ATLANTA -- The emotion boiled inside Lynda Petty for months as she watched her husband, Richard, make his final rounds as a stock car driver. And when he crossed the finish line for the 1,177th and final time that autumn afternoon in 1992, the woman who had seen her husband live through countless broken bones and horrific crashes cried uncontrollably.
Her vigil was, at long last, over.
Petty's last race, the Hooter's 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, was far from storybook. The man with 200 career victories crashed early in the race. He avoided injury from the impact and burns from the ensuing fire, only to return an hour later in a car that was missing most of its body work and still smoldering from the mayhem that could have been far worse than twisted metal.
The Pettys now spend many weekends at a farm in the Rockies. The fear, however, continues.
Every time the command to start the engines is given, a wife prays to see her husband again. A mother flinches every time cars get two wide in the corners. Lynda Petty got her husband back, but she continues to fret over a son, Kyle, who races, and she grieves over a grandson, Adam, who died in the fast lane.
The anguish of living so fast and so close to the edge is numbing. But it's part of the job.
''I don't have the fear like I used to,'' said Stevie Waltrip, who like Lynda Petty, finally watched her husband, Darrell, call it quits a year ago. ''I told Darrell I actually enjoy racing now. I had a lot of fear to begin with, but I also realized that racing was what he wanted to do.
''I wanted to start doing something productive to re-focus my energy. I started working in the pits and focused on doing something helpful, such as lap times and gas mileage. I also went to all of the races, and being there always helped.''
About half of the wives travel regularly with their husbands. Luxury motor coaches and traveling day care centers make it easier for the 38-week racing season to be a family affair.
Some wives wait in the motor home and watch the race on television. Others stand sentry along pit road, watching the scoring monitors or logging lap speeds.
''Our husbands are so passionate about their jobs,'' said Debbie Benson, driver Johnny Benson's wife. ''They eat, drink and sleep racing. I'd rather have him die young and be happy than live forever and be miserable.''
The deaths of four racers in the past 14 months have forced a lot of racing couples to examine their priorities. Many now talk about safety issues and mortality. They pray. They embrace each moment away from the deafening roar of an 800-horsepower engine.
''I express my fears and concerns to Michael,'' Elizabeth Waltrip told a Charlotte, N.C., newspaper. ''When ever the newer safety mechanisms come out, such as different seats and the HANS (head and neck support system), my ears perk up.
''These are things we always talk about, and in each case, I try to get as many facts as I can. I talk about it with Michael, and he is always willing to try them.''
It doesn't make it easy.
''When he's racing and they're in a pack two- and three-cars wide, I do tense up. I try to stay calm. I try to watch every lap, every week. I am very aware of what's going on. I also tense up during the last 10 laps when all the drivers are giving it their all to make it to the finish.''
Waltrip's boss, Dale Earnhardt, was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Many feel Earnhardt was blocking a pack of challengers to allow Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to finish the race in first and second place.
Ken Schrader was caught up in the crash that killed Earnhardt. He was the first to arrive by his friend's side.
''People aren't always comfortable with death,'' Ann Schrader said. ''Death is kind of normal. You deal with it. Part of life is death.''
Debbie Benson said Earnhardt's death caused a bigger stir in the racing community than Adam Petty's, Kenny Irwin's or Tony Roper's because, unlike the others, he was a veteran with family.
''I kept saying with the previous deaths, they were just inexperienced,'' she said. ''Not to discount anyone's life, but as a wife, you try to categorize what has happened, why it won't happen to your husband. With the other three, they were young. After Dale's death, more of the guys wore head restraints. It really shook me up.''
Before each race, Ann Schrader tells her husband the same joke. She tells him not to get hurt because she doesn't want to find a real job.
''When I get in my van every day, I feel like I am 10 times more likely to get in an accident than the guys on the track,'' she said.
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