I was so cold.
The kind of cold where my toes and fingertips ached. My teeth had a consistently slight chatter. My back shivered most of the day and just would not stop. The wind was constant and the air was bitter in the shade. And yet this discomfort was not the foremost memory I was left with from this weekend.
I describe the physical feeling I tolerated from the top row of the turn one grandstands in Atlanta during the 1992 NASCAR Cup season finale. The historical impact of what I had witnessed was evident immediately on this day and more so in the years to come.
I grew up as a fan of Richard Petty. He was my guy. I was sporting Petty hats, T-shirts, and souvenirs in the 1970s. Does a reader of this ever have to defend the sport to a non-race fan today? Give it a shot while attending grade school over 30 years ago.
During the 1991 season Petty announced that the following year would be his last as a race car driver. Being a Petty follower, I wanted to attend the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see his final race.
Atlanta Motor Speedway tickets were purchased nearly a year in advance. Plane tickets, hotel, and car rental arrangements were made on the very day each one became available.
During 1992 I was fortunate to also attend Petty’s last Daytona 500 and both Dover contests. Atlanta’s countdown decreased from a year, to months, to weeks and finally to days. Petty’s long and storied career was coming to an end as our weekend was beginning.
The 1992 year moved along and a competitive championship battle formed up. Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Kyle Petty, and Harry Gant all had a mathematical shot at winning the Cup.
Rick Hendrick had signed a rookie driver for a third team he was starting in 1993. The young talent had spent the previous two years in the Busch Series but there were quite a few critics who felt the young driver was not ready for Cup. The new team’s debut was scheduled for the Atlanta November race. The new driver’s name was Jeff Gordon.
The weekend trip made me feel privileged to witness Petty’s final ride, yet also a little melancholy that his driving days were finishing. Petty had always been a part of the NASCAR Cup fields in my lifetime. An era was coming to an end.
We had great seats for Sunday’s 500. As I had written, top-row choice. But the downside was being under the shaded covering of the overhead suites. And a whipping, biting wind that we had no protection from while being several stories in the air.
Petty began the race near the back and did not climb through the field like we all hoped. The positive side of me wished for the unlikely but storybook finish of one more victory. In spite of the reality that his last Winner’s Circle appearance was eight years prior.
He was put a lap down by leader Dale Earnhardt and a collective sigh was released by the crowd as I was evidently not the only person who wished for The King’s final comeback.
Following a later restart, Petty was collected in a frontstretch pileup and came to rest on the first turn infield with a burning, crashed car. The fire was extinguished and Petty climbed from the smoking machine. He raised both hands to wave the crowd. One held his helmet. The crowd released its second collective sigh, relieved that Petty was uninjured. A standing ovation followed, thanking the man for a remarkable record-setting career.
Gordon was impressive in his run. There was a group of cars that led most of the laps during the race. Then there was a group of strong cars that were competitive but not challenging for the lead. And Gordon hung tight to the back of that group. He turned my head in a positive way. Crash damage eventually sidelined Gordon. Little did anyone know what kind of career was still ahead of him.
Elliott and Kulwicki staged a torrid duel for the race lead in search of precious bonus points that eventually decided the championship. Kulwicki led the most race laps and one more than Elliott did on the day. That was the difference in Kulwicki winning the Cup.
Kulwicki received the five-point bonus for leading the most laps. If one of those door-to-door fights across the start/finish line had edged to Elliott the title would have been his. Take one lap led away from Kulwicki and give it to Elliott, then Elliott leads the most race laps. Take five points away from Kulwicki and give it to Elliott the two would be tied for the point lead. The title would fall to Elliott on the strength of more season race wins.
These are numbers Kulwicki’s team worked out during the race and factored in to planning his final pit stop while leading. As soon as Elliott could no longer lead more laps then he did, Kulwicki hit pit road. That was about as close a championship fight as anyone could ask for.
This race has been recalled multiple times. On a day where a lot of circumstances came together to make the day more than memorable. A thrilling championship battle, Jeff Gordon’s first Cup race, and the reason I planned the trip to begin with, a farewell to Petty made for a historic day.
If only I could remove the memory of that bitter cold, the Atlanta grandstand would be remembered that much more fondly.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Thursdays at 9pm ET. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com)
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