Atlanta Motor Speedway has struggled in recent years to establish itself as one of the “must see” races on the Sprint Cup schedule. During the pre-race ceremonies Sunday night as the television cameras scanned the huge venue, I have to admit it brought back some great memories of a track that once was a big-time player on the schedule.
I first started going to Atlanta in the early 90’s and was always treated to some great racing on a track that always produced some very high-speed racing. Back then the track didn’t really resemble what you see today. It went under a major transformation when the front stretch was flipped with the backstretch giving us the track configuration that we now see.
The one Atlanta race that has to go down in the history of the sport as one of if not the greatest races of all time was the 1992 seasonending Hooters 500. It was a race that featured three drivers taking the green flag with a great shot to become the series titleholder; the first race ever for Jeff Gordon and the last ever race for Richard “The King” Petty.
Petty’s famous Fan Appreciation Tour was making its last stop, and for me that was the story line of the weekend. I had spent the entire year collecting every piece of Petty memorabilia that I could get my hands on. I wasn’t alone in my pursuit of everything Petty as back in those days my running mate in chasing the sport at as many stops on the schedule as we could afford was Ben Trout. Ben is now a vice-president at Bristol Motor Speedway, but back in those days we were just two fans putting a bunch of miles on a car in an effort to chase down Petty pop bottles, trading cards, hat pins and die cast that featured the Fan Appreciation Tour logo.
While we didn’t get to go to Atlanta for the historic race, as we were both coaching high school football at Belfry, we were able to pay homage to our hero as we did a little customizing to our hats for that Friday night’s game. I can remember us taping the number 43 on our caps and writing “The Final Lap” across the cap’s bill.
That was our way of saying thank you to the man that was the face of the sport, and we were not alone in saying good-bye. The night before the race, the Georgia Dome was filled to capacity for a very emotional salute to The King. Those emotions followed the next day at driver’s introductions when the name Richard Petty was introduced to the sold-out crowd for the last time to start a Sprint Cup race.
The day didn’t end as Petty and everyone else envisioned, as he got caught up in a wreck and spent much of the day behind the wall while his crew worked to get him back on the track to finish the race. The crew did its job, but his famous No. 43 had no hood or front fenders. However, the sport did get to see him crawl out of his car for the last time.
While Petty was having his problems, the fans were being treated to what would turn out to be an unbelievable title run by three drivers. Davey Allison entered the race as the leader in the points and was running good when he got caught up in a crash with Ernie Irvan that took away any chance of him winning the title.
That set up a battle between Alan Kulwicki and Bill Elliott for not only the race win but also the championship. Elliott went on to win the race, but Kulwicki was able to win the championship by collecting the five bonus points for leading the most laps.
The title run and Petty’s final race made all the headlines that weekend as we didn’t know at the time that Jeff Gordon, who made his first-ever start that day, would put together a Hall of Fame career. Ironically, Sunday’s Atlanta race was the 750th of Gordon’s career that features four Sprint Cup titles.
Event: Federated Auto Parts 400
Track: Richmond International Raceway (.75-mile oval, 140 of banking in the turns)
Date: Sept. 6, 7:30 PM
Defending Champion: Carl Edwards