Come autumn when it’s occasionally too cold or wet to go riding I’ll sometimes succumb to channel surfing around the TV to see if anything interesting is on just to pass the time. It’s a habit I despise, there’s always something better I could be doing out in the garage, but as I grow older it’s a harder habit to resist.
Last week I stumbled onto the opening moments of a show called “The Day” on SPEED. There must be more than one installment of the program because I’d seen another episode dealing with Richard Petty’s win at Daytona in 1984, his 200th career victory a feat the King accomplished in front of then U.S. president Ronald Reagan. The episode I saw last week dealt with the 1992 Cup series finale, a race many longtime fans still recall as the greatest moment in the sport’s history.
I’ve written about the race itself before and don’t want to belabor the play-by-play because if you saw the race you recall it. Vividly. If you’re newer to the sport let me add a brief background. The Hooters 500 was to be the last race for seven time Cup champion, Richard Petty. (It severely irks me when I here Petty referred to as a seven time Sprint Cup champion. Petty never even started a Sprint Cup race so spare me your historical revisionism in the interest of commerce.) By chance, and if you watched that day you recall this only in hindsight it was also the first Cup race of Jeff Gordon. Gordon didn’t make too big a splash that day. He looked too young to have a learner’s permit despite a truly cheesy mustache he sported at the time, and I though that his rainbow colored car was purple-ass baboon ugly. The original Dupont paint scheme turned out to be hugely successful in that it was instantly recognizable but it never grew on me aesthetically. Then again I thought there was no way Rick Hendrick could successfully field a three-car team back in an era when single car teams were still the norm so what do I know?
But the big story, especially for a hardcore Bill Elliott fan like me, was the battle for that year’s championship. Three very different drivers driving for three very different teams whose only commonality was they all campaigned Fords entered that race with a good chance at the title, and three other drivers had an outside shot at the big prize. (How long ago was this? Kyle Petty was competing for that year’s title, even if more of the focus was on his father that day. 1992 doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but I guess it’s been almost two decades. Under Pennsylvania registration laws next year a 1992 Mustang LX 5.0 will qualify for antique plates.)
Davey Allison, driving for Robert Yates, a team coming into its own that year, entered Atlanta leading the points. Bill Elliott, in his first year driving for Junior Johnson, was third in the standings despite having started the previous race as points leader. But Elliott was the 1988 Cup champion (nope still no phone company Cup in ’88) and Atlanta was his best (and home) track. Junior’s teams had dominated the championship chases in the ’80s and the combination of Elliott and Johnson had them dubbed “The Super Team.”
The real surprise was Alan Kulwicki who entered Atlanta second in the points. Kulwicki was a Yankee in a sport still dominated by Southerners. He had a college degree in engineering in an era a few drivers still couldn’t read or write at a middle school level. And he was an owner-driver who’d started the 1991 season without a sponsor.
Enough background. Back to the TV show I watched last week. The program consisted of a lot of ESPN’s original race footage shot at that race interspersed with interviews of some of the key participants in the race many of whom are still part of the racing community though tragically Allison and Kulwicki perished in separate aircraft accidents the next year.
The first thing that jumped out at me watching that old footage was the cars themselves. You could tell which ones were Thunderbirds, which were Chevys, which were Pontiacs at a glance. Heck if you looked at a car coming out of the fourth corner from a distance you could tell instantly which make you were seeing. The second thing that stood out was the simplicity of most of the paint schemes, single color layouts in most cases, with the appropriate numbers and sponsorship decals added. Today’s cars look like circus wagons by comparison and you need to read the decals on the front cowcatchers to figure out which model car it is. I was also amazed how many big name sponsors on those cars (Havoline, Maxwell House, etc.) have left the sport or become associate sponsors.
Also of note was the size of the crowd on hand to watch the event. Every seat was full. In fact throughout the 1992 season almost all the tracks had added substantial amounts of seats. Even casual race fans who’d never been to a race wanted to see Richard Petty’s last ride at their local track. Even with all those added seats tickets to most Cup races were damn near impossible to get at least at face value. As for Atlanta that November day they could have built grandstands to the clouds and still never the demand to see the King’s last race and the 1992 championship settled. Ironically Atlanta would go on to lose its fall race date due to poor attendance. My how things have changed. I don’t guess there was a single track this year where you couldn’t have walked up to the ticket window five minutes before the race and gotten a good seat (to a bad race).
Speaking of racing, watching the footage of that 1992 race is a clear reminder of what the term used to mean. The drivers didn’t hold back until the last twenty laps before they started racing with intensity. Kulwicki and Elliott had to make up points so they had no choice but to go wide open. The duo swapped the lead countless times in addition to those official lead changes at the start finish line. Even Allison who had what had been considered a fairly comfortable points lead entering the race wasn’t cruising. He was running as hard as his Ford would go. The other drivers weren’t going to roll over and hand the win to one of the trio either. They were racing as well. The drivers not in title contention had been told to be careful when racing around one of the championship hopefuls. Of course Gordon was starting his first race so maybe he actually listened to the admonition. Unfortunately Ernie Irvan did not. Around lap 251 Irvan lost it in turn four and the incident collected Davey Allison’s black Ford.
Allison was clearly dejected knowing his title hopes were gone but still managed that famous smile during his interview. No, Davey didn’t run off to his trailer to pout about the unfairness of it all declining media interviews. Even in defeat he was more gracious than some drivers are today in victory. It’s not just the cars that were different back then, so were the drivers. I was dating a Davey Allison fan back then and she called me absolutely hysterical in tears after the wreck. Back then fans were so much more emotionally invested in the sport than most “fans” seem to be today. But we had our reasons. Meanwhile in the garage area Robert Yates team was patching the No. 28 car back together well enough Allison would at least finish the race. It was a matter of pride. And Allison clambered back aboard that car eagerly even knowing there was nothing to be gained by doing so. This from a driver who had lost his brother Clifford earlier that season to a Busch series practice wreck, and who had been hospitalized three times I can recall after wrecks of his own including one sickening series of flips at Pocono that almost cost him his life.
But I think the most notable difference I saw watching that old footage was the actual TV coverage that fans were presented that day. There were no flashy graphics, no gopher cartoons, and no football scores at the bottom of the screen. That day’s ESPN broadcast crew: Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons was inarguably the best booth crew ever assembled. The three of them had a lot of years together to hone their craft.
Jarrett and Parsons were both former champions. Jarrett had an uncanny ability to watch a race developing and predict what was about to happen based on his immense knowledge of the sport. Parsons was particularly adept at expressing exactly what the fans at home were feeling and reacting just as they did. His trademark “Oh, no……” was enough to have most of us leaping up off our couches waiting for the cameras to catch up to what had happened. Jenkins was the consummate play-by-play man relating what was going on in the race without insulting fans, but pointing out what they could see for themselves on the screen. It was developing stories like the fact Kulwicki’s team wasn’t sure they’d gotten enough gas into the car to finish the race Jenkins relayed clearly and calmly usually followed up by a report from the pits with interviews of those involved. Jenkins, Parsons and Jarrett talked about the race letting it develop along the lines it would develop, not sticking to a script decided on in a production meeting prior to the race.
They had a lot less cameras back then and the pictures weren’t in high-def, but rarely did ESPN miss a key incident. That network used to be able to catch the high speed action, the pageantry and occasionally the savagery that was NASCAR racing in that era in a way that those hyper tight shots of a single car on the same network rarely do today. Whichever producer is so enamored of in-car camera shots these days hadn’t joined the broadcast team yet. It’s funny that all this new high technology ESPN (and FOX) have at their disposal these days only tends to distract from the race coverage rather than enhancing it.
As for the King, his day didn’t go any better than Allison’s. He was also caught up in a wreck not of his own making and ended up with a merry little fire burning under the hood of the famous No. 43 car. Petty had the presence of mind to continue driving his Pontiac (remember Pontiac?) to the nearest fire engine but as he put it, “Those cats seemed more interested in getting an autograph than putting out the fire.” The seven time champion used a few choice words to encourage the firefighters to get down to business.
Though the No. 43 car was torn to pieces the STP team was determined Richard was going to finish his last race. The end result wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fast so Petty didn’t want to take it out there and get it in the way. Instead on the final lap of the race he emerged from the garage to take a final slow lap in front of his army of fans, waving to them while flashing that trademark smile. It was hard not to get a little choked up watching the end of an era. Little did any of us know how much things were going to change in the near future, often not for the better.
In a final thought, six drivers entered that day with a chance at winning the championship. At the end of the day the points differential between Kulwicki and Elliott was just five points. Had Elliott led just one more lap there’d have been a tie and he’d have won the championship. There were several laps where Kulwicki led Elliott across the line by a matter of inches. It was that close. And it was that close without a Chase. It was that close without resetting the points with ten races left to go. The Chase was (ill) conceived to try to repeat the magic of that crisp autumn after in November of 1992 but it will never be able to do so. If the results are just as close or even closer, this year’s title and all titles decided under the Chase will me manipulated and artificial pretense. The points would have been close because the points system was jury-rigged to produce a close finish, but by God, some NASCAR fans out there will buy into the lie and celebrate it. But sometimes the magic was real and for three hours, fourty-four minutes and twenty seconds on November 15th, 1992 it took our collective breath away. Comparing it to today’s racing is like comparing the best prime rib you ever had to the grotesquity that is the quarter pound of slop the local eat it and beat it calls a hamburger.
Not many of the fans who do so will have watched the 1992 season finale at Atlanta live. Some of them will never even have heard of that wondrous day in November. If you didn’t see the 1992 Hooters 500, search the SPEED listings. They rerun all their original programming constantly. Watch it once to see what happened and then watch it again to see what we’ve lost.
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