Sacks Back at Scene of Greatest Glory

By Michael  Daly

It is a curious anniversary, one overlooked by almost everyone in the sport. But for at least one person, 2005 will likely bring back some memories. It was twenty years ago today that Sergeant Pepper was not coming out to play at Daytona, but someone who did come out to Daytona two decades back wound up authoring the biggest upset in the sport of the 1980s decade. For those unfamiliar with the sport's history, it may seem strange to see the #13 car of Greg Sacks, but for those of us with long memories, Greg Sacks is a driver who persevered despite a career filled with an inordinate number of detours to nowhere and managed to show enough of what he can do in a racecar for people to lament what could and should have been for him.

First making a name for himself in the Northeast from his home in Mattituck, NY, Sacks drove Ernie Wilsburg Modifieds and earned the nickname Superman, enough that in December 1980 he got a chance to test for Richard Childress' Grand National team at Daytona. The sport was transitioning from 115-inch wheelbase cars to 110-inchers, but the new cars with their squared-off rooflines and steeply notchback rear glass were grossly unstable - and just how unstable would be shown by Sacks on board Childress' Pontiac Grand Prix. On the third lap of the test, Sacks came off Turn Four and the car took off into the inside guardrail and embankment separating the eastern short chute from the garage area. Sacks hammered the guardrail and tumbled down the short chute, his helmet flying out of the car. Suffering a broken collarbone and minor head injuries, Sacks' hopes of making Grand National would have to wait. Sacks drove a self-owned car in 1983, making five starts. His self-owned #51 stepped up for the full 1984 season, and it proved rough, as he managed a best finish of ninth at the Volunteer 500 at Bristol. For 1985 it appeared Sacks could only muster a part-time schedule, but he made the most of Speedweeks. When Ranier Racing switched from Chevrolet to Ford, Sacks purchased Ranier's Chevy cars and engines and entered the Daytona 500, and virtually unnoticed Sacks drove the year-old Chevys to a solid sixth place. He then took the ex-Ranier Chevy to the Atlanta 500 and finished tenth, but lack of sponsorship effectively ended his season..........

........until July. DiGard Racing, the 1983 Grand National champions, had been struggling throughout 1985, and Bill Gardner asked Sacks to drive a research and development Chevy at the Firecracker 400. Sacks timed ninth in the car with Gary Nelson as his crew chief. He took a back seat early on to Bill Elliott, who'd all but monopolized Superspeedways that season, but as the race went on Sacks lit the fire and ran down Elliott, taking the lead at Lap 100. Elliott retook the lead at Lap 121 but could not hold back Sacks' Chevrolet. Sacks took the lead with nine to go and wound up 24 seconds ahead at the stripe after a late splash-and-go stop for Elliott. "I felt like we had the strongest car from the moment we came here. We were trying a lot of ideas and I felt if we could stay out of trouble we had a shot at winning," Sacks said.

However, the stunning upset would come under much later scrutiny when Gary Nelson admitted the car was not legal; speculation has long been that Nelson slipped an oversized engine through inspection that day, and regardless of specifics, a pall has long been cast over Sacks' win. It also set in motion events that would destroy DiGard. Regular driver Bobby Allison quit. Sacks drove the rest of the 1985 season in the team's Buick but was unable to match the muscle of the Firecracker win; he almost matched that muscle in the National 500 at Charlotte, as he clawed to a strong fifth but got squeezed into the wall toward the end, limping home 11th. Sacks finally reached the top ten again with tenth at the American 500 at Rockingham, then followed up with ninth at the Dixie 500 before blowing out the transmission at the Western 500 at Riverside.

Sacks' 1986 season was effectively aborted almost as soon as it began. DiGard Racing was a dying operation at the hands of Jim and Bill Gardner. Robert Yates, the team's longtime engine builder, left before the Daytona 500 and the team floundered; Sacks drove eight races for DiGard and managed tenth at the Alabama 500 at Talladega; as defending champion of the Firecracker 400, Sacks crashed in the trioval at Lap 33. Thus began Sacks' journeyman travels, as he hopped from team to team, rivaling fellow journeyman Morgan Shepherd as NASCAR's hitchhiker driver. Sacks drove for Billy and Richie Dingman in 1987 and early 1988 with a spectacular fourth place in Daytona's 125s as the lone highlight. For 1989 Sacks signed on with Buddy Baker and Danny Schiff's #88 Pontiac. He crashed in flames in the 125 and limped home four laps down in the 500, then rebounded to finish ninth at the Carolina 500. He blew up the next few races, and at the Rebel 500 stormed to the front but blew up with fifteen to go and caught Ken Schrader, Kyle Petty, and Bobby Hillin hard.

Then came his high water mark of the year, the Southeastern 500. Starting 21st on Bristol's brutal velodrome, Sacks roared to the front amid an epidemic of crashes and led 100 laps, this despite skating so radically out of shape several times witnesses were left wondering how he managed to finish the race. Sacks tagged the wall eventually and came home seventh. After that pickings dried up and after crashing at the World 600 Sacks was released. He landed with Tom Winkle's #48 Pontiac and at the Summer 500 at Pocono got involved in another scary tumble; Lake Speed got tagged by Jim Sauter and shot into Sacks entering Pocono's first turn; both cars hammered the boilerplate wall; the wall tore open and Sacks flipped four times amid flaming fuel from the carburetor.

But Sacks would get another big shot. Hendrick Motorsports was contracted by Paramount Pictures to help film "Days Of Thunder," and Sacks was hired as a stunt driver. Hendrick entered him in the Clash at Daytona and Sacks finished a close second to teammate Ken Schrader. When filming of the movie finished early in 1990 Hendrick allied with actor and Indy car team owner Paul Newman to enter Sacks in selected races with Hendrick's R&D team sponsored by Ultra Slim Fast health drink. The team, led by former Hagan Racing crewman Gary DeHart, debuted at the Alabama 500 and bolted into victory contention almost immediately. Sacks clawed to second to Dale Earnhardt but "we came up on Bill Elliott (down many laps after a wreck) and that hurt me." He nonetheless finished second.

Sacks then battled for the lead in the Pocono 500 and finished seventh before breaking a fuel pump at Michigan. Back to the Firecracker 400 and Sacks won the pole. Following qualifying, however, NASCAR cracked down on special manifolds teams had been running since Jack Roush had developed special intake parts for plate motors in 1989 and others got wind of as the season went on. Sacks gagged on the start and Richard Petty and Derrike Cope split around him; he stayed in the middle for the entirety of the opening lap racing Petty and Cope for sixth. In the trioval Cope collided with Sacks and Sacks lost it, swept up Petty, and all three cars hammered the wall, blocking the track enough for over half the field to hammer into the melee.

Sacks rebounded two weeks later at the Summer 500 at Pocono and fought for the lead past halfway, but was eliminated in a huge crash in the Tunnel Turn with Rob Moroso and others. He then jumped into the Hendrick #17 of Darrell Waltrip, seriously injured in Daytona practice in July, and at the Yankee 400 finished a strong second. "Mark Martin just had too much under the hood for us," he said. "I've got four or five races before Darrell comes back and I think we can win one." However, a win was not to be. Sacks was eliminated in a multicar melee at the Southern 500 and would finish tenth in the Dixie 500. The effort with Hendrick had been very competitive, but Ultra Slim Fast did not return as sponsor and Sacks was out on his own again. His ride-hopping continued - in 1993 he allied with George Bradshaw's #68 Ford and had two noteworthy days; the first was the World 600 when he got spun out by the lapped car of Dale Earnhardt; Earnhardt had been trying to bring out a caution to unlap himself, and NASCAR kept him a lap down after the contact with Sacks. The other noteworthy day was the Diehard 500 at Talladega when he raced into late contention and ultimately finished sixth. For 1994 he hooked up with D.K. Ulrich and Doug Bawel; running Hoosier Tires in Round Two of Hoosier's NASCAR battle with Goodyear, Sacks finished in the top ten at Daytona, Talladega, and Pocono and won the pole at the Dixie 500 at Atlanta. But once again the ride went away, and a 1995 effort with Felix Sabates and Dick Brooks ultimately went nowhere.

Once again ride-hopping, Sacks was then hired by Gary Bechtel for his BGN and Grand National team. Sacks' debut in the BGN #29 was the Diehard 300 at Talladega. Storming into early contention, Sacks set off a wild melee when he clipped Phil Parsons head-on into the backstretch wall entering Three - "I wanted to stay away from him because he looked wild in practice," Parsons said. Sacks recovered from this and stormed forward into the lead - and pulled another dramatic upset, winning the Diehard 300 over Joe Nemechek and Randy LaJoie.

Once again the sport got a good look at what Greg Sacks could do in a racecar, and when Bechtel's effort ultimately dried up Sacks joined Ranier Racing, which was looking to return to NASCAR competition after Harry Ranier had been forced to take a leave of absence from the sport for some eight years. Driving a Ford, Sacks had the Raniers' longtime sponsor Hardees on board as 1997 began, but the effort petered out; in the Texas 500 Sacks was a victim of one of the most bizarre wrecks in years - all but stopped to evade wreckage from Rusty Wallace's crash, Sacks got blasted from behind by Ernie Irvan and was eliminated. The Ranier ride dried up and Sacks was again ride-hopping, but late in 1997 Sacks was assigned to drive Felix Sabates' #40 Chevrolet; at the Autumn 500 at Talladega Sacks rocketed into contention and fought for the lead, bouncing off Dale Earnhardt for first a couple of times. Sacks' wildcard bid for the win, however, came to a thunderous halt when Jeff Gordon swerved into John Andretti and then spun into Sterling Marlin and Earnhardt; the track blocked up and Sacks wound up hard into Marlin's Chevrolet entering Three.

The run had thus ended in a wreck, but Sacks had let teams know he was still spry for racing, and Cale Yarborough hired him for his #98 Ford for 1998. The effort, though, came to a near-tragic end at the Texas 500; Sacks hammered the wall and was injured, enough that he effectively stayed out of the sport for several years.

His best days in racing may be behind him, but Greg Sacks can take comfort that he made his presence felt enough that those of us with long memories rue what should have been for Superman. ____________________________________________________________________

Copyright 2/16/2005  
by Michael  Daly