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NASCAR Cup: Rick Mast reflects on winning inaugural Brickyard 400 pole

Rick Mast (photo courtesy of Ford Performance)

Rick Mast (photo courtesy of Ford Performance)

FROM FORD PERFORMANCE (as a special feature ahead of Sunday’s Brickyard 400)

If you’re ever in the middle of a high-stakes game of trivial pursuit and you’re stumped on a NASCAR question, do yourself a favor and just guess Rick Mast.  Chances are you’ll be right.

 

As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, Mast’s name will likely come up at some point as the answer to this historical question.

 

Who won the pole for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994?

 

Driving for car owner Richard Jackson in the No. 1 Skoal Ford Thunderbird, Mast outdueled the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon to grab the top spot for an event that was unlike any other in NASCAR’s rich history.

 

“The excitement started building in the garage area as soon as they made the announcement we were going to race at the Brickyard,” recalled Mast.  “To me, it hit fever pitch when we went to the tire test and they estimated a crowd of 50,000, which was probably right.  I have never seen so many people in my life just to see a bunch of cars practicing.

 

“During that week when we would go out to dinner we would sit down to eat and everybody in the restaurant was coming and getting our autographs.  That’s when it really hit me,” continued Mast.  “We weren’t even in that market.  The closest thing at that time was the Michigan race and that hit me like a ton of bricks.  I was like, ‘This is a big deal with the way these people are acting right now.’”

 

For two years leading up to the race, teams focused on every detail because the car count was going to be high and the concern for possibly missing the race even higher.

 

“Everybody prepared.  I never saw the total garage area prepare so long for one single lap,” said Mast, who made his Cup debut in 1988.  “It used to be that Daytona was a big deal.  You’d go down there testing all the time in the winter preparing for that qualifying lap, but it seemed Indy was like that times 10 for two years.”

 

When qualifying day finally arrived there were 86 cars lined up to take their shot at history.  Mast’s Ford was one of the fastest in practice, and he felt the car had a legitimate shot to land the pole, but a brief rain shower before qualifying changed the entire complexion for everyone.  That’s when the wily Mast worked his way through the garage to find the man who knew more about the track than anyone – A.J. Foyt.

 

“I got to know A.J. pretty well because we shared the same sponsor, so I went over and told him what my car was doing and he kind of told me what to expect,” said Mast.  “We made some minor adjustments, and when I made the qualifying lap the car was on a rail.  It just stuck.”

 

His speed of 172.414 mph set the bar during the early portion of single-car qualifying, which meant there was a long wait while the remaining drivers tried to beat it.

 

“There are so many unknowns to that place.  You knew the track would change so much and the time we went out wasn’t the best time of the day, but I had no clue if it was going to hold up,” recalled Mast.  “I remember thinking maybe halfway through the qualifying session when nobody was really coming close to our speed that we might have a shot at it, but we knew better than to let ourselves get up too much hope.

 

“It seemed like it took three days to run all those cars,” laughed Mast.  “Richard was torn all to pieces.  He couldn’t sit down, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk.  He knew what it was all about and what it meant for Skoal and Ford.”

 

Mast calmed his anxiety by sitting on a bench in the garage area and closing his eyes.  As the session ended and his car number was still on top of the famous speedway scoring pole, the events of the past year ran through his mind and the relief spilled from his body.

 

“We had been with Oldsmobile and switched over to Ford in ’94.  That was our first year and you’ve got to understand that in those days Ford had powerhouses,” said Mast, who rattled off Junior Johnson, Robert Yates, and Jack Roush as owners that were sporting blue ovals.  “We were stepping in as a new team in the Ford camp and it was incumbent on me to try to justify Ford’s involvement with us.  I was so wanting to prove ourselves to Ford in some capacity, and when I sat on the pole at Indy it gave me some big satisfaction.  It was a very, very big deal in my eyes for Ford to do that and that’s not sugar-coating anything.  That’s just the way it was at the time.”

 

The ensuing press conference was met with laughter and fun when those in the media who followed the sport on a full-time basis asked Mast to recount how he got started in racing for the benefit of those covering NASCAR for the first time.

 

Which NASCAR driver traded a cow for his first race car?

 

Mast had come a long way since that initial transaction and soaked up the Brickyard pomp and circumstance that came with being the fastest stock car driver at a track that had been hosting races since 1911.  On race day it hit him and some of his fellow competitors even harder as the largest crowd in NASCAR history crammed into the grandstands.

 

“I was riding in a convertible with Earnhardt on the parade lap and I remember coming down the front straightaway with people on our left and right,” said Mast.  “Dale looked at me and he said, ‘Rick, can you believe all these damn people showed up here to watch us?’  What I’m saying is the Intimidator was humbled.  There’s no doubt in my mind he was humbled by all that.”

 

Unfortunately for Mast, the race didn’t go as planned.  After jumping out and leading the first two laps, he lost a cylinder and, with that, his chance at history.

 

“We were able to still run all day, but I was like, ‘I knew this was too good to last,’” lamented Mast, who says he still gets souvenir items in the mail from fans to autograph.  “But just to show you how good our car was we were still able to finish 22nd and lost only one lap throughout the rest of the race.”

 

Mast went on to make 364 career starts at NASCAR’s top level with 197 of those coming behind the wheel of a Ford.  He was forced to retire in 2002 after becoming sick from what doctors diagnosed as carbon monoxide poisoning.  Now 15 years later, the symptoms have dissipated.

 

“About three of four years after I retired it started easing up to where now I can breathe it.  I can be around it and it doesn’t bother me,” said Mast, who was forced to stay in bed for 31 days immediately after being hit with the illness.  “I don’t go into a garage or any confined space or an area that has fumes or stuff like that.  I immediately try to get away from it, but at least I can be around it and that’s a lot better than they said it would ever be, so for that I’m very grateful.”

 

He’s also grateful for a loving family that includes his wife, Sharon, and three kids.  Ricky works as part of the social media staff for the Atlanta Braves while his twin daughters are preparing for their junior year in college.  Sarah is at the University of Virginia while Kaitie is attending James Madison.

 

Rick continues to live in his native Virginia, where he operates his own business called RKM Enviro Clean that does everything from hazardous material clean-up to flood recovery services.

 

But racing remains in his blood as evidenced by the fact you can always count on seeing him at series stops in Martinsville and Richmond.  He enjoys giving his perspective about how the sport has evolved as well as sharing some of his personal stories like the time he stuck his head into Richard Petty’s car and got a big hug moments before his final race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992.

 

“I remember as I was walking back to my car thinking it didn’t seem that long ago I was a little kid on my bicycle riding around on the road at home, where I pretended to be Richard Petty and I was battling guys like Fred Lorenzen and Curtis Turner.  Now here I am bugging The King before his last race and he actually knows who I am.  That was pretty cool.”

 

So what NASCAR driver sat on the pole for Richard Petty’s last race, which also happened to be Jeff Gordon’s first race and saw Alan Kulwicki beat Bill Elliott for the championship?

 

You don’t have to guess.  You know.

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Posted by on July 18, 2017. Filed under Featured,NASCAR. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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