#ThrowbackThursday: The 1993 “Atlanta Blizzard 500”

The 1993 Motorcraft 500

March 2, 2017

Over the first few weeks of the 1993 Winston Cup season, one word came to mind. Unpredictable. From rookie Jeff Gordon’s fast start, to Dale Jarrett’s win in the Daytona 500, to the slow start of Bill Elliott, nothing seemed predictable even to the most die-hard fan. When the Cup Series arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the fourth race of the season, the trend continued.

The East Coast was slammed with snow, in what experts coined “The Storm of the Century”. The drivers just finished the first round of qualifying before rain started to fall, giving Rusty Wallace the pole position. The Atlanta area was then hit with 6 to 8 inches of snow, cancelling all on-track activity for the weekend. The storm left drivers and crew members were stuck in their hotel rooms or at the track for a few days.

The storm pushed the originally scheduled race from Sunday March 14th to Saturday March 20th. A practice session was scheduled for Winston Cup drivers to allow them to work on their cars on the Friday before the re-scheduled event.

The Busch Grand National Series schedule was also altered due to the storm. Their Saturday race in Atlanta was moved and become the season finale in November. The Martinsville area was also hit with the storm, cancelling their race the following weekend. That race was eventually made up in May.

When drivers arrived back at the track for the rescheduled event, the Blizzard of ’93 was still the talk of the garage. “I’ve never been on the pole for a whole week!” said Rusty Wallace, who already had a win under his belt in 1993. “I’m just happy to be here. The throttle stuck on the motor home on the way home after the storm. We finally got the key out of the ignition and slid off the side of the road.”

Kyle Petty also joked about the storm. “Richard Petty can’t drive in the snow. He might be able to win on the track, but he took my breath away about six times before we left Atlanta.”

The one week delay in the schedule didn’t deter fans, as an estimated 82,000 showed up to watch the one day event. Souvenir dealers took advantage of the moment, selling “I Survived the Atlanta Blizzard 500” t-shirts outside of the track.

Jarrett, who entered the race with a one point lead over Dale Earnhardt in the Winston Cup points standings, arrived back at the track with the cards stacked against him. He qualified his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet in 33rd, and arrived back at Atlanta with a case of the flu. Before the race, Jarrett said that he was going to try to finish the race and had no relief driver standing by.

Once the green flag finally waved, it didn’t take long for the first caution to come out, as Bob Schacht’s engine let go on the seventh lap of the race. During the first caution, Harry Gant was experiencing carburetor problems and came down pit road. Despite multiple trips down pit road, Gant stayed on the lead lap.

On the next restart, Earnhardt powered around Gordon for third. TNN commentator Neil Bonnett, who tested for Richard Childress Racing, mentioned on the broadcast that Earnhardt had a special transmission, unlike the rest of the Winston Cup cars. Bonnett said that Childress worked hard to find a way to give his car an advantage on the restarts. Over the next few laps, Earnhardt’s car tightened up and eventually fell to fifth.

Wallace and Mark Martin looked to have the strongest cars early, trading the lead back and forth multiple times over the first part of the race. Martin’s car owner Jack Roush said that Mark wasn’t comfortable with Rusty running behind him because it made his car loose. Mark eventually backed off and let Rusty back into the lead and the two drivers continued mowing through the field.

Engine woes continued for drivers as Phil Parsons and Rick Mast both went to the garage early. Parsons would not return to the race and finished 39th. Mast eventually returned to the race close to an hour later and finished 30th.

The disastrous weekend for Jarrett continued on lap-111, as the second caution flag of the day waved for an accident involving the No. 18. Jarrett lost control out of his car exiting turn-four, slid up the track and backed into the outside wall, before his car came to rest against the pit-wall. The heavily damaged car was behind the wall for many laps, as the team tried to fix the car to get back on the track to gain points.

As Martin and Wallace both continued to dominate the race, two caution flags waved for separate incidents. Joe Ruttman backed into the wall, destroying his power steering and ending his day early. Roughly 10 laps later, defending Cup champion Alan Kulwicki spun while battling Geoff Bodine for position. As cars were checking up behind the spin, Wally Dallenbach made contact with Dick Trickle, sending Trickle around. The No. 75 of Trickle slammed into the back end of Kulwicki, sending both cars to the garage for the rest of the day.

Kulwicki wasn’t sure why his car went around, questioning if the contact he made with Earnhardt a few laps earlier cut one of his tires. Trickle was not upset with Dallenbach, chalking the accident up to racing.

The field took the green flag once again, as teams started to notice potential storms popping up on the radar. This altered some strategies on how to make it to the end of the race.

As the race progressed and teams continued to monitor the weather, Martin looked like the car to beat. He had led 140 of the first 225 laps, before he took his car straight to the garage with a blown engine.

“That’s the way it goes”, Martin said. “Something broke in the motor. Our stuff is usually bulletproof, but this happens to everyone. I’m not worried about it. We will win plenty of races this year.”

Martin’s misfortunes allowed Wallace to inherit the lead once again. Wallace led for the next five laps before Morgan Shepherd caught him and passed the No. 2 for the lead. Wallace continued to fade, as Gordon moved past him for the second spot. With the radar still spotty, cars hit pit road under green for what might be their final stop of the day. The timing of these pit-stops put the leaders right at the window of making it to the end without having to stop again.

Shepherd continued to lead the race, as most cars had already made their stops. Three laps before he was scheduled to pit, Shepherd cut a right-front tire, while leading the race. He limped around to the pits and came back to the track in third. The pit-stops shuffled the field, as Gordon took the lead with 60 laps remaining.

The TNN Motorsports crew walked up and down pit-road, asking crew chiefs their strategy the rest of the way. Gordon and Wallace felt like they weren’t going to be close and would need to stop one more time. The cut tire on the No. 21 of Shepherd made crew-chief Eddie Wood unsure, telling his driver to back off and save as much fuel as he could.

As Gordon and Wallace both tried to conserve fuel and race for the win, Gordon made contact with the lapped car of Jimmy Spencer, pushing in Gordon’s grill. The contact allowed Wallace to gain ground on Gordon, but not enough to get by the No. 24.
Wallace was the first car to come down pit-road and make their final stop, taking two tires and fuel. The stop took 12.8 seconds. Gordon, who was in ultimate fuel saving mode, stayed on the track as Wallace returned to the track. For six laps, Wallace gained an average of 0.40 seconds on Gordon per lap before Gordon brought his car down pit-road, for the final time.

Crew-chief Ray Evernham radioed for fuel-only on the No. 24, but the strategy backfired as Gordon slid past his pit-stall. The No. 24 crew pushed Gordon back into his stall, costing the team valuable seconds on the track. He returned to the race in 4th place, one spot ahead of Wallace.

Shepherd led Ernie Irvan and Geoff Bodine as the TNN crew continued to focus on Gordon and Wallace battling for fourth, in what they believed was the race for the win. Shepherd’s lead on Irvan grew to 25 seconds, as the No. 21 started to back down his lap times even more.

With six-laps remaining, Shepherd’s lead shrunk to 17 seconds on Irvan. Gordon, who was still battling Wallace for third, bounced off the wall. Gordon looked like he was going to bring his car down pit-road to survey the damage, but swerved back onto the track for the final few laps, eventually losing a lap to Shepherd.

TNN pit-reporter Glenn Jarrett interviewed the crew chief on the No. 21, Eddie Wood. Wood said they weren’t supposed to make it, but with the big lead they kept backing off as far as they could. Jarrett noted that Wood mentioned to him off camera that their gamble would still leave them with a top-five finish, at worst.

Kulwicki, who retired from the event early after an accident, was watching the end of the race from the Wood Brothers pit-box. He was talking fuel strategy with the team, who thought they could make it on fuel. Kulwicki was convinced that they didn’t have a chance. After pacing around for a few laps, Kulwicki ran over and told the team how much they needed to back down if they wanted to make it the rest of the way.

The fuel strategy paid off, as Shepherd took the checkered flag for his fourth career Winston Cup victory. It was the third time in his career that he won at Atlanta. “When the tire went flat, I thought it was all over. Thank god for Atlanta!” said Shepherd. “The radio wasn’t working too well over the final few laps. I heard them say something about saving fuel, so I tried my best to save as much as I could.”

Irvan saved enough fuel to come home second, 18.5 seconds behind the winner. Wallace, Gordon and Ricky Rudd rounded out the top-five. Jarrett came home with a disappointing 31st place finish, one spot ahead of Martin.

Gordon’s fast start to the 1993 season, which included a fifth at Daytona, sixth at Richmond and now fourth at Atlanta, earned him a lot of post-race attention from the media. He was the youngest driver in the field, seven years younger than Bobby Hillin Jr. In his post-race interview, Gordon was not disappointed in what could have been. “We had a chance to win! I’m just disappointed in myself for sliding through the pits and then going back out there and hitting the wall. Everything was going great and the pressure got on me and I choked”

The troubles to Jarrett and Martin jumbled the Winston Cup Series standings. Earnhardt took over the points lead, with a 19-point edge on Bodine. Wallace, Jarrett, and Gordon rounded out the top-five. After entering the race third, Martin dropped to sixth in the standings, losing 52 points to the leader. Irvan, Shepherd, Davey Allison and Hut Stricklin rounded out the rest of the top-10.

Updated: May 16, 2018 — 10:47 pm

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