A Defining Moment in NASCAR History
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and a warm Holiday welcome to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR. Yes, it’s true, the 2017 racing season is now in the history books and the Christmas Holiday so fast approaching. Your scribe hopes this day finds you well and happily looking forward to Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Day… and January. The piece I offer today first saw print on the pages of Insider Racing News on New Year’s Eve of 2003. It describes in detail a race run a quarter-century ago, the likes of which Brian Z. France could only dream about and never hope to duplicate with all the gimmicks at his disposal.
Every once in a while, something occurs in life that forever alters its course, though we are not always aware of that at the time it happens. It might be a chance meeting with the person with whom you will eventually spend a lifetime, or the loss of a job, only to be offered a far more rewarding one in its place. It’s called a defining moment and history is full of such moments; the shot heard round the world; a date that will live in infamy, etc.
Looking at NASCAR as it is today, there was definitely such a defining moment; one that served to usher out the old and bring in the new in many different ways. It was the final race of the 1992 season at Atlanta International Raceway, and to my mind, it has always stood out as a shining example of all that a race can be. During the race and even more so after the conclusion, there was standing ovation following standing ovation from the fans in the stands, as each driver was interviewed. The sad parts would come later, in the year that followed, but for that one day, we fans were privileged to watch the best race ever run in NASCAR.
Excitement was high for the race, as there were six (a record number) drivers with a chance to win the Winston Cup. Young Davey Allison came into Atlanta with the point lead, which he had just taken back at Phoenix the week before. The year had been a constant up and down for Davey, marked with great runs and marred by injuries, but coming into that last race, he was back on top. Not far behind him was Alan Kulwicki, a young independent racer that had despaired of his chances of making the top after a crash at Dover a few weeks before dropped him far behind the competition. Close behind Alan in points was Bill Elliott, who was driving for Junior Johnson that year and doing so impressively. Filling out those with a mathematical chance at the Championship were Harry Gant, Kyle Petty and Mark Martin.
If that cast of characters wasn’t exciting enough, it was also the final race of a 35-year career for “King” Richard Petty, winding up his year-long “Fan appreciation tour,” and it was the very first Winston Cup race for a fresh-faced youngster named Jeff Gordon. On the NASCAR side of the game, it was also the final race for long-time “Top Cop” Dick Beatty, whose position would be filled the following season by crew chief extraordinaire, Gary Nelson, one of the very best at stretching the limits in those grey areas.
On that cool and sunny Georgia afternoon, Randy Owens and “Alabama” offered a stirring version of the Star Spangled Banner and a huge version of our American flag was delivered to the infield via parachute. They even had a live Bald Eagle on a tether there to salute the country’s colors. Much to the delight of over 123,000 fans that had come to see the Winston Cup won that day, all of the Petty children gave the command to start a single engine. “Daddy, start your engine!” Once all 41 cars roared to life, several thousand orange balloons were released to soar skyward and in their midst appeared four Apache helicopters that would do more than a simple flyover.
The initial parade lap was led by the King, beaming that patented Petty grin and waving to the fans, then falling back to his 39th place starting spot. For the remaining parade laps the field was followed, then passed and saluted by those Apache helicopters, hovering at a height only a foot or two above the cars themselves. (The single word that I wrote in my notes was “Cool!”) Then it was time to go racing.
On the pole that day was Rick Mast, driving Richard Jackson’s #1 Skoal entry and on his outside was Brett Bodine in Kenny Bernstein’s #26 Quaker State Buick. The first lap was led by Brett Bodine, but as those two cars entered turn one on the second lap, Bodine got loose and slid up into Mast, creating a multi-car pileup involving both of the lead cars along with Hut Strickland, Rich Bickle and Bob Schacht. Both Bodine and Strickland were transported by ambulance to a local hospital for evaluation, but nothing but their pride received serious injury. Caught up in the melee was point leader, Davey Allison, who sustained some damage to the left rear of the car when bumped by a spinning Strickland.
On the restart at lap 12, it was Dale Earnhardt with the lead, followed by Ernie Irvan, Terry Labonte and Geoff Bodine. After that, fans were treated to a running battle up front between Earnhardt and Irvan, while back in the pack there was lap after lap of close racing and position swapping. They carried on that way until lap 57, when leader Earnhardt reported a “Flutter” in his motor and then realized that he was out of fuel. Rusty Wallace pushed his friend onto pit road and to the attention of the waiting pit crew. Several others decided that pitting might be the order of the day and full-fledged green flag pit-stops began.
As so often happens during green flag stops, the caution flag flew at lap 65, for a spin into the wall by Michael Waltrip. That led to several cars being a lap or more down, and many of them would start in front of the eventual leader, Bill Elliott, on the tail end of the lead lap. The first attempt at a restart was such a mess that starter, Doyle Ford, waved it off and made them line up properly. When he finally waved the green on lap 72, it was Elliott on the point (though well back in the field), followed by Kulwicki, Ricky Rudd, Mark Martin, Harry Gant and Davey Allison. Soon after, the rolling wreck driven by Rick Mast returned to the track, sans hood and front fenders.
After a mere 15 laps of racing, Bob Schacht’s #57 slowed on the track and pulled to the apron, unable to make it all the way to pit road, and the second caution of the afternoon waved, giving several good cars that were still ahead of the leader a lap back. Those included Ernie Irvan, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte and Geoff Bodine. Every car came back to the pits, but the lead and five bonus points would go to Davey Allison who took only two tires on the stop. Alan Kulwicki reported that the “Underbird” had no first gear and the tension began to build.
On lap 96, Ken Schrader and Dick Trickle had a meeting of bumpers or fenders and both spun out, causing the usual mayhem behind them, catching up Darrell Waltrip, Wally Dallenbach and Richard Petty. Petty’s car hit the outside wall and erupted in flames as it spun down the track. Richard calmly drove the burning wreck directly to a fire truck where the blaze was quickly extinguished. He later admitted jokingly that it wasn’t exactly the “Blaze of glory” that he’d wanted to go out in.
They restarted on lap 104, with Mark Martin leading Davey, Harry, Bill and Alan. That was five of the six possible contenders, all in a row. A run for the Cup just doesn’t get any better than that. At the flag, Dale Earnhardt passed the leader for a lap back, and then he and Martin waved bye-bye to the rest of the field for a bit and pulled off into a zone of their own. The pack caught them back after a while and on lap 134, both Elliott and Kulwicki slipped by Martin. At the same time, Ricky Rudd’s Tide Chevrolet slowed perceptibly then picked the pace back up and Rudd reported that he now had no power steering.
At lap 153, green flag pit stops began with Dale Earnhardt once again being the first to stop, followed closely by Mark Martin and the rest of the field. Only ten laps later, Martin fell off the pace amidst a cloud of smoke and retired for the day with engine failure. That would be one down and five to go.
By around lap 184, Elliott and Kulwicki had checked out on the field and only eleven cars were still being scored on the lead lap, while ten were already out of the race including that of young Jeff Gordon. Behind the two front runners were Jimmy Spencer, Ernie Irvan and Ricky Rudd who was still muscling a car without power steering.
The caution waved once more at lap 203, when Dale Earnhardt spun into the wall in turn two. That caution allowed Davey’s crew to repair the rear damage on the Havoline Ford and make it more aerodynamic. Following the restart, there was some very spirited racing at the front of the pack involving Elliott, Kulwicki, Irvan, Spencer, Bodine and Wallace. It was a great race for the spectators and that battle lasted until lap 243, when Bobby Hillin Jr. blew a motor in Junie Donlavey’s #90 and oiled down the track and pit road.
The restart at lap 250 showed Kulwicki in first, followed by Elliott, Wallace, Irvan, Labonte and Allison. Four laps later, “Swervin’” Irvan lost the handle on the Kodak car and spun out, collecting Davey Allison in the aftermath. You could almost sense a collective heartbreak in the crowd as they watched the young racer try to pull away from the wreck only to be stopped by a broken tie-rod. Davey, being used to adversity, managed a smile and waved to the crowd as he walked to the ambulance. “There’s always next year.”
They restarted with Kulwicki ahead of Elliott, Bodine and Wallace, knowing that each would have to stop once more at least for gas. At this point, the point race was so close that it might have actually ended in a tie between Elliott and Kulwicki, which would have handed the Winston Cup to Elliott on the basis of having more wins. Once again, those two drove away from the field, involved in their own private war.
At lap 290, Davey pulled the once proud Havoline Ford back onto the track without its fenders, racing at that point more for pride than anything else. At lap 302 Ricky Rudd coasted to the pits and behind the wall with an expired engine. Five laps later, Kyle Petty began smoking badly, but stayed on the track. Kulwicki and Elliott were still on the track and both had yet to make a pit stop.
Finally, at lap 309, Kulwicki pulled to the pits for a 3.4 second splash-and-go, knowing that at that lap he had clinched the five-point bonus for leading the most laps. Two laps later, Elliott swung the Budweiser Ford into the pits for an identically timed stop. Because of the lack of first gear in Kulwicki’s car, the pit advantage went to Elliott, who now led on the track. Being a bit doubtful that the crew had gotten enough gas into the “Underbird”, Kulwicki was content to ride second and conserve fuel, giving the battle and the race to Elliott but the war and the Winston Cup would go to Alan Kulwicki.
With three laps to go, Kyle Petty was given the black flag for his smoke trail and with two laps to go, an abbreviated version of the familiar #43 pulled back onto the track and King Richard finished his last race ever. Amidst wave after wave of emotion from the stands, it must have been hard for the cameras to cover all that was going on. For the first time since his first win in Phoenix, Alan Kulwicki slued his car around at the start-finish line and drove the car around the track backwards in what he had dubbed a “Polish Victory Lap.” The crowd went wild.
Next, as Alan pulled to a stop, King Richard Petty took one last lap in the other direction, waving and grinning all the way, as the loudspeaker sent out “Alabama”, performing their special song, written just for Petty, “You the Fans.” Again, the crowd went wild.
“Before he ever made the headlines
Or won the Winston cup
He survived his share of crashes
But he never did give up
The tracks in Carolina
Where all the Pettys ran
What kept the motors running
Way back then were you the fans
He won seven at Daytona
It was STP and forty-three
King Richard is a legend
And he's a hero to me
When he wins he waves his hand
To the folks up in the stand
He is dedicated
To all the NASCAR fans
Well I wish this year could last forever
But the race must go on
He'll hang up his helmet
But he never will be gone
I know he'll drive forever
In the heart of every fan
And he will be remembered
As the best that's ever been”
Then it was back to the new Champion who calmly arranged himself and got the right hat on, but not before combing his hair. At last, he flashed a smile and climbed out of the car to accept the adulation of the fans as they greeted the 21st Winston Cup Champion. Usually a rather shy and somber presence, there was none of that on that day. Alan climbed up on top of his car, beaming smiles at everyone while waving and blowing kisses.
Following Alan, there was an interview with the King, who climbed from his car and reached for his trademark sunglasses and cowboy hat before speaking to his loyal subjects. Finally, we saw an interview with race winner, Bill Elliott. It always seems that the winner is ignored at the race in which the Championship is decided, but I guess that it’s just order of importance.
For the record, the order of finish read Elliott, Kulwicki, Bodine, Spencer, Labonte, Wallace, Sterling Marlin, Jimmy Hensley, Ted Musgrave and Dale Jarrett. The final point count showed Kulwicki with 4078 and Elliott with 4068, the difference being that one lap more led by Kulwicki.
All in all, it was a wonderful race on that November Sunday in Atlanta, and no one could ever have foreseen all that would follow.
Alan Kulwicki was feted at the awards banquet in December, celebrating his Championship wrapped in the strains of “My Way,” which quite properly became somewhat of a theme song for the independent racer that had turned down rides with the best in the business in order to do it his way.
King Richard did indeed retire and took to owning his own team, which despite his own 200 wins has never reflected the greatness of the owner, being mediocre in the grand scheme of racing.
Bill Elliott would leave Junior Johnson after another year to form his own team, taking Junior’s second sponsor, McDonald’s with him. Junior was so incensed over losing the Winston Cup by the closest margin ever, that he fired crew chief Tim Brewer because of it.
Jeff Gordon, never really much of a player in that race, is now a four-time Champion of the series.
Ernie Irvan has retired from racing after sustaining repeated head injuries, and Mark Martin remains today the best driver never to have won the Championship.
The most shattering events stemming from that race of course, would take place in the following year of 1993. On April 1, Winston Cup Champion Alan Kulwicki was killed, along with three others, (Mark Brooks, Dan Duncan, and pilot Charlie Campbell) in a plane crash at Bristol, Tennessee, and the racing world mourned. On July 13, David Carl Allison died from injuries sustained when his helicopter crashed on landing at Talladega Raceway the previous day, and the racing world mourned.
Defining moment? You be the judge. I only know that those of us who watched it have never forgotten it.
That pretty Christmas graphic tells us it’s time for our Classic Country Closeout. Today I’ve chosen the 1976 version of the Johnny Cash Christmas Special for your listening and viewing pleasure.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!