Sunday, October 27, 2013

October 27, 1996 - The 43 Rises Again in Phoenix

October 9, 1983. Charlotte Motor Speedway. That date represents the final Petty Enterprises win with King Richard behind the wheel. 1983. Thirty years ago. Three-Zero. And the truly unfortunate part of Richard's 198th win is that it's tainted because of an oversized engine and illegally mounted tires. Yet the King raced on. He left the family team, raced two years with Curb Racing, picked up wins 199 and the magical 200, returned to Petty Enterprises in 1986, and raced with few top finishes and zero wins through 1992.

Petty Enterprises really wasn't in the hunt for victories from 1984 through 1995. The car was rarely competitive, and the team didn't (or couldn't) hire top drivers for it. An inexperienced Kyle drove the family car in 1984. Others including Rick Wilson, Wally Dallenbach Jr., John Andretti, and an aged King really had no shot at returning the 43 to its rightful place in victory lane.

But then in 1996, things suddenly began to look a bit brighter. Nashville, TN's Bobby Hamilton was beginning his second year with the team. Hamilton cut his teeth on Nashville's fairgrounds speedway. He was later hired as a driver by the producers of the movie Days of Thunder and landed rides with Triad Motorsports' Country Time Lemonade and SABCO Racing's Kendall Oil teams.

Petty Enterprises hired Hamilton in 1995, and the pairing began to return the Petty team to a level of respectability over the next three seasons. In the second race of the 1996 season at Rockingham, Hamilton seemed to be on track to be the first driver in decades other than Richard Petty to win in car number 43. But a nudge from Dale Earnhardt in the waning laps resulted in the driver of the black 3 taking home the trophy instead.

Though disappointed, Hamilton's easy-going and big-picture demeanor allowed him to slough off the near-miss at Rockingham as that's racin'. The team spent the rest of the season seeking opportunities to take advantage of the intersection of preparation and opportunity (i.e. luck).

On October 27, 1996 - the second to last race of the season - the team seized on one of those opportunities in the Dura-Lube 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

The key storyline entering the race wasn't the Petty team at all. With only two races remaining in the season, all eyes were on the championship contenders Dale Jarrett and two Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon. In a Friday practice session, Labonte had a hard crash, totaled his primary car, and broke his left wrist. With some hospital care, a Rube Goldberg'esque hand brace and steering wheel, and plenty of race-day injections, the Ironman suited up and raced - just like race drivers do (or at least used to do).


Hamilton qualified mid-pack in the 17th position. But he began to move towards the front as the race progressed and hung around all day. He led a total of 40 of the 312 laps. With the laps winding down and the sun beginning to set, Hamilton decided it was time to go. He went to the point, led the final 30 laps, and returned the 43 to victory lane for the first time in 13 years. His win was exceptionally popular for everyone - fans, other teams, the King of course, the media, etc. Behind him, Texas Terry finished an incredible third. He finished 5th in the season-closer at Atlanta and won his second championship over Gordon and Jarrett.

Some time later, Richard and Kyle restored the winning Pontiac and presented it to Hamilton. Bobby displayed the car in the lobby of his Bobby Hamilton Racing offices where I was fortunate enough to see it a few years ago.

Hamilton passed away on January 7, 2007, after bravely and gracefully battling cancer. In 2008, Mark Aumann revisited Hamilton's 1996 win on NASCAR.com.


Motor Racing Network has made their full radio broadcast of the race available on-line. You can find it along with many other MRN classic races at their website or iTunes or by listening/downloading below.

The Schaefer Hall of Fame will be represented for the first time at Phoenix by Philly, Rookie, Uncle Dave and myself in a few weeks for the 2013 Advocare 500. As a long-time Petty fan, I'd scream myself hoarse and fly home without the need for an airplane if Aric Almirola could win in the 43 as Bobby Hamilton did on October 27, 1996.

TMC

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