Classic Season Remembered

David Poole’s “Race With Destiny” is a fine little book saddled with a marketing problem by its publisher. “Race With Destiny” is mainly the story of the season ending Hooters 500 at Atlanta back in 1992 many fans and media members, myself included, still consider the greatest stock car race ever run. Even the title “Race With Destiny” seems to indicate as much. The entire 1992 season was one of the best, if not simply the best and most important, seasons in modern NASCAR history. The entire season is worthy of a book, but this isn’t it.

The problem Poole’s book faces is the blurbs on the front cover which read “The Year that Changed NASCAR Forever” and “The insider story of the most important season in NASCAR history.” But in fact the other 28 races run that year prior to the season finale are summed up in one chapter, “28 Down, One to Go” while the meat of the book covers the final race of the year. “The Race That Changed NASCAR Forever” would have been a more appropriate cover blurb.

For those newer to the sport 1992 was indeed a landmark in NASCAR history. The sports greatest and most recognizable driver, Richard Petty had announced he was retiring from the driver’s seat at the end of the season. Petty’s “Fan Appreciation Tour” that season drew unprecedented media coverage and even casual fans of the sport showed up at the track or watched at home to see how the man whose name became synonymous with stock car racing fared in his last season. In a happy coincidence for NASCAR while the sport was in the limelight they had one of the most competitive seasons in racing history. Going into the final race “Race With Destiny” focuses on six drivers still had a mathematical chance at being Winston Cup champion. Realistically there were three drivers who had legitimate shots at the title. One was the sport’s most popular young (in that era) driver, Bill Elliott, driving completing his first season with legendary car owner Junior Johnson who’d already claimed six Winston Cup trophies. Another was Davey Allison, son of the legendary Bobby Allison, and another perennial fan favorite, a young man who just always seemed to be grinning despite the outrageous fortunes that had been slung at him that season. The third was Alan Kulwicki, a bit of an oddity in stock car racing in that era. Kulwicki was a college educated engineer from Wisconsin, a devout Catholic who just happened to drive for a restaurant firm famous for scantily clad women, and an owner-driver, an unheard of arrangement in that era. Elliott and Allison were both pre-season favorites for the title and their cause was aided and abetted by a rare off-key season for Dale Earnhardt. To say Kulwicki was an underdog is a gross bit understatement.

Though it only became apparent in retrospect, that same race which would decide the title and feature the King’s last ride also marked another milestone. A skinny little kid with a cheesy mustache didn’t run too well that day in Atlanta, but for those who didn’t notice him that afternoon, Jeff Gordon was starting a Winston Cup career that would create headlines soon.

The book is what Poole’s Charlotte Observer readers have come to expect from David. The prose is solidly written, well crafted, and impeccably researched. How well written? I received my copy yesterday, sat down to read it and when a storm caused an electrical outage, I finished the entire book by candlelight. For fans who were already following the sport in that era, there are a lot of pleasant memories here and a ton of little known insights and factoids you’ve probably forgotten if you ever knew them. For newer fans, the book will make you feel as if you were there on the most important day in NASCAR history.

In addition to a detailed analysis and recounting of the Hooters 500, “Race With Destiny” also includes nice tributes to Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, both of whom died in aircraft accidents the next season. Davey and Alan were two very different men, but they shared one thing in common. Both were incredibly talented racecar drivers and if they were still with us the sport’s record books would doubtlessly be very different looking today.

For those who want to know something about every Winston Cup race in 1992 there are other sources of information. For those who want to know everything about that one race, and I do mean everything right down to who the last media member to interview Allison, Elliott and Kulwicki prior to that race, I highly recommend “Race With Destiny”.

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