Tune in Sunday to NASCAR RaceDay at 2:20 p.m. ET on FOX to see a special video tribute to the 1992 Hooters 500, The Greatest Race.
Larry McReynolds walked along pit lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway an hour before the season finale in 1992. He looked up at the grandstands and marveled at how packed they were. Atlanta had drawn big crowds for races before, but never like this. On that day’s broadcast, ESPN reported it was the largest sports crowd in the history of the state of Georgia.
The fans — 162,500 of them, according to racing-reference.info — gathered in advance of a race unprecedented in NASCAR history: Three drivers were battling for the championship, with three more technically still in the hunt. The fact six drivers could win the championship that day meant nerves jangled up and down pit lane, among drivers, crew members and crew chiefs, as they wondered what chances fate would offer them and whether they’d capitalize on them if given the chance.
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“I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous in my life,” said driver Davey Allison, who entered the race with a slim lead driving for Robert Yates Racing with McReynolds as his crew chief. “We just want to have an event-free race, try to stay out of trouble, and be around at the end.”
He went zero for three on that list.
In the No. 7 pit stall, Alan Kulwicki and his crew tried to block out the nerves, though without much success. Often tightly wound and vocal on the radio, Kulwicki started barking even before the green flag dropped. During the parade laps, Apache helicopters dropped low, low, low, right over the cars. “Get them helicopters out of here!” Kulwicki snapped, as if his team could do anything about it.
Forgive Kulwicki for his impatience. He entered the race in second place, 30 points behind Allison. He could take the biggest swing that day, as his underdog status meant he had nothing to lose, and if he wanted to take that swing without a helicopter a few feet from his deck lid, it’s hard to blame him.
“The only thing we really talked about before the race is, let’s not talk about the championship until it’s time to talk about the championship,” crew chief Paul Andrews said.
And finally, there was third-place Bill Elliott (40 points behind Allison), “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville,” the favorite son of the state and NASCAR’s perennial most popular driver. He drove the No. 11 for Junior Johnson. Johnson — the legendary driver turned transformational team owner — had tried to sign Kulwicki a few years earlier. But Kulwicki, a driver-owner infamous for an exacting attention to detail, which he demanded of himself and his crew, didn’t want to cede control, so he turned Johnson down.
Whether being spurned by Kulwicki made Johnson and Elliott want to beat him even more is hard to say, but either way, Kulwicki as the small-team owner-driver going up against the Goliaths of Johnson/Elliott and Yates/Allison was an irresistible story line.
There had never been a day like this. ESPN play-by-play man Bob Jenkins made that clear: “We try to tell ourselves that it’s just another race,” he told viewers. “But it isn’t.”
Allison and McReynolds, Kulwicki and Andrews, Elliott and Johnson, Jenkins and the fans squeezed in the grandstands, camping in the infield and watching at home, all knew something big was about to happen.
Just how big, they didn’t know.
They were about to witness, take part in, and help create the best race in NASCAR history.
In NASCAR, we love to talk about superlatives — fastest lap, closest finish, best driver, best race.
Some of that, you can prove. Fastest lap is a simple measure of time and distance, and Elliott set a mark in 1987 at Talladega (212.809 mph) that will likely never be beaten. Closest finish is also easy to quantify, even if the lightning-fast technology that discerns what the human eye can’t is anything but simple.
Best driver … well, that’s a little tougher. Some fans hold up championships as the ultimate barometer. But wins, longevity, finishing better than your equipment are all factors, too, as is the eye-test.
Best race is tougher still to pin down. For a race to be great, it needs lead-footed driving, big-name drivers doing big-time things, holy-cow moments, historic significance and that ever-elusive “It Factor,” an indelible quality that combines all of those things and somehow transcends them, too.
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Some great races have a single great part — the Kurt Busch-Ricky Craven finish in 2003 at Darlington, the Hail Melon last year at Martinsville — which make them memorable and maybe even historic, but their lack of greater context leaves them just short of best ever.
Richard Petty’s 200th win in the Firecracker 400 in 1984, Dale Earnhardt’s 1998 Daytona 500 victory and the 1979 Daytona 500 all qualify as best ever. Let’s cross the first two off as admittedly awesome but too singular — they were about individual drivers conquering individual mountains, and outside of that don’t stand out for historical value, even if President Ronald Reagan giving the start your engines command before Petty’s win was inarguably sublime.
The 1979 Daytona 500 belongs in a conversation about superlative NASCAR races — most important, most memorable, most talked about — but not best ever. Only three cars finished on the lead lap. Five others finished a lap down. The 10th-place car, driven by Frank Warren, finished three laps down. The race was important, memorable, historic, etc., just not best ever.
The final race of 2004 has a strong case. It was the highly anticipated season finale in the first year of the Chase playoff system. It came soaked in pathos as the sport was mourning the loss of 10 people in a crash of a Hendrick Motorsports plane, and two Hendrick drivers had a chance at the title. The race itself was intense; the key moment was when contender Kurt Busch’s tire fell off. He recovered from that to finish fifth and win the title by eight points.
The five men who started the race still in the hunt — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Busch — are all either in the NASCAR Hall of Fame already or will be.
There’s nothing keeping that race from being best-ever … except, perhaps, that its intensity has been repeated, to varying degrees, every year since. Because the sport has had an unending string of compelling season finales, none of them stands out as singular. As great as each of those races might have been, their existences were predictable because of the format.
Which takes us back to Atlanta Motor Speedway and the 1992 Hooters 500, which was unprecedented in having six contenders still alive.
Rick Houston, the great and longtime NASCAR journalist, covered the race. He wrote a book about it, which suggests on its own he would place it high in the NASCAR pantheon of great races. The title clinches it: “NASCAR’s Greatest Race.”
“The 1992 Hooters 500 was a race that had every conceivable kind of story line from the outset,” he wrote. “This was the very best the sport had to offer, and then some.”
Part of that very best was the personalities in the race. No fewer than 20 owners and drivers in the race are now enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, including all three of the top contenders and their team owners. This was the final race for Richard Petty, the King, owner of 200 wins and seven championships, and the first race for Jeff Gordon, who won four championships and 93 races. They both crashed out early. Dale Earnhardt, who matched Petty’s seven championships and tallied 76 wins, led 44 laps but stumbled to a 26th-place finish. That’s 369 career wins and 18 championships among just three drivers.
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Even the broadcast booth was star-studded — Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons were both Hall of Famers, combined for three championships and were iconic and popular personalities.
The tension started with a wreck among the race leaders on Lap 2 and didn’t let up for 500 miles. Elliott and Kulwicki avoided that first wreck, and Allison collected minor damage. Trouble started soon thereafter. Kulwicki’s transmission broke on the first pit stop, so he never dropped his car lower than fourth gear the rest of the race. His team pushed him down pit lane, a tactic normally forbidden but allowed by NASCAR under the circumstances.
On Lap 96, Petty was involved in a crash that sent his car up in flames. He famously said later he had hoped to go out in a blaze of glory but instead just went out in a blaze.
ESPN repeatedly showed a “points as of now” graphic detailing who was in the championship lead. The graphic showed a different leader five times in a row as the drivers moved up and down the scoring pylon (Allison, then Elliott, then Kulwicki, then back to Allison, then back to Kulwicki).
Allison had already endured a terrible 1992. His brother, Clifford, died in a crash during Busch Series practice at Michigan. Davey was taken to the hospital after a crash in the All-Star Race and suffered a broken arm in a wreck at Pocono in which his car flipped 10 times. During the race, he reported running over something on the track, which damaged his car. Gordon’s crew chief, Ray Evernham, has said the team left a roll of duct tape on the hood, it fell off on the track and Allison hit it. Allison’s race and season ended in a crash on Lap 254 when he couldn’t avoid Ernie Irvan, who lost control of his car when he cut a tire.
That left the championship battle to Elliott and Kulwicki. The math was complicated, made even more so by the fact scoring was done by hand. It was clear that even if Elliott won the race, Kulwicki could still win the championship if he finished second and led the most laps. What was not clear was who was going to lead the most laps.
In Kulwicki’s pit, someone marked an X for every lap led. In the ESPN booth, Ken Martin, then a statistician for ESPN and now the director of historical content for NASCAR, charted who led every lap and was responsible for the accuracy of the “points as of now” graphics.
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“I’ve worked in a broadcast booth for over 500 live events, whether it’s NASCAR, IndyCar, Le Mans, even Formula One, and there’s never been a booth like that as far as the tension,” says Martin. “Your heart was in your throat from the very start, and it never let up.”
And for good reason. Sometimes the cars were so close Martin had to lean out the window and look down at the start-finish line to make sure he saw for sure who led that lap. This was hugely important. If he missed or was wrong about who led even a single lap, that would throw off his calculations, which could lead to ESPN erroneously reporting who won the championship. For example, Kulwicki led Lap 80 over Elliott by less than a foot. If Elliott instead had led that lap and the rest of the race played out the same, he would have won the championship. That was the closest lap, and there were several others of not much more than a fender.
The tension ramped up as the final round of pit stops neared. Kulwicki stayed out a few extra laps, risking running out of gas to clinch the most laps led mark. When he finally stopped for his gas-and-go, he left his pits assured of the championship if he finished second, which was his running position at the time. That became a big if, though, when team members realized they had not gotten as much gas into his tank as they hoped.
The gas man, Tony Gibson, told his wife to move their car close to the exit, because if they ran out, he was going to run to the car and make a hasty exit to avoid everybody who would be mad at him. The team radioed Kulwicki to tell him the news. Normally he was voluble on the radio. “It was crickets,” crew chief Andrews said. “He didn’t know what to say then.”
Eventually, Kulwicki asked for an explanation, and Andrews carefully reported the news. He told him that the third-place car was so far behind that Kulwicki didn’t face any real danger of being passed. He couldn’t coast to the finish line, but there was no need to bull his way there, either.
As the final laps ticked down, Martin worked in the ESPN booth, checking and rechecking his numbers so he could be 100 percent confident in declaring Kulwicki the champion, paving the way for Jenkins’s iconic call: “Bill Elliot comes off the fourth corner. He wins the Hooters 500. But Alan Kulwicki is coming off of corner No. 4 knowing that he is winning the championship. There’s the checkered flag for Alan. He’s the champion for 1992!”
Some races feel mammoth in the moment but shrink as they disappear into our memories, fading as super-exciting at the time but having no lasting impact, like a relationship that starts with a great first date but goes nowhere after that. Not this one. It is constantly hashed and rehashed in the 31 years since.
“I don’t think anyone realized so much would come out of that race,” Ed Hinton, a retired NASCAR writer who covered the sport for ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the Orlando Sentinel, told author Herb Branham. “That race has grown way behind what it was to begin with, in importance.”
The day itself — with the thrilling points race won by the underdog and the retirement of Petty — was enough. But without question, this race occupies an exalted place in NASCAR history because of what happened after it. It’s chilling to rewatch the broadcast now. After Allison’s race ended with a crash, he gave a gracious live interview to ESPN. “There will be other years,” ESPN’s Jenkins told the audience. “There’s no question about that.”
But there weren’t other years. Allison died the following July in a helicopter crash.
In his Victory Lane interview, Kulwicki talked about giving up on trying to win the race and instead winning the championship. “There will be other races. But this championship is what I wanted.”
He never won another race. He entered only five more Cup races before dying in a plane crash the following April.
Still, the race’s legacy isn’t only about tragedy. It’s also about triumph and change.
The late David Poole, who covered NASCAR for the Charlotte Observer for 13 years and was one of the most astute commentators the sport has ever had, wrote a book about the race, too. He called it, “Race With Destiny: The Year that Changed NASCAR Forever.” He saw the race as the end of one era and the beginning of another, a now widely held view that became possible only in retrospect but about which there were hints, even that day.
The fact it was Petty’s final race and Gordon’s first race is eerie. Gordon was a highly touted young driver. But nobody knew he would win 93 races and four championships and take the sport to Regis and Kelly, Saturday Night Live and corporate boardrooms across the country. It was the only race to feature Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon — perhaps the three most important drivers in NASCAR history (and arguably the three best).
You can’t draw a straight line from the Hooters 500 in 1992 to the introduction of the playoffs in 2004 or NASCAR’s current elimination format. But those changes didn’t happen in a vacuum, either. When NASCAR officials sought ways to inject late-season drama into the sport, the 1992 season finale would certainly have been a contributing factor in their decision. Said Martin: “Consciously or subconsciously, I would agree that NASCAR officials thought, how can we capture that magic of Atlanta 1992 again?”
And that’s what makes the Hooters 500 race the best ever. We want to capture its magic again and again.