For some people the 1996 Dura Lube 500 at Phoenix International Raceway is more than just another race. It’s the day reality came back to NASCAR and Petty Enterprises found victory lane once again.
Petty Enterprises was the Hendrick Motorsports of the first 3 decades of NASCAR. Wait, I take that back. Hendrick Motorsports loses every now and then. Petty Enterprises didn’t.
Richard Petty had 198 of his 200 wins at Petty Enterprises and 7 championships with the organization. Richard’s father Lee Petty won 54 races and 3 championships in his 16 years as a driver.
From 1949-1983 Petty Enterprises had won an unprecedented 265 races, including 10 championships and 9 Daytona 500’s.
Yet after the 1983 season Petty Enterprises and Richard Petty would be together no longer after family dispute opted him to move to Mike Curb’s operation and brought the 43 and STP over with him. Petty would win only two races in the two years with Mike Curb and cooler heads prevailed and Petty and his family run team would reunite before the 1986 season.
Yet the same success would never be found again. Petty would go winless in his final 7 seasons at Petty Enterprises before retiring in 1992.
The Randleman, North Carolina ran business would have three drivers from 1993-1995. First it was Rick Wilson, who ran the No. 44 STP Pontiac to one top ten finish in the 1993 season before being replaced by Wally Dallenbach, Jr for the start of the 1994 season. The familiar No. 43 would be back on the car as well.
Dallenbach wasn’t the answer either. He struggled and after missing six races, Petty Enterprises had seen enough and hired John Andretti to finish out the 1994 season.
In 1995 a driver from Nashville, Tennessee became available. That driver was Bobby Hamilton. Hamilton had had an interesting career until that point. He broke into the NASCAR Winston Cup Circuit by driving cars for the movie Days of Thunder. He nearly won the 1988 Autoworks 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, before a blown engine on lap 215 derailed his day to 32nd place finish.
Hamilton had moderate success on the NASCAR circuit. He won a 1989 Busch Series race at Richmond that impressed many people. Everyone thought the man needed a break. When Richard Petty came knocking, Hamliton had finally gotten his break.
Throughout the 1995 season it appeared Hamilton and Petty Enterprises were a good fit. Hamilton was giving Petty Enterprises its best point season since 1987. Hamilton would finish 14th in the standings with 4 top 5’s and ten top tens. All things pointed to a very successful 1996 season.
1996 did get off to a good start for Hamilton. After an 11th place finish at Talladega, Bobby Hamilton was 9th in the standings and had caught everyone’s attention.
Yet a mediocre middle of the season had left Hamilton and Petty Enterprises scratching their heads as to what went wrong.
By the end of the Southern 500 in September, Hamilton had dropped to a dismal 16th in the standings. Bad luck, with a combination of a single car operation may have taken its toll.
Or so we all thought.
However, after the Southern 500, Hamilton went on a tear. In the next four races Hamilton put together four consecutive top ten finishes. By the time we got to Phoenix in late October, Petty Enterprises were feeling pretty good about things.
Yet no one saw this coming. Hamilton had started 17th in the event and no one thought the Petty car would have a chance.
Yet Bobby Hamilton flew. Coming from 17th, he and crew chief Robbie Loomis would fix their racecar and figure out a way to get in front of race leader Dale Jarrett and on lap 153 Hamilton had the lead. The lead would change several times during the event.
Then Geoff Bodine took the lead with 52 laps to go. It looked like it may be Bodine’s day. But slowly creeping closer was Hamilton, who got to Bodine’s bumper with 20 to go, and passed him for the lead.
The fans at Phoenix International Raceway were witnessing something they hadn’t seen in over 13 years. A Petty Enterprise car going to victory lane. Finally the checkered flag fell and Bobby Hamilton added his name to the list of winners in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Tom Higgins covered his last NASCAR race that day and wrote an article about it. He remembers a shocked Bobby Hamilton.
“I couldn’t believe it. 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 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,” stated Hamilton.
“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.”
Higgins recalls tears in Hamilton’s eyes that evening in the press box. According to Higgins, most people in the box that day had tears in their eyes, happy for Hamilton and Richard Petty. Among those, Higgins recalls was the king, who under his glasses, Higgins sensed, his eyes were moist too.
Hamilton and Petty Enterprises would find victory lane just one more time before he and the organization parted ways before the 1998 season.
Petty Enterprises would win only one more race from that point on, in 1999 at Martinsville with John Andretti.
The organization would fold, following the 2008 season, but not before leaving countless memories on the sport, including the unforgettable day at Phoenix International Raceway, where Bobby Hamilton made even the King cry.