Ahead of Sunday’s trip to Talladega Superspeedway for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500, we’ll take a step back in time to the 1981 Talladega 500 for this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater” to showcase one of the most infamous finishes in Talladega history.
For the first 13 years of the Talladega 500, no driver had ever repeated, paving the way for longshots and underdogs to make their way to victory lane. In the 1981 running of the race, that very thing would transpire.
For much of the 188 lap race, three drivers would dominate the day, with Bobby Allison, Terry Labonte, and Darrell Waltrip leading 152 of the 188 laps. As the laps wound down, Waltrip and Labonte had separated themselves from the pack and looked to be on the way to settling the race between the two of them.
While Waltrip and Labonte were jockeying for the lead on the final laps, a new contender emerged in Ron Bouchard, who was a rookie making just his 11th career start that day and silently running third just waiting to make his move.
As the two leaders came off of Turn 4 and headed through the tri-oval on the last lap, Waltrip was doing his best to crowd Labonte toward the outside wall to try and slow his momentum down. While Waltrip was preoccupied with Labonte and beating him to the finish, third place Bouchard took advantage, dropping low and using the slingshot to get around both of them by maybe six inches at the finish line.
The win was the first and only win for Bouchard, who many in the garage had given the moniker, “A Yankee in King Richard’s Court”, got some welcome advice from Buddy Baker before the 500 mile race that came in handy to pull off his move on Waltrip and Labonte.
“I waited for Terry to make his move because he was second. He went high and that left the bottom open and I took it. By the time Darrell saw what happened I was ahead of him,” said Bouchard.
“At breakfast today, my girlfriend told me, ‘You know something, you’re going to win the race.’ I looked at her and said, ‘Well, you might be right.’ I had kind of a funny feeling we might win. We had planned to go home tonight, but now I think we’ll stay and party. Everybody is in a mood to party.”
Waltrip recounted the finish of the race as he was still in disbelief about what had just transpired, saying: “Labonte and I got to racing each other and completely forgot about old Ron Bouchard. Where did he come from anyway? When we got three abreast going for the flag, I was doing all I could to hold off Terry and then along sneaks Bouchard. Bouchard went by me and Terry like we were out tied to a tree somewhere.”
“I thought I had Darrell right where I wanted him for the last lap. I was running right ahead of him going through the tri-oval and then Bouchard snuck right under us at the flag. Darrell and I were so busy racing each other that he just slipped right by,” said third place finisher Labonte.
Bouchard’s sneak attack on Waltrip and Labonte for the race win still ranks as one of the best finishes in Talladega history, but on the day it happened, many viewing the race on television were not able to witness the epic finish. A bulldozer that was working near the track cut one of the television cables, causing the TV signal to stop transmitting and the broadcast going dark across the country. Luckily, CBS was able to show the finish later to those that had missed it.
Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images