Petty’s 1988 Crash Marked Memorable Daytona 500

Richard Petty's Pontiac gets airborne after being tagged by Phil Barkdoll (73) and A.J. Foyt during the running of the 1988 Daytona 500. Photo courtesy the Andy Towler collection

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 2/17/12

Though it occurred over two decades ago, I can still remember how it all unfolded like it was yesterday.

It was February 14, 1988.  My family and I had gathered to watch the 30th running of the Daytona 500 on television.

It promised to be an interesting race from the start.  The cars were being hampered by carburetor restrictor plates for the first time after a frightening crash the year before at Talladega had almost landed Bobby Allison’s car in the grandstands.  Along with that, some of the car manufacturers had reshaped their car models during the off-season, and some drivers had found issues in getting those cars to behave properly on the racetrack.

It was just after the halfway point, and leader Darrell Waltrip continued to hold the point as CBS broke away for a commercial.  When they returned, they launched into a pre-produced piece on 1987 Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.  The scene had just shifted to long-time race commentator Chris Economaki sitting on the porch of Earnhardt’s childhood home, when CBS suddenly cut back to the track.

The first thing we heard was the voice of long-time commentator and former cup champion Ned Jarrett, saying “Bad trouble, bad trouble!”

We saw one car airborne, flipping side over side along the front stretch catch fence.  The back end of the car was riding the fence, while the front nosed down on the racing surface.  As the car tumbled over and over, parts flew in all directions.

It was at that point that the number on the side of the car suddenly registered in my mind.  It was 43, the number of seven-time Daytona and cup champion Richard Petty.

Almost at the same time, I heard my mother and grandfather both say “Oh my God!”

Petty’s car finally came to rest just outside of the tri-oval area of the track, but his ride wasn’t over. With debris littering the track, a pack of cars, already at a reduced speed, drove into the scene.  A cut tire sent Brett Bodine’s Ford out of control, and slamming into the now stationary car of Petty, sending it spinning wildly.

The front stretch was strewn with crashed cars, and smoke hung heavy in front of the cameras as lead commentator Ken Squire explained to fans what had just happened.  CBS’ cameras closed in on Petty’s car momentarily, and then cut away until word of Petty’s condition came down.

A replay showed the back of Petty’s car breaking loose, sliding sideways off of the fourth turn.  He was then struck from behind by journeyman driver Phil Barkdoll, and then by former Indianapolis and Daytona winner A.J. Foyt.  The contact from these two pushed Petty’s car sideways, allowing air to get underneath his Pontiac, lifting it up into the air at 200 miles an hour, and starting the tumbling, side over side crash.

Pit reporter, and now lead Fox commentator Mike Joy quickly interviewed Wisconsin driver Alan Kulwicki.  Kulwicki explained that he hadn’t actually been involved in the accident, but a cut tire from the debris on the track had sent his Ford into the wall.

As the camera pulled back briefly after the Kulwicki interview, Joy’s face showed the fear and worry that many fans felt at that moment.

In the infield, it was pandemonium.  Pit reporter Dave Despain had made his way through the crowd to the infield hospital, and had spoken with Foyt, Barkdoll and Bodine about their conditions, and about the accident.  Moments later, Petty’s cousin and long time crew chief, Dale Inman, came out and gave the report that Petty was okay, suffering only an injured ankle.

During the clean up from the crash, Economaki had speculated that the crash would probably end Petty’s career.  Jarrett was quick to respond, saying the legendary driver would rather retire at a moment of his choosing, rather than the result of an accident.

Almost as if in answer, Petty returned the next week at the half-mile Richmond Fairgrounds track to finish third.  It would be five more years before he would hang up his helmet for good.

But on Valentine’s Day, 1988, King Richard caused everyone’s hearts to skip a beat.

Brandon Reed is the editor and publisher of Georgia Racing

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