DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The younger members of Austin Dillon’s team, full of adrenaline-fueled energy and excitement, celebrated their Daytona 500 victory Sunday with a late-night visit to a tattoo parlor to permanently etch their achievement on their rear end.
Terry Spalding didn’t make it that far. It was time to turn in.
That’s OK, Sunday was a big enough day for the 50-year-old front tire changer, who experienced his first Daytona 500 win.
Yes, Spalding is 50 years old and changes tires for a Cup playoff team. Age alone gives him a different perspective on the Daytona 500 victory.
“I’m really able to appreciate it,’’ Spalding told NBC Sports. “I’ve been doing it 20-some years. Only since I’ve been at RCR in the last seven or eight years have I really been able to win the races that I won.’’
Dillon says Spalding doesn’t need a Daytona 500 ring to note how special he is.
“Terry is just a champion in life, period,’’ Dillon said.
Spalding grew up the son of a racer in Pennsylvania and moved to North Carolina to pursue a job in the sport in 1990 — the same year Dillon was born.
Spalding went to in Victory Lane at Indianapolis in 2011 when Paul Menard won. Spalding was in Victory Lane last year when Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600.
That he is still going over the wall is a feat considering the radical changes for pit crew this season. With NASCAR eliminating one of the over-the-wall positions, pit crew members are having to redefine their roles. Those that haven’t adjusted as well have lost jobs or been dropped down a series. Spalding’s duties have changed. He now carries a 60-pound tire with along with his air gun.
He’s always managed to adjust through the years. When he turned 40, he often was asked how much longer would he wanted to change tires. He randomly said 50. It’s a nice round number. Realistically, as pit crews have become more athletic and younger — many are in their 20s — that seemed like a pipe dream.
Now that he’s 50, how much longer will he go?
“I feel as good as I did when I was 40,’’ Spalding said. “I thought about when I can’t go over the wall anymore, starting to coach.’’
He’s got to find time. He plays in the same basketball league Denny Hamlin hosts at his house that includes Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Blaney and others. In recent years, Spalding competed in slalom ski races. He’s also played in a roller hockey league. He’s competed in mountain bike races.
“I still go in the weight room, I don’t hit it as hard as I used to,’’ Spalding said. “I like to do things … and stay active that way.’’
He’s not ready to quit any time soon.
“I want to go as long as I can,’’ he said. “Barring some freak injury, I honestly think 55 is no problem.’’
After speeding through much of his life, Mr. Excitement has finally slowed down.
Instead of worrying about a race car setup or qualifying, Jimmy Spencer spends his days enjoying a different kind of excitement, like his first grandson Hudson, who turned 1-year-old Tuesday, working on antique cars or trucks, or just playing with his five dogs.
After more than four decades of rushing from one track to another, Spencer and wife Pat still travel a fair amount – but at their own pace.
“I raced, I raced every damn night, working on my race cars and raced as much as I could,” Spencer said in a recent interview with NBC Sports.
He had to race so much to keep food on the table and clothes on his kids’ backs. But he also knows he missed a lot while competing not only in the Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Trucks Series but also modifieds and late models in the Northeast early in his career.
Today, the 60-year-old Spencer wishes he could have some of that time back. He’d have done some things differently.
“You can’t go back and watch the kids play soccer on the weekend you’re racing,” he said. “You decided to do that. I’m not mad, I don’t regret anything I’ve done. But would I change stuff? Oh, hell, yeah.”
Sister’s death had profound impact on his life, racing
Spencer has stopped breathing race car exhaust and is now smelling the roses, enjoying much of what he couldn’t while racing.
It was his sister Chrissy’s death in 2010, after a long battle with ovarian cancer, that began Spencer on something he never thought he’d do. Eventually make an exodus from racing.
“It was time for me to say it’s time to start enjoying life,” Spencer said. “She was worried about retirement and so many things in life and she couldn’t enjoy them.
“I said I’m giving it all up. I still think about her all the time. We sold most everything we had and I retired. My wife and I have been traveling. I still dabble in antique cars and trucks.
“An old buddy of mine once told me you have to make a decision when enough is enough and your quality of life is more important. So my quality of life is I don’t need my jet or other stuff anymore. I don’t need to live that flagrant lifestyle, I never did.
“I watched my dad die from Alzheimer’s (in 2014), a hard-ass working man. There are certain things that change your life, and Chrissy’s death changed mine. Her death touched my wife and me so much. We still cry on her birthday, Nov. 23. It was time to move on.”
These days, Spencer and his wife split time between homes in North Carolina and their native Pennsylvania. You’ll usually find him tinkering with old cars, attending car shows or playing poker with friends.
Racing just isn’t as important as it once was
But when it comes to racing – the thing that was his life for more than half of it – is just not as important as it once was.
“I still watch some races,” Spencer said. “It’s not a top priority anymore, but I miss it. During my career, I made fans and so many friends. I still have friends from my modified days in Connecticut.
“I miss the officials, seeing the crew members, seeing the drivers, having a good time. I was pretty good friends with (Dale) Earnhardt, I still go see Rusty (Wallace) some, Ernie (Irvan) I see once in a while, I went up a couple months ago and spent a whole day with Harry Gant.”
In addition to being one of the most fiery and colorful drivers in all forms of stock car racing, Spencer is one of the sport’s best storytellers.
His all-time favorite racing memory revolves around, like many other drivers, Daytona International Speedway.
Spencer and his parents had grandstand seats for many years for the Daytona 500.
“One day, we were sitting in the stands and I was winning a lot of short track races, and my mom asked me, ‘What are you thinking about?’ I said, ‘I’m going to win here some day, Mom.’ She looked at me and said, ‘You’re just like your dad. You’re just as determined as he was and you probably will.’
“And I won Daytona (1994 Pepsi 400). That was big, but the most important thing was my mom and dad were sitting in those bleachers when I started sixth in my first Daytona 500 in the Heinz 57 car (in 1990, finished 15th), behind Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott.
“I looked up in the grandstand and saw my mom and dad and said, ‘I finally made it in my career, I finally became a Winston Cup driver.’ I was nervous and shaking, I could not believe that I did fulfill my wish and promise to my mom. That was probably one of my biggest memories ever.”
A special bond with the late Bill France Jr.
And then there was Spencer’s relationship with late NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr.
“I was a cocky sonofabitch,” Spencer laughed. “I was winning in the Busch Series and made some comments to the media about some officiating. I thought I was the cock of the walk. One day, a Saturday, practice was over and an official came up to me and said, ‘Mr. France wants to see you.’
“Bill always used to tell me there were two heroes he had. One was Earnhardt and the other was me. I was one of his heroes. Bill France (Jr.) was special. Well, I was his hero up to that day.”
Spencer sat across a desk from France, who pulled out a piece of paper and drew a circle on it. Then he drew a second circle, and a line that bisected the circles.
“That’s when he looks at me with a stare and I knew I was in trouble,” Spencer said.
France continued to draw on the paper, adding grandstands, a pit area and a clubhouse. He asked Spencer what he thought it was.
“I said, ‘Bill, that’s Stafford (Speedway in Connecticut, where Spencer raced a lot in his early days).
“Bill then said to me, ‘You keep (expletive) around with me and you’ll be back there racing.’ All I said was, ‘Mr. France, I understand.’ From that day on, I realized not to mess with Bill France Jr.”
NASCAR is a different world today
As for NASCAR racing today, Spencer is somewhat disillusioned.
“We as a society have lost a lot of the passion,” he said. “I can remember falling asleep underneath my race car. I can remember Earnhardt telling me he borrowed $300 so he could get to the next race so he could buy a set of tires.
“These people today, the sport has changed for me and I know the world’s changing, but I don’t see the passion I saw with a lot of the guys I grew up with.”
Like many of the peers of his era, Spencer admits he doesn’t attend many NASCAR races in person, nor does he have any desire to get back into the game as perhaps a team owner or return to broadcasting like he previously did with SPEED TV and Fox Sports.
“That ship has sailed,” he said. “I have a great life, the Lord’s blessed me, I have a grandbaby now to keep me busy. I have no regrets.”
One thing Spencer will never get tired of is his legion of fans.
“Fans still come up to me today and say, ‘You were a damn good racer,’ and ‘I enjoyed you when you were racing,’ and stuff like that,” he said. “It makes you feel good because they still notice you. I still have a good time with them.”
The Jimmy Spencer File:
Competed in 478 Cup races; 2 wins, 80 top 10s. Both wins came in restrictor-plate races in the summer of 1994 at Daytona (Pepsi 400) and three weeks later at Talladega (Die Hard 500).
Highest Cup season rank was 12th in 1993.
Made 211 Xfinity starts with 12 wins and 93 top 10s. Made 31 Truck starts and earned one win and 11 top 10s.
Last season of racing was 2005 in Xfinity Series at age of 48.
A special night for Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains soured by competitor’s comments
TALLADEGA, Alabama — Sixteen years later, the sting and anger remain with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The night of one of his greatest triumphs in NASCAR — if not his greatest — remains soured by questions that all was not legit when he won the July Daytona race, the first Cup race there since his father’s fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
While Earnhardt celebrated his win that July night, Jimmy Spencer raised doubts about the legitimacy of the emotional victory.
A few days later, Earnhardt challenged those comments: “It’s really bothered me pretty bad. That’s like the biggest race of my career. That was my biggest win. Aside from the wins that I had when my father was there, that is going to be a day that I’ll always remember. For somebody to question its credibility, question my credibility, I feel like that’s a slap in my face, a slap in my father’s face and a slap in (crew chief) Tony Eury’s face.
“I never drove any harder in my life. I went out there and got the lead and I was blocking all night long.’’
Even now, Earnhardt can’t forget Spencer’s comments.
When Earnhardt sees Spencer’s diecast cars in the office of a JR Motorsports employee, Earnhardt’s thoughts return to what Spencer suggested.
“I see those diecasts, that’s the only thing that I think about,’’ Earnhardt said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. “So it bothers me today. A lot of times, myself included, you don’t think before you speak, but that was an incredible night for us in 2001 when we won that race. I just felt like even if he did feel that way, I was disappointed that he would do that and say that.
“For us to come back here the next race and win and have success over the next several years was sort of was like “Hey, it wasn’t a one-race fluke or illegal car, that’s just how good our program was at the plate tracks.’’
Earnhardt’s victory came during a three-plus season stretch of dominance by Dale Earnhardt Inc. The team won 10 of 13 restrictor-plate races between the 2001 Daytona 500 (won by DEI’s Michael Waltrip) and the 2004 Daytona 500 (won by Earnhardt).
“Of course, you know it’s Jimmy Spencer, it’s the kind of thing he does,’’ Earnhardt said. “I never really liked that too much and haven’t forgotten about. It’s hard to forget something like that.
“It was nice to keep winning and show people that that was legit. That was like for me, that’s the stuff movies are made of, to come back after you dad passes away and win that race was the greatest thing that I could imagine happening for me or anyone else, all his fans, all our family.’’
However, do you remember what happened 20 years ago this week?
An Andretti won at Daytona.
Thirty years after Mario Andretti won his only Daytona 500, his nephew John Andretti put his name in the history books by winning the 1997 Firecr … I mean, the Pepsi … wait, the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola.
You know what I mean.
On July 5, 1997, the 34-year-old Andretti won his first Cup race, what was then the Pepsi 400.
That weekend Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were exterminating space bugs in theaters in Men in Black. In music, the top song was “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy … I mean P. Diddy. No, it’s Sean Combs. Yeah, that’s it.
You know what I mean.
When ESPN began its broadcast of the race, Andretti was third on the grid. He was next to Gordon and behind the Richard Childress Racing front row of Mike Skinner and Dale Earnhardt. The latter was in the midst of his first winless season since 1981.
To get the audience up to speed, ESPN featured a series of four musical montages to recap the season to date.
The songs of choice are in included in the below Spotify playlist.
In none of the storylines set up by those montages was Andretti’s name mentioned.
He drove the No. 98 RCA Ford owned by Cale Yarborough, who himself won at Daytona nine times in his racing career. Andretti was in his fourth full year of Cup racing and was three years removed from being the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coke 600 in the same day.
As the field came to the green, Andretti was 27th in the points and had only one top-10 finish through 15 races, a fourth-place finish at Talladega.
By Lap 3, Andretti was in the lead after having led only 20 laps the whole season – 19 at Talladega and one at Pocono.
On Lap 12, announcer Bob Jenkins made first mention of Andretti seeking his first Cup win. The son of Mario Andretti’s twin brother, Aldo, John Andretti made his first NASCAR start in October 1993 at North Wilkesboro Speedway driving for Tex Powell.
By July 1997, the cousin to Michael Andretti had only earned four top fives in 109 starts.
Here’s an observation on restrictor-plate racing in the mid-1990s – it was better.
This isn’t intended to be a typical “the racing then was better” statement.
In the years since tandem drafting was banned, restrictor-plate racing has largely become a large pack of cars where moves must be cherry picked at the right time and nothing can change for laps on end.
But in 1997, 10 years into the plate era, the field wasn’t bunched together, almost held against its will. While still close in proximity, drivers had room to maneuver in a slightly strung out snake, with no clearly defined lines. A driver could make something happen more easily without the risk of starting the “Big One.”
Instead of keeping your eyes on the screen waiting for chaos to break out, you were left waiting to see who made a push toward the front.
And when something bad did happen, chances were half the field wasn’t taken out … probably.
This was the case on Lap 33, when Jimmy Spencer got turned on the backstretch and only Chad Little and Mike Skinner were caught in it.
It resulted in the first pit stops of the day and a near scare for Andretti as he left the pits and Gordon nearly took him out at the pit exit.
He restarted second behind Bill Elliott and had the lead back by the time the field got to Turn 4.
Andretti’s previous career best for laps led was 41 in the 1995 Southern 500. In this race, he led 80 of the first 89 laps.
All the videos in the post are from a YouTube video that is the raw satellite feed from the ESPN broadcast, which means you don’t see the commercials.
“Hey guys, I don’t know if you can get a shot of him, but Cale Yarborough is on top of the RCA truck in the garage and he’s so excited. He’s taking on the radio, he’s driving the race car. He’s cracking the guys up in the pit. He’s saying, ‘John, John, go help the 3, help that 4, help that 3, help that 4.’ They’re just dying. They said he’s jumping up and down on top of the truck.”
ESPN never got a shot of him.
Yarborough had reason to be excited. A 83-time Cup winner as a driver, Yarborough was a car owner from 1987 – when he drove for himself – to 1999. He fielded cars for Dale Jarrett, Dick Trickle, Derrike Cope and Jeremy Mayfield. Andretti replaced Mayfield with eight races left in the 1996 season.
In 371 races, Andretti’s win would be the only visit to victory lane for Yarborough as an owner.
“And I was just as happy walking in there as I was when I was driving in there,” Yarborough said.
With 43 laps to go, Andretti pulled off a maneuver that would be declared illegal in today’s NASCAR. Going down the backstretch, Andretti dove his No. 98 Ford down below the dotted white line to get by Rusty Wallace into fifth.
This was similar to the move Gordon made on Bill Elliott six months earlier on the frontstretch that eventually led to him winning the Daytona 500.
Speaking of Gordon.
The 1995 Cup champion was on his way to his second title that season. He would do it on the back of 10 wins, which matched his total from 1996. From 1995-97, the “Rainbow Warriors” won 27 times and they would add a modern record 13 in 1998.
By July 1997, many in the grandstands were sick of it.
So, when Gordon smacked the backstretch wall on Lap 125, they let their pleasure be known as the No. 24 limped to pits.
If you want to party like it’s 1997, you have my permission to crank this up while you sip a cold Pepsi or a Coca-Cola depending on your sponsor obligations.
When the race went green with 30 to go, Andretti was second. A lap later he had to take the lapped cars of Bill Elliott and Spencer three-wide to make a clear path to Mark Martin.
Now Andretti was experiencing déjà vu. Earlier in the year, Andretti finished fourth to Martin in the caution free Winston 500 at Talladega, a race he had the pole for and led 19 laps of early on. That day, no one could get out of line to take a shot at Martin in the closing laps.
“I got behind Mark and thought, ‘Not like Talladega again,’” Andretti said later, according to the Associated Press. “Luckily for me Bill Elliott pushed me through. I guess I owe Bill a check for this.”
The drafting help from Elliott came on Lap 137 after coordination between the two team’s spotters.
By the time there was 13 laps to go, The Intimidator was stalking his prey in the form of Andretti. Earnhardt was running in second, followed by Dale Jarrett and Martin.
The end of the race was heating up when the final caution of the race waved for a five-car crash in Turns 1 and 2 with four to go.
As the field raced back to the flag – which was still a thing at this point – ESPN cameras caught the No. 98 crew mildly celebrating, thinking the race was over.
They were wrong.
The wreck was cleaned in time for a final lap, with the green and white flag being displayed together.
When they waved, Andretti had a rear-view mirror full of a certain black car.
As Andretti celebrated his win, Ward Burton was put on a stretcher. He was taken to the hospital to be tested for a concussion, but results were negative.
Also negative were driver reactions to how the race ended.
“That wasn’t a shootout,” Earnhardt said. “That was a slugfest, a wreckfest. They know better than to do that.”
Said Kyle Petty, “What they just had is a recipe for somebody getting hurt real bad. NASCAR got what they wanted, the fans didn’t get anything because they saw some of their favorites get taken out on the last lap. And the same guy that was leading the race before the restart still won. Why didn’t we just end it under caution?”
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO: John Andretti
When it came to NASCAR, Andretti wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
He won once more in 393 Cup starts. Two years later, while in his second stint in the No. 43 for Petty Enterprises, Andretti found victory lane at Martinsville Speedway after leading only the final four laps.
His last full-time season came in 2002.
From 2003-10 Andretti competed sporadically in Cup while competing in one full Xfinity campaign in 2006.
His final NASCAR start came in the 2010 Daytona 500, where he finished 38th for Front Row Motorsports after a crash.
From 2007-11, he made 10 starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The final four, which included three attempts at the Indianapolis 500, were in a No. 43 Honda co-owned by Andretti Autosport and Richard Petty Motorsports.