The night the lights went on in Charlotte
On May 16, 1992, a revolution of sorts began in NASCAR circles. It would impact every driver, every team, every television executive linked to the sport, much of the fan base and, not incidentally, people who worked in the lighting industry.
On that night – billed by Charlotte Motor Speedway as “One Hot Night” - NASCAR racers competed for the first time on a modern asphalt superspeedway under artificial lighting. It was a landmark moment, a spectacle and a roaring success.
The race was the Winston, then NASCAR’s version of its All-Star Race. Charlotte Motor Speedway had hosted the event for years, but rumors were afoot that other tracks were angling to snare what then was one of the most popular races of the season, and track president Humpy Wheeler, one of the most innovative promoters in racing history, figured he needed a new approach to keep the race.
Why not light the track and run the race at night? That thought ran through Wheeler’s mind. It seemed a bit ridiculous. Races had been held for decades under lights, of course, but those were on short tracks with slower speeds. Light a 1.5-mile track where speeds routinely reached 180 miles per hour? Hamper drivers by putting lights in their fields of vision? Take the risk of a power or light failure throwing the track into darkness in the middle of a high-speed race?
The answer, as it was so often when Wheeler faced an unusual challenge, was YES.
“We had to go to Winston-Salem (North Carolina) every year and present to RJ Reynolds (the Winston’s sponsor) a plan for how we would do things,” Wheeler said. “They didn’t like what we talked about first. Then I said, ‘Let’s run the race on Saturday night under the lights.’ I thought everybody in the room was going to faint. They all thought it would be impossible to light a superspeedway like Charlotte. They said, ‘How will you do it?’ I said, ‘We will do it,’ not having any idea how.
“I called Bill France Jr. (then NASCAR president) and told him about it. Of course, he went ape----. ‘Why – how are you going to do that? Why do you want to do that?’ he said. I had talked to him so often I could read him like a book. I could tell he didn’t think much of the idea.”
After getting the go-ahead from RJR, Wheeler contacted Musco Lighting, an Iowa-based company that specialized in lighting college and high school athletic fields. A Musco official visited the speedway and came up with ideas that didn’t involve installing big light poles around the track or installing lights that would create vision issues for drivers. The key element was a reflector system that “bounced” light onto the track.
The $1.7 million project involved 1,700 mirrors and 1,200 light fixtures. It was ready by late April, and NASCAR scheduled a night test with Cup cars to see if the system would work adequately.
“There was a little bit of nervousness there because this had never been done before,” Wheeler said. “One of the things we had to do is turn the lights out at some point during practice to see if the auxiliary lighting would work. I asked some of the leading drivers about that, and they looked like, ‘Hey, did I just fall off a turnip truck?’
“Kenny Schrader said he’d do it. He was running on the track by himself not knowing when the lights would go out. Then – bang – they went out. All he was supposed to do was bring the car down pit road, but he stayed out three more laps. He said 90% of the short tracks he ran on didn’t have lights that good.”
NASCAR officials and the drivers participating in the test (Earnhardt said, “Hey, let’s go”) said the lighting system worked well, and the first night-time Winston was set.
The crowd that night was massive, and the race produced a classic NASCAR finish. Dale Earnhardt, Kyle Petty and Davey Allison were racing for the lead in the third turn on the last lap. Earnhardt lost control and slid up the track, leaving the decision to Petty and Allison. They raced side-by-side down the frontstretch and crashed near the finish line, with Allison edging Petty for the win. Allison crashed into the wall and was transported to a local hospital for examination. He missed the victory lane celebration.
“It was a heck of a crowd and a great night,” Wheeler said. “It worked out great except for the fact the winner had to go to the hospital.”
Fans lingered in the main grandstand long after the race had ended. The Winston was the talk of the sport for months.
Wheeler’s lights had brightened NASCAR skies.
“I will never forget the first one of those races,” said team owner Richard Childress. “It was Saturday night racing except on a mile-and-a-half track. I told Dale (Earnhardt), ‘Just bring the steering wheel back.’ It was a big moment that gave everybody a whole different view.”
The Charlotte lights opened the door for the Coca-Cola 600, one of the season’s featured races, to move to nighttime. Sunday’s 600 will start after 6 p.m. and finish deep into the evening. That move presented interested drivers with the possibility of driving in the Indianapolis 500 earlier in the day and flying to Charlotte to run in the 600, a doubleheader Cup driver Kyle Larson has scheduled for next year.
If Charlotte could install lighting, it could be done at almost any track, and soon speedway officials were lining up to price lights and doctor with race-day schedules that for decades had included only afternoon racing.
Racing under the lights generally made things cooler for drivers, and television executives drooled at the possibility of primetime racing. The long-held practice of starting most races at around 1 p.m. ET quickly disappeared. Now it would be possible to start races in late afternoon and finish them at night, putting a new spin on competition approaches and giving tracks a bigger window when dealing with bad weather. And juicing television ratings.
“The weather was the key element that got other tracks to do it,” Wheeler said. “It gave everybody a great up on the weather. You could keep running into the night and not have to worry about calling a race because of darkness. For a promoter, that’s a huge thing.”
Now most tracks that host Cup races have lights. The only tracks without permanent lighting are at Dover, Indianapolis, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pocono, Sonoma, Talladega, Circuit of the Americas and Watkins Glen.
Watching the Winston that May 1992 night from a suite high above the track was recent high school graduate Marcus Smith, son of track owner Bruton Smith. It became a life-changing event for Marcus.
“I grew up around NASCAR, but I wasn’t necessarily a huge NASCAR fan,” Smith said. “It was just sort of what we did as a family. But that night is when I really became a fan. The lights came on, and the cars were lighted like never before. The excitement of that last lap was an absolute spectacle and something that grabbed my mind and heart.
“Kyle took the air off Earnhardt’s spoiler and he started to slide. You could hear the whole place kind of gasp. Then Kyle and Davey go for it, and Davey won. Then you wondered if Davey was OK. It was an amazing sequence in such a short period of time.
“That’s when I got the bug, and I never looked back.”
Any ideas that Smith had had about possibly becoming a doctor or a preacher or an automotive executive receded into the background.
Smith now is Speedway Motorsports chairman.