'92 All-Star Race lights up NASCAR
Rather than going to Victory Lane, Davey Allison had to be cut out of his car and airlifted to Carolinas Medical Center. He had been knocked unconscious moments after taking the checkered flag in a slam-bang finish with Kyle Petty.
Dale Earnhardt? He was just a spun-out bystander at the end, taken out of the lead by Petty on the last lap.
Sparks had showered with every bump and grind, making the action exponentially more dramatic.
This was the all-time fulfillment of a Humpy Wheeler billing: "One Hot Night."
It revolutionized NASCAR. The revolution would spread to Indy cars and around the world. Even Formula One now runs night races -- lit by the same company that took on Wheeler's outrageous concept.
Musco Sports Lighting is a global enterprise now. It was just a little Iowa company that could 20 years ago for The Winston of 1992, the first superspeedway night race.
I'd like to tell you I was there. I wasn't. I was in a hotel room in Indianapolis, thinking, "I've been wrong about racing concepts before, but this is my masterpiece."
A few days earlier I received a phone call from my editors at Sports Illustrated: "Don't you think you should fly down to Charlotte and cover Humpy's night race?"
"No way. That's a gimmick. It'll never work," I said, "and we shouldn't legitimize it by even mentioning it in the magazine."
Besides, Indy was still plenty deadly in those days. What if there's a fatality here while I'm down there falling for that stunt?
The guys in New York backed off. The next day, rookie Jovy Marcelo was killed during practice at Indy. That was May 15.
But the next night, May 16, was indeed One Hot Night. In a single evening, Howard Augustine Wheeler, president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, went from ringmaster promoter to global-impact genius.
What kept me from feeling like a complete fool was that I hadn't been the biggest skeptic. That role belonged to Bill France Jr., then-chairman of NASCAR, who went to Wheeler's boss at the time, CMS chairman Bruton Smith.
"Billy and I talked frequently. He was skeptical," Smith said recently. "He said, 'Are you really going to do that?' I said, 'Oh, sure.' He said, 'Well, I don't think the drivers will want to drive.'
"I said, 'Billy, what the hell? They've been doing this all their careers on Friday and Saturday nights, running with the lights.' He said, 'Yeah, but Charlotte is a big speedway.'"
NASCAR had been running night Cup races at Bristol, Tenn., since 1978. But that was a half-mile track, as easy to light as, say, a football stadium. Weekend local short tracks nationwide had been running night races since the 1950s.
Charlotte, at 1.5 miles, was a whole other matter. Lighting would be far more complicated.
But Wheeler couldn't let go of the mystique he'd learned in his days as a young short-track promoter: "The darker it gets, the faster they go." That is, in the perception of the spectator, seeing all those sparks flying and all that paint glistening.
Smith and Wheeler are now about as estranged as two former business associates can be. They split in 2008. Smith won't even utter Wheeler's name.
But I can settle the recent public bickering over whose idea One Hot Night was. It was Wheeler's. Before the squabble broke out, I interviewed both, extensively, about that first lighting of a superspeedway. Not once did Smith claim to me that it was his idea. He was firm about his confidence in it. He just wouldn't mention Wheeler at all.
Twenty years ago, Humpy drove the train of ideas. Bruton stoked the engine with all the money Humpy asked for and -- though he might never admit it now -- had total confidence in Humpy.
Here's how the world revolution of night racing originally was ignited:
Charlotte was on the verge of losing The Winston, the special event it had kept for five of the first six years only because the one alternative venue that was tried, Atlanta in 1986, had been a debacle run on Mother's Day before a smattering of fans.
T. Wayne Robertson, R.J. Reynolds' racing chieftain widely regarded as the nice guy's nice guy, was actually one tough businessman. He summoned Wheeler to corporate headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"R.J. Reynolds wanted a proposal from us on what we were going to do to make The Winston bigger," Wheeler recalled. "They kept rattling our cage about moving the race."
Indeed, when Jere Long, then-CEO of RJR, had originally announced the event, his plan was to move the event to a different track each year, like baseball's All-Star Game.
"I went up there with five good ideas," Wheeler said. "I can't remember what they were, but they were pretty good.
"And Wayne Robertson looked at me like I was ice fishing but not catching anything. I could see we weren't getting anywhere. Wayne could be real frank at times. He said, 'I can't see anything here that I really like.'
"I saw the thing slipping away. I said, 'OK, why don't we light the track and run it at night? Saturday night. Go back to the way racing started.'
"I could see the whole room light up," Wheeler continued. "Wayne asked me to step outside. We went outside, and he said, 'That's the greatest idea I've ever heard. How the hell are you going to pull it off?'
"I said, 'I don't know, but we will.' I didn't have the slightest f---ing idea in the world how we were going to pull it off, but I knew something could be done."
"Wayne said, 'If you can do that, there's no question about what we'll do.'"
Wheeler knew the short-track and stadium-lighting concepts wouldn't work on such a vast space.
"The one thing I did not want to do was put those big poles in the infield," he said. "That's one of the reasons nobody had ever lit a big track, because it would create such a glare on the fans. ...
"We eventually went through a bunch of stuff that didn't work, including trying to do it ourselves. Then we brought in Musco, which at the time was just a small company that had some portable lights that went to Notre Dame for NBC Saturday night telecasts. I didn't want to use those because there weren't enough to light the track."
Wheeler wanted lights that were low to the ground. Musco agreed to tackle the project at cost, as a demonstration to Atlanta Olympics organizing officials. A scale model was developed, with reflectors that cast light onto the track without blinding drivers or fans, "which just blew my mind," Wheeler said. "I thought it was so ingenious.
"And the rest is history."
Robertson was killed with five other duck hunters in Louisiana in 1998 when their boat collided with a crew boat. RJR withdrew its NASCAR sponsorship after the 2003 season.
But Charlotte still has the All-Star Race and still runs it at night. From Daytona to Darlington to Abu Dhabi, night races are common, all because of One Hot Night -- May 16, 1992.
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