Higgins' Scuffs: Brickyard memories linger

Wednesday, Jul. 24, 2013

It was an upset so surprising that I absolutely couldn’t gather my thoughts.

The date was Aug. 4, 1994 and Rick Mast had just won the pole position for NASCAR's inaugural Brickyard 400 at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had beaten far more famous drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott.

It seemed almost surreal.

The leading Cup Series teams had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on research and development in their quest to forever be known as fastest the first time at Indy.

And yet, listed atop the track’s distinctive scoring pylon was the No. 1 Ford of Mast, a Virginian from the Blue Ridge Mountain hamlet of Rock Bridge Baths, and his Richard Jackson-led team from Skyland, N.C. Mast had clocked a lap of 172.414 mph, easily bettering the second-place Earnhardt’s run of 171.726 in the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet fielded by Richard Childress Racing.

I typed various lead paragraphs repeatedly, only to delete them from my computer in disgust. None seemed worthy of Mast’s accomplishment.

Finally, with my deadline back at The Charlotte Observer approaching, I wrote something mundane.

It still puzzles me as to why I couldn’t imagine this:

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

“But at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday, a Mast was defined as a driver stunningly sitting on THE POLE for the first Brickyard 400.”

I finally got around to writing a version of this for a column two years ago.

Recollection of my brain fade is among the myriad little things I remember about the ’94 qualifying day as the Cup Series contingent gathers once again this weekend at Indianapolis for the 20th running of the Brickyard 400 on Sunday.

Some samplings:

My best media buddy, Steve Waid, and I were apprehensive about our first meeting with the track’s infamous “Yellow Shirts,” the whistle-blowing men who directed infield traffic and parking. We had heard horror stories about how rude and unreasonable they could be.

To our surprise, they were courteous in the extreme. Maybe they had been given orders to show hospitality of the Southern style since much of the NASCAR cast at that time hailed from Dixie.

Delightfully, there was a spirited race to be first on the track to practice. Wallace wanted the honor deeply because of his team owner Roger Penske’s great history in the Indianapolis 500. But so did Earnhardt.

Wallace prevailed because he drove out of the garage area. Earnhardt chose to walk out in the Indy tradition, following as his crew pushed that menacing-looking black Chevy from Gasoline Alley. The ovation greeting Earnhardt seemed to rock the earth.

As Earnhardt sped down the long backstretch at the rectangular 2.5-mile track I stood on pit road beside team owner Richard Childress. Suddenly, Childress, who was in radio contact with Earnhardt, bent double in gales of laughter.

“What did he say! What did he say?” I asked.

The message Childress relayed is far too earthy for me to print. It dealt with the state of Earnhardt’s ecstatic excitement about getting to drive when it counted around The Brickyard, long considered off limits to NASCAR.

Another delight was the information provided by the speedway’s statisticians. It seemed every move the teams made was logged, including the hour to the second that each driver went on the track to practice, the cumulative laps that were run and the speed of each.

Speaking of “runs,” there was one on the souvenir stands. Stampede might be more descriptive. Fans clamored for caps and T-shirts inscribed with the Inaugural Brickyard 400 logo. I was right in there forking over $20 bills with them. (I still have the stuff, some of it never worn).

A whopping 79 cars were entered for that first Brickyard 400. Drivers and team owners came out of retirement desperately hoping to be part of the history-making show. The first round of qualifying was taking hours.

To pass the time and in the process soak in the thrill of being at Indy on that special day, several media friends and I found seats in the grandstand behind pit road. The scoring pylon loomed to our right.

As teams clinched spots among the top 20 available that day and their car numbers flashed on the pylon, crewmen essentially danced in delight.

No one celebrated more than the teammates of journeyman Rich Bickle, a popular driver from the short tracks of Wisconsin. In a surprise relatively as big as that of Rick Mast, Bickle qualified 19th.

Many times I have seen crews exhibit far less joy after winning a race.

Looking back, my elation at simply being there for one of the most momentous occasions in NASCAR history was just as great as that of the beaming Bickle and his team.

And the Brickyard 400 was yet to come…

Rick Mast, Dale Earnhardt, Rich Bickle, Brickyard, Indianapolis 500, Sprint Cup, Winston Cup, NASCAR