Someone Stole NASCAR’s Trans Am Pace Car: ‘It’s the First Time Everybody on Pit Road Has Been for the Same Car’

Alex Bowman taking the checkered flag at Pocono in June after Kyle Larson fell victim to a flat tire on the last lap was a classic instance of stealing a victory in the NASCAR Cup Series. It was especially dramatic since Larson was on the way to his fourth straight points-race victory in a dream season.

As outlandish as that was, it was no match for a theft that took place before a race even started, namely the time a man dashed off with the pace car moments before the green flag at Talladega Superspeedway in 1986. For all the crazy finishes in NASCAR history, that certainly ranks among the most memorable starts.

Oddly enough, it all began with 20-year-old Darren Crowder traveling east from Birmingham, Alabama, to Lincoln to test-drive a motorcycle that he saw in a classified ad on a day on which he had no intention of watching the Winston 500 in person.

While out on the bike, Crowder found himself caught up in the traffic jam created by more than 125,000 NASCAR fans traveling to the tri-oval 15 miles southeast of Lincoln. Crowder decided to go with the flow and check out the race.

Authorities weren’t messing around after stopping the man who stole the pace car at the NASCAR Winston 500.

Security in 1986 was nothing like what it is now. Not only did Crowder enter the superspeedway without a ticket, according to AltDriver.com, but he made it to the infield. To the uninitiated, infields at large NASCAR tracks are ground zero for partying and making new friends, with alcohol flowing and music blaring.

No account of the events of May 4, 1986, says with certainty that Crowder imbibed, but he nevertheless did summon the courage to pull off his outlandish stunt. According to Vice.com, there was a brief delay before the race due to a power failure, which was all the opportunity that Crowder needed to set his eyes on an even better ride than the motorcycle: a 1986 Pontiac Trans Am serving as the day’s pace car.

Race grand marshal Dillard Munford, the founder of a chain of home improvement stores, and driver Larry Balewski stood near the start/finish line, where Munford was to give the traditional command to drivers to start their engines.

Suddenly, Crowder hopped two fences and made a beeline for the pace car. Before anyone in authority knew what was happening, he was off to the races … figuratively speaking, of course.

Strange happenings at the 1986 NASCAR Winston 500.

Taking full advantage of the Trans Am’s horsepower, Crowder sped off and exceeded 100 mph on the straightaways. Even after easing on the turns, he covered a lap on the 2.66-mile track in less than two minutes, during which the crowd came to realize that something was amiss.

The NASCAR drivers were already in their cars and didn’t know what was happening, but members of their pit crews gravitated toward the track to get a better view.

“The teams are going crazy cheering him on: Go, go, go, go, go. Somebody said it’s the first time everybody on pit road has been for the same car.”

Jim Freeman, Talladega PR director in 1986

DeKalb County Sheriff’s deputies raced into action. With motorcycles pursuing the car, officers used track vehicles to form a roadblock near turn 4. Seeing his path blocked ahead, Crowder slowed to a stop, and authorities descended upon the Trans Am.

But the Alabama man wasn’t done messing around just yet. Someone located a second set of keys. But each time an officer turned the key to unlock the driver-side door, Crowder triggered the power door lock.

Finally, someone got the passenger door open and climbed in, distracting the driver. Moments later, police opened Crowder’s door and pulled him out of the car by his hair.

Deputies took Crowder to the Talladega County Jail, and NASCAR finally started the race with Bill Elliott on the pole for one of Talladega’s last competitions without restrictor plates.

Nine cautions later, only 24 of 42 cars were still running when 48-year-old Bobby Allison took the checkered flag in his Buick Regal ahead of Dale Earnhardt and Buddy Baker.

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