When Tommy Ellis drove through the tunnel and saw New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the first time in July 1990, the veteran stock car racer from Richmond, Va., made a bold prediction.
"I remember getting out of the truck and looking at that track, and I said, 'Boy, this is my kind of race track,' " Ellis recalled nearly 25 years after the inaugural weekend at New England's premier motorsports facility. "It reminded me of a big Langley Speedway back home in Virginia, and I told the guys on my crew, 'We'll win this race.' "
And that's exactly what Ellis did, topping a stellar 46-car field that included Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip, Jeff Burton, Kyle Petty and Ken Schrader.
Ellis started fourth in the No. 99 Goo Goo Clusters Buick and led three times for 89 laps en route to winning the Budweiser 300 on July 15, 1990.
"We ended up having a flat tire and losing a lap, but we made up the lap and won the race," said Ellis, who beat Gant to the checkered flag by a mere .29 seconds. "That was before they gave people laps, so it was quite hard to do in that day and time. Our car was running really good, it was hooked up good. It was just perfect for that racetrack."
The race, which was part of what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series (formerly Nationwide), was slowed by numerous incidents that resulted in 17 caution periods and Ellis had more than one anxious moment.
"I was right behind Bobby Labonte when he turned over. I remember Bobby Labonte hit the wall and turned over a couple of times coming off Turn 2," Ellis recalled. "Then on the last lap, that boy Jack Sprague - that's the only reason Harry got close to me - on the very last lap that boy Jack Sprague was getting lapped and he spun in the first turn. Boy, I almost clobbered him on the last lap."
Ellis was a tougher-than-nails, 42-year-old racing veteran when he pulled into New Hampshire Motor Speedway's victory lane.
"I started racing hobby cars - we had a '38 Chevrolet coupe with a six-cylinder motor in it - back when I was 16 year olds. My dad and I built that old car in the shop behind the house, which is still here; I live in the same place," Ellis explained. "We built that old car, took it to Dinwiddie Speedway and won our first race with it. I raced that old car for about a year or so. Then I built a sportsman car and I raced full time. I started racing for a living in 1969, I guess I was 21 years old."
Late Model Sportsman competition and Ellis's career took a dramatic turn in 1982 when NASCAR brought the nomadic stock car racers together as part of the new NASCAR Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series, the predecessor to today's NASCAR XFINITY Series.
"That changed everything that's for sure," Ellis said about the introduction of the new NASCAR circuit. "Back in the old days we used to run anywhere from 45 to 55 races a year. We'd go to Southside, then Langley or South Boston and turn around and drive to Maine or Nashville, Tennessee, or anyplace we could find that was racing on Sunday. Then when they changed it to the series, I think we had 29 races to start with and then it gradually went up. I stuck with the series when it started. Jack Ingram, Sam Ard and myself, we were probably the three big stars of that series for the first 10 years or so."
The record books show Ellis won 22 NASCAR XFINITY Series races in 235 starts between 1982 and 1995. He also had six top-10 finishes in 78 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races between 1976 and 1991.
Interestingly, the 1990 season in which Ellis won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was the last year he contested a full NASCAR schedule. He made only sporadic series starts over the next five seasons before finally hanging up his helmet and dropping off the racing radar.
"I made a good living and racing was good to me, but when I quit, I quit and that was it. I walked away from it," said Ellis, who doesn't attend races but still watches a few NASCAR events on television. "Racing is so addictive I couldn't be around it and not do it, and it got to where I couldn't afford to do it anymore. I would've gone broke if I would have kept going and I just couldn't let that happen. So I just walked away from it."
When we caught up with the now 67-year-old former racer, Ellis was rolling down the road, heading home after a full day in his dump truck.
"I hauled eight loads of gravel today," Ellis said. "I haul gravel, mulch, topsoil and whatever anybody wants. I don't advertise, but if somebody needs something that knows me they can call me up and get me to haul it for them.
"I also work on my old car, I've got an old Corvette street rod, down here in the shop; I work on it. I've also got rental properties that I take care of. I stay busy all of the time."
Ellis says winning the inaugural race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was a highlight of his career.
"Absolutely, that and winning at Martinsville," he said. "I'll tell you one thing, it sure doesn't seem like it's been 25 years since I won that race up there at New Hampshire, that's for sure. It seems almost impossible for it to have been that long. I still remember everything about that place, you know. We went up there and had a great time. I really, really liked the track. Bob Bahre built something special, that's for sure."