There was so much that was different back then.
First of all, there was the name of the race: the Slick 50 300. Then there was the name of the track: New Hampshire International Speedway. Then there was the track’s capacity: some 60,000, which later grew to more than 100,000 through grandstand expansion.
And, lastly, there was the Victory Lane celebration, which included the presentation of a laurel wreath but not a mutant-sized lobster, now a traditional spoil for the winning driver at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“I did not get a lobster, did I?’’ said Rusty Wallace, during a recent recollection on the 20th anniversary of his 1993 victory in the inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the 1.058-mile oval in Loudon, N.H., where he steered the No. 2 Pontiac fielded by Roger Penske from a 33d starting spot in the 40-car grid to Victory Lane.
If he wasn’t awarded a prized lobster, what did he get?
“I got this massive wreath that they put over my head and I stood in Victory Lane with it,’’ said Wallace, 56, a NASCAR Hall of Fame driver who retired in 2005 after compiling 55 victories in 706 races, a 1989 NASCAR championship, and more than $49 million in earnings over a quarter century of stock car racing.
“I think the thing got displayed in the Naswa Resort,’’ said Wallace, now an analyst on ESPN’s “NASCAR Now.’’ “It was made of all flowers and we knew we weren’t going to be able to take it home because it was going to go bad, so we gave it to the people at the Naswa Resort, the hotel [in Laconia, N.H.] where all the teams stayed at, and they put it in a glass box and put it on a wall and it hung there forever and ever until it finally fell apart.’’
While Wallace’s victory wreath may not have stood the test of time, the track certainly has, growing to become more than just a midsummer New England whistle stop on NASCAR’s schedule.
NHMS added a second Cup date and uniquely positioned itself as an important pivot point in NASCAR’s 36-race season, as the first event in the Race to the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship and then as the first race in the Chase itself, before being shuffled back two years ago as the second event in the NASCAR’s playoff format.
“It was a big, big win, that inaugural win,’’ said Wallace, who led 106 of the 300 laps and finished ahead of pole sitter Mark Martin and the late Davey Allison, who finished third in the last NASCAR race he would ever drive. Allison, 32, died two days later from injuries suffered in a helicopter crash as he attempted to land the aircraft he was piloting in the infield of Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
“Like I say, any inaugural win is big, but that one there just had a whole different feel,’’ Wallace said. “With Bob Bahre building the track and putting so much time and effort into it. I remember going up there and testing and running good in the test. I remember one unique thing about when I qualified, I thought I was going to grab the pole.
“Just then, I screwed up and overdrove it in Turns 3 and 4 and wound up qualifying 33d. I was able to drive from 33d to the victory so it was real gratifying.’’
Wallace’s victory at the Magic Mile was his fifth in a season of a career-high 10 wins. But, for all his success that season, it failed to produce a second Cup title to go along with the only championship he won in 1989.
Dale Earnhardt, who finished a distant 26th to Wallace in Loudon’s inaugural Cup race, wound up winning the 1993 Cup title by a scant 80 points.
It was based, in large part, on Earnhardt’s better average starting position (9.7 to Wallace’s 11.9), finishing position (8.2 to Wallace’s 9.4), and the fact he finished running in three more races than Wallace (25) that season.
“I was happy that he won the [championship],’’ Wallace said of the late Earnhardt, who was killed in a Turn 4 crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. “He’s the guy I had a massive crash with in 1993 at Talladega, where I broke my wrist and tore myself up. I fell out of two or three races. I crashed at Charlotte and tore the transmission up at Sears Point on the road course.
“It’s pretty rare that he and I had this massive wreck at the end of Talladega and I go end over end about twenty-some times, and it was just me and him in the wreck. I’m not saying that wreck cost me the championship, but it didn’t help me.
“But I’m not going to point fingers at all, because I was driving that car also. He was one of my best buddies and he was one of the very best drivers out there and for me to be racing the best and finish second to the best is pretty damn good. I wanted that title bad, so I could have at least two championships, but it didn’t happen and at least I can say that, damn it, I was close, I was right there.’’
Still, Wallace’s only victory at New Hampshire held a special place on the mantel of his Hall of Fame career.
“Well, being put in the Hall of Fame was the highlight of my driving career,’’ said Wallace. “I mean, you win a lot of races, and I had won 55 and a bunch of poles and stuff like that and a championship and then you’re all done.
“It’s behind me and I’m in TV now, but when they bring you back and put you in the Hall of Fame for your contributions on the race track, it’s just a big, big deal. It was definitely a highlight. I would say that’s the biggest thing that’s happened to me in my career.’’
Of his amazing string of 10 victories in 1993, Wallace’s win at New Hampshire ranked above the rest because it came in the track’s inaugural Cup event.
“That’s a great way of looking at it,’’ Wallace said. “I’ll always be listed as the very first winner there and that’s a damn good feeling.’’
In the two decades that have passed since, nothing about that has changed for Rusty Wallace.
Details of 1993 Slick 50 300 at New Hampshire
* denotes drivers who are still active
1 Rusty Wallace
2 Mark Martin*
3 Davey Allison
4 Dale Jarrett
5 Ricky Rudd
6 Sterling Marlin
7 Jeff Gordon*
8 Kyle Petty
9 Bill Elliott
10 Bobby Labonte*
Avg. speed of winner: 105.947 mph
Margin of victory: 1.31 sec.
Lead changes: 13
Cautions: 6 for 27 laps
First race for Jeff Burton and Joe Nemechek. Last race for Davey Allison.
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.