Owners and their employees stood on the front stretch, angry and confused. Fans were frozen in the grandstand, brows furrowed, staring at the racetrack’s public address speakers, waiting on an announcement that might finally cement the event’s final finishing order. The competitors themselves simmered, trying not to overreact as one of the greatest — or worst — moments of their life was at the mercy of a group of officials poring over visual and digital imagery and data.
Blocking accusations, protests filed, outcomes changed, fortunes altered, title hopes dashed. At the 2019 Kentucky Derby, it was all so raw and so new.
Meanwhile, auto racing folks were like, “Um… what’s the big deal?” You see, in the motorsports world, scenes like the one that transpired beneath the twin spires is a tradition as old as waving flags and “Drivers, start your engine.” It’s old hat, er helmet, from IndiaNapolis and Daytona to every little Saturday short track you’ve never heard of. Protests and recounts and scoring do-overs haven’t just altered the history of the sport, but have long been part of the everyday racing life.
“Way back when, if someone didn’t file a protest and they didn’t have to go back and look over the scoring deal, then it would’ve been like we hadn’t had a race at all,” remembers Richard Petty. “You raced and maybe you won, but no matter what, you’d have to wait until they were done going back and looking at scorecards or photos because the guy who finished second was like, ‘Hey man, something doesn’t feel right here!'”
Like, your dad?
“Yeah. Like my dad.”
Lee Petty, The King’s father, was not only NASCAR’s original superstar, he was also stock-car racing’s original pain in the butt. Over the sport’s first five decades, races were scored by hand, whether it be one or two race directors eyeballing laps run and making hash marks in a notebook or individual scorers assigned by each team to do the same. The system was inconsistent at best, a Crock Pot for controversy and confusion. Lee Petty, winner of 54 races and three championships, thrived on it. While competitors celebrated in Victory Lane, Petty inevitably marched straight to the race stewards, scorecard in hand, to try to stop that rival’s celebration.
It happened a lot. Most notably at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway on June 14, 1959.
Petty was passed for the lead late, finished second, and immediately filed a protest claiming that the winning car had been mis-scored and was actually a lap down. Race stewards went over the numbers and agreed with Petty, so the winning driver was told he was now the second-place driver and needed to move so Petty could celebrate. The jilted would-be winner? Lee’s son Richard, 20 years old making only his 16th Cup Series (then Grand National) start.
“It wasn’t personal,” Richard recalls now. “Daddy was racing for a championship and he needed the points. He also needed the money. Well, he got all of that and the trophy, too.”
Not a lot of folks remember that win. But everyone remembers Lee Petty’s biggest victory, the inaugural Daytona 500 four months earlier. Here’s a name even many of NASCAR’s most devoted fans probably don’t know: Johnny Beauchamp. The Iowa native made 23 NASCAR starts and won twice, but he’s best known for the time he celebrated a win that ended up not being a win at all. Beauchamp’s T-Bird flashed across the finish line, took the checkered flag and he became the first driver to steer into Daytona 500 Victory Lane.
But the driver he’d beaten by inches just happened to be Lee Petty, who of course believed that he had won by inches and, yes, filed a protest. After three days of reviewing photos and film, NASCAR president Bill France (also constructor of the Daytona International Speedway) declared Petty the winner and unwittingly fitted Beauchamp with an asterisk. Six decades later, many NASCAR old-timers still believe France could have made that call on the spot, but took his sweet time to keep his still-new racing series in the national headlines, waiting competitors’ stress be damned.
A decade earlier, NASCAR’s very first Cup Series (then Strictly Stock) race was just as messy. On June 19, 1949, on a potholed red-clay oval in rural Charlotte, local hero Glenn Dunaway raced his name into the record books by winning the 200-lap event by a whopping three laps. But the 32 racers he’d whipped (yes, including Petty) were skeptical of how smoothly Dunaway’s Ford had bounced around the bullring. France ordered that the No. 25 car be torn down and inspected. It was found to have “moonshiner springs,” spread extra wide for a better ride. He was disqualified and Kansan Jim Roper was declared the winner.
Dunaway’s car owner Hubert Westmoreland, a known moonshiner, completely flipped out. He knew that France had a stake in Roper’s car and besides, he argued, wasn’t every driver in the field a former or current moonshiner?! Weeks later, Westmoreland filed a $10,000 lawsuit. But the case was thrown out by North Carolina’s Judge Johnson J. Hayes, aka “the Hanging Judge of Moonshiners.”
The 1981 IndiaNapolis 500 also went to trial over a scoring dispute. Bobby Unser took the crossed checkered flags to earn his third Indy win, wheeling his Penske PC9B into the winner’s circle, wearing the wreath and gulping the milk. But — stop me if you’ve read this before — multiple protests were filed to USAC race officials claiming that Unser had passed cars under the caution flag and therefore should’ve been penalized.
That night chief steward Thomas Binford reviewed all of the race footage he could find. When the official IndiaNapolis 500 results were released Monday morning (as they always are) the winner was listed as… Mario Andretti. Unser was relegated to second.
“Yeah, what a mess,” Unser recalled one year ago. “We’d done the winner’s circle on Sunday with the Borg-Warner Trophy. But Monday, when they took the official pictures out on the racetrack like they always do, it was Mario who did that. Then he was the guest of honor at the champion’s dinner Monday night and he got the winner’s ring. My ass didn’t go to that dinner, I’ll tell you that.”
Unser’s car owner Roger Penske immediately filed a protest, but it was thrown out later that week. There was a USAC appeals hearing in June, but a ruling wasn’t handed down until Oct. 9, 138 days after the race. Unser was reinstated as the winner while Andretti was dropped to second and his infamous Indy losing streak had written its most notorious chapter. Now, nearly four decades later, both Unser and Andretti both have 1981 Indy 500 championship rings and their fractured friendship has been mended only recently.
“It wasn’t the first time I’d lost a race after winning a race,” Andretti recalled in 2015, referencing an overturned would-be Formula One victory in the 1978 Italian GP when it was decided he had jumped a restart too early. “If you’ve raced anywhere at all, then you have at least a few races you’ll always feel like were taken from you.”
That’s what Arie Luyendyk believed after a 1997 IndyCar (then Indy Racing League) race at Texas Motor Speedway. That’s why he crashed Billy Boat’s Victory Lane and subsequently got backhanded by Boat’s car owner, A.J. Foyt. The next morning TMS officials held an angry, melodramatic press conference. A week later the IRL admitted the error, telling Luyendyk he was indeed the winner, and telling USAC that after 40-plus years, they were out as scorekeeper. By the way, A.J. Foyt never surrendered the original trophy. It’s still on display at his race shop.
That’s what Darrell Waltrip believed at the Nashville Fairgrounds in 1984, when Neil Bonnett drove past DW under caution and was flagged the winner. NASCAR stuck with its decision for several days before finally giving into media pressure and giving Waltrip the win. Unfortunately, Bonnett and Waltrip were teammates. “They already didn’t like each other much,” their boss, Junior Johnson, recalled years later. “That deal made it official.”
There are so many stories, all shared with great earnest this week among auto racers as they’ve watched the horse racers try to reconcile the post-Derby madness. In fact, there were several motorsports folks in Louisville last weekend who witnessed it all firsthand. That included Dale Earnhardt Jr., working the event for NBC.
As everyone stood in silence, waiting, Earnhardt and his NASCAR friends were transported back to October 25, 2015, at Talladega Superspeedway. As Joey Logano did post-race burnouts, the rest of the field stood on pit road, waiting for NASCAR to finally reveal the rest of the finishing order. It was all mashed up after a controversial late crash that may or may not have been caused by Kevin Harvick to ensure he made it into the next round of the Chase for the Championship. Even Earnhardt, who may or may not have finished second, was stuck in race review purgatory.
“Hey!” normally-reserved Matt Kenseth shouted to a nearby group of equally-befuddled media members. “Does anyone have any idea what the hell is going on?!”
I was standing closest to him and my answer was a dumbfounded “Nope.” And we wouldn’t know for a while still, everyone standing around staring at the Talladega Superspeedway scoring pylon, waiting to see in what order the car numbers would finally pop up. “Yeah, it’s a stupid mess,” Kenseth said to me later. “But I guess as a racer I’m used to stupid messes by now.”
He is. They all are. But horse racers, as we’ve learned this week, still have acclimating to do. Maybe we should get them some pit passes.