A Hardscrabble Past
A full moon rose over the backstretch of Charlotte Motor Speedway the night of NASCAR’s 1992 all-star race, The Winston. It was the first time that a stock-car race would be run at night on a 1.5-mile superspeedway, and illuminating a venue massive enough to hold eight National Football League stadiums demanded a feat of engineering so monumental that the company that lit the movie Dances with Wolves was hired for the task.
Night racing on such a huge scale was the idea of the speedway’s president, H. A. “Humpy” Wheeler, a master showman who had never run a competitive lap himself but was determined to give NASCAR ticket-buyers—mostly shift-workers who lived black-and-white lives by day—Technicolor entertainment once they walked through his gates. As an undistinguished member of the University of South Carolina’s football team in the 1950s, Wheeler had watched in awe from the bench when the Gamecocks visited Louisiana State University for a Saturday-night game. LSU had its mascot, a live tiger, spitting at spectators and clawing the air from the sidelines, and the effect made Wheeler’s hair stand on end. That was the feeling he wanted to replicate at his race.
Wheeler’s second agenda was getting his track’s biggest race, the Coca-Cola 600, out from under the shadow of the Indianapolis 500—its rival in the battle for TV viewers on the crowded Memorial Day weekend. If Wheeler could figure out a way to run his 600-miler at night, it could have its own niche in prime time and no longer have to compete head-to-head with Indy.
As Wheeler geared up for his bold experiment in NASCAR’s future, an all-star cast of drivers strapped in for its heart-stopping present.
The hotshot Davey Allison, son of NASCAR’s 1983 champion Bobby Allison, was on the pole, having run the fastest lap in qualifying. The legendary Richard Petty, stock-car racing’s “King,” was in the field, along with his son, Kyle. So was the man chasing Richard Petty’s record seven NASCAR championships, Dale Earnhardt, the local hero from Kannapolis, North Carolina, considered the meanest cuss ever to wheel a stock car.
The Winston wasn’t part of NASCAR’s twenty-nine-race regular season, in which drivers collected points toward the championship. It was a novelty event, named for the flagship brand of series sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and scripted for sheer entertainment, with a $500,000 payout to the winner. In The Winston, all that mattered was winning, not salvaging points or even salvaging the car. The top drivers had a fleet of new racecars back at their shops. From their 700-horsepower engines to the sheet-metal skin that was hand-sanded to aerodynamic perfection, the cars on the starting grid had been built for one performance only.
It was as pure a form of racing as there was—a flat-out dash for cash—on as spectacular a stage as NASCAR had ever seen. Would Wheeler’s lighting system work, turning night into day, as he promised? Or would it skew depth perception as drivers hurtled into the corners at 185 miles per hour?
From the moment the green flag dropped, magic filled the air. The brightly painted racecars shimmered like jewels under the lights, heightening the sense of insane speeds as the cars zoomed past. But NASCAR’s most faithful audience hardly needed daylight or slow motion to pick out their favorite. Even at a high-octane blur they could spot Dale Earnhardt’s black No. 3 from a mile away, and not only tell you it was a Chevrolet with “the Intimidator” slouched and smirking behind the wheel, but they could also identify every corporate sponsor on Earnhardt’s driving suit, reel off his wife’s name (plus the two ex-wives) and the names of his four children, and point out where he liked to pass on the track.
The black-and-red No. 28 was a Ford Thunderbird driven by Allison. At thirty-one, Davey was the most successful of a crop of second-generation racers who represented the sport’s future, as well as the front-runner for the season’s championship.
Piloting the black-and-yellow No. 42 Pontiac Grand Prix was Kyle Petty, stock-car racing royalty on the cusp of forging his own place in the sport. Petty was as affable as Earnhardt was ornery, with long hair and a pierced ear that clashed with stock-car racing’s mores of the day. But he was a Petty, and that alone was reason to pay homage.
Petty’s streaking Pontiac had surged to the front when the white flag signaled one lap to go, with Earnhardt closing fast as they barreled down the backstretch. Earnhardt always said that the only lap that mattered was the one that paid money, and he looked hell-bent on taking it. Fans had seen him do crazy things to win this race in the past, including ducking onto the infield grass to fend off a charge from Bill Elliott by taking a shortcut to the finish line in 1987—a move that sealed his reputation as the nerviest driver in the garage, considering it’s as impossible to control a racecar on grass as it is on an ice-skating rink. And they were all on their feet, clamoring for another amazing feat of daring.
Petty had no idea what Earnhardt had in mind. He had looked over at his nemesis when they dueled side by side earlier in the race, and all he saw was Earnhardt’s bushy mustache grinning back at him. “What in the hell is he grinnin’ about?” Petty thought to himself. “What does he know that I don’t?”
They entered Turn 3 of the final lap locked side by side. Earnhardt had the outside lane and was pinching Petty low on the track, testing his nerve to force him to lift off the throttle. At that point, there was nothing left for Earnhardt’s pit crew to do but watch.
“We were beat,” crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine recalled, laughing at the memory. “We didn’t have the fastest car, so we knew Dale was going to do some desperation thing that probably doesn’t work. And it was gonna be cool!”
Petty kept it mashed to the floor, and suddenly the black No. 3 spun and smacked the wall. No sooner had Petty vanquished Earnhardt than Allison surged into view. His path now clear, Allison whipped alongside Petty entering Turn 4, and the two banged doors as they raced to the checkered flag. Allison nudged his Thunderbird’s nose ahead for the victory, but his car bobbled the moment it crossed the finish line and slammed the wall, sending showers of fiery sparks in the air. When the screeching and crashing came to an end, both cars were torn to pieces, and Allison sat slumped and motionless in his seat, knocked unconscious by the blow.
Back in the garage, where the also-rans climbed out of their cars, Petty was swarmed by reporters clamoring for a firsthand account of the last-lap mayhem. He had barely launched in when Earnhardt stormed toward him, reared up to well over his six-foot height, raw emotion spewing from his pores like steam from a sweltering city street. Reporters froze, unsure whether they were about to witness NASCAR’s Intimidator cuss the King’s son or punch him in the nose. Instead Earnhardt broke into a huge grin, flung his arm around Petty’s shoulders, and gushed, “Great racing, man! Great racing!”
Over in Victory Lane, an argument broke out between Robert Yates, owner of Allison’s team, and an ecstatic Wheeler over whether the mangled Thunderbird would be hauled in on a wrecker for the customary postrace photographs. Wheeler wanted to immortalize the slugfest, while Yates, distraught over his driver’s condition, thought it was in poor taste and blocked the wrecker’s path with his body. Meantime, Miss Winston, NASCAR’s R.J. Reynolds–branded beauty queen, was stood up for the first time in her twenty-year reign. Puckered up to deliver the congratulatory kiss on the biggest night of the year for the series sponsor, Miss Winston suddenly had no purpose as Allison, still fluttering in and out of consciousness, was pulled from his car, strapped to a stretcher, and loaded onto a helicopter that whirred through the night sky to a local hospital.
It was, for me, the most thrilling night in racing. One of those nights that, even as it unfolded, you knew would never come again. “Remember this,” my brain shouted as I frantically scribbled notes amid the chaos. “Remember everything about it, because it won’t come again.”
• • •
NASCAR wasn’t as big that night as it is today. But it never filled a screen any bigger. Its personalities were never in more sharp relief. The point was never so clear.
In the decade that followed, Wheeler proved prescient beyond measure. Night racing opened new worlds for Charlotte Motor Speedway and the sport. The Coca-Cola 600 eventually moved its starting time to dusk. NASCAR eclipsed Indy cars as the dominant form of motorsports in America. And NASCAR, fueled by its first national TV deal, became the fastest-growing sport in the country.
• • •
From stock-car racing’s beginning, there was something illicit about it—like early rock ’n’ roll—that suggested a certain depravity, as if nothing but trouble could come from the raw noise and unbridled locomotion of a V-8 engine. It was a sport at the fringe of the rules. So much so that rules barely existed.
Stock-car racing began as an outlet for automotive-obsessed scofflaws and moonshine runners and mushroomed in the postwar years, fueled by World War II veterans back from the war and hungry for a comparable adrenaline fix. In some parts of the country, like southern California, the postwar fixation with the automobile manifested itself in drag racing. Teenagers would pair off in their hot rods on a back road at midnight and race in a straight line—one man’s nerve and engine against another’s in a furious burst from Point A to Point B. Picture Natalie Wood dropping the flag, then spinning on her heels and running to see if James Dean were alive or dead in Rebel Without a Cause.
But in the South, with its Faulknerian flair for drama, no one was in such a hurry to see this crowd-pleasing duel of horsepower and guts end. There wasn’t much else to do in the isolated South, passed over by major-league sports of the day, so the car races were drawn-out affairs, staged on oval tracks at county fairgrounds or on half-mile circuits bulldozed out of red clay that was too poor to farm. Grandstands were a rare amenity. In most cases paying fans would drive right up to the edge of the track and perch on the hoods of their cars or congregate on hillsides, climb onto concrete blocks, or set up lawn chairs and spend the day watching the wild show, as cars crashed into flimsy guardrails, engines expired, and, eventually, somebody won the race of attrition.
The best cars were built by the mechanics who retooled the 1938 and ’39 Fords for bootleggers. Schooled in taking junkyard heaps and boring out the cylinders and fitting them with dual manifolds, reinforcing the wheels and suspension, adding bigger springs and extra carburetors, they created deceptively fast getaway cars that doubled as nearly indestructible delivery trucks, thanks to their oversized trunks and the extra room after you tore out the back seat.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from One Helluva Ride by Liz Clarke. Copyright © 2008 by Liz Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.