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One Hot Night
Larry McReynolds' attention was diverted from the scoreboard to his driver, and back again. With one eye he was watching the 42 illuminated at the top of the squat scoring tower, waiting for it to change. With the other he was watching Davey Allison, who had been knocked unconscious and was slumped over in the seat of his wrecked race car. In rapid succession, two things happened that the veteran crew chief had been hoping for -- Allison began stirring inside his vehicle, and the lighted number atop the scoring pylon was switched to a 28.
"We won the race, but we wrecked," McReynolds told a woozy Allison, who in the short ambulance ride from the accident scene to the infield care center asked over and over again what had happened. The driver was strapped to a stretcher, and would soon be airlifted to a local hospital, where he was eventually diagnosed with a concussion, bruised legs, and a bruised lung. The wrecked No. 28 car would not be going to Victory Lane. And the scene all around was chaotic, the result of two lead changes and as many accidents on the final lap of a race that would change auto racing forever.
One hot night, indeed.
That was what they called it in 1992 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, host of the race that would usher NASCAR into prime time. Now, Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race is a major event on the sport's schedule, and night races occur almost every other week. Then, what was known as The Winston was in search of both a home and an identity, and the nighttime had been viewed as the exclusive purview of short tracks. Conventional wisdom held that the speeds were too great, the risks too many to compete under the lights at a big speedway. But 20 years ago all that changed, thanks to an event that served as a harbinger of the no-holds-barred affair the all-star exhibition would become, and an evening that created the phenomenon of night racing at NASCAR's highest level.
"It looked like 10 million flashbulbs going off as those cars sat on the frontstretch," McReynolds, now a television analyst, remembered of the scene before the race. "There was a lot of apprehension, there was a lot of anticipation about that night. But there was no question, once we got into it, you knew the all-star race had gone to a whole new level."
The lights, such a novelty at a 1.5-mile race track, cast it all in vivid and dramatic detail. Dale Earnhardt holding the lead at the white flag. Kyle Petty getting the Intimidator's car loose, and the No. 3 car skidding sideways, smoke billowing from its screeching tires as it slid into the third turn. Allison coming out of nowhere, wedging his way below and just ahead of Petty as the cars hit the tri-oval. Contact at the finish line, the No. 28 spinning across Petty's nose and up into the outside wall. Allison being airlifted to the hospital, and car owner Robert Yates standing at the entrance to Victory Lane, not allowing his vehicle to be towed in without its driver.
It would have all been memorable even had it happened in the daylight. Under the lights, though, it was iconic. Literally overnight, all doubts about night racing had been cast aside, and lights became almost indispensible. The all-star race had found both a permanent home and a foothold in race fans' memories. That night wasn't just hot, it was incandescent, and the race to make it all happen was almost as wild as the event it produced.
'We'll light it up'
As they walked out of the offices of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem, N.C., Jim Duncan tried to tell his boss he was crazy. Humpy Wheeler cut him short. "Don't talk to me until we get to the parking garage," the former Charlotte track president said, as if they were spiriting some kind of sensitive material out of the building. And in a way, they were. In an off-the-script attempt to keep the fledgling all-star race in Charlotte, Wheeler had pitched running the 1992 event at night, even though lights hadn't yet been used on bigger speedways, and no one was completely certain how or even if it could be done. But RJR ate up the idea, and now the track was committed.
It was a move born of self-preservation, remembered Duncan, then Charlotte's vice president for sales and marketing. RJR sports marketing chief T. Wayne Robertson "was always interested in getting larger crowds, and of course it had been decided at some point in time to move the race," Duncan said. Known at the time as The Winston, the event was by then seven years old, but hardly on solid ground. A poorly-attended running in Atlanta had nearly done it in. Although it had been relocated back to Charlotte, the contracts were only year-to-year, and RJR had every intention of moving it around. There were overtures coming from Richmond, where owner Paul Sawyer enjoyed a close relationship with NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr.
To keep it, Charlotte had to do something dramatic. "Humpy knew that if we didn't have the grandest idea in the world, there was probably a good likelihood we would lose the event," Duncan said. "It would move somewhere else."
The Charlotte team opened with its planned presentation, which was comprised of five different promotional events, and met with lukewarm results. They could feel the race slipping away. Near the end of the meeting, the former football player Wheeler tossed up his Hail Mary pass. "We'll light it up," he told Robertson. "Run it on a Saturday night. What do you think?" As Duncan remembers it, Robertson left the room, assumedly to confer with RJR president Jerry Long, who was a leading proponent of rotating the race to other tracks. Robertson returned, and the conversation moved on to the event's format. Lights had done the trick.
Now there was just the small matter of how to pull it off. Although Bristol and Richmond were running night races on NASCAR's premier series at the time, no one had tried to light up a track as large as Charlotte. Many drivers initially resisted the idea, and NASCAR even had some questions, according to Wheeler. "I will admit that things got edgy ," he conceded, "because a lot of people in the sport were against it citing danger as their reason."
Duncan remembers it well. "He had a lot of heat," he said of Wheeler. "Drivers just went ballistic."
Drivers were worried about strobe effects and shadowing on a track where they'd be racing at 180 mph. Duncan was worried about the lights going out and the track being unable to turn them back on. Wheeler was worried about having too many poles in the infield, what Duncan referred to as "that Saturday night dirt track look," in which light poles could be a danger to drivers as well as get in the way of sight lines for spectators. After several false starts Wheeler eventually was put in touch with Musco, an Iowa company that had used mobile lighting to illuminate night events at Bristol and Richmond. But the big track Bruton Smith owned in Charlotte would be a different animal altogether.
"Having some experience with speedways, we knew it was going to take something really different to get there," said Joe Crookham, Musco's president and co-founder. "Our initial questions were, 'How serious are they,' and 'Are they really going to be willing to invest in what it's really going to take to solve a problem of this magnitude?' "
Crookham flew to Charlotte, where Wheeler emphasized his disdain for light poles in the infield. On the way back to Iowa, Crookham and partner Myron Gordin came up with the idea of putting the infield lights down low, at the level of the guardrail, with shields on top so spectators wouldn't be blinded. Gordin eventually amended the original idea so it wasn't a light, but a mirror reflecting light up onto the racing surface. To build the prototypes, Gordin went to a nearby K-Mart and bought every closet door mirror the store had, Crookham said. Musco returned to Charlotte and lit the track's third turn with what is now known as the Mirtran system, which was invented for that instance and has since been used to light about 30 major racing facilities around the world.
Today, Wheeler calls it "the most ingenious lighting system in sports history." But 20 years ago, there were still holdouts. "There were a lot of doubts," Crookham said. "Everybody was having a hard time imagining that this thing could really get done. There were a lot of questions and a lot of testing so we could get through all of it."
The game-changer was an on-track test of the full Charlotte lighting system held the month before the 1992 all-star race. After that, everyone became a believer. "Once you went out and ran the first lap," Kyle Petty said, "when you went out and drove around the race track, I don't think any drivers had any doubts." Petty told the media that night that they had just seen the future of NASCAR racing, and he proved to be right. Today, 14 of the venues that host Sprint Cup events have light towers looming over the grandstands, and those revolutionary Musco mirrors illuminating the racing surface.
"It's funny the way it's played out, because that has become the future," Petty said. "How many races are on a Saturday night because of the lights? It's like we went backward instead of forward. All those nights, you raced on Saturday nights to get to the big leagues so you could race on Sunday afternoons. And then with that one race track, with Charlotte and Humpy and everything, everyone's clamoring to get back to Saturday nights and getting back under the lights."
At last, that 1992 edition of The Winston was a go. The track even had the perfect slogan: One Hot Night. And oh, was it ever.
'The last true race'
Larry McReynolds was content to finish third. The No. 28 car had been solid all night, and the team had learned a lot about the race track, and the crew chief felt confident about coming back to Charlotte the next weekend and winning the Coca-Cola 600 -- where there would be a $1 million bonus on the line, because the Robert Yates Racing outfit had already won at Daytona and Talladega. With his driver in third place on the final lap, McReynolds began to pack up and prepare to meet Allison in the garage area.
There were no lavish pit boxes back then -- McReynolds often simply stood in the pit area with one foot up on the wall -- so the crew chief wasn't aware of what was unfolding on the backstretch. At least, not until he looked at Yates crewman Roman Pemberton, the brother of Petty's crew chief Robin Pemberton. "He was standing on top of a trash can, so he could see across," McReynolds remembered. "He turned around, and his eyes were as big as saucers."
With good reason. Allison had been so far behind the leaders, that even the television crew thought he was out of it. "I don't think he'll be a factor," play-by-play man Mike Joy said on The Nashville Network. Then Earnhardt and Petty dipped low on the track approaching Turn 3, and on the way back up the banking the No. 3 car got loose, and suddenly the Intimidator was spinning and Petty was out front. And Allison was right behind him, coming hard. In the tri-oval, the No. 28 car pulled alongside.
"I look at Turn 4. No Earnhardt," said McReynolds, who now works with TNT, Fox Sports and Speed Channel. "Here come Kyle and Davey, side by side. I had a pretty good feeling who was going to win that drag race with Robert Yates horsepower. But I knew before they got to the start-finish line we were in trouble, because they just were not in the right spot. I knew we won the race, but I knew we were in a bad situation there. Because those guys had one thing and one thing only [in mind], and it was zeroed in on that start/finish line. What happened after, I don't think either one of them were thinking about it, and I don't think either one of them cared."
Allison did win the drag race, but just beyond the line the two cars touched. "I said it that night, and I've said it a million times since then -- to me, it's like two sprinters sprinting for the line ... and once they pass the line, they relax, and they just let up," said Petty, now an analyst for TNT and Speed. "I think Davey and I both let up when we got past the line, and we just got into each other. It was one of those deals where we just touched, but we just touched at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Petty's car wiggled, but stayed straight. Allison's car spun across the nose of the No. 42 and hard into the wall, rebounding down toward the infield grass, and nearly hitting the pace car. "Davey Allison in a shower of sparks!" Joy shouted on TNN. McReynolds ran down to the crash site and found his driver unconscious. Eventually Allison came to, but "the phone was ringing, but nobody was home yet," McReynolds said. The crew chief hopped into the ambulance along with Bobby Allison, Davey's father, for the ride to the care center. The helicopter flight to the hospital left no driver to celebrate in Victory Lane. There would be no car in there, either. Yates made certain of it.
"They were wanting the car to go to Victory Lane, and Robert Yates would have no part of that," said McReynolds, who soon after the finish was in his car headed to the hospital. "He said, 'We're not taking our race car and celebrating in Victory Lane without our driver here.' They did end up going in and taking a few pictures, but they didn't do it with the car. Robert basically stood across the gate in Victory Lane. They had [the car] on a wrecker and were going to pull it in there. Robert said, 'You're not putting that car in Victory Lane.'"
Meanwhile, everyone braced for confrontation after Earnhardt rolled home in 14th. "As we came in, and Kyle and Earnhardt pulled up to the pits, the crews went running to the cars, and everybody thought it was going to be this big brawl," said Robin Pemberton, now NASCAR's vice president for competition. "And all it was was Earnhardt having Kyle in a big headlock and everybody else high-fiving over how the race was."
Allison perished just over a year later in a helicopter crash, while Earnhardt died in an accident on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. That night, though, there was no contentiousness, despite so many potentially flammable events unfolding in so short a period of time, and despite big money -- $300,000 went to the all-star winner then, $1 million now -- being on the line. Earnhardt's only retaliation was his playful headlock. When Allison determined he was too sore to drive his car in the then-Busch Series race the next weekend at Charlotte, he called Petty to fill in for him.
"There was never ever any hard feelings, there were never any cross words spoken, there were never any fingers pointed, there was never anything," Petty said. "We just kind of walked away and came back the next week."
The 1992 all-star exhibition gave birth to the event's reputation as a race defined by fireworks on and off the track. But Petty also believes it marked the end of something else. His most vivid memory of One Hot Night isn't Earnhardt's spin, or his crash with Allison, or dueling under the lights on a big track for the first time. It was that the competitors involved held no grudges, something that can't be said of all-star encounters since.
"After that, the all-star race was built on controversy. After that, it was people running their mouths at one another, people pointing fingers, people wanting to fight," Petty said. "... But the One Hot Night that started it was all about the racing and not about anything else. It has changed after that. We go back to all those guys crashing and going back to the garage and getting new cars, and people wrecking with each other, and the Busch brothers arguing with each other. I mean, how many controversies have we had since '92 that have left the race track and carried over to the week after that? But in that race, it didn't. It's almost like, in a lot of ways, that was the last true race."