By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Darlington, March 1988.
Proving that persistence pays off, Lake Speed finally made good on his last name that seemed destined for a racing greatness by dominating at one of the toughest tracks on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit to capture what would be his one and only win at NASCAR’s highest level.
Before getting his start in NASCAR in 1980, Speed’s greatest claim to fame was winning the World Karting Championship in LeMans, France two years prior, defeating a future three-time Formula 1 champion, the late Ayrton Senna.
When the native Mississippian arrived in NASCAR, he didn’t have the easiest road, but was able to score six top-five finishes in his first six seasons, including a runner-up finish in the 1985 Daytona 500 behind eventual champion Bill Elliott.
Despite having his best season that year, everything came crashing down just four races into the 1986 season, when Speed lost his ride with Rahmoc Enterprises and the No. 75 Nationwise Auto Parts team.
Sitting out all but one race the remainder of that season, Speed kept the faith, working behind the scenes to form his own team, which would debut the following year with sponsorship from Wynn’s and Kmart adorning his purple and white No. 83 Oldsmobile.
In his first season as driver/owner, Speed ran a partial schedule, scoring a third-place finish at Charlotte and five top-10 finishes in 13 starts before returning to a full-time slate for the upcoming 1988 season.
Speed started the year with engine issues in the Daytona 500, but managed to turn things around the next two races with a sixth-place finish at Richmond and a runner-up finish at Rockingham. Though the engine issues resurfaced at Atlanta the week prior, one of Speed’s favorite race tracks, Darlington, was next up on the schedule.
“It was like I’d win the race every time I went there,” Speed recounted to The Scene Vault podcast. “It didn’t matter what I was in. I just had a knack for that place. I didn’t always qualify that good, but come the end of the race…watch me. It was just a great place for me. I always loved that track.”
The early season strength that he had shown carried over to Darlington, with Speed putting up some of the fastest times in practice and turning heads among several drivers, including Dale Earnhardt.
“So, how long is it going to take before you lap me?” Speed recalled Earnhardt asking him before the race.
Starting in eighth, Speed methodically worked his way up through the field, taking the lead for the first time on lap 170 and from there never looked back, dominating the rest of the race.
Only giving up the lead during pit stop sequences, Speed led 178 of the final 196 laps en route to the victory, crossing the finish line nearly 19 seconds ahead of his closest competitor, Alan Kulwicki. Davey Allison finished third as the last car on the lead lap, with Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin rounding out the top-five finishers.
“I’m sure glad it finally happened,” Speed said in Victory Lane. “It sure seemed like we were going to wait forever before this happened. I’m just tickled to death for the crew and everybody that works so hard. You know, I just have to give the Lord the credit. Two years ago, everybody thought I was gone and look at me now. That’s all because of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“I’ve thought about this all my life, what are you going to do when you finally won? And now I’m here. All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you, because there has been a lot of people involved to make this happen. It wasn’t a thing by myself at all. The most important thing I think is everybody has to realize in my case, it was my faith in the Lord that brought me through this.
“If it hadn’t of been for that, in 1986, I’d have packed it up and headed back to Mississippi.”
Speed would add seven more top-five finishes to his career total through the 1994 season, but never again was able to grace a Cup Series victory lane. In 1998, Speed retired from the Cup Series with 20 years and 402 starts under his belt.
“One registered, in the book, win. I can’t count how many moral victories I had. The record books don’t show that stuff” Speed noted in an interview with the SPEED Channel some years back. “Not having the support that the other guys had, but we were right there. The top dog’s worst enemy. They’d look in the rear-view mirror and see my car coming. How is that guy with no money running this fast?”