In a very informative article, NASCAR.com’s Mark Aumann pointed out that since NASCAR’s “modern era” began with the 1972 season, only two Sprint Cup races were held on an Easter weekend.
Both were pushed to the holiday by weather. In 1985 rain forced what was then known as Bristol International Raceway to reschedule its Valleydale 500 to the Saturday before Easter.
In 1989 snow forced Richmond International Raceway to reset its Pontiac Excitement 400, originally scheduled for February, to March 26 – Easter Sunday.
I was at both of them and I can tell you that the 1989 race at Richmond has taken its place in NASCAR lore.
NASCAR legend Richard Petty failed to qualify for the race. It was the first time in 18 years, or 513 races, that the seven-time champion was not part of a starting grid.
Understand the impact of this. The most popular driver in NASCAR, one whose achievements and personality helped power the sport into national attention and who was always a prominent figure at any speedway, was not going to race.
And, even more stunning, the man known as “The King” wasn’t going to be absent because of injury, illness or personal matters. He wasn’t going to race because of his unfathomable failure.
This was hardly the Petty everyone knew. It was so surprising that many fans and media members felt certain NASCAR must have made some kind of timing mistake.
A group of writers went to the NASCAR hauler and essentially asked officials what mistake they had made. Apparently it didn’t occur to them to ask Petty himself what problem had arisen – if any.
They did go to Petty with their tails between their legs after NASCAR unquestionably proved it had not erred.
With which Petty agreed. NASCAR wasn’t involved at all, he said. He just didn’t go fast enough. It was as simple as that.
At the time NASCAR records were not as accurate or easy to obtain as they are now in this era of cyberspace.
So it took a bit of time and research to find out the last time Petty missed a race.
At first some thought it might have been as early as the 1987 season. Petty did not compete in races in Dover and Pocono because he was recuperating from an injury.
Joe Ruttman qualified and drove Petty’s Pontiac in both events. However, Petty was listed as the driver of record because, in each race, he had driven a pace lap before turning his car over to Ruttman.
Finally, after added research, it was determined that the last race in which Petty did not compete was the Georgia 300 at the half-mile Middle Georgia Raceway in Macon, Ga., on Nov. 7, 1971.
Interestingly, Petty did not race because he failed to qualify. He chose not to race. He didn’t even show up at the track.
Along with five other top contenders, Petty elected to ignore the Georgia event because promoter Ralph Brawner refused to pay any appearance money.
That certainly depleted the quality of the competition and it showed as Bobby Allison, driving a Holman-Moody Ford, lapped the field en route to an easy victory.
Brawner said he was very pleased that 7,500 people attended the race. He didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the final NASCAR event held at his track.
Petty could certainly afford to skip a race. His 1971 season remains one of the most remarkable in NASCAR’s history.
The second-generation Petty Enterprises driver won 21 races in 46 starts.
He easily won the first Winston Cup championship by nearly 400 points over James Hylton.
Incidentally, as said, the 1972 Winston Cup season marked the beginning of NASCAR’s “modern era.”
It’s called that because it was in ’72 that NASCAR slashed its elite series schedule from as many as 52 races per season to a more workable 31. All the dirt tricks and a vast majority of the half-milers in small markets – including Middle Georgia Raceway – were discarded.
Because Petty chose not to compete in Georgia in ’71 it meant that, as far as anyone could determine, the Richmond race in March of 1989 was the first for which Petty failed to qualify.
Petty could have raced. Rodney Combs and Jim Sauter both offered him their cars to drive in the 300-miler.
As a reporter, I got lucky. I managed to catch Petty just as he was leaving the track.
I asked him why he didn’t take either offer that would have allowed him to race.
He told me that he didn’t want what he thought to be charity. He didn’t want a handout. If he didn’t earn something he would rather not have it.
He went home, pride intact.
Without Petty in the race it was only natural to speculate how it would affect attendance. It appeared that, without stock car racing’s most recognizable figure in the field, the numbers would drop.
Not so. That Easter Sunday was sunny and warm, with temperatures in the ‘70s. It was estimated that 50,000-60,000 fans turned out for the race, which, for Richmond at that time, was excellent – and profitable.
For some the conclusion was reached that perhaps Petty was no longer the draw he had been. And, in many ways, that was true.
The 1989 season was the first after a massive changing of the guard; a time when so many of the top stars in NASCAR retired and gave way to a newer generation.
At the conclusion of the 1988 season many of the drivers who had dominated NASCAR competition, and headlines, for so many years moved on.
Benny Parsons and Cale Yarborough retired. Buddy Baker had to step aside because of an injury sustained at Charlotte that year. Bobby Allison was forced out of racing following a savage crash at Pocono that nearly took his life.
David Pearson hadn’t driven in a Winston Cup race since 1985. He was offered a return to his seat with the Wood Brothers as a replacement for their injured driver, Neil Bonnett, in the October event at Charlotte.
Pearson practiced in the car but quickly determined he would not be able to complete the full distance. He officially announced his retirement.
This stellar group of drivers compiled more than 134 years of experience. Together they had won 313 Winston Cup races and eight championships.
They were replaced by a surge of newcomers – along with a few established stars like Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte.
Drivers such as Rusty Wallace, Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Sterling Marlin, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett, among others, moved to the forefront.
Of the “old guard,” only Petty remained – perhaps for too long.
Petty had not won a race since 1984, when he captured his historic 200th career victory that July in Daytona.
As revered as he was by 1989 Petty was seldom, if ever, listed as a pre-race favorite.
He stayed active until the end of the 1992 season.
But it was at Richmond in 1989 that, perhaps, he made his final impact on stock car racing.
Because he failed to qualify for that race NASCAR determined that it would only be fitting to make a rule adjustment; one that would recognize and reward significant achievement.
It ruled that any past NASCAR champion would receive a provisional starting position for every race.
It became known as the “Petty Rule.”
Over the years there have been more than a few drivers, and fans, who are thankful it exists to this day.