The Day Greg Sacks Won At Daytona – No, Seriously
I ‘d barely made the late afternoon airline flight direct from Daytona Beach to Charlotte.
It had been a hectic, sweaty dash from the press box at Daytona International Speedway, where the Pepsi Firecracker 400 had been run earlier in the day, to the airport terminal a few hundred yards from the famous track's third turn.
A bit after the plane got airborne the flight attendants began service in the cabin. Thankfully, it finally came my turn to order. I needed a cold adult beverage.
One of the flight attendants noticed the media credential still dangling from a lanyard around my neck.
“Who won the race?” she asked.
I pointed across the aisle.
“That guy right there,” I said.
“Oh, sure,” she replied a bit testily. “Seriously, who won the race?”
“Seriously, he did.”
She turned to my fellow passenger and said, “Did you really win the Firecracker 400?”
Greg Sacks smiled, blushed a bit, and nodded affirmatively.
“Oh, my God!” the flight attendant said, almost shouting. “We’ve got the Firecracker 400 champion on board!”
After completing their service, the attractive flight attendants gathered to fawn over Sacks, who none of them knew and probably never had heard of before.
“Hey, what about me?” I thought to myself enviously. “I wrote a story about him...”
And what a story that race produced!
On July 4, 1985, Sacks scored what remains one of the most surprising victories in the history of NASCAR's major series.
Here are a few of the reasons it ranks, even 26 years later, among stock car racing's biggest upsets:
-- Sacks was driving a Chevrolet being fielded for the first time as a “research and development” vehicle by a new team, Bill Gardner Racing (an offshoot of the established DiGard Racing). The team had started taking rough-edged shape only three weeks earlier under the leadership of engineer Gary Nelson.
-- Sacks, then 32, a native of Long Island, N.Y. and never a winner in NASCAR’s big time, was available to take the ride only because he folded his own team earlier in the season due to under-financing.
-- The triumphant team’s pick-up pit crew on race day included a New Zealander, Tony Price, who’d never been to a Winston Cup Series event before. Price carried the tires. The jackman was a former Boston College running back, Robert Biestek, performing the task for the first time.
“To call what we had in the pits today a pick-up crew isn’t exactly right,” a grinning Nelson said in the press box after Sacks flashed to the finish line at the 2.5-mile track a whopping 23.98 seconds ahead of runnerup Bill Elliott in a Ford. “It was more of a skeleton crew.
“We hired Tony Price only two weeks ago, and he sleeps in our garage.
“And Robert Biestek would have been in a pro football tryout camp if he hadn’t broken his arm. Although Robert is the son-in-law of our team owner, Bill Gardner, he'd never worked in the pits before.”
(Biestek, however, knew about performing under high-level pressure. He once scored two touchdowns for Boston College in 83 seconds as the Eagles beat Alabama).
“As the race went on and Greg hung in there, I said to myself, ‘Uh-oh, we're going to make to make pit stops that are going to mean something. I don’t think too highly of our chances.’ ”
But the crewmen who had introduced themselves to each other just before the race did fine, and Sacks sped to his first Winston Cup victory after only two other top-10 finishes in 41 starts.
Upon first reaching Victory Lane, Sacks seemed stunned.
“It hasn’t sunk in on me yet,” said the personable former Modified Division star, who won 28 of 38 starts at tracks in the Northeastern U.S. in 1983. “I guess it might be tomorrow before the magnitude of everything hits me.”
Rivals were as startled as Sacks.
Perhaps Terry Labonte put it best.
“Not taking anything from Greg, but I’m surprised he won under the circumstances,” said the 1984 series champion. “I’ll still be surprised tomorrow and I’ll be surprised for a long time to come.”
Elliott was a bit more diplomatic.
“Greg ran a good race,” said Elliott, who dueled Sacks tightly for many laps, but fell behind when he had to pit for gas to complete the last 20 miles because a vibration shook something loose in his car’s fuel pickup system. “He came on really strong at the end. If I hadn’t been forced to pit, it might have been close at the finish. I don’t know, though, ‘cause Greg was doing a mighty good job.”
Gardner said he created the research-and-development outfit to try and find a way to compete with Elliott, who was dominating the series at the time.
“We felt we had to put extra effort into catching the No. 9 car (Elliott’s)," said Gardner. “We wanted to try some things we couldn’t risk on our main entry, the No. 22 driven by Bobby Allison, because that car is involved in a points race for the title. Today we were experimenting with chassis setups, and obviously we found something.”
It didn't help, as Allison finished 12th in the standings that season and the next year moved to a team owned by Bill and Mickey Stavola.
Some media sources subsequently reported that Nelson had confessed the team fielding Sacks had “cheated” to win that July day in ‘85. However, I personally never heard such a concession made by Nelson, who later became director of competition for NASCAR for several years.
Regardless, Sacks got the handsome Firecracker 400 trophy, the only one he ever was to claim at the Winston Cup level in 270 career starts.
After the flight attendants quit gushing over Sacks to begin a second round of drink service that memorable Independence Day so long ago, he leaned across the aisle and talked about his enthralling experience.
“Before this win, I’d planned to be back home, on Long Island, helping with my family’s produce business at 4 a.m. tomorrow,” he said. “We provide a lot of vegetables to 400 customers in Manhattan, and this holiday week is a busy time for us. But now, my plans have had to change.”
Instead of going to work before dawn on July 5, Sacks became a guest on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America at 8 a.m.
After arriving at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, Sacks and I shook hands in the terminal and said goodbye as I congratulated him yet again. Then, he rushed off to make a connecting flight.
A guy I knew came walking by.
“Hey, Tom,” he said. “Who won the race today?”
"That young fellow I was just talking with, Greg Sacks,” I said.
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