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May 16, 1992: Charlotte's 'One Hot Night'

- TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFS
Wednesday, May. 15, 2013

Charlotte Motor Speedway billed it as "One Hot Night."

It proved that and beyond on May 16, 1992, thanks to star drivers Davey Allison, Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Even after passage of so much time, the events of 21 years ago remain vivid for most of the thousands who saw the incredible action.

Many, including me, rate the last lap of the NASCAR Cup Series all-star race that night high among the most exciting finishes in the sanctioning body’s history, dating to 1949.

Video: Watch the final lap

The event rolls again Saturday night at the Charlotte track that has been its home all but one May since the inaugural in 1985.

Here’s what happened in only a few stirring seconds in ’92 as a crowd estimated 133,500 - the largest to attend a nighttime sports event in America - stood watching tensely:

Earnhardt, the sport’s tough "Intimidator," led starting the last of 70 laps in the event staged in three segments. Petty and Allison followed closely.

It seemed unlikely that the wily Earnhardt, an expert blocker, could be passed. But Petty gave it a try. Kyle darted inside as the two sped down the backstretch under the speedway’s new $1.7-million lighting system.

Petty’s challenge caused Earnhardt to race into turn three too hard, and his No. 3 Chevrolet washed up the banking. This enabled Petty to draw almost abreast in his No. 42 Pontiac. As the two battled through turn four, there was contact and - almost unbelievably - Earnhardt spun out of control.

Petty seemed home-free for the $300,000 winner’s prize. However, Allison had remained only a few feet behind, and down the homestretch he charged to the inside in his No. 28 Ford, a car nicknamed "007."

With 200 yards to go, Allison drew alongside, scrubbing sheet metal with Petty. As the duo reached the finish line Allison’s momentum enabled him to surge four feet ahead.

It appeared Davey had driven so far to the inside that his left tires might be off the pavement. Allison and Petty now made slightly harder contact, causing the nose of 007 to swerve right. In a blink Davey was spinning wildly toward the first turn wall at the 1.5-mile track. Near the exit of pit road he smashed into the concrete barrier hard on the driver’s side.

Aghast fans watched in silence as emergency personnel raced to Allison’s aid. His teammates followed on foot.

The driver was found to be unconscious and badly beat up. In order to extract him, a rescue team began cutting the roof off 007, a treasured, famous car with four victories and a second place finish in five previous starts at the Charlotte track.

Upon reaching the infield infirmary, Allison had "improved" to woozy. "Who won?" he asked. Finally he comprehended team owner Robert Yates’ answer of "We did." The driver raised a clenched fist. Davey was airlifted to a Charlotte hospital. He had sustained a concussion, bruised lung and bruised legs. Hours later, he was cleared to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte track the following Sunday.

As Allison was being readied for transport to the hospital, reporters and bystanders gathered in the garage area. They expected that Earnhardt and Petty also would be clenching fists.

But no!

As Petty arrived Earnhardt strode toward him. Astonishingly, Earnhardt embraced the rival whose bump in turn four had left Dale with a 14th place finish in a field of 20.

"I don’t blame Kyle," said Earnhardt. "We were racing. He took more room than I wanted to give him. It was just good racing."

Drivers unanimously praised the lighting and the thrill of racing at night. Ditto the fans.

Introduction of nighttime racing at the Charlotte superspeedway had begun humorously a few evenings before the race. To start the first practice session, track workers installed a big switch for speedway owner Bruton Smith to pull, symbolically turning on the lights.

When Smith yanked the handle, the device malfunctioned. Balls of fire the size of marshmallows flew into the air. One of these landed on Smith’s head, setting his hair on fire. The small blaze was quickly doused, but Smith was left with a black spot on his white noggin.

Editors nixed my line, "Goodness gracious, great balls of fire."

Davey’s all-star victory proved the last in that race for the immensely popular son of legendary Hall Of Fame driver Bobby Allison. The younger Allison, 19 times a winner, tragically lost his life on July 13, 1993, in the crash of a helicopter he was attempting to land at Talladega Superspeedway.

We are left to ponder how many "hot nights" like that at Charlotte his career would have produced.

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