Scott Fowler

25 years later, finish of first night race at Charlotte still among NASCAR’s greatest

Dale Earnhardt spins on the last lap during The Winston in 1992 as Kyle Petty (42) and Davey Allison (28) speed by.
Dale Earnhardt spins on the last lap during The Winston in 1992 as Kyle Petty (42) and Davey Allison (28) speed by. File photo

NASCAR’s annual all-star race will be contested Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Lots of things could happen, but one thing won’t.

There’s no way that the race will match the 1992 All-Star Race, which is still considered one of the greatest and wildest in stock-car history.

In the promotional run-up to that race, track owner Bruton Smith saw his hair briefly catch on fire. And that was only the start of the sparks.

The race itself was contested on a Saturday night under a nearly full moon and a crowd of more than 133,000, which was billed at the time as the largest crowd to attend a night-time sports event in American history.

The race – featuring three different drivers leading the final lap and two of them crashing into the wall, including the winner – celebrates its 25th anniversary this month.

Two of the three drivers who made that final lap so memorable are dead now. Davey Allison died when a helicopter he was piloting crashed in Alabama at the Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. Dale Earnhardt died in 2001 in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500.

“With Davey not being here and Dale not being here, that changes how you perceive this race,” said Kyle Petty, the third driver involved in that frantic final lap. “We all view that race with a nostalgic tone now.”

As Mike Joy, who called what was then known as “The Winston” all-star race in 1992 for The Nashville Network and will call what is now known as the “Monster Energy All-Star Race” for Fox Sports on Saturday night: “That race in 1992 lived up to all the hype and then some. It had a full moon and a whole lot of chaos.”

Here are six more reasons why the race billed as “One Hot Night” by the speedway in 1992 became one that is still remembered 25 years later.

The Lights

In 1992, the all-star race was foundering a little. Humpy Wheeler, the president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, suggested lighting the race even though no one had the slightest idea of how to do it. Plenty of short tracks had been lit for races before. But a race at NASCAR’s highest level had never been contested under the lights at a track as long as Charlotte’s 1.5 miles. Drivers worried about a dangerous glare blinding them.

The lights ended up costing $1.7 million and working beautifully. An Iowa company called Musco Lighting invented a system that is now widely used, employing reflected light to minimize glare. The system involved 1,700 mirrors, 1,200 fixtures and 56 poles. For the fans, the cars seemed even more iconic as they sped by at 200 mph. For the drivers, they became believers as soon as they got to practice under the lights once.

“You saw nothing but the track, the way it was done with lights and mirrors,” Petty said. “It was like being on a stage. You knew the audience was out there, but you couldn’t see them.”

Bruton’s Hair

What didn’t work out so well was an auxiliary part of the lighting system’s first big test the month before the race. Because the speedway has long been a bastion of showmanship, then-PR head Eddie Gossage planned to have owner Bruton Smith throw a big switch to turn on the lights before Dale Earnhardt took the first lap under them.

To juice things up a little – because, well, why not? – Gossage also had fireworks ready to go off when Smith threw the switch. One of the sparks from those fireworks lodged itself in Smith’s hair, briefly setting it afire and causing a temporary black spot on his pate before it was put out.

“Dad said he didn’t even know his hair was on fire,” recalled Marcus Smith, now the CEO of Speedway Motorsports. “But Eddie thought his life was over.”

The Characters

The Winston of 1992 had quite a field. It included Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace. But the primary three characters all were members of great stock-car racing families and all held the lead in the final lap of the 70-lap, three-stage all-star race: Kyle Petty, Davey Allison and Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt, driving his signature black No. 3 car, is considered quite possibly the best driver of all time. Kyle Petty, Richard’s son, was rarely his father’s equal on the track but did have his moments.

Davey Allison was already a star, was leading the points race at the time and was considered by many to be the best driver in the Allison family. At 31, Allison he was in the prime of his career and already had 16 wins at NASCAR’s top level.

The First Last-Lap Crash

As the race neared its conclusion, with everyone standing, Earnhardt was in the lead. As the final lap began, the crowd was at full throat.

Marcus Smith, then 18, was watching from the press box. “I was on the front row, right at the glass,” Smith said. “The lights. The crowd. It was electric. And at that point, everyone felt like Earnhardt had it.”

Almost everyone: Petty did not. Running second, Petty dove low to try to pass Earnhardt on the inside. The cars touched – or did they?

Petty swears to this day they did not, and it’s unclear on replay. Fans certainly believed Petty did something, though, when the No. 3 Chevrolet abruptly spun into the wall on the race’s final turn.

That left Petty as the likely winner – or so it seemed.

“Kyle, how did you ever lose this race?” Michael Waltrip asked Petty as the two recently watched a replay of the last lap.

The Second Last-Lap Crash

Allison, meanwhile, was driving an awesome car that already had several wins to its credit and was nicknamed “007.” The No. 28 Ford was third when the final lap began. But when Earnhardt spun out, Allison moved to second and was roaring up behind Petty. With about 200 yards to go Allison caught him. The cars were side by side for the final split second, with Allison on the inside. And as they crossed the finish line with Allison in front by a nose, the cars made contact.

Allison, the race winner, lost control and banged into the outside wall. The grandstands went from a deafening roar that had begun on the Earnhardt spin-out to a worried hush. Allison’s pit crew and his crew chief, Larry McReynolds, rushed to his side.

“Davey was completely slumped over the wheel at first,” McReynolds said.

Allison regained consciousness, but he turned out to have both a concussion and a bruised lung. He had to be cut out of the car. He won $300,000 that night, but the money wasn’t on anyone’s minds at that moment.

“Davey asked me 10 times from the car to the infield care center what happened,” McReynolds said. “I kept telling him, and then he would ask me again.”

In the next day’s Charlotte Observer, columnist Ron Green would describe the moments after the race like this:

What was billed as "One Hot Night" at Charlotte Motor Speedway was that, all right, but it ended with an awful chill, one that froze 133,500 people in place for a long time after it was over. The winner of The Winston, Davey Allison, had to be cut from his wrecked car Saturday night and was strapped to a stretcher and taken away by ambulance. The crowd stayed put, waiting for word of his condition, long after the roar of the engines had died.

Finally, word came that Allison was going to be OK. He didn’t go to Victory Lane, though, and his car did not either. Allison took a helicopter ride to the hospital and stayed overnight. But in a move that would seem almost unthinkable today, when we know far more about concussions and when someone like Dale Earnhardt Jr. can miss half a racing season with concussion symptoms, Allison raced 600 miles the next weekend at the Coca-Cola 600 – and finished fourth.

The Aftermath

Earnhardt, nicknamed “The Intimidator” for good reason, went to find Petty after the race. Some bystanders expected a fight. Instead, Earnhardt grabbed Petty in a playful headlock and later proclaimed to reporters that the final lap was “just good, hard racing.”

After the headlock, Petty was tasked with going up to the press box to give a press conference that would have traditionally been given by the winner. He and Gossage took a quickly regretted path, cutting through the middle of the grandstands to do so.

“Every friggin’ fan in the grandstand was teed off because Earnhardt was wrecked, and so was Davey, and they were thinking I wrecked them both,” Petty said. “I thought they were going to kill my butt. It was ugly. They cussed. They threw a lot of stuff.”

It was the end of the “007” car, too, which McReynolds was sorry to see because of its success with Allison driving.

“That year we were winning one week and wrecking the next,” McReynolds said. “Then we’d win another and wreck another.

“And that night, we found out how to do both at the same time.”