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20 years ago: The Final Ride
My uncle first introduced me to racing in general and Richard Petty specifically in the summer of 1974. The first race I remember watching on TV was Benny Parsons' victory in the 1975 Daytona 500. My first Cup race to attend and see the day-glo red and Petty blue Dodge in person was the 1978 Music City 420 in Nashville.
Twenty years ago today, November 15, 1992, The King made his final Winston Cup start as a driver in the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. I was there to witness it, and I wouldn't have missed it for anything.
- The King's final start
- A 5-way championship battle between Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Harry Gant and Kyle Petty
- The first career Cup start for predicted phenom, Jeff Gordon.
- The final race for Dick Beaty, NASCAR's long-time chief technical inspector.
Two days before the race, a statue of The King was dedicated near the track's ticket office. Rather than portray him in victory lane, the sculptor created a lasting image truly fitting of his legacy - his appreciation for the fans.
On Saturday night before the race, the country (?) band Alabama performed a concert in tribute to The King at the Georgia Dome. (Richard and his family often watched Alabama perform in Myrtle Beach, SC in their early bar band days.) While Philly and I committed to buying tickets to The King's final race months in advance, we held out for freebies to the concert - tickets that unfortunately never fell our way. Thanks ebay for providing the image of a show we didn't attend.
For the last 2-3 years of Petty's driving career, I wore a cheap but comfortable STP Racing Team trucker's cap. By the final race of 1992, it weighed about 10 pounds because of my various hat pins and race weekend sweat-stained salt. I committed to retiring the hat once Richard exited the car for good. I still have the hat - and it hasn't been worn in 20 years.
If you never had the pleasure of owning one of the Winston radios, you really missed something... not. The volume control was on one earpiece, and the station dial was on the other. One needed fingers with the sensitivity of a safe cracker to find a station with the scroll wheel, and you often needed to hold your head at a certain weird angle to maintain signal strength.
We all bowed our heads. Actually, Philly's head was already bowed, eyes closed, and senses acutely tuned to his continued focused pursuit of the MRN broadcast. As the prayer began following the final notes of Ray's classic, Philly found what he'd been searching for. Suddenly, he blurted out loudly enough for three southern states to hear:
WHOO! ELI's ON!
I immediately buried my elbow in his rib cage and gave him the shush sign - most reverently of course. As I alluded to in a previous post about the 2003 Rockingham race, I got an autographed photo of Eli for Philly's 40th birthday. I wrote Eli and recapped the story to him. He must have enjoyed it because he signed the photo "Whoo, Eli's on. Happy 40th." To this day - twenty years later - all races we attend begin with the crack of a cold Schaefer and a boisterous yell of Whoo! Eli's On!
We snickered a good bit more during the prayer and national anthem about Philly's speaking in tongues. But we were soon silenced and had our breath taken away as the engines roared to life. Several Apache helicopters rose from behind our grandstands and began circling the track - hovering just a few dozen feet above the cars as they made their pace laps. I've been awed by many military flyovers - at races, football games, and air shows. But nothing has compared to the quietness of ascent and jaw-dropping, low-flying demonstration by those Apaches.
As we settled in our seats on the backstretch, future friend and fellow Petty fan Jerry Bushmire enjoyed a race morning stroll through the garage area. Despite the crush of folks wanting access to Petty in his final race, Jerry had the good fortune to walk the garage and get a final-start autograph from the man himself.
|Photos courtesy of Jerry Bushmire|
A fairy tale ending for the race would have been victory number 201 for The King. Racing, however, isn't a fairy tale (unless you are blogging about Jeff Gordon stories). Petty was caught up in a wreck started by others and cruised through turn 1 on fire before coming to a stop.
|Photo courtesy of Jerry Bushmire|
Sure enough, with a handful of laps to go, the 43 re-entered the track. From the backstretch, we heard an incredible roar from the front grandstands. A few moments later, we realized why as the 43 rounded the second turn and started down the back straightaway.
|Photo courtesy of Ray Lamm|
The remains of The King's final car were returned to Atlanta Labor Day weekend in connection with this year's Advocare 500. I've seen the car twice at the Richard Petty Museum in Randleman, NC, but nowhere else. Sure enough, the guy watching over it said the car hadn't been out of the museum in the 20 years since Petty's final race.
g press interviews.
We didn't know future Schaefer Hall of Famer, Bruton, back then. But some number of years later when introductions were made, we learned he too was at the King's final race.
I had long ago given up hope for one more win. While I hated the thought of no Richard Petty on the track after that event, I was glad he wouldn’t be putting himself at risk (in a race car anyway) once that day was done. It was also fun to see him be the center of attention one more time as a driver. Kyle had qualified well ahead of Richard and it was neat to watch him fall to the rear of the field with The King as RP settled into his starting position. Kyle, of course, returned to the front of the field after a lap or so. Finally, when The King took his ‘thank you’ lap we all stood there cheering. I had sunglasses on and that is important. With tears in my eyes, I asked my brother if he was crying (I knew he was.) He said no. I lied right back, “Me either.”Richard's daughter, Rebecca Moffitt, is Executive Director of the Petty Family Foundation. When asked about her memories of The King's final ride, she told me:
What a crazy day, week, year that was. All I really remember was just how bittersweet the whole experience was. Of course it was sad to see my Dad give up something that he loved so much, but we all were happy to know that he went out on top and was going to be fine. Because racing is his one true love, he could never retire totally. So for the past 20 years, his schedule has been the same - just his job duties are different. I love my Dad because he is my father, but it made me very proud to see and know how much other people love him - not just because of the success that he had over the years, but because of the man he is.If you want to read, see or hear more about this truly memorable race, here are are few suggestions:
- MRN's original radio broadcast can be streamed at their website.
- Speed Channel's feature presentation "The Day" (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
- Crossroads by NASCAR.com's Rick Houston
- '92 Atlanta Race Turns Monumental by ESPN's Ed Hinton
- Race With Destiny: The Year That Changed NASCAR Forever by the late Charlotte Observer writer, David Poole