NASCAR & Auto Racing

Higgin's Scuffs: Strangers In The Pits

Surely, most NASCAR fans have seen television features or read stories about how elite the pit crews of top Cup Series teams have become.

They work out with professional trainers to get in top physical shape. They watch film of their performances like athletes in other pro sports, seeking to spot flaws they can correct. They practice repeatedly in an effort to shave tenths of precious seconds off their stops. They become specialists in jacking up the race car, changing tires and fueling the machine.

Hard to imagine nowadays, then, that a pick-up, almost-spur-of-the-moment crew once pitted the winner in a race as big as Daytona International Speedway’s 400-miler each summer.

It happened in the Pepsi Firecracker 400 of July 4, 1985 as Greg Sacks drove an experimental Chevrolet to victory lane for what was to prove the only Cup win of his career.

The unlikely tale has been told often before, including several times by me. It bears repeating again as the teams gather once again at “The Beach” in Florida for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night.

Sacks had been chosen as driver of the special car by Bill Gardner, owner of the Charlotte-based DiGard team. Gardner said he’d decided on having crew chief Gary Nelson build the “research and development” Chevy in an effort to find something that might help his star driver, Bobby Allison, compete with Bill Elliott and his fleet Ford.

Elliott was dominant on the superspeedways at the time, having won seven on the big ovals to that point, which marked mid-season.

Understandably, Allison, who had won the 1983 Cup championship with DiGard, was not pleased with Gardner’s decision to field a second car, never mind that he was winless in ’85. He felt Nelson should have been concentrating on his Buick.

The tense situation worsened when Sacks qualified ninth fastest to Allison’s 27th.

Elliott, expectedly, won the pole at a sizzling 201.523 mph.

Few observers felt that Sacks could be competitive. Not with THAT pit crew. Its members essentially were introducing themselves to each other right up to race time.

The squad included an Australian, Tony Price, who Nelson had hired only two weeks earlier. Price didn’t even yet have a place to stay in Charlotte. He was sleeping in the garage where the car was maintained.

And the jackman was Robert Biestek, Gardner’s son-in-law and a former Boston College running back who had never performed the task before.

To the astonishment of an estimated 59,000 spectators, the media and the other Cup competitors, Sacks hung near the front of the field with Elliott, Cale Yarborough and other leaders as the 160-lap race on the famous 2.5-mile track unfolded.

Sacks flashed his potential by leading laps 45-46 and then 100-121.

When Elliott was forced to pit his powerful Thunderbird an extra time for fuel while leading on Lap 151, Sacks flashed to the front and was ahead the rest of the way. Sacks took the checkered flag a whopping 23.5 seconds before runnerup Elliott got to the finish line.

Allison placed 18th, four laps behind.

Angered, Allison quit the DiGard operation a few days later and drove his own cars for a few races. He then joined the Stavola Brothers team in September.

While jubilant, Sacks and his teammates also seemed stunned and disbelieving in victory lane. The crewmen had performed almost flawlessly, including Biestek. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising that Biestek wasn’t shaken by competing on a major level. He had once scored two touchdowns in 83 seconds as Boston College beat Alabama. (Now that’s an upset!).

“It is going to be a while before the magnitude of this hits me,” conceded Sacks, a modified division star back in his native New England.

Said Terry Labonte, the defending Cup champion from 1984, who finished eighth that day so long ago, “Not taking anything from Greg, but I am surprised he won under the circumstances (of the patched-together pit crew). I’ll still be surprised tomorrow and I’ll be surprised for a long time.”

The widely-respected stock car racing historian Greg Fielden rates the triumph high among the biggest upsets ever in NASCAR.

And so it will remain forever.

Could it happen in this era of elite pit crews? Possible, of course, but highly, highly unlikely to be seen again.