Impact of ‘One Hot Night’ still felt 25 years later

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It was billed, appropriately enough, as “One Hot Night” and the 1992 running of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway proved to be just that.

 

Saturday night’s race (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the 25-year anniversary of the “One Hot Night” spectacle, and in spite of the passage of time, it remains one of the most memorable races in the history of the event.

 

“I will say this – it lived up to every bit of the hype,” former driver Kyle Petty said. “Like few things in sports do. Rarely do things live up to the hype that you throw at them.”

 

Petty was a key player in the ’92 race. Along with fellow racer Davey Allison. And Dale Earnhardt, then a two-time winner of the 70-lap, three-segment event (he went on to have three wins in the All-Star Race overall) that paid no points but plenty of money.

 

“We witnessed in the amount of time we’ve been here some really great races, incredible races, everywhere,” Petty said. “But they don’t stick with you like this race sticks with you. For some reason this race sticks with fans different than other races. Whether it was the first night race, whether it was Earnhardt spinning and Davey wrecking, whether it was all the hype that led up to it.”

 

Officially it was known as The Winston. But with his typical promoter’s flair, CMS president Humpy Wheeler dubbed the event “One Hot Night” long before the first car hit the track.

 

Wheeler could not have been more correct in his assessment of the evening’s activities.

 

NIGHT VISION

 

The annual all-star race, funded by series sponsor RJ Reynolds, was in its eighth year and had already provided its share of memorable moments.

RELATED: Counting down the top moments in All-Star Race history

“You had (Darrell) Waltrip blowing up the engine on the start/finish line of the last lap of the first The Winston (in 1985),” said Dennis Dawson, who was senior manager of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series program for Sports Marketing Enterprises and RJR at the time.

 

“You had Darrell and Rusty (Wallace) coming through Turns 3 and 4 and Darrell getting spun, Rusty crossing the finish line and Darrell saying he hoped Rusty choked on the money (in ’89).”

 

And there was the memorable “pass in the grass” involving Earnhardt and Bill Elliott in ’87.

 

“So it had already created a buzz,” Dawson said.

RELATED: Relive the ‘Pass in the Grass’

 

The ’92 edition brought something new to the table – racing under the lights.

 

NASCAR’s top division had run points races at night before ’92. Bristol’s popular August race had been held under the lights since 1978; Richmond had been hosting night races since the early ’90s; and Nashville, before it came off the schedule, held night races for several years.

 

But the series had never competed under the glare of lights on anything other than a short track.

 

 

“It was crazy to think you could light this place,” Petty recalled. “You grew up running short tracks; a half-mile with a light pole here and a light pole here and a light pole here. And it goes from light to dark, to light to dark to light to dark. And that’s OK at 70 miles an hour. But at 170-180 mph? I remember when they said ‘we’re going to do it with lights and mirrors.’ I’m like ‘smoke and mirrors maybe.'”

 

In a last-ditch effort to keep the race at Charlotte, Wheeler had promised RJR officials that he would light the 1.5-mile track for the event, allowing it to be run later in the evening and on Saturday instead of Sunday.

 

“Humpy did pitch the thought of doing that, without having a clue how to do it,” Dawson said. “That part is true.”

 

RJR officials met with Wheeler and folks from MUSCO Lighting, a company out of Iowa that had been providing lighting solutions for outdoor sporting events.

 

There was skepticism and concern. But it went deeper than just whether the track could be safely lit for racing.

 

“It had never been done to that magnitude to start with,” Dawson said. “But lighting the outside and taking care of the fans was just as important as taking care of the drivers, the crew guys on pit road, the safety guys. The lighting thing was a big deal all the way around.

 

“But we knew that if they could get the job done that it was going to elevate the event.”

 

Mike Joy, anchoring the TNN broadcast in the booth that night along with analysts Buddy Baker and Neil Bonnett, said TV and competitors had different concerns. The broadcast partner needed enough light “to have a quality show,” Joy, now the lead announcer for NASCAR on FOX, said. “And we were afraid if we did that, if the lights were that bright, there would be too much glare for the drivers to see. We all went in pretty worried, but we all got more than we hoped for.”

RELATED: Results for every All-Star Race run

 

A SLAM BANG FINISH

 

 

Allison started the 70-lap race on the pole and won the first 30-lap segment. When fans voted to invert the field for the second segment, his No. 28 Robert Yates Racing Ford restarted from the rear of the field. Petty, with crew chief Robin Pemberton calling the race from pit road, won the second segment.

 

All that remained was a 10-lap shootout with Petty, Earnhardt and Allison among those in front for the restart.

 

With the air temperature dropping, track conditions continued to change.

 

“Track surfaces need to be hot and they need to change throughout the day for old-timers like us that know what you have to work on,” Pemberton said. “… When you can run five hours and the track temperature is within five degrees and it’s 87 degrees or whatever it happens to be, it doesn’t add that element of the track changing, grip level changing, you’ve got to keep up with the car, other strategies other than just two or four tires.”

 

Larry McReynolds, crew chief for Allison said not keeping up with those conditions stymied his driver heading into the final segment.

 

“I didn’t do a good job of getting aggressive and keeping up with this changing track,” McReynolds said. “We had no notebook. The only night notebook we had was Bristol, which was not relative to anything. So we knew the track was going to change based on the temps, but I think with the changing track, more cars, more rubber (on the track), I didn’t do a good job of getting aggressive enough.

 

“But when you dominate the first segment, come through the field from dead last to fifth or sixth in (segment) No. 2, you’re a little bit hesitant (to make changes).”

 

The final 10-lap segment opened with Petty checking out on the field, building a sizable lead before Darrell Waltrip’s spin on the frontstretch brought out the caution.

 

When they restarted with seven laps remaining, it was Petty out front, Earnhardt second and Allison third. But not for long.

 

Earnhardt grabbed the lead on Lap 64 and a pass by Allison dropped Petty to third.

 

A lap later, Petty was second and closing. When they rocketed out of Turn 2 for the final time, Petty shot under the menacing black No. 3, and promptly was nearly forced off the track as Earnhardt ran him low.

 

Allison, meanwhile, had built up a head of steam and was closing rapidly.

 

“The crowd was already standing but they got loud as the car were going down the back straightaway,” Dawson said. “And then just a few seconds later the tone changed. I looked over toward Turn 3 just trying to see the race track and I guess there was a spot between two motorhomes – I could see Earnhardt sideways and smoke boiling off the tires. Then we all ran around to the front of Victory Lane to see what was going on and there was Kyle and Davey coming down through there side by side.”

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Earnhardt and Petty had both driven deep into Turn 3 and only one car stuck – Petty’s No. 42. Earnhardt spun up the track, Petty slowed briefly, and Allison shot back into the picture.

 

“You could tell by the fans’ reactions. You could hear it when I thought they were going down the back straightaway, you could hear it when I thought they were somewhere around Turn 3; It was so loud that we always took headsets to Victory Lane,” Dawson said. “Because the crowd would get loud. It was pretty intense.”

 

There were no TV monitors on pit boxes to follow the action and no oversized TV screen on the backstretch. McReynolds was unsure of what was unfolding.

 

Until the leaders came storming off the fourth turn.

 

“When they came off four, I said ‘I know who’s gonna win this drag race – Robert Yates,'” McReynolds said of the team owner and legendary engine builder.

 

Allison did, but just barely. Racing side-by-side to the line, he nosed out Petty for his second consecutive All-Star win. But contact between the two sent his car careening into the outside wall as he took the checkered flag.

 

Briefly knocked unconscious, the race winner was quickly removed from his car and transported to a local hospital where he was diagnosed with a concussion and bruised lung.

 

Only a few Victory Lane photos were snapped; none included the winning driver or his car.

 

“No. 1 was Davey being OK. That was a huge deal,” Dawson said. “They got Davey out of the car and sent him off in the helicopter. They put the car on a wrecker and they tried backing that race car into Victory Lane to have a Victory Lane celebration.”

 

Dawson, Yates and T. Wayne Robertson, the head of Sports Marketing Enterprise, RJR’s sports marketing arm quickly squashed that idea.

 

“Because there was not going to be a celebration that night,” Dawson said. “We had a driver that was semi-conscious. And his well-being was a whole lot more important than Winston trying to get a big deal out of a Victory Lane.

 

“Victory Lane is a big deal to us, but not that night.”

 

THE AFTERMATH

 

There was no rivalry born out of the last-lap incidents – Earnhardt, not surprisingly, was angry about losing but not about how he had been raced. The teams of Allison and Petty bore no grudges.

 

“We weren’t arguing with each other,” Petty said. “Nobody was mad. There was no story. A week later it was a non-story. For the race fans, the only story was what a great race that was. The story was the race. Not what we did, not what the teams did, not what anybody did. The story was can Davey come back this week from those injuries?”

 

“I can say from the time I got to the hospital, there was never a negative word toward Kyle or between the 42 and the 28,” said McReynolds. “It never even crossed our minds.”

 

In fact, Petty even offered to drive Allison’s XFINITY (then Busch) Series car in the following week’s race “just to shut everybody up,” Petty said. But manufacturer alignments – Petty drove a Pontiac, Allison a Ford – nixed that plan.

 

McReynolds was left with an injured driver – although Allison was back behind the wheel the following week – and a short supply of race cars.

 

Tim Brewer, crew chief for Bill Elliott and the Junior Johnson & Associates team, stepped in and offered the team an intermediate car.

 

McReynolds said Brewer told him, “You can just keep it as long as you want. Use it if you want to.

 

“The whole month of June, we hauled a Budweiser car in the front of that hauler with a Texaco Havoline decal stuck in the window in case we had to use it,” he said.

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Allison won twice more that year — giving him five victories plus the All-Star win on the season — before falling short of the title in the season-ending race at Atlanta. He died the following season when the helicopter he was piloting crashed at Talladega Superspeedway.

 

Earnhardt went on to win two more championships and cement his status as an icon before his death on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

RELATED: An oral history look at Dale Earnhardt’s final win

 

“By Davey not being here and Dale not being here now, that adds to it,” Petty said of the race. “Because that’s a moment. That changes how you perceive this race as you look back at it.

 

“If we were all three sitting here laughing about it and complaining about it, then you may view it differently. You wouldn’t view it in that nostalgic tone as much as you do now. But it definitely lived up to the hype for sure.”