Mast a Part of Brickyard History

Rick Mast

Mast’s reward was $50,000 for the Indy pole. (Photo: ISC Archives)

The instructions were direct. One could even take them as a less-than-subtle threat. While fans filled Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s fabled grandstands and more set to watch on TV, former NASCAR President Bill France Jr. warned his drivers before the inaugural Brickyard 400.

“Some of you might realize what this means, some of you might not realize what this means," Rick Mast recalls France telling the drivers before the 1994 event. “Let me explain it to you all. When they drop that green flag and you all go down into that first turn, do ... not ... embarrass ... me."

Mast said everyone understood the message.

That didn’t stop Dale Earnhardt, starting alongside Mast on the front row, from trying to squeeze Mast in Turn 1 and snatch the lead.

So began a quest to lead the opening lap.

As NASCAR returns to Indianapolis this weekend for the event’s 20th running, Mast still receives pictures, tickets, programs and other items to sign from that first race where he won the pole and then did something no one else can ever match there.

“Somebody made a pile of money off that first race selling stuff," said Mast, who drove in Winston Cup from 1988-2002 and lives in Rockbridge Baths, Va. “I don’t know what percentage of it I’ve signed, but it’s been a lot."

First to history
The idea that NASCAR could compete at Indianapolis seemed impossible until 1992 when the track hosted a tire test with select Cup drivers. Thousand of fans attended.

Rusty Wallace convinced NASCAR to line the cars by their number - he was in the No. 2 - so he could be first on the track. Of course, that put Dale Earnhardt in the No. 3 right behind him. Wallace accomplished his goal and figured he would be the first to complete a lap in a Cup car until Earnhardt made a move on the backstretch. They raced to the start/finish line. Earnhardt won.

Earnhardt and others carried that same focus when NASCAR returned in 1994, breaking the track’s tradition of hosting only the Indianapolis 500 each year.

Mast said a big conversation topic in the garage was who would be first on the track, first for each practice, first in qualifying, first this, first that.

To the surprise of many, including wife Sharon, Mast was the fastest in qualifying, earning only his second career pole at the time. His first pole came in the 1992 season finale - Richard Petty’s last race and Jeff Gordon’s first Cup race.

Mast’s reward was $50,000 for the Indy pole. Team owner Richard Jackson collected $10,000 and a luxury van. One of Mast’s prized mementos from that day is a photo of the team in front of the van. It’s special, Mast said, because of the “100 percent excitement on everybody’s face."

Then all of them, Mast estimated the group at more than 15, packed into the van. He drove them around the track for a celebratory lap.

“I don’t know how we ended getting that many people in that van," Mast said. “There might have been some guys hanging off the back (or) some guys on the top."

The celebration with team was just the beginning of a whirlwind tour of interviews and public appearances throughout the city that included police escorts to some locations.

It started with his press conference for winning the pole where he recounted the story of how he sold a cow to earn enough money to buy his first race car. Even those who had heard the story before seemed to enjoy it as much as those hearing for the first time and the man telling it yet again.

“Showtime is over, man"
As Earnhardt, who started second, and Mast rode together saluting the crowd before the race, they chatted about the opening lap.

“(Earnhardt) had his head set he was going to lead that first lap," car owner Richard Childress said.

Others also were vocal about wanting to lead the first lap. That only made Mast more determined.

“You might want to, but I’m the one that is up front," Mast said. “You’ve got to pass me to do that."

That focus was evident when Mast spoke to ABC moments before the command to fire engines. Mast told the network: “Showtime is over, man, it’s time for the race."

Mast would not be able to sneak off at the start, though. He said France made it clear in the driver’s meeting that “these cars came across the line equally. He didn’t want jackrabbits to take off."

Mast knew the challenge would come in Turn 1. Mast owned the preferred line on the inside, but that wouldn’t stop Earnhardt, who tried to force Mast further down the track.

The plan didn’t work. Earnhardt also couldn’t get by in Turn 2. Jeff Gordon, running third, attempted to make a move on Earnhardt entering Turn 3. It failed. Earnhardt was running out of time to lead the first lap. As he exited Turn 4, his car slid up the track and he bounced off the wall.

“It did hurt us some ... that day," Childress said of the opening-lap contact.

Mast led the opening lap. History didn’t matter then. There were 159 laps left and the focus was on a strong finish.

He never got the chance.

Mast’s engine lost a cylinder coming off Turn 4 on the next lap. He managed to lead it before Gordon took over. Mast then began to slide back into the pack.

“You’re sitting there, thinking, “Why do these things happen like this?’ ‘’ said Mast, who finished 22nd, while Earnhardt placed fifth and Gordon won.

The question can never be answered, but he’ll forever be a part of Indy history. That’s evident when the mail arrives and there’s something else to sign from that race.

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