Looking Back at History: the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, One of the All-Time Bests The following is the third part in a weekly series highlighting Atlanta Motor Speedway's storied history as the track prepares for its...
Looking Back at History: the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, One of the All-Time Bests
The following is the third part in a weekly series highlighting Atlanta Motor Speedway's storied history as the track prepares for its 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup race, the March 8th Kobalt Tools 500.
HAMPTON, Ga. (Feb. 23, 2009) -- With Atlanta Motor Speedway's 100th race, the March 8 Kobalt Tools 500, fast approaching, few if any of the 99 previous races compare to the 1992 Hooters 500.
Realistically, there may never be another one like it. Many in the sport regard it as the "Greatest NASCAR Race of All Time." While many sporting events fail to live up to the pre-event hype, the '92 season-ender at AMS delivered far more than anyone anticipated.
For months fans had been lining up to buy seats for Hooters 500, for it would be the last race in the storied 35-year career of the sport's all-time King, seven-time champion Richard Petty.
By mid-summer, every seat around the track had been sold, including those in a new East Turn grandstand. Temporary bleachers were erected. Those seats were sold.
Then along came a barn-burner points contest. Under NASCAR's former season-long points formula, the outcome of the championship was much in doubt when the circuit arrived at AMS for the final race of the season. Davey Allison led the pack and needed to finish sixth or better to claim his first crown. Maverick driver/owner Alan Kulwicki was in second place, 30 points back. Hometown favorite Bill Elliott, who had won at Atlanta in the spring in the midst of a four-race win streak, had stumbled down the stretch and was third in the standings, 40 points behind Allison. Harry Gant was 97 back, one point ahead of Kyle Petty. Mark Martin, in sixth, was 113 back and still mathematically in the running.
Because he was a title contender, track officials, NASCAR and Ford wanted Kulwicki to participate in a mid-week media blitz around Atlanta. His publicist Tom Roberts, a former PR director at AMS, sweated it out early on because his driver, who had plenty on his plate already, had never done a media tour.
"He reluctantly agreed, but I wasn't sure he'd go through with it until 11:15 on the night before when the front desk told me he'd checked into the hotel in Atlanta," Roberts recalled. "But at 6:15 the next morning, he swaggered in as dapper as could be."
Roberts believes the all-day blitz of media stops and sponsor appearances actually influenced the outcome of the race.
"Coming to town early got any apprehension and negative feelings out of the way on Thursday," he said. "I was expecting him to be on edge and difficult to work with, but it was totally the opposite all weekend. When he got to the track he was basking in the attention and allowing himself to think about things to come."
Kulwicki also was motivated by the special permission he'd gotten from Ford and NASCAR to block off the "Th" in the "Thunderbird" decal on the front of his No. 7 Ford, leaving a visible sign of his underdog status.
On race morning, more than 100,000 fans jammed the speedway hoping to witness history. They got far more than they bargained for.
As with many great events, some accomplishments got lost in the shuffle. That was the case for veteran Rick Mast, who grabbed his first career pole, and for a rookie, Jeff Gordon, who was making his first Cup start. Both drivers' time in the limelight was short. Mast and Brett Bodine crashed on Lap two. Gordon wrecked out after 164 laps.
Richard Petty wrecked on Lap 95 in what appeared to be an unfitting ending to his career, but his crew patched up his car and he was able to finish his last race.
Attrition affected the championship race too.
Kyle Petty and Mark Martin fell out with engine woes, and points leader Davey Allison was involved in a crash with Ernie Irvan on Lap 254, taking him out of title contention.
That left Kulwicki and Elliott to battle for the race win and the championship in what turned out to be an epic battle yet to be equaled in the NASCAR world.
In the closing laps, Kulwicki and his Paul Andrews-led crew began plotting a strategy to win the title.
Kulwicki, even with his main focus on driving the car, was a major player in the discussions.
"He could floor me with his capability of driving the car and thinking about strategy," Roberts said.
Kulwicki and his crew figured they'd need to take the bonus points for leading the most laps so they stayed on the track, even as Elliott was closing on them, until Lap 310, giving them 103 laps led. When Kulwicki stopped, the crew added fuel only and pushed him out of his stall. Because he'd lost a gear in his transmission on an earlier stop, he was slow getting back up to speed and Elliott won the race, leading a total of 102 laps, with Kulwicki second. But Kulwicki won the championship by 10 points, because he got the five extra points for leading the most laps. Had those points gone to Elliott, the two would have tied and Elliott would have gotten the title because he led the tie-breaker category, five wins to two.
But all that was news to Elliott until after the race was over.
"I never even thought about it until after the race," he said. "I won the race and lost the championship."
After that race, NASCAR would never be quite the same again.
Just days after the Hooters 500, Elliott's crew chief Tim Brewer was dismissed by team owner Junior Johnson, and the team never really recovered. "It was all downhill from there," Elliott said.
Kulwicki ran just five more races before dying in a plane crash en route to a race at Bristol. Three months after that, Allison died after a helicopter crash at Talladega.
Elliott said he was never all that close to Kulwicki, but he respects what he was able to do.
"He was different, a hard guy to get to know," Elliott said. He kept to himself. He was driven and very intense in what he did.
"He did a good job [winning the championship]. It would be virtually impossible to do it in today's world."
Roberts, now the publicist for Kurt Busch, said that looking back on the events surrounding that race, there may have been some unexplained forces at play that November afternoon.
"Maybe Alan did have it all calculated," Roberts said. But I get the "feeling that fate intervened that day."
NASCAR's best drivers return to the 1.54-mile, high-banked Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500 on March 8. Tickets are priced as low as $39 and student tickets start at $19. To purchase your tickets, contact the Atlanta Motor Speedway Ticket Office at 877-9-AMS-TIX (877-926-7849) or 770-946-4211, visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com, or contact your local Ticketmaster retailer.