By Dan Zacharias
Ford Racing Public Relations
Even though I’ve lived in North Carolina since 1990, the fact of the matter is I’m ‘Pure Michigan’.
I was born in Detroit, raised in Warren, and graduated from Oakland University. When it comes to sports in the state, I’ve had the good fortune to do such things as work on the scoring crew for the Pistons during their championship seasons in the late 1980s, perform public address duties from the press box at Tiger Stadium for the Catholic League championship, and work an NCAA Men’s Basketball Regional at the Pontiac Silverdome during my days at the University of Detroit.
One of the great things about the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is it allows me to go back home twice a year, not only to see family and friends, but to watch some of the best racing on the circuit. No track has been kinder to Ford Racing than Michigan International Speedway, which will be hosting the Quicken Loans 400 on Sunday afternoon. Ford leads all manufacturers with 34 NSCS wins at the two-mile facility and has at least one victory there in 25 of the last 30 years, so hopes will be high.
What I like most about going to MIS is that something memorable always seems to happen. I recall getting tickets for my parents to come to the 1999 Kmart 400 and they barely got comfortable in their seats before Dale Jarrett blew the field away and took the checkered flag in a caution-free event that took just under 2 hours and 18 minutes to complete.
One year later I was in the garage during happy hour practice when Elliott Sadler blew a tire and flipped multiple times in his Wood Brothers Ford. The thing I remember most about that incident was when Sadler talked about how quiet the inside of the car got each time he went in the air. He said you could have heard a pin drop, which amazed me to think someone could make an observation like that in an accident that probably seemed to last forever, but, in reality, was only a few seconds.
No MIS race had a more perfect ending from my perspective than when Kurt Busch won the June race in 2003 because it capped off a weekend in which Ford Motor Company was celebrating its 100th Anniversary. The first job Jack Roush got after graduating from Berea College was as an engineer at Ford in 1964 and for one of his teams to win on that particular day still means a lot to him.
That was in stark contrast to what happened two months later when the series returned to the Irish Hills, and the culmination of a year-long feud between Busch and Jimmy Spencer came to a head.
First, some background.
I was at Bristol Motor Speedway in March 2002 when Busch pulled the old bump-and-run on Spencer and came away with the win. Spencer didn’t approve of the move and in August of that year, during the Brickyard 400, hit Busch from behind and sent him into the wall. Busch showed his disapproval by waiting for Spencer to come back around under caution and pointing to his backside in what has become one of the more popular highlight clips or still photos you’ll see when the issue of NASCAR feuds comes up.
That helped set the stage for what happened in August 2003 as Spencer and Busch battled door-to-door and made contact with each other on a couple of occasions midway through the race. I could tell both of them were upset, so when the race was over I made my way back to the garage to try and get a comment from Busch, but when I got there he was gone. I noticed Spencer’s car was stopped right behind and then started to hear crew guys talking about what happened.
Spencer apparently got out of his car and immediately walked up to Busch’s window. The two exchanged words before Spencer allegedly punched Busch in the face. Both drivers had been escorted to the NASCAR hauler, so that’s where I went and waited, and waited, and waited.
The crowd of media continued to grow as time passed, but when Busch finally emerged he had little to say. I walked alongside as the throng of reporters started bellowing out questions. He was asked what happened and whether or not Spencer had hit him, but responded to both with the same three word answer, “Ask Jimmy Spencer.”
With Spencer being a Dodge driver at the time, that was something I couldn’t do, so I went to the next-best source I could think of and that was car owner Jack Roush.
Roush had also been inside the hauler and provided a little more insight as to what happened. He confirmed that while he didn’t witness it personally, Spencer punched Busch through the window and the police were going to handle it since the incident took place off the race track. He said the local sheriff’s office took statements from the drivers, but felt it was eventually up to Mike Helton to decide how to handle Spencer’s punishment.
The end result was Spencer getting fined $25,000 and being suspended for the following race at Bristol Motor Speedway. He and Busch were also put on probation until the end of the year, and the assault complaint that had been filed was eventually dropped.
Even last year saw some fireworks, but they were of a much different kind as two more signature moments took place. In June, Greg Biffle posted Ford’s 1,000th NASCAR victory and Joey Logano delivered the inaugural manufacturer’s trophy created by the speedway when he won in August.
I’m not sure what lies ahead this weekend, but I know one thing for certain -- it will be good to be home.
Dan Zacharias is a member for the Ford Racing Public Relations staff.
- 16 years on the NASCAR beat for Ford Racing
- Faster than a speeding bullet when it comes to transcribing driver interviews
- Able to leap pit wall in a single bound during post-race mayhem