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Standing tall at Indianapolis

TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFS

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Wednesday, Jul. 18, 2012

By most definitions, a mast is a tall pole on a ship or boat.

But on Aug. 4, 1994, a Mast was best known across the motorsports world as a driver stunningly sitting high on THE pole for the inaugural Brickyard 400.

In what ranks among the biggest upsets in NASCAR history, journeyman Rick Mast outran far more famous rivals to win the prized pole position for stock car racing’s ballyhooed first visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It is storybook stuff worth reprising and updating as the Cup Series teams take a week off before heading to Indy for another 400 on July 29.

Driving a black No. 1 Ford fielded by a team led by the late Richard Jackson, Mast whipped to a lap of 172.214 mph on the revered, rectangular 2.-5 track.

Mast, then 37, was in delighted disbelief when the time trial round was completed and he remained fastest.

“When I was a kid, back in the mountains of Virginia, I listened to the Indy 500 when our radio would pick it up,” said Mast. “Indianapolis Motor Speedway seemed as far away as the dark side of the moon. So achieving something like this was beyond my wildest thoughts.”

Many of the other drivers and their teams, having spent many hours preparing especially for Brickyard qualifying seemed in shock that the Mast/Jackson Ford was listed atop Indy’s famous scoring pylon.

“Hard to believe,” huffed Dale Earnhardt, who deeply wanted to be the inaugural pole winner. “But congratulations to Rick. He put a heck of a lap out there pretty early and no one could beat him.”

Earnhardt came closest, clocking a lap of 171.726 in his black No. 3 Chevrolet fielded by Richard Childress Racing.

Mast appeared astonished and almost dizzy in disbelief when he was ushered into a packed press room for the pole winner’s interview in 1994. Never mind that perhaps 45 minutes had passed since the finish of the first round of trials.

“When I drew the 14th spot to qualify, it almost broke my heart,” said Mast. “I figured the sun would be blazing on the track, slowing it down, and we’d have no chance. But we got lucky…”

Two thunderstorms swept across the grand old speedway around noon, delaying the action. Dark clouds still lingered at 4:41 p.m., when Mast’s turn came.

“If we hadn’t got that cloud, I wouldn’t be on the pole,” he conceded.

Mast credited four-time Indy 500 champion A.J. Foyt for tips on adjusting his car to the track conditions changed by the rain. Foyt was entered in the 400, and sponsored by the same company that backed Mast, U.S. Tobacco.

“I went into Turn 1 harder than before in practice and the car stuck so well I felt I was going to have a good lap,” said Mast, previously the winner of only one pole in NASCAR’s big time. “I was still good in Turn 2, and Turn 3 was perfect. The back end of the car kicked out twice in Turn 4, but that didn’t scrub off any speed.

“I got back to the garage and started trying to figure who could beat me. There were so many of them, I finally said, ‘To heck with it,’ stretched out on a work table and went to sleep.”

Turned out no one could topple Mast from the pole.

The triumph was worth $50,000 to Mast. Team owner Jackson won $10,000 and a new van.

After all the post-qualifying ceremonies were over and the track had been cleared, Jackson packed his happy crewmen into the van and took them for a joyride around historic Indy.

Mast led the first lap in the 400 as Earnhardt tried too hard and scraped the wall. Mast wound up 22nd as Jeff Gordon scored a popular victory in his adopted home state.

Mast continued racing until 2002, when a creeping case of carbon monoxide poisoning forced early retirement.

A witty guy, Mast seemed a natural for racing’s TV booths. However, he’d had enough of travel and after a few TV gigs passed on this career to be with his family.

(How witty is Mast? Asked in Las Vegas what job he’d like to have there, Mast replied, “Light bulb salesman.”)

Please permit me to put this column in reverse:

As a boy growing up on a farm, Rick traded a prized cow for his first race car. I’d written the amusing tale many times. When Mast won the first Brickyard 400’s pole, The Indianapolis Star’s flamboyant motorsports writer, Robin Miller, approached me excitedly.

“Higgy, tell me something about this Mast guy!” said Miller. “I’m not too familiar with him.”

I related the story of the cow.

Miller was delighted.

When the pole winner’s press conference began, protocol at Indy gave the first question to the Star.

“Rick, will you tell us about the cow?!” shouted Miller.

Mast scanned the crowd in mock anger.

“Damn you, Higgins!” he growled good-naturedly.

Mast now is a businessman in his native Rock Bridge Baths, Va., running RKM EnvioClean, also an underground utilities company and a site demolition company.

He does not, to my knowledge, deal in cattle.

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