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Documentary shows 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta had it all

September 01, 2011, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

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1992 Hooters 500 had it all, and documentary proves it; premieres 8 p.m. ET Thur.

For many people, memories of the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway come back almost too fast to process.

How is it possible that any one event have so many dramatic storylines and what ifs? Could another race ever have more numbers-crunching strategy with more on the line, more crushing disappointment, more sheer ecstasy or more cruel irony? Anything's possible, but in this case, it's not very likely.

'No holding back'


Relive the championship battle between Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki in this clip from SPEED's new documentary.

Certainly, the 1992 season finale stands at the crossroads of how the sport is seen today. Long before there was a Chase for the Sprint Cup, that year came down to a lone 500-mile showdown between no less than six drivers with a mathematical -- if not realistic -- shot at the championship. When all was said and done, the final margin was the smallest in the more than 50 years prior to the Chase and bettered only once since.

What took place on Nov. 15, 1992, and in the eight months afterward would have been more than enough for the race to survive the ages, yet it was only part of the story. A king made way for a kid that cold afternoon, one dynamic era ending and another just getting started.

It's against that kind of incredible background that NASCAR Media Group debuts The Day: 1992 Hooters 500 on SPEED at 8 p.m. ET Thursday.

"If you're a sports fan, a championship battle that comes down to the last event of the season makes for a great story," said Jay Abraham, chief operating officer of NASCAR Media Group. "As this year's Race to the Chase winds down and NASCAR's points battle heats up, we'll look back at the 1992 Hooters 500, giving fans an inside look at what many remember to be the greatest championship points battle of all time."

The Day: 1992 Hooters 500 is the third installment in a series shown on SPEED -- after similar shows earlier this year on the 2001 Daytona 500 and 1984 Firecracker 400.

Richard Petty is interviewd prior to his last start. (Getty Images)

"There were more stories going on in that single day of racing than one can count," added Patti Wheeler, SPEED's executive vice president of programming and production. That's not an exaggeration.

The King and the kid

If there's one thing that The Day: 1992 Hooters 500 does best, it's that the program paints such a vivid picture of the event's backstory. It's all here; the good, the bad and the painful. When Richard Petty's daughters -- Sharon, Lisa and Rebecca -- say that all they cared about was getting their father through his last race safe and sound, you believe them. There's an earlier clip of Petty on the verge of passing out after being pulled from his car that's almost difficult to watch.

Petty soared to the highest peaks NASCAR had ever known during his 35 years behind the wheel of a race car, and he had also slid into the darkest of valleys. By Atlanta in November 1992, it was time for him to crawl out of the cockpit once and for all. The year had been a long and wearisome one for Petty.

He gave back to those who followed his career for so many years ... and then some.

"All year long, I really didn't have a whole lot of time to think about the racing," Petty said. "We were doing all the promotion deals, and all the appearances. It was a fan appreciation tour, so we were going to the fans. We had two or three things going every week, going all over the country, meeting with people. The racing was kind of an afterthought."

In Atlanta, Petty got that much busier. There was a tribute concert by the country-music supergroup Alabama during the weekend, and at the race track, Petty could barely move from one point to another through teeming crowds of well wishers.

His children gave him and him alone the command, "Daddy, start your engine." Moments later, almost as an afterthought it seemed, someone else did the honors for the rest of the field. Once the pace laps began, a group of Apache helicopters escorted cars around the track, one swooping down to within just a few feet of them on the backstretch.

This was indeed going to be a different kind of day.

Jeff Gordon won three Busch Series races in 1992 before making his Cup debut. (Getty Images)

No one could have known it at the time, but a new NASCAR was about to be born. David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough had all long since run their last races, Petty the last holdout of the oldest of the Old Guard. This new kid Jeff Gordon, the one with the cheesy thin mustache grown in an apparent attempt to make him look older than his 21 years, had been making some noise down on the Busch Series in the meantime.

Gordon was everything most NASCAR drivers at the time were not. He was born in California and raised in Indiana, far outside the sport's traditional stomping grounds in the Southeast. He was a decade or more younger than the majority of established stars and, maybe worst of all, had cut his racing teeth in open-wheeled Sprint machines rather than beat-'em-up stock cars.

It didn't happen in Atlanta that amazing day, but Jeff Gordon was about to start beating up his elders and taking their lunch money. Don't think for a second that he was out for a Sunday cruise in the Hooters 500. Not a chance.

"I was young, pretty confident and wanted to make a good first impression," Gordon said Wednesday. "I had pretty high expectations, because we tested there and we tested fast. We were good in practice. In the race, we were pretty quick, so I think it was more than making laps. I wish that would've been my frame of mind, because I would've lasted longer. We were fast and I was pushing the car. I ended up spinning out."

Today, that day nearly 20 years later, the drivers' meeting that morning, is fresh on Gordon's mind. There was a lot of hoopla, and Petty presented each driver a money clip engraved with his name and starting position.

"That, to me, was the biggest part of the weekend that I remember, seeing Richard being mobbed through the garage area by the fans and the media," Gordon continued. "NASCAR and everybody made a pretty big deal out of that drivers' meeting. It's one of the drivers' meetings that stands out throughout my whole career because of the significance of it being Richard's last race.

"You have to understand ... I crashed, so it didn't go the way I wanted it to go. If I had my choice, it would've been to come out and have a really strong day. I'm sure Richard would say the same thing. He didn't want to go up in a ball of flames in his final race. It certainly wasn't the best of days for either one of us. I can say I raced against Richard Petty. Not too many guys in the garage area can say that these days."

Petty didn't fare much better. On Lap 95, he was caught up in a wild frontstretch melee that left his car in flames. As calmly as possible, he steered the battered mount toward a fire truck inside Turn 1, where he was met by volunteers who apparently forgot their fire extinguishers. Later, his crew worked feverishly to get Petty back onto the track for the final lap.

Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Alan Kuwicki all had championship hopes in 1992. (Getty Images)

"I went up in the lounge in the truck, and Lynda, my wife, came and then my three daughters were there," Petty remembered Tuesday. "We sat there, and they were all crying. I got to crying with them. It got very, very emotional. I don't usually get that emotional, but they said, 'You got in a wreck, but you got out. Everything's fine. You had a career and you're still walking around.' They were just glad it was over with. I think they were probably more glad it was over than I was."

The Davey, Bill and Alan show

Going into the Hooters 500, Bill Elliott felt that he didn't stand a chance.

Although he had paced the standings since early August, Elliott could only watch as his lead shrunk steadily during the last six races. The red-headed Georgian held a 154-point lead going into Martinsville in late September, but engine problems ended his day well before the crossed flags' halfway point. A couple of weeks later in Charlotte, a track-bar mount broke.

Another blown engine in Elliott's Junior Johnson-owned Ford on Nov. 1 at Phoenix, combined with Davey Allison's victory, made things really interesting heading to Atlanta. Erased by the clouds of smoke trailing Elliott's machine was a relatively comfortable 70-point cushion. Elliott plummeted to third in the standings, 40 points behind Allison and 10 behind second-place Alan Kulwicki.

Harry Gant, Kyle Petty and Mark Martin were also within the realm of mathematical possibility for the Winston Cup crown, but each was all but a non-factor at Atlanta. Petty and Martin blew engines, while Gant fought off a bout with the flu and very nearly called for relief help before finishing 13th, the best of the three.

"By the time Atlanta came around, we were out of the race in my opinion," said Elliott, a Dawsonville, Ga., native who would be racing in front of a fanatical hometown crowd. "Davey was probably the one to have the best chance. There were too many cars way ahead of us that more than likely weren't going to have problems. We just went in the race with the attitude, 'We'll run what we can run and whatever happens, happens.' "

A happy Alan Kulwicki hoists the championship trophy. (Racing One/Getty)

"I've been the underdog a lot of my career, and that's the way I want people to remember me."

--ALAN KULWICKI


_______________________

""Alan, I thought, was one of the best race drivers I ever saw in my life. ... He was a one-man show."

--JUNIOR JOHNSON

The Day: 1992 Hooters 500 is at its most gripping when it comes to Kulwicki and Allison. For Allison, 1992 had been a study in human endurance and emotion. The son of the legendary Bobby Allison won five times, the first coming in the season-opening Daytona 500. He stood atop the standings following the first 15 checkered flags of the year, more than half of its 29-race schedule. That was despite getting bruised and battered in no less than three separate accidents in that stretch, including one at the end of that year's all-star race. Allison won, but crashed with Kyle Petty at the end.

Allison's car went to Victory Lane. He spent the night in the hospital.

As Spectacular as that accident was, there was an even wilder one to come. A vicious and lightning-fast series of barrel rolls on July 19 at Pocono left Allison with broken bones in his right forearm, collarbone and wrist, as well as a fractured skull and eye socket. Both eyes were almost completely bloodshot. Bobby Hillin took over for Allison very early July 26 at Talladega, and wound up with a third-place finish. Allison then turned his car over two weeks later at Watkins Glen to road-racing specialist Dorsey Schroeder, who finished 20th.

The first race after the Pocono accident in which Allison went the distance took place on Aug. 16 at Michigan. As badly as his broken body felt, the weekend left a far deeper wound. Clifford Allison, Davey's younger brother, was killed during a Busch Series practice session three days before at the same 2-mile track.

All that was left was to finish out the year, and hope for the best. Surely, after winning at Phoenix, the championship was meant to be for Allison.

"From my viewpoint, his personality was just so positive all the time on everything," Bobby Allison said this week. "He was like, 'The bad times are behind me, and the good times are ahead. I'm going to do the best I can and be successful.' "

Moments after the green flag, disaster struck. Allison was struck from the rear in a second-lap, multi-car accident by Hut Stricklin, who proceeded to then T-bone Brett Bodine. Stricklin and Bodine were both taken to a nearby hospital, while Allison's Robert Yates Racing crew scrambled to repair the damage in subsequent pit stops.

Yet another problem took place when Allison hit something on the race track just past the halfway point -- Gordon's crew chief Ray Evernham says in The Day that it was a roll of duct tape mistakenly left on Gordon's car, while reports at the time figured it to be the harmonic balancer from a damaged rival. Whatever the case might have been, Allison headed back to the pit for more repairs.

Unbelievably, Allison somehow managed to pick his way to fifth place by Lap 254. The championship would be his, if he could somehow make it the rest of the way with nothing else happening. In that split second, Ernie Irvan lost control of his car in Turn 4, tried to collect it and instead plowed straight into Allison's path.

"That's just the way it goes sometimes," Allison said during ESPN's telecast of the race. "We'd had some troubles and were trying to work our way back up there, just trying to run a smart race. ... I saw Ernie get loose over there in [Turn] 4, and we just ran out of room. I hate it."

First there were six, and then there were three. After Allison's accident, only two remained -- Elliott and Kulwicki. In The Day, another focus is on how well those in ESPN's broadcast booth handled the chaos of that afternoon. On his first stop of the day, Kulwicki tore first gear out of his transmission as he left his pit stall. Could he come back from that? Who led what lap? How many more to clinch the most-laps-led bonus? Can Alan or Davey go the rest of the way on fuel? Did Alan get enough gas his last time in? Maybe, maybe not.

"It was a chore, there's no question about that," said Ned Jarrett, who called the race for ESPN alongside Bob Jenkins and Benny Parsons. "Things were sometimes happening quickly. We didn't have the technology then that they have now, as far keeping up with the points and who had to do what. We did have some statisticians who were very good at that kind of thing. That helped Benny, Bob and I to keep it in perspective."

The race came down to who would lead the most laps, and Kulwicki's crew figured out that if he could lead through Lap 310, the lap-leader bonus and championship would be his no matter what Elliott did. He did just that, and then pitted for a 3.4-second splash of gas the next time around. Elliott retook the lead but he, too, stopped for fuel on Lap 315. The point cycled back to Elliott just one circuit later, with Kulwicki in second.

That's how they flashed across the finish line a little more than 8 seconds apart, but it did not matter. The championship was Kulwicki's, after leading 103 circuits, one more than Elliott. His 10-point margin was the slimmest in Cup history to that point and only Kurt Busch's eight-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson in 2004, the first year of the Chase, has bettered it since.

Elliott called Kulwicki "kind of a weird duck," and that he might very well have been -- before climbing from his car, Kulwicki took the time to run a pocket comb through his hair. Like Gordon, he was an outsider, bucking convention by running his own team against the juggernauts of the day. He could be a beast to work for, a college-educated engineer demanding work be done his way or not at all. No owner/driver has since captured NASCAR's ultimate prize.

"This is just the dream of a lifetime," Kulwicki said toward the end of The Day. "I've been the underdog a lot of my career, and that's the way I want people to remember me. Maybe it'll help some of the people that are dreaming about doing this to believe in themselves. If I can do it, maybe they can, too."

On the track, Elliott insists he had no idea of the strategy that was being played out in the pits.

"At that point in time, it didn't matter," Elliott said flatly. "Whether we had led another lap or handful of laps or whatever ... I felt like we did what we could do. Alan did what he needed to do. That's all that mattered at the end of the day. He had it to lose, just like Davey had it to lose. All I could do was to win. It wasn't like it was ours to lose.

"We lost it four or five races back. You could always look back and play Monday morning quarterback, but whatever happens, happens. Whether you like it or dislike it, you've got to accept it and go on. Our chances were very slim to win the championship. All in all, we had a great season. We won a bunch of races. We did a lot of stuff right."

Johnson was not so easily consoled.

"Some of our radios went out, and Bill couldn't hear us," Johnson said Monday on his farm in Hamptonville, N.C. "We couldn't tell him to go on and lead the next lap. If he'd led one more lap, he would've won the championship and the race. I don't know exactly what the problem was. He could hear the spotter, but the spotter couldn't hear us. He made a judgment call and come in on his own. It was just a bad stroke of bad luck."

In fact, Johnson was livid to the point of actually releasing Tim Brewer, the team's crew chief who is currently an analyst with ESPN.

"Tim Brewer got fired afterward," Johnson continued. "He denies it, but I was there and saw what went on. Four of the Budweiser people thought we were going to win the race and the championship and was standing in the pits. He was running them out and wasn't paying no attention to what was going on. Instead of looking after the car and stuff, he was looking after the pits to keep the people out. The Budweiser people denied being there, but that's not true. They was there."

Very sadly, the implications surrounding the 1992 Hooters 500 did not end there, with the razor-thin championship battle, Petty's last hurrah or Gordon's debut. Kulwicki lost his life in an April 1, 1993 plane crash while en route to Bristol, and never really got a chance to defend his title. The blow was terrible, but another gut punch landed just three and a half months later when Allison died July 13 from injuries sustained the day before while trying to land a helicopter in the Talladega infield.

Johnson was a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame's inaugural class, based on a career centered on refusing to lose at all costs. That was as far from Kulwicki's understated, conservative style as it was possible to be. Nevertheless, Johnson had tried -- and tried hard -- to land the Wisconsin native to drive for him going into the 1990 season.

Kulwicki turned down the deal, continue instead to field his own operation.

"Alan, I thought, was one of the best race drivers I ever saw in my life," Johnson said. "I wanted Alan Kulwicki worse than any driver I ever had. It wasn't that he could out-drive anybody, but he could drive with anybody. It was the knowledge that he had and the dedication that man had for racing. He was a one-man show."

Keep in mind, this is coming from a former car owner who fielded entries for Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte and Elliott -- champions all.

"I worked harder after Alan than I did any driver I ever had," Johnson concluded. "What you were getting was a two-in-one driver. He knew what to do to the chassis. He was better at it than anybody in the sport, probably, and he knew how to drive a race car. He didn't need to [be overly aggressive]. He knew how he wanted his car, and he was a good enough driver to do it. He didn't have to run over people, because he could flat outrun 'em."

Coming from Junior Johnson, that's the greatest eulogy Kulwicki could have received. Here's another compliment. The Day: 1992 Hooters 500 is not to be missed. It's a chance to look back and remember, to relive memories, ones good and bad.

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