On the last Sunday afternoon in May of 1994 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, John Andretti stepped off a helicopter, which had brought him from a tenth-place finish in the Indy 500 earlier in the day, and began his walk across the front stretch grass toward the pit road and an awaiting Chevy that he would drive in the Coca-Cola 600.
The helicopter had set down in front of a grandstand jammed with 140,000 fans, primed for the beckoning start of the 600-mile race. The fans let out a huge cheer once Andretti appeared. Now in his NASCAR driving suit, Andretti may have “bulked up” on intravenous fluids during the trip from Indy. But the moment remained enormously impressive—a lone driver, all of five-foot-five, bringing down the house by merely walking across the grass.
That was the beginning of a long and successful stint in NASCAR’s premier series for the only member of the Andretti family to work regularly in Indy cars and what was then known as the Winston Cup. He was also the only member of his clan to win the prestigious 24-hour sports car race at Daytona and to clock within a hairbreadth of 300 mph in a Top Fuel dragster.
The sports car and drag racing exploits had been accomplished before Andretti invented the Memorial Day weekend double. He teed himself up to drive an A.J. Foyt-owned Lola-Ford at the Brickyard and one of Billy Hagan’s Chevy Luminas for the 600-mile second leg in Charlotte. On the biggest day of racing in America, the diminutive Andretti won the hearts of fans everywhere. It was a calculated move by Andretti, in part, who also gained the attention of those hardened sports editors at major American newspapers who only gave racing a major space allocation on the last Sunday in May due to the huge crowds at Indy and Charlotte.
Far from a stunt, this was the real deal. People were electrified about Andretti’s arrival in Charlotte and the drama continued in a TV interview with Kenny Wallace, a relative newcomer to the broadcast side of the sport. An up-and-coming driver as well as announcer, a nervous Wallace greeted Andretti on the pit road and goofed big time by calling him “Jeff,” the name of his cousin. John took it in stride, referring in deadpan to his TV interviewer as “Rusty,” which, of course, was the name of Wallace’s older and more famous brother. It was a typical moment for the smiling Andretti, his humor undeniable and disarming, delivered in the enormous glare of the moment.
Having known him since he was 23 years old, it came as little surprise that John would eventually top that major career day in Indianapolis and Charlotte.
Andretti celebrates his first Cup win along with the Yarborough team at Daytona. Photo: Daytona International Speedway
He didn’t top it by later winning a summer Cup race at Daytona for team owner Cale Yarborough or by winning at Martinsville for team owner Richard Petty, or by winning poles at Darlington and Talladega. He didn’t top it by pursuing an ongoing bout with the Indy 500, where he raced 12 times and suffered the ill fortune that has followed the Andretti clan at the Brickyard. (Cousin Michael led the most laps of any driver who never won the race; John suffered a different type of family luck, failing to land enough rides capable of leading the field, a prerequisite to winning.)
At Indy, Andretti scored two Top 10 finishes with the Hall/VDS team in 1991 and 1992. Photo: IMS
Eventually, John would top his Indy-Charlotte double and an impressive career across multiple disciplines by how he faced the fact he was diagnosed with colon cancer in his early fifties. He stepped up big time by publicly engaging a problem faced by many who were dodging the well-known, but often shunned, method of early detection—a colonoscopy once every five years after the age of 50. By creating the hashtag #CheckIt4Andretti and speaking publicly about his illness, John knew he could make a difference.
“That’s the only reason I went public,” he later confided to a writer for a medical magazine called Coping with Cancer. “Because I really didn’t want people to know. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.” Even now, trying to walk a mile in his shoes, it’s difficult to fathom how hard it must have been for such a proud man to publicly admit he could have avoided a painful and often deadly form of cancer by choosing the standard medical screening.
In round one, John beat the cancer following dastardly difficult surgery and chemotherapy. But as cancer often does, it returned with a vengeance. John fought bravely. We know this from the many accolades and tributes from those familiar with the final year of struggle before his death at age 56.
Andretti, aged 23, paired with Davy Jones and BMW to score his first IMSA Camel GT win at Watkins Glen in 1986. Photo: Tony Mezzacca
It was almost impossible not to like John Andretti. I had first met him while he was driving a GTP car for the BMW factory team shortly after he had graduated from Moravian College (and simultaneously raced USAC midgets at the Indianapolis Speedrome). Near the end of that 1986 season, at age 23 he scored a major victory for BMW in a co-drive with Davy Jones at Watkins Glen. Even then, Andretti had a disarming manner and was outgoing in a way that really engaged people—which he always seemed to enjoy. His perspective was his own and invariably unique, as later witnessed by his response to colon cancer.
It can be odd, sometimes, how a friendship strikes up. John had what might be described as an Italian temper as well as temperament, the latter being about a capacity for the joys of life and an individualistic viewpoint. As for the temper, it was easy to tell when John was angry. As far as I knew, it didn’t happen very often. But when angry, John lit up like a bulb. One day during an IMSA race weekend, he was considerate enough to lower the boom where nobody else could hear us. “When I read your race reports,” he said with a generous amount of heat, “it’s like you think everybody else on the team is responsible and I’m just along for the ride.”
John posted his first major victory at the Rolex Daytona 24 in 1989 with the Busby team, co-driving with Bob Wollek and Derek Bell, all the young age of 25. Photo: Peter Gloede
This conversation took place during IMSA’s 1989 GTP season when John was paired with Frenchman Bob Wollek on the Porsche 962 team owned by former star driver Jim Busby and sponsored by Miller beer and B.F. Goodrich. The team had won the season-opening 24-hour, where Derek Bell had been part of the three-man driving crew. Thinking back to when Davy Jones co-drove with John in what turned out to be the crucial stints in the BMW victory at Watkins Glen in 1986 and then considering the 24-hour win at Daytona, co-driven with Wollek and Bell, I realized John had raised a valid point.
“Brilliant” Bob, as Wollek was known, was regularly hired by factory teams for his deep understanding of tires and chassis. He had a Machiavellian way of dealing with journalists, alternating mild sarcasm with approachable friendliness and then, inevitably, angry tirades. Bell, the Brit who won his eighth 24-hour between Le Mans and Daytona that year, had an established reputation. The young Andretti, on the other hand, was still proving himself in my eyes, which I realized may have been a mistake, because I was paying too much attention to other story lines. At Daytona, this included John’s scheduled start in a sister Busby Porsche with cousin Michael and uncle Mario. That car departed early, allowing John to switch to what became the winning machine initially driven by Wollek and Bell.
“OK, John,” I told him, “I understand what you’re saying. From now on, I’ll pay closer attention.” I talked with a trusted member of the Busby team and got more details about John’s role entering the fifth race of the season. Then, John delivered. He and Wollek won that weekend on the fairgrounds circuit at West Palm Beach against a deep field of Porsches, two Jaguars entered by TWR and the Nissan of Electramotive. My story included this line: “Andretti was not only instrumental in setting up the Goodrich-shod Porsche, he nearly matched Wollek’s times in the race that ended Electramotive’s three-race winning streak.”
Although drivers make their own way, racing magazines always made an impression. That’s what John was angling for, understandably, the kind of third-party information in the media that would help him get a good ride in a CART Indy car. If John got a ride in CART, which he did, that was up to him. But I had to admit he had nailed me on initially adopting a wait-and-see attitude about him during the inevitable cacophony of GTP races with multiple contending teams and co-drivers. Had I fallen guilty to thinking he got the ride in the BMW and the Busby Porsche just because of his family name? Had I doubted his sports car endurance ability due to his diminutive size? Where his cousin and uncle were short and stout, at that time John was a similar height but slender by comparison, almost wispy at 135 pounds.
I’ve had young drivers tell me how wrong my reporting was and then declare, “I’m never speaking to you again.” They’re the type that usually sabotages their own career in equally disastrous relationships with teams and co-drivers. But after the West Palm Beach victory, John went back to being outgoing, engaging and funny whenever I saw him, bearing no hint of a grudge or the usual frostiness of drivers after swords have been crossed. As it turned out, our careers advanced along similar lines. John landed an Indy car ride in the legendary Pennzoil colors of Jim Hall, winning out of the box in Australia in 1991. I added the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to my publications list, the largest newspaper in the Southeast and the largest that regularly covered NASCAR. The paper sent me to Indy in 1991, where John joined uncle Mario, cousins Michael and Jeff in the starting field; John scored his best-ever finish of fifth in that year’s 500.
In the year of his double, I covered the final leg in Charlotte. In the previous year, the newspaper had me covering local drag racing, which meant reporting on John clocking 299 mph in the Southern Nationals at the Atlanta Dragway and winning two rounds in Top Fuel, before bowing out in the semi-final round of eliminations. At the time, John was an out-of-work, young race car driver who had taken the extraordinary step of doing something completely different to keep his name—and skills—in front of the racing community. It could not have been as easy to adapt to the high-powered, finicky Top Fuel machines.
The money soon ran out on the drag racing side, but then John landed a full-time gig in NASCAR as a result of the Indy-Charlotte double, once again taking it upon himself to call attention to his talent, stamina and media appeal, which led to 393 career Winston Cup starts, including 15 in the Daytona 500.
Looking back, John had driven in IMSA sports cars and taken the journeyman ride in Top Fuel to demonstrate his ability with high horsepower cars, which for young drivers was a prerequisite to entering the major series that included deeper fields and stiffer competition. If people thought maybe he wasn’t big enough or strong enough to handle major 500-mile races, it occurred to John how he might change the minds of potential team owners and sponsors. He could give himself a better opportunity to land a ride in either Indy cars or NASCAR if he created and pulled off the Memorial Day weekend double. We never talked about it, but looking back, it seems I was not the only one who had doubted this Andretti early in his career.
Not only did John and I continue to cross paths throughout his days in NASCAR, but I also got to know his father Aldo, the twin of Mario. Aldo frequented NASCAR events to watch John race, often getting around to various parts of the track to observe on his own. In conversations with Aldo, I could see where John got his insightful and wry view of the world. His father had suffered a head injury that forced him out of racing while Mario continued and achieved worldwide fame. Despite his misfortune, Aldo retained a generosity of spirit and ability to handle life’s fate with pride and humility, two attributes that run deep in each of the twin brothers whose fates were so disparate. Although he never achieved the considerable heights of his uncle or cousin Michael behind the wheel, John not only made his father extremely proud, but sustained those twin pillars of pride and humility.
As far as the world knows about the second half of his double in 1994, for example, the engine expired in his Chevy after 220 of 400 laps. The fact was that John hit the wall to bring out the first caution, which damaged the radiator and later the engine. He didn’t make any excuses, such as starting in the back after qualifying ninth, because he had missed the mandatory pre-race drivers’ meeting. “I was really loose,” he said. “It’s a tough job driving a loose car and I was hoping for a yellow. Unfortunately, it came out for me.” He soldiered on, eventually completing 830 miles of racing that day and night.
Once his driving career was over, John found himself in a world where racing had evolved into a TV-enriched state. Appearance fees started reaching five figures, even for retired stars. John, who always seemed to draw energy from those he engaged as well as give it, chose his own way. He continued to voluntarily raise money for the Riley Children’s Hospital, where he regularly visited with patients and their families, by promoting the “Race for Riley” go-kart event. He also helped promote son Jarett’s sprint car career.
The signature car design known as ‘The Stinger’ raised $900,000 for charity. Photo: unknown
John promoted the Indy 500 through the “Stinger” project, a modern car built in homage to the Marmon Wasp that won the first Indy 500. It was a joint effort by John, the Andretti Autosport team of cousin Michael and Window World, one of John’s longtime sponsors. When necessary, John traveled with the car around the U.S. to gain signatures of as many living Indy 500 veterans as possible, including every winner, before it was sold at auction in 2016 after the 100th running of the Indy 500, raising $900,000 for the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
In another twist of fate for me, John and cousin Michael launched a go-karting facility in the Atlanta area, once again establishing a common link. After this first one closed, Mario eventually joined them and the trio later helped launch a new state-of-the-art indoor karting facility in Marietta, just up the road from Atlanta. The night of the opening, I had a car problem and missed the Andrettis by a matter of minutes after locating a back-up vehicle and dashing through the snarl of Atlanta’s rush hour. Looking back, how I wished I’d had one more chance to say hello in person away from the hectic environment of a race weekend. As it was, I later called John and talked with him about the karting business on behalf of a friend looking to get into that line of work. We had a long, engaging conversation, including talk about the ongoing “Stinger” project, because John always had time for people.
When fate called on him early, John answered with the #CheckIt4Andretti campaign. In the initial treatments, John shared his story on TV with local Indianapolis sportscaster Dave Calabro, helping to leverage his message. After an all-too-brief hiatus of cancer-free status, he and wife Nancy then focused on the private side of his medical struggle and on their children, including son Jarett and his sprint car career, and two college-age daughters. John vowed to see both daughters graduate.
John and Nancy never stopped sending out Christmas cards. They probably sent more than anybody in U.S. racing, cards that were high-quality and featured a family photo. As a result, each year I’d see their children growing up, experiencing the pride John and Nancy felt about their family while taking note of their understated religious conviction. The cards, including this year’s version that showed a smiling John, have been a yearly reminder of how John always did things his way.
(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is entering his 44th year of covering motor racing. His sixth book “CRASH! How the HANS Device Helped Save Racing” is in current release. To learn more and see excerpts, visit www.jingrambooks.com.)
For a guy who recently finished a book on some of the deadliest years of professional racing—and the safety revolution those years spawned—I felt strangely numb the day after Ryan Newman escaped from his finish-line crash at the Daytona 500. A brutal series of events, the crash included four different circumstances in a couple of seconds that could have potentially killed the driver.
The end of this Daytona 500 was like a near-death experience, except not your own. Once the thankful outcome became certain, there’s an aftermath. Relief comes first and before nagging doubts finally pass in one last shudder of horror.
On Tuesday the day after, I found initial relief in some thoughtful online comments plus the professional work of a couple of fellow commentators. Writer Ryan McGee and broadcaster Ricky Craven helped sum up that whole oddball process of a brilliant racing enterprise, invariably part ritual and part magic, turning into something else.
Those two summed up the nagging doubts that creep in when the close-to-the-bone nature of racing gets revealed and how the sport’s community of participants and fans face up to the reality of the mechanized, ritualized danger. Oh, there was plenty of standard stuff out there, too. Some expressed their doubts by criticizing the drivers—or NASCAR for how it operates the races on the Daytona and Talladega tracks. Some took it as an opportunity to express envy disguised as sarcasm because NASCAR’s stock cars and drivers are so popular compared to their own preferred style of racing.
In fact, the Daytona 500 requires each driver to make critical split-second decisions at sustained speeds of 200 mph every lap. If it becomes a race of cautions and attrition, well nobody complained in the years when only three or four drivers finished on the lead lap.
I felt lifted, and fully relieved, at the end of the day on Tuesday when I came across one road racing photographer’s Facebook post that was a funny take on his family members’ relative lack of racing knowledge. It underscored that everybody, not just race fans, were talking about Newman’s crash. (This was a particularly poignant as well as funny post considering the family has been fighting, successfully, alongside a teenage son in his battle with cancer.)
The potential for gut-wrenching outcomes have always been there in racing and will continue. Newman’s crash, for example, was a reminder of Sebastien Bourdais’s head-on collision with the barrier at Indy during qualifying for the 500 in 2017 at a speed of 227 mph. The difference was the French driver, who suffered a fractured pelvis and broken hip, remained conscious and alert afterward, immediately easing fears of the worst-case scenario. By contrast, it took almost a week for Newman to release a statement that he had suffered a head injury and would return to full-time status pending a medical clearance.
The replays of Newman’s finish-line crash will be repeated ad infinitum—because the driver survives to tell about it. I like this element, given that I wrote a book titled “CRASH!” containing voluminous research on how the safety revolution brought racing to the point where this kind of crash can be survived.
The safety revolution occurred across all the world’s major racing series. It started in Formula 1 with the death of three-time world champion Ayrton Senna in 1994. CART simultaneously began making major safety improvements after the injurious crash of two-time world champion Nelson Piquet during practice at Indy; CART became the first to mandate the HANS device prior to the 2001 season. The movement then came to NASCAR as a result of four driver deaths over a nine-month period, including Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap crash at Daytona. Given that these series operate in their own orbits and fans often do likewise, very few fully recognized how the safety revolution actually occurred. And how decisions in all three of these series helped make it happen.
The book is subtitled “From Senna to Earnhardt” for this reason. One could argue that their deaths—the great F1 champion from an errant suspension piece and Earnhardt from a basal skull fracture—during races watched by tens of millions of fans on live television were the two biggest events in motor racing in the last 100 years. After a full century of professional racing where death was commonplace, organizers realized, as we all did at this year’s Daytona 500, the sport simply could not be sustained if it continued to kill its drivers on live television.
There’s a touch of controversy to the book because it’s based on the idea that the brilliant work of so many dedicated racing professionals to achieve the safety revolution might have faltered absent the HANS Device. That’s the organizing principle of the story and the reason for the other subtitle: “How the HANS Helped Save Racing.” I worked directly with HANS inventor Dr. Robert Hubbard and his business partner, five-time IMSA champion Jim Downing, to write the book. But the thesis is entirely mine. Resolving the issue of basal skull fractures was the one thing sanctioning bodies could not figure out entirely on their own. During the 1990s, this type of injury was the most frequent cause of death or critical injury in all forms of major league racing around the world.
There’s no doubt all the elements of safety developed by NASCAR came into play on this year’s Monday running of the Daytona 500. The cockpit safety cocoon with its carbon-fiber seat, six-point harness, the head surrounds and a head restraint were the first line of defense. The SAFER barrier did its job—which includes sufficiently reducing g-forces so that the cockpit restraints could do their job without being compromised. The impacts of Newman’s Ford getting hit in the door and then the final impact of landing on its roof – in addition to the initial impact with the wall – all showed the value of NASCAR’s Gen 6 car construction requirements.
When it comes to safety, NASCAR operates from its own dedicated Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., which makes it the world leader. (The FIA’s Formula 1 and IndyCar must rely, in part, on vendors instead of a fully equipped staff under one roof.) Although it’s not really feasible, I, for one, would like to see the in-car video from Newman’s cockpit taken by one of the recent innovations of a digital camera installed to observe what happens to the driver during a crash.
It’s not as if the safety revolution stands still. F-1 has introduced the life-saving Halo and IndyCar enters the 2020 season with the first generation of the Aeroscreen in place. Roger Penske’s ownership may yet lead to improvements in track fencing for open-wheel cars. Competitors to the HANS have emerged and the cost of a certified head restraint continues to decrease without a compromise in safety. (My favorite new arrival is the innovative Flex made by Schroth.) Weekend warriors can no longer offer the excuse that head restraints, which are needed in all forms of auto racing, are too costly, too uncomfortable or don’t fit in their vehicle.
History reminds us that far too many drivers died while Rome was burning and before the major sanctioning bodies recognized they needed to apply their technical and financial resources to greatly reduce the chance of death behind the wheel. The sanctioning bodies realized they had to act to save a sport dependent on the fan appeal of star drivers and dependent upon participation by car manufacturers, TV networks and corporate sponsors. This Daytona 500 was a reminder they did the right thing.
(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is entering his 44th year of covering motor racing. His seventh book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt—How the HANS Device Helped Save Racing” is in current release. His Amazon bio is located at https://amzn.to/2wwPQ3V . To see “CRASH” excerpts, visit www.jingrambooks.com.)
In mid-November 1992, thanks to leading 103 laps in the Hooter’s 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Alan Kulwicki was able to secure the five bonus points for leading the most laps in the race, which would, in turn, then allowed him to finish second to Bill Elliott and yet still secure the Winston Cup title. Bill Elliott, driving for Junior Johnson, led for 102 laps, the difference of that one lap deciding the championship in the favor of Kulwicki, despite Elliott winning for the fifth time that season.
It was, of course, somewhat more complicated than that. There were, after all, twenty-eight events in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series prior to the Hooter’s 500 in November. The Bill Elliott versus Alan Kulwicki battle for the title as the race wound down was not necessarily what might have been expected when the green flag dropped to start the race, which was, incidentally, the last for Richard Petty and the first Winston Cup start for Jeff Gordon. Coming into the race, the points leader was Davey Allison, not Elliott. The lead for the championship had changed after the previous event, the Pyroil 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway, two weeks previously.
Alan Kulwicki, during the 1992 season. Photo: Hooter’s
Davey Allison held the lead in the points standings for much of the season before Elliott moved past him at the Miller 500 at the Pocono International Raceway in mid-July. Elliott was about to take a slim nine-point lead in the standings thanks to Allison having a massive crash that left him with a broken right collarbone, forearm, and wrist. That Allison was not injured more severely was little short of a miracle given that his Ford Thunderbird rolled eleven times, slammed into the guardrail and ultimately came to rest on its roof.
At the next race, the Diehard 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway, using Bobby Hillin Jr. as a relief driver to be credited for finishing third, the injured Allison managed to take a one-point lead over Elliott. However, from the Budweiser at the Glen in August until the Phoenix race, Bill Elliott held the lead in the Winston Cup standings. It was not without problems, however. He blew an engine at the Goody’s 500 at Martinsville and suffered with an ill-handling car during the Tyson 400 at North Wilkesboro, relegating him to a 26th place finish. He then hit the guardrail and broke a sway bar during the Mello Yello 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, spending eighteen laps in the pits for repairs. But after the AC-Delco 500 at Rockingham, with a sixth-place or better finish at the remaining two events on the calendar (Phoenix and Atlanta), Elliott was in a position to clinch the Winston Cup championship.
Tribute Card issued by Hooter’s after Alan Kulwicki won the 1992 Winston Cup Championship that was used during autograph sessions. Credit: Hooter’s
At Phoenix, Elliott’s Thunderbird cracked a cylinder head and started overheating, relegating him to a thirty-first place finish. This allowed Allison to retake the points lead with his win. A fourth-place finish by Kulwicki moved him past Elliott and into second place in the standings. As they headed towards the season finale, Allison was now the leader, with Kulwicki thirty points back, and Elliott forty points in arrears. Also within striking distance, mathematically or at least possibly or theoretically, were Harry Gant, Kyle Petty, and Mark Martin. The latter three would require some very serious problems among the top three given that Gant and Petty were over fifty points behind.
What all this meant was that to be the 1992 Winton Cup champion, Davey Allison simply needed to finish fifth or better to ensure the title regardless of whatever the others might end up doing. Plus, he had a thirty point buffer over Kulwicki with an additional ten points on top of that over Elliott. In other words, it seemed quite reasonable that Davey Allison would emerge as the 1992 champion, especially in light of the difficulties facing Kulwicki and Elliott, not to mention Allison coming off a victory at Phoenix, having the momentum that success creates going into the finale.
The Atlanta race was run under a points schedule that was put in place by NASCAR beginning with the 1975 season. It replaced a series of point systems that were often confusing to fans and teams alike. Until the 1968 season, the Grand National series, as it was then known, used a combination of prize money and distance to determine the points awarded for an event. In 1964, for example, points were awarded using sixteen different schedules based upon the prize money posted and the distance of an event. From 1968 60 1971, this somewhat chaotic system was replaced by a very simple three-tiered system: points were awarded for events less than 250 miles, those between 251 and 399 miles, and those 400 miles or longer.
In 1972 and 1973, points were awarded based upon the finishing position and then with additional points given according to the number of laps completed in a race. If that system wasn’t enough of a bookkeeping nightmare, in 1974 NASCAR managed to outdo itself: Winnings from purse posted for an event, with qualifying and contingency awards not counting, multiplied by the number of races started, with the resulting figure divided by 1,000 determined the number of points earned in the championship. Needless to say, it turned out to be so hopelessly difficult to compute that even the teams were more often than not often confused trying to figure it out. Although the 1974 system has been the subject of a massive case of organizational amnesia in Daytona Beach, the system was clearly intended to reintroduce one of the major components of how NASCAR – and Big Bill France in particular – weighed the early points system by giving emphasis to the prize money being awarded.
In 1975, Bob Latford – usually referred to as a NASCAR “historian,” but in reality, a public relations flack for the organization who also just happened to be a high school classmate of Bill France, Jr. – devised a system that was used from 1975 through the 2003 seasons. It awarded points on a sliding scale in increments of five, four, three, two, and one down to fifty-fourth place, beginning with 175 points for first place. Points were awarded for an event regardless of the distance or the purse that was posted. Five bonus points for leading a lap with an additional five points for the driver leading the most laps in a race.
This meant that a driver finishing second in a race, earning 170 points, could earn five more points for leading a lap, and another five points for leading the most laps. In other words, with the winner getting an automatic additional five points thanks to leading a lap, earning 180 points, it also meant that a driver finishing second, 170 points, could equal the points awarded to the winner by leading the most laps in a race, therefore adding ten bonus points to his score, also earning 180 points.
It was this quirk in the points system that came into play as events played out during the Hooters 500 at Atlanta in 1992. As mentioned, although it was theoretically possible for Harry Gant, Kyle Petty or Mark Martin to win the championship, this meant that Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and Bill Elliott all needed to fall out of the race very early on, earning very few points, and that one of the trio needed to win the race. As it turned out, Martin retired with engine trouble and neither Gant or Petty were much of a factor at the end, finishing thirteenth and sixteenth, respectfully.
Needing only to finish fifth or better to wrap up the championship regardless of what Kulwicki or Elliott did, Davey Allison’s championship hopes ended less than fifty laps from the end. Running in the top five most of the time, making sure to gain five bonus points by leading a lap thanks to pitting late during the third caution period, Allison’s Thunderbird was shoved into the wall by the Chevrolet of Ernie Irvan when the Morgan-McClure team driver lost control in the fourth turn. With the damage to the car such that Allison was out of the race, the attention now shifted to the cat-and-mouse game that the Junior Johnson and Kulwicki teams had been playing just in case something like this happened.
The decision by Kulwicki’s crew chief, Paul Andrews, to stay out an extra lap while leading, ensuring that the five bonus points for leading the most laps was critical for Kulwicki. This meant that by finishing second, even if Elliott won the race and collected 180 points, that Kulwicki’s second-place points total of 170 would have an additional ten points added, therefore equaling Elliott’s 180 points. Had Elliott and Kulwicki finished first and second, but with Elliott collecting the five bonus points for leading the most laps, his 185 points and Kulwicki’s 175 points would have resulted in a tie: 4,073 points each. With the tiebreaker being the total number of wins in the season, Elliott would have become the 1992 Winston Cup champion, with his five wins against Kulwicki’s two wins.
Alan Kulwicki’s Ford Thunderbird, with Ford’s permission, ran the race as an “Underbird,” with a cartoon Mighty Mouse on board also adding emphasis to the team’s position as the underdog in the championship fight. That Alan Kulwicki Racing defeated the Junior Johnson team, which had attempted to hire him at one point, also meant that by earning the 1992 title Kulwicki also ended up as the last owner-driver to do so. Alas, on 1 April 1993, Kulwicki and three others died when an aircraft owned by the Hooters restaurant chain crashed on its way to the Bristol International Raceway. Later that year, on July 12, 1993, Davey Allison crashed his Hughes 369 HS helicopter while landing at the Talladega Superspeedway, dying the following day.
Alan Kulwicki hoisting the Winston Cup Championship Trophy, at the conclusion of the Hooter’s 500, Atlanta on November 12, 1992. Photo: Racing One/Getty Images.
If the legacy of the 1992 fight for the Winston Cup ultimately ended in tragedy for Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, there were other notable aspects to the season as well. One of them was the debut of Joe Gibbs Racing, a single-car team with Dale Jarrett driving a Chevrolet Lumina sponsored by Interstate Batteries. The addition of a lighting system for The Winston, the series all-star event held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway was not only a spectacular success at the time, but a harbinger of the future that the Daytona added later for racing under darkness.
There was also the deaths of Anne and Bill France, Sr. in January and June, respectively. Although Big Bill had turned over the helm of NASCAR to his son, Bill Jr. in 1992, Big Bill’s presence still loomed over the organization. His death was literally the end of an era for NASCAR, the links to its origins beginning to fade and its mythology becoming even more embedded in American folklore and the culture of motorsport. That said, it was Anne France who was possibly the real reason that NASCAR both survived and literally prospered: it was Mrs. France who ran the financial side of the family business, who kept the books and an eye on the real moneymaker for NASCAR, the Competition Liaison Bureau, the entity to which the promoters posted their purses so as to guarantee that the money would be available at payout time.
That, of course, is another story…