Bodine Remembers First Brickyard
July 23, 2007 | 9:01 A.M. EST
It also gave drivers seeking to move up the ladder to stardom the chance to shine brightly. This is the story of the most memorable day in the racing career of one of the latter group, Brett Bodine.
"It was huge," Bodine said of the inaugural stock car race at IMS. "Having gone the stock car route early in my career, I never thought I would have a chance to race at Indianapolis. As I kid I can remember listening to the Indy 500 on the radio. I knew it was the biggest race in the USA, but I went the NASCAR modified route. Then NASCAR and Tony George made their deal, which opened the door for all of us."
All three Bodine brothers from Chemung, New York, were in the lineup driving Fords that Saturday. Geoff, the oldest, was having one of his best seasons after acquiring a team of his own, the former Alan Kulwicki operation under Exide sponsorship. He was the standard-bearer for Hoosier tires in that season of "Tire War II". Two weeks earlier, he had scored his first win as an owner-driver at Pocono. Todd, the youngest brother, was just breaking into the Cup Series with the Factory Stores entry fielded by Rahmoc Racing.
Middle brother Brett – 10 years younger than Geoff, 5 years older than Todd – was struggling in his fifth and final season with Kenny Bernstein's Quaker State Ford. He had recorded only three top-10 finishes in the first 18 races of the season, and his fate with Bernstein already had been decided, although not announced. Drag racing icon Bernstein would put World of Outlaws king Steve Kinser in the seat of his King Racing entry for 1995.
Geoff Bodine qualified fourth, Brett seventh and Todd 25th as nearly 80 cars – the largest field for a Cup Series race in modern times – attempted to be part of history. Each brother would lead at least one lap, but it was the battle for the lead between Brett and Geoff on a restart shortly after the halfway mark that would change not only the complexion of the race but the careers of both drivers.
Brett assumed the lead under the caution by taking only right-side Goodyears while the rest of the contenders, regardless of tire brand, made four-tire stops. Geoff came out second and passed Brett in Turn 3 on the first green-flag lap. Brett tried to return the favor in Turn 4 and contact was made. Geoff spun and was hit by Dale Jarrett, putting both out of the race as Brett continued. Harsh words were spoken on both sides after the race, and the brothers were not on good terms for several years afterward.
"It was one of the best races of my life, but it was also one of the worst days of my life," Brett Bodine said. "Geoff and I made some bad decisions in about 10 seconds. If I had it all to do over again, I'd take it all back. Fortunately, our love for each other as brothers has allowed us to overcome it."
For Brett Bodine, there was still a race to be run and potentially the biggest race of his career to be won. As the inaugural Allstate 400 at the Brickyard entered the last 10 laps, he was a solid third behind Jeff Gordon and Ernie Irvan, pulling Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt toward the front. In other words, he was racing for a historic victory with half a dozen of NASCAR's all-time greats. Then Irvan cut a tire, and Brett was second.
"We were really catching Jeff, running him down at the end," Brett said. "We probably had the best car on the track at the checkered flag. Unfortunately, Gordon got to the checker half a second in front.
"What if ... what if. When you're the second-place finisher, everybody that runs second says that to themselves the second the flag falls," Brett said from his office at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina, where he serves today as director of cost research. "We had a great car all day. Donnie Richeson, my crew chief, made some great calls to give us track position. We had a strong effort all day.
"A couple more laps, and who knows? But the race was 400 miles, not 402 and a half miles."
In 1995, Brett Bodine joined the Junior Johnson team, a NASCAR title-winning institution of the 1970s and 1980s that was on a downward trend. A year later, Brett bought the team. For the next seven years, he fought the increasingly difficult battle of a single-car owner-driver in a world of multi-car, multi-sponsor Cup teams before hanging up his helmet in 2003.
"How would my career have been different if I had won that race?" Brett said. "Jeff Gordon's wouldn't have been any different (if he had lost.). I was a lame-duck driver at that time. I had already received my walking papers from Kenny (Bernstein). Had I won that race, what would it have meant?"
In that statement, Brett Bodine echoes the emotions of many other drivers who have had the chance at Indianapolis Motor Speedway immortality snatched from their grasp almost literally at the Yard of Bricks, including Scott Goodyear in the Indianapolis 500 just two years earlier, and two generations of the Andretti family in the 2006 running of the "500." But to get on with racing, and with life, the "what if..." must be put in the past.
After his struggles as an owner-driver, Brett Bodine has rebounded strongly. He's now the proud father of twins, and as part of his duties with NASCAR he is the lead pace car driver, meaning he may again have the opportunity to lead the field at the Brickyard.