Victory In The Desert For Hamilton And King Richard
I’ve been fortunate enough to write about stock car racing off and on - mostly on - since 1957.
That's 54 years, or more than half an expected lifetime.
I can count on my fingers the races I remember most and never will forget, this old mind willing.
The crash-filled 1958 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, which Fireball Roberts won in a '57 Chevrolet...The '69 star-boycotted inaugural at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, taken by Richard Brickhouse, who never won again...Buddy Baker finally winning the Daytona 500 in 1980 after 20 years of trying, while driving an Oldsmobile nicknamed "The Gray Ghost" because it was so fast it blended into the asphalt...Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip battling each other and also threatening "End Of Time" storm skies as dusk fell at Charlotte in the 1980 World 600, swapping the lead eight times in the final 26 laps. Benny made the final pass on the 399th of 400 laps to capture the victory.
Ron Bouchard edging Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip in a three-car photo finish in the Talladega of '81 for his only Winston Cup Series triumph...Richard Petty narrowly beating Cale Yarborough to score victory No. 200 in the '84 Pepsi Firecracker 400 on July 4, 1984 at Daytona with President Ronald Reagan looking on, the first sitting leader of the free world to attend a race...Bobby and Davey Allison placing 1-2 in the 1988 Daytona 500, the greatest father-son finish in motorsports history...Dale Earnhardt charging from last place, 15th, to first in just two laps to win the 1993 Busch Clash at Daytona.
Add high on the list to these Bobby Hamilton's dramatic triumph in the 1996 Dura Lube 500 on Oct. 27 at Phoenix International Raceway in Arizona.
This race is especially significant to me for two reasons.
First, due to illness, it's the last NASCAR event I ever covered in person. I took early retirement shortly afterward.
More importantly, Hamilton's triumph returned Petty Enterprises to Victory Lane after an improbable absence of 13 years.
Memories of Hamilton, and his grand accomplishment in that race 15 years ago, come to mind again as the Cup Series teams gather once more in Arizona for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500. Hamilton tragically passed away in 2007 at age 49, a victim of cancer.
Here's an except of my story from Phoenix on Oct. 27, 1996:
"It seemed like old times for the Petty Enterprises team on Sunday. Hamilton took the lead on the 283rd of the 312 laps in the 500-kilometer race and returned the storied No. 43 car made famous by Petty to Victory Lane.
"It was the first win for the Petty-owned car since October of 1983 in the Miller 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with Petty at the wheel."
Petty won twice in '84, but he was driving a car owned my Hollywood music figure Mike Curb. It bore the No. 43, but Petty Enterprises of little Level Cross, N.C, did not field it.
The second of those triumphs came in that Pepsi Firecracker 400 previously mentioned, and that car now sits in a place of honor in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
So to me, and most others, Bobby Hamilton's triumph REALLY marked the return of the REAL 43 to Victory Lane.
This was not lost on Hamilton.
"I can't believe it," he said in the press box after giving the new Grand Prix model its first victory and going through the ceremonies just off pit road. "Those last laps I thought I felt tires going down. I heard rattles and even thought the battery was shaking.
"My mind was running wild the last lap. There were three cars smoking and I was concerned they would put some oil on the track.
"I'm so happy for Richard and Dale Inman and Robbie Loomis and the other guys on the team. They've worked so hard and have gone a lot of years without a win. To be the first to do it in this Pontiac since Richard means a lot to me."
Inman, Petty's cousin, was the team manager. Loomis was the crew chief.
Hamilton finished 1.23 seconds ahead of runnerup Mark Martin in a Ford.
"The boys did good today," said Petty, who was mobbed on pit road when the checkered flag fell. "I just sat and watched. Today, we had it all together. I thought Bobby had enough to take care of 'em there at the end, but you never know for sure."
Hamilton had tears in his blazing blue eyes in the press box as the interview ended. So did a lot of media members who admired the down-to-earth country boy Tennessean whose humbleness and sincerity and honesty affected everyone he met.
Beneath those ever-present dark glasses, I sensed King Richard's eyes were moist, too.