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Higgins Scuffs: Those Were The Days In Old New York

By Tom Higgins
ThatsRacin.com Contributor

I remember Richard Petty, of all people, leading an impromptu conga line and Alan Kulwicki making like a jet-set playboy by drinking champagne from ladies’ slippers.

Both incidents took place at a party in early December of 1992 at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria during NASCAR’s annual post-season awards gala.

As the new Cup Series champion, Kulwicki was the host of a private-but-heavily-attended function after he and others among the top 10 points finishers had received their bonus checks.

The fun was continuing well past midnight when a band hired by Kulwicki began playing a tune with a Latin beat.

Suddenly there was Petty, unmistakable in a big Stetson, at the front of a conga line, just as he was leading at the checkered flag in a record 200 races.

“Who would have thought The King knew how to dance!?” someone said.

A few of the women present took off their high heels to join the line of people snaking around the room at the famous hotel. Spontaneously, Kulwicki, normally a reserved sort of fellow, poured champagne into some of the shoes and toasted Petty, a seven-time champion. Pretty soon many of the ladies present wanted the ill-fated driver, destined to lose his life the following April 1 in a plane crash, to make wine goblets of their footwear.

These and other memories of NASCAR Awards weekends in New York come bubbling back as the stock car racing sanctioning body once again celebrates in the post-season, now at Las Vegas.

Another vivid recollection traces to an embarrassing incident that involved topless dancing.

This happened in 1985 as Bill Elliott was being honored as the international driver of the year, an award he earned by winning 11 of 28 races.

Present at a dinner were Elliott, his entourage, members of the panel that picked him and executives and their spouses from the corporation sponsoring the award. Two bumbling public relations guys had made a total mess of dinner plans at the Rockefeller Center, leading to the group having to dine at a lesser restaurant than intended.

As the group awaited dessert, the two hacks, red-faced, walked to each table and said, “Folks, unknown to us there is going to be some nudity in the entertainment. If you’ll be offended, you should leave now.”

Bill’s brother Ernie, their team’s crew chief and engine builder, rose and said to their mother, “Come on momma, let’s go!”

Mrs. Elliott, a tiny, feisty woman from little Dawsonville in the mountains of Georgia, shook her head emphatically. “No!” she said firmly. “I’ve never seen anything like that. I’m going to stay.”

And she did. Not only that, she appeared to enjoy the modern-type dancing, which was tastefully done.

By dawn the next morning the bumbling public relations lads—who earlier had forgotten to introduce the sponsor’s president at a luncheon-- had been fired.

I also recollect an “after-party” getting especially well-lubricated as one champion of the ‘80s and pals celebrated in the Waldorf Astoria’s presidential suite.

Not long after dawn a friend of the champ, another driver, walked through the hotel’s lobby as if in a trance. His eyes were slits, testimony to a monster hangover.

“It appears ol’ (So-and-so) tied one on last night,” I commented to a representative of the series sponsor at the time.

“Did he ever,” came the reply, with a chuckle. “As I went to my room I found him wandering the hall completely naked! He didn’t make much sense, but I finally got what happened out of him. He was sleeping nude, got up to go to the bathroom and mistakenly went out into the hall. The door locked behind him and he had forgotten what room he was staying in.

“I put my jacket around his waist, went to an emergency phone, got his room number from the desk and had a bellman come up and let him in.

“Except for that, we’d probably be bailing him out from NYPD Blue.”

My favorite one-liner from the awards weekends in New York was uttered by driver Ricky Rudd in 1991. Rudd had finished second in the point standings to the late Dale Earnhardt, who was en route to seven championships and a tie for the record with Petty.

Earnhardt, the aggressive “Intimidator,” and Rudd had tangled several times that season and shared little affection.

Motioning to the other drivers among the top 10 on stage with him, Rudd cracked: “All of us had nice shiny shoes until Earnhardt joined us back there. Then he showed up and walked all over us.”

The honoree in Las Vegas on Friday night will be Jimmie Johnson, who won his sixth title this year and looms almost certain to tie or surpass the record of Petty and Earnhardt.

"I never could have dreamed this big,” Johnson said this week. “When I hear my name mentioned alongside Petty and Earnhardt, it feels surreal.”

Not that Jimmie isn’t deserving, but just as Kulwicki sipped from those ladies’ slippers 21 years ago, lots of old-timers among the fans will drink to that.

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