Saturday night racing lit up Bristol Motor Speedway 40 years ago

Cale Yarborough celebrates winning the first night race at Bristol in 1978 with track owners Lanny Hester (left, in tie) and Gary Baker (right, in button-down shirt). Courtesy of Bristol Motor Speedway

Aug. 26, 1978. It was a dark and stormy night ...

OK, it wasn't necessarily stormy. But it was a little damp. You'll have that in Bristol, Tennessee, in late August. And it was most definitely dark, as it always was as night fell among the barns and farms tacked up along the hillsides of East Tennessee.

But on this night, a new light pierced that darkness. An illumination that was so foreign at the time but in the four decades since has become an annual, expected beacon of brightness in the middle of the NASCAR calendar. For it was on Aug. 26, 1978, that the owners of the Bristol Motor Speedway -- then the Bristol International Raceway -- first proclaimed "Let there be light!" and birthed what has become known as simply the Bristol Night Race. That light on the night sprung forth from the clouds above, to strike between the mountains below like Thor striking with Mjolnir, and that hallowed ground became forever known as Thunder Valley, USA, birthing the Bristol Night Race, which turns 40 years old this weekend. The green flag for the Cup series race drops Saturday at 6:46 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Well, OK, that's sort of how it went.

"People were excited about it, but I don't think anyone looked at it like it was historic or something," recalls Bobby Allison, who drove for fellow future NASCAR Hall of Famer Bud Moore that night. "We'd all raced under the lights at a lot of short tracks coming up. We raced at Nashville [Fairgrounds] under the lights usually right around the time we went to Bristol. But as far as Cup series races at night, I guess they were it, weren't they?"

They were indeed, and in 1978, Allison & Co. had run under the lights just down the road in Nashville only six weeks earlier. It was the success of night racing at that other Tennessee short track that spurred the new owners of Bristol International to try to emulate their neighbors in an effort to stand out from the pack. Bristol's second race was often left overshadowed by the much bigger races around it on the schedule, as it kicked off a season-ending Southern swing that ran from Darlington to Richmond to Charlotte to Atlanta.

NASCAR was transitioning into a superspeedway-heavy calendar and Bristol fell in the middle of a wad of four short-track events in six weeks, all located within a relatively small radius on the map. There were whispers that its days might be numbered.

So the anxious new owners of the racetrack ignited a "Look at us!" overhaul plan, of which lights were only a piece of the pie chart. Founder Larry Carrier sold the .533-mile bullring to Lanny Hester and Gary Baker in 1977, who immediately changed the name of the track from Bristol International Speedway to Bristol International Raceway. They rolled in a concrete truck and started filling in cracks in the grandstand. They installed a new electronic scoreboard, replacing the old-school Wrigley Field-style, hand-operated model. They cleared off land to create a campground and, most importantly, replaced the god-awful bathrooms.

They also lobbied NASCAR to stabilize their two race dates, asking to keep the spring date -- the Southeastern 500 -- as close to April 1 as possible and begged to please lock down the second race -- the Volunteer 500 -- into a late August slot. That second race had suffered from years of being slid up and down the schedule, from as early as July 8 to as late as Nov. 2. Carrier had struggled with attendance, desperately agreeing to the November experiment because he believed midsummer heat was keeping fans away.

So, to beat the heat, why not wait to race until after the sun went down? Hester and Baker, partners in a chain of kidney dialysis centers, were not residents of Bristol. They were from Nashville. You know, the town with the only Cup racetrack that had lights. In fact, Baker owned that track, too.

"Putting up the lights wasn't as big of a deal as it was convincing NASCAR to run a Cup race on a Saturday night," says Darrell Waltrip, a Nashville resident and bona fide Nashville Fairgrounds god. "Bill [France] Jr. always grumbled in that voice of his, 'Saturday night is for late-model sportsman cars. The big boys run on Sunday afternoon.'"

"Yeah, folks said we were crazy, but what did we have to lose?" Baker, former tax attorney to Waylon Jennings and eventual builder of the new (now closed) Nashville Superspeedway, explained in 2016. "If the lights hadn't worked, we would have taken them down and gone back to day racing. But we didn't have to do that, did we?"

They also didn't have to put up completely new lights. There already were some existing poles and bulbs, little more than a high school football stadium system, installed to shine on lower-level races and to illuminate whatever work might need to be done around the place. So, Hester and Baker complemented those with a handful of temporary light towers.

The new "lighting system" was brighter than it had been. But that doesn't mean it was truly all that bright.

"I think the people in the grandstands could probably see what was happening better than we could out on the racetrack," confesses Cale Yarborough, who was driving for Junior Johnson in '78. "But there was some real excitement there that night when they turned the lights on -- there's no question about that. It had been kind of dead in those grandstands for a little while, but not that night."

Drawn to the lights like moths, 30,000 fans showed up. The Aug. 28, 1977, event had drawn only 12,000. Even before the green flag had dropped, Baker and Hester were already looking at the hillsides that surrounded the bowl-shaped speedway and imagining where they might be able to add more grandstands in the future. The afternoon rain had stopped. There were 30 cars in the field, including six future Hall of Famers. Cars bottoming out against the asphalt sent sparks flying to the oohs and aahs of the audience.

Everything was perfect. The stage was set for greatness. Then the race happened.

"Yeah, I think we kind of stunk up the show, didn't we?" Yarborough accurately recalls with a laugh. He slung his No. 11 Oldsmobile around the half-mile with ease, leading 327 of 500 laps and beating second-place Benny Parsons, the only other car on the lead lap, by a mountainous 16-second margin. That was the modus operandi for Cale and Junior in those days, especially in East Tennessee. The win marked their fifth victory in six Bristol races and their sixth win of the season, en route to a record third consecutive championship. For making stock car racing history, Yarborough won $15,910. Today, that'd barely get you a pre-owned vehicle from Cale Yarborough Honda in Florence, South Carolina.

The only real drama of the night came via pole sitter Lennie Pond, who wrecked early with such force that his Olds Cutlass briefly rode atop the retaining wall, and Waltrip, who angrily tangled with Pond on Lap 107.

D.W. rallied to finish third ... two laps down.

"It was so much cooler running that race at night, but we were still plenty hot and bothered," Waltrip says. He went on to win seven Bristol night races, including three straight from 1981 to 1983 in Yarborough's former Junior Johnson ride. "From then on, it seemed like every time we came back to that night race, the crowd was twice as big as it had been the year before."

In '79 the crowd was 35,000. In the early 1980s, a new track owner, California businessman Walter Hodgdon, had bought the place, just as ESPN's TV cameras started spreading the light-and-spark imagery of rising stars Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace into living rooms around the nation. Eventually, Bristol found its way back in the hands of Carrier. He seized the momentum he'd been handed.

By 1990, seating capacity had expanded to nearly 50,000 and sellouts were the norm. In 1995, Wallace, Earnhardt and Terry Labonte put on the greatest show in Bristol history. The following year, track mogul Bruton Smith bought the place, shaved off the tops of the hills, fine-tuned the multimillion-dollar mirrored lighting system and increased capacity to 162,000.

The night race at Bristol became one of auto racing's crown jewels, so much so it even graduated to permanent capitalization -- the Bristol Night Race. Even now, as ticket sales have softened, there's still an aura to the event.

In 2015, the last year that NASCAR posted winnings in box scores, Joey Logano earned $365,198 for his nocturnal Bristol victory. That would buy 100 cars down at Yarborough's Honda dealership.

"You don't really think about firsts when you're out there racing because you're just out there racing, trying to win. But I am really proud of that one," says Yarborough. "We had no idea that night we were doing anything special. And there's no way anyone there that night knew how special the Bristol Night Race was going to be."