Ann and I were vacationing in Tennessee back in 1991, and had spent the day at Dollywood. Had quite an adventure that day as Dollywood was so enjoyable for a country music fan like me. Well, that and the fact that I thought (and still do) that Dolly is quite the down to earth entertainer even if she relies on wigs and a race hauler load of make up to be "down to earth". We had gone to one of those all you could eat country buffets that night after leaving Dollywood and, as usual for me, I had at least a little bit of everything on the buffet and quite a lot of those things I really liked.
We got back to our hotel about 9:30 that night and Ann and I sat out on the balcony and looked at the stars and the low ridge of mountain tops, well maybe just high hill from that angle, on a very pleasant night. That kind of night when it's not really cold nor hot, just right. We finally went in around 10:30 and Ann was in the bathroom getting ready for bed and I flipped on the television. I found a local channel to the area and was awaiting the local news report to see what the weather may be for our next day in the area.
I don't remember the program I watched awaiting the news, but I remember the local news coming on with the lead-in story "Richard Petty announces his retirement". They immediately when to clips from Richard's press conference where he explained the premise of his "Fan Appreciation Tour" for the upcoming 1992 season. I guess I knew the day was coming. After all, Richard hadn't won since that 200th win at the Firecracker in 1983. He had survived that unbelievable crash in the Daytona 500 in 1988. He had been through surgery removing portions of his stomach, and still he raced. I guess he kept going because that was all he had truly known since he was 11 years old.
I remember that I felt nothing, absolutely nothing, as I watched that press conference, or at least the portion they showed on the news that night. The reason for that, I surmised a few days later, was that I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that the driver I had watched and pulled for since his first race in 1958, which I was 11 years old, would not be on the track after 1992. The number 43 would never be piloted by The King after the final race at Atlanta in November. I remember Ann asking me how I felt but I don't recall my answer, or even, in fact, if I gave her an answer.
The 1992 season seemed to me to fly by. I did attend some races at Darlington and Charlotte, and I did spend quite a bit of money of the "Fan Appreciation" mementoes that seemed to be everywhere. Many of those things remain here in The Lair even now. I was asked, probably ten thousand times during the season, whether or not I was going to attend Richard's last race at Atlanta. Admittedly, at the beginning of the season, I had given that prospect serious thought. However, by July, I had determined that I would watch that final race on television. For reasons I still don't fully understand, I just didn't want to be there for that last race.
As it worked out, the television version was, for me, the better choice. I was able to watch, in total privacy, the end of The King's career. I watched the wreck, the fire, the awesome effort by his team as they got the car ready to make the final lap. I remember that Pontiac, without front sheet metal, making that final lap and Richard saluting the crowd as he made his last lap in a NASCAR race. There is so much I remember about that day, but one of the most vivid memories is my thoughts as I turned off the television after the race. What now, I thought. What am I going to do about next season? I had a bottle of champagne I had bought that day after Richard won number 200 and I had written "for 201" on the label with a Sharpie. What was next for me that night was to pop the cork on that Champagne? It was over.
When the 1993 season dawned at Daytona (hard to believe that was 22 years ago), I was looking forward to the race, but in a different way. Let me explain. I believed, I truly believed in my heart, that Richard had the potential to win every race he entered. Race after race went by from July 1983 forward with no spectacular performances, but I still believed. Rick Wilson was to drive the Petty car but the familiar number 43 was changed to 44. The 1993 season was not a great one for the retired King, but I was still his fan, no matter who was driving his car.
Let me say this about my association with the Petty family. My Uncle Bobby, who got me into racing, was a Lee Petty fan so I was as well. When Richard started driving in 1958, he became my favorite because I was showing my 11-year-old independence from my uncle AND because I had met Richard that night and he was very kind to me. I even got his autograph, one of the first I had ever gotten. I always like Kyle, even watched him for Lynda a few minutes at Rambi Raceway in 1963 when Kyle was 3, but as much as I liked him and even though he won some races and had a somewhat successful career, I never, ever, felt the passion for racing from Kyle. I first met Adam Petty at Myrtle Beach Speedway in the mid nineties when he was running those Legend cars. Even though he was barely in his teens, shaking his hand and looking into his eyes, I felt the Petty Passion for racing pulsing through those veins. The day he was killed is still one of those days I try to block from my memory. So, in reality, no matter who was driving for Petty, it was not the same.
In 1994 the number 43 returned and we went through the John Andretti years and I was totally neutral with John. He was okay, and he won a race, but it wasn't the same. Bobby Hamilton took over and I really like Bobby and he won a couple of races and as happy as I was about that, it was not quite the same as Richard winning.
Now here we are, all those years after the King ran that last race and we can look back to that day and remember the young rookie driver that made his debut on that November day in Atlanta. Jeff Gordon would finish 31st after crashing out of the race on lap 164. Not a spectacular first outing, but little could we, or Rick Hendrick I would bet, could foresee what a future lay ahead for the young California driver.
It was announced by Jeff last week that the 2015 season will be his final full-time season in NASCAR racing. Although he specifically did not use the word "Retire", he indicated that he was finished with chasing points and would choose what he wanted to do in racing based exactly on what Jeff Gordon wants to do. I am happy for him.
When Jeff began his career he was, at first, over looked as being a kid. Then he began to win races and many fans, especially the Dale Earnhardt fans began to hate him. He was soon getting so much negative reaction from fans, that Dale Earnhardt finally had to tell him about the boos from the fans "that at least they are making noise". Jeff and Dale had a friendship based on mutual respect for the ability of each other to drive race cars. The "milk toast" at the NASCAR banquet by Jeff to Dale was one of those awesome memories that every fan who saw it, and especially saw Dale's reaction, will never forget that as being the start of where the sport would begin to change.
Jeff Gordon was not, and is not, cut from the cloth of the Southern born and bred race driver. He speaks as comfortable in almost any public venue as proven by his co-hosting on the Kelly and Regis television program and his many appearances on television programs of almost every description. He is polished, professional, and talented. He is different.
I remember seeing Jeff win that first race, the 600 at Charlotte, and he was bawling like a baby. That was the first time I had ever witnessed a race driver cry. Those tough guys who wheel those metal monsters at speeds approaching earth gravity escape velocity, and here this kid was crying in the race car. Although I didn't realize at the time, I was seeing the true emotion of a man who had accomplished the realization of a dream. Little did I know, and neither did Jeff, how much more there was to do.
Jeff was the new kid, the rookie, the one who had to prove his value to the sport. He has done that. He has gone from the rookie to the great ambassador of the sport. There have been several drivers who have contributed to advancement in the sport. In my humble opinion, and it has been expressed by others, Fireball Roberts was the first super star of the sport. Next came Fred Lorenzen who was not from the south and who had a brilliant career and parlayed that Hollywood appearance and appeal into a refreshing change for the sport. Next came Richard Petty, the ultimate fan appreciative hero who won races and remained the same humble man he always was. His 1967 season brought attention nationwide to the sport of NASCAR Stock car racing. Enter Dale Earnhardt, Sr. His brashness and his "common man" persona, sometimes referred to as "red neck appeal" drew fans to the sport who could relate directly to Dale's early struggles. Unfortunately, Dale Earnhardt did not get the opportunity to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labor.
In his inauguration speech, JFK said "let the word go forth, from this time and place that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans". I guess, in racing, the torch has been passed many times from one icon to another. It is now time for Jeff Gordon to pass that torch to the next generation and enjoy the benefits he has earned.
To all the Jeff Gordon fans who are feeling lost right now, I can identify with that feeling, although it came long ago for me. Jeff is passing the torch on to such youngsters as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Cole Whitt, and, yes, Chase Elliott, the heir apparent to the once rainbow-hued number 24. We fans have much to look forward to with these youngsters coming along. Yes, I know, if you're a Jeff Gordon fan, things won't be the same. I know, for me, the excitement has never been the same once Richard retired, no matter who is driving HIS car, but my love of the sport, in spite of so many changes I don't like, remains strong. I know it's difficult for you to look past the 2015 season and even imagine how you're going to handle the 2016 Daytona 500 when Jeff is, perhaps, not in the field. But think of your racing memories. Think of your interest in the sport.
I have a ton of memories of Richard Petty's career. But I also remember Fireball Roberts driving that year old Chevrolet to victory in the 1958 Southern 500. I remember Buck Baker winning that 1960 Southern 500 on three wheels in that Pontiac. I remember the cars at Charlotte for that first World 600 having more chicken wire and fence wire protecting windshields and grills than wire used to fence the Darlington infield. I have a memory bank overflowing with racing memories, some good, some bad, but always reminding me that I love this sport. I have for more than 63 years and in spite of my adversity to some of NASCAR's actions, I will be right there for every single minute of every event televised from Daytona and the rest of the year. I was, and am, a Richard Petty fan. Yes, I always liked Jeff Gordon as well and pulled for him from the beginning of his career. As the torch was passed that day in 1992, so it will pass again. The flame of that passage may flicker, but it will not be extinguished for it is the flame of passion. The flame of passion for so many folks.