad, because Ron didn't win again at the Cup level. That Talladega triumph stands as his only victory in 160 starts.

After running five races in 1987, Bouchard retired from the big-time circuit and returned to Massachusetts. He raced modifieds for a while, then the man who made one of the greatest moves ever at Talladega became owner of a successful automobile dealership.

Too bad you had to be there to see that move.

Fans who didn't see it never will know what they missed.

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