This season, the first NASCAR Cup race at Richmond Raceway is scheduled for April 3. For a long time, the event was either the second or third of the year, conducted during the usually chilly month of February.
Like any other track, Richmond has had its share of memorable races — perhaps more than most considering it has been a part of NASCAR since 1953.
One such event was the Miller High Life 400 on Feb. 23, 1986. It was the race that ended with a wild finish in which the two major contenders for the NASCAR Cup Series championship took each other out and thus gave a driver his first career victory.
And, incredibly, that driver wasn’t sure he wanted it.
Kyle Petty, the son of NASCAR legend Richard Petty, began his racing career in 1979. He drove for the vaunted Petty Enterprises team.
But by 1985, the team determined that it could not financially support a two-car organization. The younger Petty would have to strike out on his own.
He landed with Wood Brothers Racing, another very successful family team that in years past had only entered higher-paying superspeedway races. But in 1985, it was competing on the full Cup schedule.
In ’85, Petty enjoyed his best season with seven top-five finishes and 12 among the top 10. But he didn’t win.
That was to change in 1986.
At Richmond, Petty had crept into the top five as the race wound to its close. Ahead of him, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, the defending Cup champ, were battling for the victory.
With three laps remaining, Waltrip charged past Earnhardt down the backstretch. Earnhardt tried to recapture the lead by moving inside Waltrip, but as he did so, he clipped the right quarter panel of Waltrip’s Chevrolet.
Both cars went into a smokey spin, crunching sheet metal and forcing Waltrip into the guardrail.
By the way, metal guardrails were the norm for some speedways of the day and drivers feared contact with them. If impact was sufficient, rails could split and become sharp, menacing steel knives with the potential to slice through a car body — and, perhaps, into its driver.
Waltrip wasn’t victimized, but he and Earnhardt clogged the third turn and two of the three drivers behind them were collected in the incident.
That put Petty into the lead.
He wasn’t overjoyed.
He was comfortable while in fifth. A bit earlier he had been told via radio that he was “exactly where you need to be” and that “we’re in the money.”
Seems that before the race, drivers participated in a pool in which they would invest their money and then select a piece of paper with a number on it — or something similar.
If a driver’s finishing position matched that number, he would win the entire amount of money invested. And that amount was very, very sizable. It was just short of that paid to the race winner.
Petty and the Woods had drawn number five. And that’s why they were content to remain in fifth until the end of the race.
But fate ruled otherwise and Petty got his first Cup victory.
It was the first time in 18 years that a Woods car had entered victory lane without No. 21 on its side. Its Ford carried the No. 7 as required by the new sponsors, the Southland Corp. and 7-Eleven.
Naturally, the finish was very controversial. The hard-driving Earnhardt received a healthy dose of criticism — not unusual at this stage of his career.
Waltrip and team owner Junior Johnson were furious over the incident.
“I’ve never had a run-in with Dale before, but just about everyone else has,” Johnson said. “I reckon he’s not choosy.”
“I want to win as much as anyone else,” said Waltrip, who complained of a sore back and blurred vision. “But I’ve never tried to hurt anyone.”
Earnhardt was initially fined $5,000 and placed on a one-year probation by NASCAR, which claimed he had “gone over the line between hard and reckless driving.”
After an appeal, the fine was reduced to $3,000 and the probation was dropped.
Petty and the Woods wanted to know what had made their car so good at Richmond. If they could find out, they would make sure they had it for every race.
In a story Petty has repeated often, it was determined that it was his favorite pair of underwear, of all things. So he wore that same pair for the next several weeks, race after race.
I once told him that underwear was the reason I could smell him before I saw him.
But it evolved that the underwear was thrown away. In a panic, Petty drove from Level Cross, N.C., to the Woods’ compound in Stuart, Va., to retrieve it.
He found it in a dumpster.
“You can imagine what it looked like with all the grease, grime and oil on it,” Petty said years ago as he told me the story.
He tried to launder the underwear, and in so doing, he left it to soak in bleach. But he forgot about it and when it was retrieved, there was nothing left but the waistband.
“Wore that waistband under my uniform for the rest of the season,” Petty said. “Didn’t help much.”
Petty went on to race though 2008 and won only eight races in his career.
But he evolved into something much more significant than just a driver.
He is an excellent musician who has played with some of the finest artists — and he continues to perform to this day. He is a knowledgeable equestrian. He is almost omnipresent on television, multiple programs and podcasts of his own in addition to social media. He was the leader of his family in the creation of the Victory Junction Camp for underprivileged children, which is supported by Kyle Petty’s Charity Ride Across America, a motorcycle journey that has become a tradition.
And he is an excellent NASCAR spokesman.
I once labeled him as stock car racing’s true Renaissance Man.
I think the title fits him perfectly.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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