While Richard Petty was making the final start of his NASCAR Cup Series career at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon was making his first on November 15, 1992.
But Gordon knew his debut paled in comparison to the magnitude of the seven-time champion’s impending retirement after the season finale, which also featured a six-driver battle royale for a championship that was won by the late Alan Kulwicki.
“I certainly recognized the significance for me to be part of it because of what I was seeing,” Gordon told NBC Sports’ Kyle Petty during a sitdown interview with Richard Petty to mark the race’s upcoming 30-year anniversary (watch the video above or at the Motorsports on NBC YouTube channel). “Everything was about Richard’s final race, watching him walk through the garage area. Everywhere he went he was just mobbed by cameras, media and fans.”
30 years ago, where one legendary driver’s @nascar career was ending at @amsupdates, another legend’s was just beginning.@kylepetty sat down with @therichardpetty and @jeffgordonweb ahead of this weekend’s race. See it in pre-race Sunday on @usa_network. pic.twitter.com/RkZqPAC2QV
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 7, 2022
But it turns out, Gordon had caught the eye of “The King” as well.
“What I remember about him, seen some kid walking around over there, had a little uniform on, had a little mustache,” Richard Petty recalled with a laugh. “He was 21 years old and was trying to look like he was 30. And he really looked like he was about 16. I remember him just because of that little mustache he had, the first time I ever met him.”
‘THE KING’ AT 85: Another milestone for Richard Petty
“The King” turned to Gordon with a genuine curiosity that had been lingering for three decades.
“Why did you do that?” Petty playfully asked about the mustache.
With a laugh, Gordon replied that it helped with gaining access to sprint car garage areas as an underaged teenage competitor before he went to NASCAR.
“I could grow a mustache early on, obviously not a very good one, and I thought that would make me look old enough to belong in the garage area of those races, and I kept it,” Gordon said. “You should have come over to me and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know what kind of career you’re going to have, but I can help you with your look!’ ”
During the sitdown, which was conducted this week at Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon and Petty recalled their memories of an Atlanta race weekend that now is remembered as a watershed in NASCAR history. It was the last title battle involving Kulwicki and Davey Allison, both of whom died after aviation-related accidents over the next eight months.
In their first interview together about the 1992 season finale, here are highlights of some memories from Gordon and Petty (the video feature of their on-camera sitdown can be seen in the embed at the top of this page above or at the Motorsports on NBC YouTube channel and a shorter version also also will run during Sunday’s Atlanta prerace show at 2 p.m ET on USA Network):
As a legend neared the end of a farewell season without a top 10 and an upstart prepared for a high-profile rookie season, Petty and Gordon entered the race with different emotions but a similar goal: Don’t wreck. (Unfortunately, neither was successful.)
Petty: “(There was) some relief this was my last race. The big deal for me and the crew (was) run the whole race. Finish the cotton-picking race. Because this is your last race. That last year, I probably didn’t race with anybody. I was not competitive at all. I know it was my last race and was trying to be careful. Emotionally the whole family was there. All our friends come, and everybody showed up to say bye. It was a big deal, and it wasn’t. I’m not an emotional person. It’s just another day in Richard Petty’s life.
“I won my last race in ’84. And in my mind, I knew I needed it because it was going downhill already as far as being competitive. But I loved to drive the race car so much, and I knew I was going to miss it so much, and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to stay and get it completely out of my system because I see people quit and try to come back, and that don’t work.’ So I said, ‘Just stay, stay, stay,’ and it never got out of my system. But finally I think STP said, ‘We’re not going to sponsor you.’ I think that was a lot of the decisions on that.”
Gordon: “I was young and trying to make my own name and coming into a sport that I had a lot of respect for the competitors and tracks and the cars, but it was all new to me. I was still learning a lot. My dream was to get to the Cup level. I didn’t know a whole lot about stock-car racing. I knew who Richard Petty was. I knew who Dale Earnhardt was as a kid growing up, but I really was thinking more Indianapolis. Not so much NASCAR. So when I finally got thrust into it, I loved the cars, the tracks, the drivers. I just wanted to emulate guys like Richard, I looked up to him and wanted to be him. Every chance I got, I was trying to follow what was going on. I was racing Saturdays (in the Busch Series) with guys like Earnhardt, Jarrett, Mark Martin and Bill Elliott. I felt like I can at least keep up with them on some days. I wonder what I’ll be like to get into Cup. The final race in Atlanta. I wasn’t thinking at the time what a big deal it was going to be. I knew it was Richard’s final year and every weekend they were celebrating (him), but I had no idea what that one race was going to be like. I was just more scared to death of making my first start and I felt I was under a microscope. It wasn’t until I got there, I realized the impact he was making that day and his career being celebrated the way it was and how special it was to be a part of it.
“It was more nerves. Just being nervous about the unexpected and unknown of racing a Cup car and be out there with the best of the best. I wanted to be competitive. We’d tested and were really fast. I was feeling pretty good about myself until the first round of qualifying. I thought I was going for the pole and about wrecked. We qualified pretty good the second round. Most of it was not wanting to look like an idiot and being appreciative that I was there. There were thousands of people around him. I remember that. I remember standing atop the truck watching Richard walking through the garage area. Wow. I’d never seen that many people in the garage area. The graciousness, (he was) walking, signing, taking pictures with every single one of them. That had a big influence on me. To me I’m looking at a legend, the greatest that’s ever been, and I want to be something like that and make my own mark, but I want to follow in those footsteps. That had a big impact on me of how to treat the fans, what it’s like to have a career like (he) had and how to go out. So I think that made me realize how significant it was to be part of that weekend.”
The actual race wasn’t very memorable for either driver. Gordon crashed early and completed only 164 of 328 laps. Petty made 95 laps but was running at the finish after being involved in a wreck.
Petty: “I don’t remember that much about it. We were running back there with Darrell (Waltrip) and two or three guys, and I don’t know if I messed up or they messed up coming off of 4. Got in a wreck and (the car) caught on fire. I drove down in the first corner, pulled up beside the fire truck. This is true. The guys got out of the fire truck, come over and want my autograph. I said, ‘Man, the car’s burning!’ You always hear the deal everyone wants to go out in a blaze of glory. I just went out in a blaze. Wasn’t no glory.
“The car was tore all to pieces. The crew said we’ve got to get him out there to finish the race. They worked a third of the race on it. I can remember I got out of the car, got up in the (team) truck, and we all had a good cry (with his wife, Lynda, and daughters). They was glad it was all over with, and then the guys said, ‘Get your helmet, we’re going to put you back on the track.’ Probably 10 laps to go, we just pulled up to the pit area and just sat there (until) a couple of laps to go, because we know we couldn’t run fast, and we still were having a heck of a race for the championship. So I just rode around a couple of slow laps. In the rundown, it shows I finished the race. That was a victory for the crew.”
Gordon: “(The race) wasn’t long! It kind of went a lot like the rest of the weekend. We were super fast. Had a great car. I remember us moving forward in the race. In Atlanta back then, super fast and a different configuration, I remember how free you had to start the cars on a full load of fuel. These are big sweeping fast corners at Atlanta. And you just hold onto it until the car starts to tighten up and lead off the front and then you go. Well, I didn’t make it that far. My early times in stock cars in general was (about), ‘Is it tight enough?’ Everybody else told me you want the car to be neutral, which I was used to in a sprint car, but you didn’t want to be neutral on Lap 5. You wanted to be on Lap 25. So I spent a lot of time backing into a lot of things, and that’s the way that day went. All I remember is just hanging on for the first several laps of a run and then unfortunately backing into the wall early in the race and ended my day. Turn 1 and 2. I’ll never forget that.”
Gordon also had vivid memories of a prerace drivers meeting that included several dignitaries and a present for the drivers in the field from “The King.”
Gordon: “(What) stands out the most for me was the drivers meeting. I feel like I finally made it, and here I am in this drivers meeting with all these great drivers, and because of Richard’s final race, it was all the dignitaries, the celebrities. I’m pretty sure Burt Reynolds was there. I remember some big country music stars. It was a pageantry in itself just talking about Richard’s final race. So just to be there and witness that.
“And of course the thing I cherish with some very cool things that I’ve been able to collect over the years, which is Richard did something neat for everybody that was a part of that event. He gave out these money clips. They had your starting position on it.”
Petty: “Wasn’t no money in them.”
Gordon: “No money, but you were giving me hope! That day, being part of it, and holding onto this. I’ve always had it in a safe place. I’ve moved houses and always held onto this. Because that day meant a lot to me. So it says on the back here, ‘Thanks for the memories, Richard Petty.’ ”
Petty had another gift for Gordon on the morning of his final Cup Series start Nov. 22, 2015 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the No. 24 Chevrolet could win the championship with a victory. Petty presented Gordon with 93 dollar bills, one for each of his victories.
Petty: “I told him, ‘If you win the race, I’ll give you another dollar.’ ”
Gordon: “I wanted that dollar so bad. That might be my second-favorite Richard Petty moment, because (he) didn’t have to do that. He came up, brought me a hat. He pulled out 94 $1 bills. That is the coolest thing ever.”
Though it was difficult to appreciate the impact of the 1992 season finale at Atlanta in the moment, both Gordon and Petty have developed a much deeper perspective in the past 30 years.
Petty: “When it was changing, I never thought anything about it. Now I look back at what (Gordon) accomplished, you see it was really a bigger deal than just me and him. Because the sport went into another level. After that, I think it become more commercial also. Then you got more sponsorship, you got to be known all over the United States, all over the world, because people advertised, so that made NASCAR grow. It gave them a bigger footprint. So everything changed. It wasn’t just the way we raced, the people, the way they advertised, it just changed. Looking back, it was one of the biggest changes NASCAR had over the year.”
Gordon: “So many things were happening. As a young guy coming from the open wheel world, I came and saw massive crowds. Other than the Indianapolis 500, the grandstands (of IndyCar races) were not full. In the sprint car and midget races, we had 5,000 people if it was a good race. My first NASCAR race, it might have been Rockingham, there was 35,000, 40,000 people. A ton of people there. That opened my eyes that, man, they’re doing something right here. You’ve got “The King,” “The Intimidator,” but you had great racing. Just the product on the track. Driving these cars. I came into it not expecting to enjoy the racing. OK, I’ll drive this big, heavy car. Then I got into it that I love driving this car because of the big high-banked tracks. The competition you had. I realized how good the drivers were. How good the product was on track. I was looking at it (saying), ‘I get why all these people are here.’ … Everything was being done right at that time. My timing, besides the fact I got to be in Richard Petty’s last race, my timing of starting my career could not have been better.”
Petty: “It was perfect for your situation, and it was the same way when I came (into NASCAR in 1958). It was a perfect time for me. My dad was winning races and championships and all that, and I came in just as they started the superspeedway era. Which was great because all we were running to begin with was dirt tracks. Then they started superspeedways, and the guys running all those years went to Daytona and never run a racetrack where you run wide open. I’d run around the outside keeping it wound up. And I learned on the big tracks and some of the drivers winning before I got there never really adapted to that kind of racing. It was the perfect timing for me also.”
Gordon (directly to Petty): “I do have to say one thing. I don’t know if I’ve had the chance to do this on camera. I maybe told you in person the day you brought me those 93 dollars. I want to thank you for what you did for what you did to make the sport what it was for me. It was something on my shoulder I had to carry because of you, Pearson and those guys that built the sport up, but primarily you to what we have today.”
Petty: “We just came along at a good time while NASCAR was rolling. Me, Pearson, Allison and those guys, they made a foundation, and then you all took it from the foundation, and the tree grows a bit further. It’s still growing. We planted a lot of the seeds, and you all are getting benefit out of it.”
Gordon (laughing): “Yeah, we are. And that’s what I’m trying to get at. Thank you because it changed my life and changed a lot of people’s lives. This sport is unbelievable what it is today. You really got that all started.”