Thursday, March 26, 2015

March 26, 1989: A dismal day for Petty Enterprises

On March 26, 1989, Rusty Wallace won the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond. His win was the second of six victories that season as he eventually earned his first and only Winston Cup title.

But Rusty's win was not the story of race weekend...

About a year earlier, Richard Petty had an awful wreck in the 1988 Daytona 500. Before a national TV audience, Petty's 43 pirouetted on its nose before getting t-boned by Brett Bodine. Fortunately, the King was more bruised than broken. Some speculated Petty would immediately retire.

Retire?? No way. Instead, Petty did what racers do. He belted in the next week to run 400 laps on the bullring of Richmond. Following a third place finish in the Pontiac 400, a tired and sore King Richard climbed aboard an STP-emblazoned bulldozer for a celebratory tearing up of the old half-mile speedway.

It was the first visible step in converting Richmond's facility to the modern 3/4-mile track still raced today. Though worn out from a tough race and a body bruised from the 500, he smiled after the race and took a seat in the dozer as the all-time winner at Richmond.

Six months later, the new facility was in place for its September debut. The second race on the new surface, the Pontiac Excitement 400, was again scheduled for late February 1989.

Mother Nature, however, had different plans. With the teams already in town, winter weather arrived and forced track promoter Paul Sawyer to cancel the weekend's events because of ice and snow.

Credit Donald Evans
With a packed schedule in the early months of 1989, Sawyer and NASCAR were forced to reschedule the race for the not-so-desirable Easter weekend. The scheduled was condensed to a two-day event with qualifying on Saturday and the race on Easter Sunday, March 26th.

Geoff Bodine won the pole and Wallace timed second during Saturday's qualifying session. Davey Allison swept the pole and the race on the new surface's debut the previous September. In February, however, his get-up-and-go got up and went. The #28 Havoline car had to settle for a provisional to make the field.

Once the dust settled on the single day of qualifying, the story turned out to be about the driver who would not be racing on Sunday. After 513 consecutive starts dating back to 1971, the King Richard's 43 failed to post a fast enough speed to make the show. Petty wasn't able to take advantage of the available provisionals, he elected not to run in a "hooligan" race with other non-qualifiers, and he chose not to buy a ride to continue the streak.

The Petty bunch tried to point out a technicality with Davey's provisional start. Harry Ranier sold his #28 team to Robert Yates after the 1988 season. The team marched forward into 1989 with the understanding Yates "bought" Ranier's owner points along with the shop and equipment. Petty contended that shouldn't be the case and the change in ownership meant Davey didn't have enough owner's points to earn the provisional. NASCAR reminded Petty that he entered his cars under the name of John Carrington in 1988 (a North Carolina gubernatorial candidate) before switching back to his own name in 1989. That point pretty well ended the discussion.

Dave Fulton recalls:
I'll never forget that day. My old friend, Paul Sawyer, the Richmond promoter, implored Bill France, Jr. to do anything to let Richard race. He offered to increase the purse and number of starting positions. I honestly believe Paul went to his grave hurt that it was at his track, where Richard was the all-time winner, that his string of consecutive starts would end. 
So just like that, *poof* the streak was over. Petty returned to the hauler, told his crew to load the car, and everyone headed back to Level Cross to enjoy Easter from the couch instead of at the track. Adding insult to injury was that Kyle Petty also failed to qualify at Richmond - his second time in four races with his newly formed team, SABCO Racing.

Courtesy of Brian Hauck    
I believe Petty Enterprises was all but finished as far back as 1982 or 1983. When Richard returned to Petty Enterprises in 1986, he nor the team could ever put the pieces back together to successfully recapture past glories. The sport had passed them by. PE continued its struggle to return to old glories but without a tremendous amount of success over the next 20 years - 3 more seasons with King at the wheel and the others with a rotating list of drivers. Ultimately, the team was absorbed into a 'merger' with Gillett Evernham Motorsports to form what has since become known as Richard Petty Motorsports.

One could argue, however, PE hit rock bottom when the King was unable to wring enough speed out of his Pontiac to qualify at a track that had been among his best (albeit on different configurations and surfaces).

Article courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
After the race, Pontiac execs likely exhaled slowly and ran their fingers through their hair. Granted, Wallace won the race in his Kodiak Pontiac. Otherwise, the race was a dismal showing by the the rest of the fleet. King and Kyle missed the race - as did Jimmy Means, J.D. McDuffie, Hut Stricklin and Ken Bouchard. For the Pontiacs other than Wallace that did make the show, the last 4 finishers all drove Pontiacs: Morgan Shepherd, Greg Sacks, Derrike Cope, and Jim Sauter.

The race was successfully completed on its make-up date as Rusty Wallace won comfortably over Alan Kulwicki and Dale Earnhardt. The drivers did what racers do - they raced. No one was going to bay at the moon at the King's absence because there was work to be done.

Fans, however, are wired much differently than drivers. For the Petty faithful, the DNQ by the 43 was a body blow as many finally recognized how fragile the once-dominant team had finally become.


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