Thursday, November 15, 2012

November 15, 1992 - The King's final ride

Nearly 1,200 starts
200 wins
Over 550 top 5 finishes
123 poles
7 championships
Countless autographs
Untold mayonnaise sandwiches
Many spectacular wrecks including 1970, 1980, 1988, and 1991
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.

My uncle told me I had to be a fan of Ol' Blue if I wanted him to take me to races. It didn't take me long to want to become a fan of the King. From the mid-70s - through the end of his driving days in November 1992 - through today in his limited role as a car owner, I remain a fan.

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.

Many say the 1992 season-ender at Atlanta is arguably the top NASCAR Cup race of all time. If not the best, it's certainly in the top 5. The race had multiple storylines:
  • 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.
I don't plan to recap the race and the way it played out because so many others have done such a great job of it - then and since. Instead, I'm going to revisit a few of my own memories from that day.

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.

The Atlanta race was the culmination of the year-long Richard Petty 1992 Fan Appreciation Tour where corporations of all kinds joined The King to be an associate sponsor - including Gwaltney hot dogs.

Fellow Schaefer Hall of Famer co-founder Philly and I ate our share of Gwaltney dogs in 1992 as we hit about 25 percent of that year's races and camped at a few of the - the most ever in a season for me. Twenty years later, Smithfield Foods, Gwaltney's parent company, joined Richard Petty Motorsports as sponsor of driver Aric Almirola in the famed 43.

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.

Early on race morning, we drove from Chattanooga, TN to Atlanta. We stopped at a friend of ours where my uncle stayed the night. The two of them also hadn't made the concert, but it was obvious they'd visited many watering holes around the Georgia Dome. Between a late night's finish and an early morning's start, my uncle was slurringly raddy to anjoy da Kang's wast racef

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.

Philly and I sat on the backstretch - on the opposite side of where the pre-race activities took place. Much of the grandstands where we viewed the race were built just in time for the 1992 fall race. A few years later, track owner Bruton Smith reconfigured the layout of the track. Our cheap seats in 1992 were pretty close to where the modern-day start / finish line is.

Neither Philly or I had our Uniden scanners back then. Instead, we wore our our standard issue  Winston Racing radio headsets. As soon as we got situated, he put on his radio and tried to find the Motor Racing Network AM broadcast.

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.

Because of the excitement buzzing throughout the stands, EVERYONE was standing. Soon our standing was put to good use in the form of reverence as the track played Ray Charles' Georgia on my Mind which then led to the invocation.

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:


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
The norm for most of the second half of the 1992 season was to have The King lead the field on the first pace lap. Then he would fall back to his rightful starting spot. In his final start, he not only got to pace the field - but also had the privilege of having his children give the command to Start Your Engines!

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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
From our seats, we were unclear as to what was unfolding on the frontstretch and into turn 1. We knew from MRN the King was involved, but we initially didn't know about the fire. Once the safety crews extinguished the fire and checked him over, Petty got out and made the most obvious gesture. He acknowledged the fans. Every driver today should have the following photo in their hauler and motorcoach because sadly many have ignored the reality that it's the fans who enable them to use their talents and c.o. jones to race.

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The King's day - and career - were seemingly over. *Poof* Just like that. The rest of the race, however, was tremendous. What we didn't know at the time was the Petty Enterprises crew thrashed in the garage to give Richard a final opportunity to circle the track.

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
Bill Elliott was flagged as the race winner, and Alan Kulwicki won the championship. As they were presented their well-deserved trophies, the King made another lap or so. As a ton of fans of all drivers rushed for the fence to wave goodbye, I still remember the literal chills running up and down my spine and the tightening in my throat.

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.

Once the race was over, Philly and I knew traffic would be hell. Hey it's Atlanta - and bad race traffic has always been a given. We took a leisurely walk from the backstretch to the front of the track and roamed the front grandstands. From there, we had a better view of the media center - including where Kulwicki and The King were giving 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:

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