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Memphis Flyer One Of Their Own

The Quaker State 200 runs under the pall of a death that robbed the sport of a promising driver.

By Ron Martin

MAY 22, 2000:  "It's damn hard to be happy." Bobby Hamilton said it for all of us. After winning the pole position for the Quaker State 200 at Memphis Motorsports Park, Hamilton sat in front of the media, staring blankly, too numb to enjoy the moment. The news of Adam Petty's death in a crash at New Hampshire International Speedway came only two hours before the drivers took their individual qualifying laps in Memphis. One by one, they climbed from their trucks and were told of the loss. One by one, the drivers seemed to slump from the burden of reality.

The normal excitement along pit road during the two-lap qualifying exercise was transformed into focused glares. Death had played a visit to their sport. It was not the first visit and, unfortunately, it won't be the last.

As fate would have it, last October, Indy-car driver Greg Moore was unknowingly preparing to begin his ride into eternity as Adam Petty was battling to win in Memphis. That Busch Series race was foremost in my mind while sitting alone atop the press tower trying to gather my thoughts last Friday. Looking down on Memphis Motorsports Park I saw the spot where Adam's car sat. He was on the front row. His dad, Kyle, was pacing back and forth between the car and their pit area making sure everything was at the ready. Asking him if he was nervous nearly drew a laughing reply -- "No just anticipating." Then the elder Petty knelt beside his son's car and the two prayed -- not to win, but to have a safe day doing the best they could.

Everyone at Memphis Motorsports Park has his own story about Adam Petty. He was a 19-year-old who had every opportunity to be a spoiled, privileged kid heading down the road to nowhere. Let's face it, his Granddad is a "King."

But not Adam. He was a "yes sir," "no sir" young man. Fame and glory were earned, not inherited. Adam Petty never won a NASCAR race; he never sat on a pole, but on this day Bobby Hamilton pulled away from his lead spot to create a "missing man" formation. For most of us, Adam Petty rolled his red-and-blue number 45 Chevrolet into the empty slot. The healing process was underway.

Sometimes it's hard to be a part of the racing world because no matter the loss, no matter the heartbreak, when the command to start your engines is issued, the response must be in the affirmative. Which is why everyone arrived at the race track Saturday ready to run their best. It was as if the thunderstorm of the night before had washed away the pain of the previous day.

Teams spent the morning preparing their trucks. Former NFL coach, now NASCAR team owner, Joe Gibbs and his son, the rookie J.D. Gibbs, were sharing a laugh as their truck rolled to the starting grid. That's the wonderment of the hours leading up to the start of a race. Thirty-six drivers, 36 teams, and fans of those 36 all feel like this will be their day. No one starts losing until the green flag falls.

Maybe it was just my imagination, but the optimism of this day seemed extraordinarily high. Could it be that we were at a prelude of some unexpected happening? Would this be the day that Greg Biffle finally gets his first win of 2000? Kurt Bush is a rookie who has unsuccessfully knocked on the winners' circle door. Could this be his day?

The answer to both questions is no. But the unexpected did happen. Bush had the fastest truck, led the most laps, but made the dumbest move of the day when his crew elected not to take on fresh tires during their final pit-stop. Imagine a baseball coach leaving his starting pitcher in the game after walking four in the ninth inning, then you'll understand the impact of Bush's decision. Biffle, Jack Sprague, Mike Wallace, and the rest of the field that still had sheet metal on their chassis left Bush in their wake.

Another unexpected happening came as Biffle roared down the backstretch and came up on Joe Ruttman who, after playing bumper tag with a couple of other trucks, was allegedly dripping oil. Biffle slid a little high in turn four. Sprague, who never passed up an invitation to a free meal, slid his Chevrolet truck underneath Biffle's Ford just enough to nose the defending Memphis champion out of being a two-time champ.

The resulting victory ceremony at the start/finish line resembled a bunch of giggling kids at recess, except for Biffle, who exited his vehicle as if it were on fire. Walking with a purpose, Biffle went straight to his transporter, never looking back at the celebration. Even though his abandonment of the victory ceremony is against tradition and protocol, one can understand his frustration. Everyone who watched his Ford and Sprague's Chevy knew that it would take something out of the ordinary for Biffle to lose. A fact admitted by Sprague.

It had been a good day. Jack Sprague finally won at a race track he claims he should have won at twice before. Greg Biffle finally turned his glare into a smile after realizing that, in the big picture, a second place was good for his title hopes.

We had all found a place within us to hide the pain of heartache for a few hours. But, unfortunately, reality set in on the drive home. While tears are being shed at the Petty compound in North Carolina, "It's damn hard to be happy ."

Goodbye, Adam, we wish we could have known you a little longer.

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