'92 Atlanta race turns monumental

Alan Kulwicki celebrated his improbable Cup title in December 1992 in New York's Times Square. AP Photo/Ed Bailey

This past Atlanta race weekend was billed in some corners as the 20th anniversary of the historically profound Hooters 500 of 1992 -- Richard Petty's last race ... Jeff Gordon's first ... underdog Alan Kulwicki's winning the championship that would ultimately cost him his life ... Davey Allison being denied a title shot that would never come again ...

But this wasn't really the anniversary. It fell more than two months short. That race was the '92 season finale, run on Nov. 15 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And so this week is just as timely, if not more so, for recollecting the event and all of its ramifications.

Only several days after the race did its drama start to sink in. And only eight months later did the final tragic element, the death of Allison, complete the black mystique of the event.

I was there for all of it. Going into that weekend, there was no more sense of history in the making than, say, Confederate Gen. Harry Heth had when his brigade went looking for a warehouse full of shoes and stumbled onto elements of Union Gen. John Buford's cavalry outside an obscure little town called Gettysburg, Pa.

Going in, the most important element, the King's last ride, was all ceremonial. Nobody thought he had any chance of winning. He hadn't won in more than eight years, since his 200th at Daytona in 1984. Many of us in the media corps felt relieved for him -- he'd delayed his retirement too long already.

As for the kid with the peach-fuzz mustache, "the Gordon boy," he wasn't even the most heralded Gordon coming up through the ranks. That was Robby Gordon, Ford Motor Co.'s pride-and-joy prodigy, surely bound for glory, it seemed, but by that point on a digression to Indy cars. His wild style and free spirit had yet to thwart him.

Robby was the reason Jeff had left Ford's umbrella for Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff had seen the futility of playing second fiddle to Robby at Ford.

The hay was in the barn on the King -- all the tributes had been written. All that was left was going through the motions -- a farewell party attended by about 30,000 at the Georgia Dome, then his last turn at the wheel of the No. 43.

And little was yet expected of the Gordon boy Rick Hendrick was bringing up to the majors for a late-season look. Not until the next February, when he won a qualifying race at Daytona, would the name Jeff Gordon begin to resonate.

So scratch those two elements, Petty's last race and Gordon's first, as profound going into the Hooters 500 of '92.

What was interesting -- but not terribly -- was that six drivers entered the race with mathematical chances to win the championship. Allison led, followed by Kulwicki and Bill Elliott with legitimate shots, and then Harry Gant, Kyle Petty and Mark Martin with outside shots.

Likely, Allison would win the championship. He needed to finish sixth or better to clinch, and his Robert Yates Racing team was among the elite of the time. He went in with the strongest car and the most talent among the title contenders.

Kulwicki was a dour, reticent engineer who, when he did speak, could "cut to the bone" of his crewmen, one alumnus of the team, Ray Evernham, would recall. But "The man was a genius," Evernham would say years later.

But going into Nov. 15, 1992, Kulwicki was on a shoestring budget, and most in the media corps thought it amazing that he was hanging in with the big boys at all. Now, not only must he beat Allison and mighty Yates, but legendary team owner Junior Johnson and his veteran driver, Elliott.

The previous offseason, Kulwicki had shown his dogged individualism by turning down an offer to drive for the well-financed Johnson. Elliott, by then a bit past his prime of the 1980s, was Johnson's second choice. So there was an undercurrent rivalry between the two teams.

But as the race started, you still didn't think much profound would come of it. Mainly you watched for Allison to work through unscathed and win the title.

The first nearly profound moment was terrible -- Petty was caught up in a crash, and his car was engulfed in flames as it slid into the infield. But he wasn't seriously injured -- "When I said I wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, this wasn't what I had in mind," he joked later, wryly.

The King's driving career was over, and the Gordon boy struggled -- Kulwicki alum Evernham's newly formed No. 24 crew struggled through bad pit stops, and Gordon finished 31st.

Allison's championship hopes -- the last of his life, as it would turn out -- ended when he was collected in Ernie Irvan's spin and wrecked out with 74 laps left. Martin was out by then, and Gant and Kyle Petty weren't running well enough to contend for the title.

That brought the championship down to Elliott and Kulwicki. Even then, you figured the richer, more experienced team would prevail. But Kulwicki kept leading ... and leading ... and leading ... and doing the mental mathematics in that engineering mind. He led 101 laps, just enough to collect the five-point bonus for leading the most laps, part of his calculation for clinching the title.

Elliott won the race, but Kulwicki finished second, and his points calculations had snookered Elliott and Johnson.

It took days to fully comprehend just how towering Kulwicki's achievement was. He had beaten the big teams on perhaps 25 percent of their budgets. He'd outsmarted them, making his own calculations as he ran full-throttle. And furthermore -- no small matter at the time -- he was the first non-Southern driver ever to win the Cup.

Still, the retrospect that would build the black magnitude of the '92 Hooters 500 was a long way off.

On April 1 of 1993, Kulwicki, sponsored by Hooters at that point, made a public appearance in Knoxville, Tenn. -- one he probably wouldn't have made if he hadn't won the title -- and then died in the crash of a Hooters plane on the way back to Bristol, Tenn., for that weekend's race.

Kulwicki's championship having cost him his life, Allison would remark later to a close mutual friend, Father Dale Grubba, that he understood there was a reason he, Allison, didn't win that championship.

But just over three months after Kulwicki's death, on July 13, 1993, Allison himself would die of injuries suffered in the crash of a helicopter he was piloting in the infield at Talladega, Ala.

The meanderings and what-ifs of history then abounded. Had Allison not been caught up in the Irvan wreck, had Allison won the title, he would have been making a different public appearance in a different place and flying a different plane.

Would Allison and Kulwicki both be alive to this day had it not been for the outcome of the '92 Hooters 500? Probably.

And not until 1994, when Jeff Gordon began winning races, and then '95, when he beat Dale Earnhardt for the Cup championship, did the Gordon boy's impact on NASCAR become so profound, and that first start at Atlanta in '92 become so significant.

There have been events in NASCAR you knew were historic at the moment they happened -- the Richard Petty-David Pearson crash coming to the checkered flag of the 1976 Daytona 500, or the Cale Yarborough-Allison brothers fight following the '79 Daytona 500, for example.

But the '92 Hooters 500 at Atlanta, 20 years ago this coming Nov. 15, was more like many events in American history in general. You just didn't know you were seeing history at the time. Only in aftermath, and only in retrospect, did that race become monumental.