Apprehension hung over Daytona International Speedway as thick as the morning fog from the infields Lake Lloyd on Feb. 11, 1979.
An inaugural special race for the previous season's Cup Series pole winners was scheduled that day, and skeptics were predicting big trouble among the nine starters.
Their contention was that matching highly competitive drivers in a 20-lap dash for a winners prize of $50,000, billed as "The Busch Clash", held the potential of putting some of them in the hospital.
As gung-ho as those guys are, they will run all over each other for that kind of money, I recall one fellow motorsports writer maintaining as time for the green flag drew near at the ultrafast 2.5-mile track. Its not going to be pretty!
Indeed, $50,000 was worth a lot more 34 years ago than it is now. In contrast, Richard Petty earned just $79,000 for running 10 times as far in winning the Daytona 500 a week later.
My feeling was that while the Clash entrants were indeed competitive in the extreme, they also were very, very talented and smart enough to avoid a Big One, or mult-car crash.
Memory of that long ago preliminary to the Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500, which caused scads of curiosity and excitement, rolls back to mind as this years special event looms on Saturday night. The non-points race is scheduled at 8 p.m., airing on Fox.
Seems that every year since 79 NASCAR officials and the races various title sponsors have tinkered with the showlike changing how a driver qualifies for it, the distance to be run and so forthin the hope of assuring great competition and excitement.
Nineteen drivers are eligible this time. Now named the Sprint Unlimited, it will cover 75 laps, or 187.5 miles, run in three stages. Kyle Busch is the defending champion.
Creation of the race can be traced to a colorful character who worked in marketing for Anheuser-Busch, the late Marty Roberts. He saw it as a means of promoting the Busch brew. NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway officials liked the idea as a means of spicing up Speedweeks.
And so it was that Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, J.D. McDuffie, Lennie Pond, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Neil Bonnett lined up in that order almost four decades ago. McDuffie, later to lose his life in a crash at Watkins Glen, was stunningly in the field after winning his only pole in 624 starts in 1978 qualifying at Dover, Del.
Contrary to predictions of the race producing chaos, no one came close to crashing.
The reason: Bakers Olds, fielded by the late Harry Ranier and engineered by crew chief Waddell Wilson, simply was far faster than any other car. Big Buddy whipped into the lead on the first lap and stayed there.
His rivals were forced to line up in single file to form an aerodynamic draft in the hope of catching Baker. It didnt work, and there wasnt a single caution lap.
We knew we had a fast car and should win the race, Wilson said this week. We werent cocky, but I admit to a lot of confidence. I held a view opposite what a lot of people were saying in guessing that the Clash was going to get some guys hurt. The drivers back then, especially the boys that were in that field, raced each other fair and square.
Even after all these years, mention of being the inaugural winner causes Baker to beam.
Ohhh man! That was a sweet experience, says Buddy, who averaged a sizzling 194.384 mph in covering the 50-mile dash in just 15 minutes, 26 seconds. Not to take anything away from the rest of the guys, but I actually held back a bit to make the race somewhat exciting.
I felt that if it was a runaway, they might not ever have another one.
Baker easily passed Waltrip for the lead with five laps to go and took the checkered flag a car length ahead. Although the finish appeared close, the general assessment was that the race was anti-climatic.
I knew it was all over when I went past Buddy that time (on the 15th lap) and he came right back around me, said Waltrip. Man, he was strong!
Baker smiles at the recollection.
It really was a case of me having only one thing to do, he says. And that was to keep it between the walls.