One Hot Summer Night

Divorce is never easy on a child, especially on one as naive as I was. I can recall sitting in Kindergarten class as my teacher, Ms. Tierney, explained to the class that if your parents divorce, it’s not your fault. I tuned her out, “I don’t need to listen to this. My parents love each other. They will never divorce.”

Two years later, they sat me down for the talk. I was eight years old and didn’t know anything was wrong. I really thought the past year that my dad slept in my room was just because he wanted to stay up late and play Al Unser Turbo Racing on my Nintendo. I guess that is just how life is, one day everything is fine, the next day its not.

My life changed after that day. Suddenly I was being shifted around to different houses and apartments, and spending a large amount of time at the Naval Reserve Center where my father worked. It was there that my dad did his best to preserve my childhood in an attempt to shield me from the harsh reality of real life.

The year was 1992, and MC Hammer was all the rage. As I listened to the radio in my dad’s office, I heard that MC Hammer and Boys 2 Men were coming nearby for a concert. I ran up to my dad and begged him to take me. I remember the look in his eyes begged me not to ask but to his credit, he listened to me ask and even agreed to think on it.

Two days later, I found myself being dropped back off at the Reserve Center where my father greeted me with excitement.

“I know you want to go to that concert, but I think there is something else you might like to go to more. How would you like to see Richard Petty race before he retires?”

MC Hammer, who? The concert was no longer in my mind as I focused on the future of watching the STP 43 race live.

I’d spent most of my Sundays watching NASCAR with my dad. Like all sports fans, you tend to find a favorite, and Richard Petty was mine. He had won his final race when I was less than a year old, but that didn’t stop me for cheering for the 43. It never occured to me that I could watch NASCAR live until that moment, and just the idea of feeling the wind and hearing the engines made me happy. This was the one thing I had to hang onto while my parent’s marriage continued to dissolve around me. Everything was leading up to one hot summer night in Concord, North Carolina, where I would get to attend the 1992 Winston All-Star Race, under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Burton Smith and Humphy Wheeler spent 1.7 million dollars on installing a permanent lighting system around Charlotte Motor Speedway making it the first modern superspeedway to host night racing. No one knew what to expect. There was concern the lights would create a glare off the windshield which could result in horrible accidents at superspeedway speeds, but Wheeler was never one to  let a good gimmick go to waste and there was money in night racing if it worked.

When my father and I entered the racetrack there was a feeling that’s hard to describe. There was your typical race excitement, but there was also this uneasy feeling of not knowing what to expect.

The Winston was open to the race winners from the previous season through the 92 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. All previous All-Star race winners and Winston Cup Champions who attemtped to qualify for every race in 1992 were eligible as well. This created a wonderful list of NASCAR legends who competed in this historic event. Names like: Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Ernie Irvan, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Alan Kulwicki, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Jarrett, Harry Gant, Terry Labonte, and more.

The race consisted of two thirty lap segments each awarding $50,000 prizes to the winner and a ten lap shootout that paid out $200,000. Davey Allison, who had qualified on the pole, dominated the first segment and led every lap.

Davey Allison, son of Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, was an up and coming star. Many felt like Davey Allison was the guy who’d take NASCAR into the next decade of growth. He was young, handsome, and full of talent, all of which was on display under the lights at Charlotte.

I liked Davey, but my heart belonged to The King. I was thrilled to finally see the Petty blue in real life, but like most races I watched, The King usually found in the back half of the field. He finished second to last in the first segment, which wasn’t a bad deal considering the fans had a say in how the field would line up for the second segment.

The fans were given a chance to vote on whether or not to invert the field, and of course, everyone wanted to see Davey Allison’s hot rod work his way through the field, and so they voted for the inversion. This meant when the second segment began, the STP 43 began on the outside of row one and for a moment, I got to see Richard Petty at the front of the field.

I hoped and prayed he would became to contain the cars behind him, but it wasn’t The King’s night. However, his son, Kyle Petty, made some changes between segments and suddenly the 42 Mellow Yellow had come to life. As the thirty laps finished in segment two, Kyle Petty found himself in the lead followed by Dale Earnhardt. Davey Allison had worked his way up to sixth.

I was ecstatic. While Richard Petty was my favorite, I liked Kyle too. He was different than Richard with his big hair, but he had the coolest paint scheme of anyone. Mellow Yellow had even become a preferred beverage of mine, based solely on how cool his car was.

The field was bunched back up and the final ten lap shoot out began. Just three laps in Darrel Waltrip was turned and the caution came out. When the race restarted the lineup was Kyle Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Davey Allison with six laps to go.

The Intimidator worked his way in front of Kyle and began agressive defensive positioning. Everything came down to the last lap as Kyle worked on trying to get past Dale with no avail. As they approached turn three, my heart was about to blow out of my chest. I rooted with everything I had for Kyle Petty to win the race and as he approached Earnhardt’s bumper, he took just enough downforce off his car to let him slide up into the wall.

Kyle was forced to back off as not to turn Dale and wreck himself, which allowed Davey Allison to floor it through turn four which put him side-by-side with Kyle Petty.

The two sons of legendary Hall of Famers came beating fender-to-fender across the finish line in one of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history. Davey ended up getting turned and took a hard hit into the wall (this was many years before Safer Barriers). When emergency crews reached Davey, he was briefly unresponsive. They used “The Jaws of Life” to remove him from the car and airlift him to a nearby hospital where he was diagnosed with a broken collarbone and bruises over fifty percent of his body.

For an eight year old boy, this was the most excitement I had ever seen. I got to see my favorite driver almost lead, his son win a segment, and an amazing finish between two driver’s destined to be the future of the sport. Sadly, Davey Allison would pass away the following year and Kyle Petty never quite reached the success of his father and grandfather, but that one hot summer night in Concord, North Carolina all anyone could talk about was how amazing both he and Davey were in a racecar.

Since this race, I’ve attended a dozen NASCAR events, but nothing has come close to being nearly as memorable as the 1992 Winston. I’m honored to have seen the who’s who of NASCAR history battling it out for the first time under the lights.

But more importantly, I’m thankful for this one great memory, in the midst of a terrible time in my life. The 1992 Winston was a distraction. It wasn’t something for a little boy to look forward to and something for him to talk about for days to come. It’s been thirty years and I’m still talking about it.

There is a great documentary produced by NASCAR from a few years ago about the race you can view on YouTube:

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