By admin | July 1, 2009
By Richard Allen
Twenty-five years ago my family made what had become our annual trek to Daytona Beach, Florida for a family vacation. As was always the case, my dad and I spent just about every possible minute at the Daytona International Speedway watching practice sessions and qualifying in preparation for the race then known as the Firecracker 400.
Even though we had done this plenty of times before, there was a special feel in the hot, humid air around the 2.5 mile track that year. Richard Petty had won his 199th race just a little over a month earlier in Dover, Delaware. Now, he was poised to score an unprecedented 200th career win at the track where he had experienced so much success throughout his career.
I had grown up a fan of the driver known as ‘The King’. I had little choice. I was named after him so how could I have cheered for any other driver?
Aside from ‘The King’ there was to be another special guest in attendance that day. President Ronald Reagan would become the first president to attend a major stock car race on that Independence Day morning.
Back then, there were no lights at the Daytona track so the race was started at 10:00am to keep fans, drivers and crews from baking in the mid-afternoon heat. Even with that, it was sweltering day under the Florida sun.
The president was set to join the proceedings about halfway through the race. So, he gave the command of, “Gentlemen, start your engines” in that grandfatherly voice of his from Air Force One while in route.
As the race moved through its initial laps it became obvious Petty would at least have a chance to make history that day. His famous #43 Pontiac was clearly one of the stronger machines in the field.
As the laps rolled by spectators, and perhaps even competitors, began to look to the sky in anticipation of the arrival of the world’s most famous airplane. As if scripted, the Boeing 707, with the seal of its passenger emblazoned on the side, came gliding in to the runway which runs parallel to the speedway’s backstretch just as ’The King’ raced by. (The front page of this website has a picture of Petty racing in front of Air Force One.)
The presidential motorcade eventually made its way out of the airport and toward the track’s press box. As luck would have it, my dad and I were seated on the very top row of the grandstand and were able to watch the string of black limousines roll to the point where Reagan would step out and be ushered to the spot where he would watch the race.
What the president got to see was one of NASCAR’s greatest shows. Petty and Cale Yarborough distanced themselves from the pack. Petty led while Yarborough stalked just behind in preparation for a sling-shot maneuver on the last lap.
As the laps counted down it seemed as though everyone there, no matter who their favorite driver, began to root for Petty in anticipation of the possible history about to unfold.
As the cars raced toward the signal for two laps to go a caution suddenly came out for a spin. The first car back to the start/finish line would be the winner. Yarborough pulled off the move everyone knew was coming by passing Petty on the backstretch. I felt my heart sink as I thought that once again I would fail to see my hero win.
But as it turned out the race was not over. The wily Petty had a trick up his sleeve as well. Yarborough’s car drifted high in turn 3 and Petty shot to the low side. As they raced by the spot where I sat between turn 4 and the line the two cars looked as if they were glued together at the door.
The track is so big that from where I sat it was impossible to see who crossed the line under the yellow flag first. But the sense of sight was not needed. Even above the sound of racing engines a deafening roar came up from those seated close enough to see what happened. Petty had done it! He had reached the unbelievable milestone of 200 victories!
Twenty-five years ago from the date the cars will take the green flag for this year’s Coke Zero 400 history was made that will never be broken. And there I was to see it, in the presence of a king and a president.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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