Does Speed Make the Speed-Sport More Exciting?
It’s probably because I just don’t care for racing at Talladega, but every time NASCAR returns to what - without restrictor plates to arbitrarily cut speeds - would be its fastest track, my mind wanders to places where you could enjoy the action at a fraction of the speed.
Ricky Stenhouse enjoyed his Talladega win a lot more than this writer. He’s OK, but I’ll pass on ‘Dega.
Ricky Stenhouse averaged 191.547 mph in winning last spring’s Talladega race, which I didn’t watch (or attend). I did, however, attend races this year at Lincoln Speedway where, 52 years ago, Dick Hutcherson averaged 82.607 mph to win the last Grand National/Cup/Monster race ever run on that ½-mile dirt oval. (“One-half mile” gives the track considerable benefit of the doubt, by the way.)
This shot isn’t from Lincoln, but I wish I’d been there the night Hutch won the last Grand National Race run in New Oxford, Pa.
I can’t claim that Lincoln’s races were more successful than those at Talladega have been; after all, there were no more Grand National events there after 1965. Since Hutcherson won by eight laps over second-place G.C. Spencer, Lincoln’s race probably wasn’t as exciting, either. So why would I prefer to see that 1965 race on a not-that-special dirt track more than on the biggest oval track in the U.S.?
For me, I like to be closer to the action, to be able to see the people driving or crewing the cars; see the tire marks on the side of a car where it’s rubbed hard against another; see the drama of a spin or wreck without instantly being caught up in whether it’s “the big one.”
From the infield or the stands/bleachers, short tracks put you closer to the race.
For me, what’s happening at those slower speeds is racing, not a clean air/dirty air aerodynamic motorized freak show.
If we can’t have Curtis Turner’s speed bump on the Charlotte backstretch, or drivers driving with bags over their heads, or three cars chained together with the driver in front steering and the driver in back gassing and braking - if we can’t try those and other gimmicks to attract fans who don’t find traditional racing action worth their money, then why is Talladega allowed? That is, other than because those reaping the financial rewards are pretty closely related to those making the rules.
This doesn’t really fit into my arguments, but I spent some time looking up races with extra-slow speeds, so I’m going to tell you what I found, anyway.
In the very early days of NASCAR GN/Cup racing, race average speeds dipped down as low as about 40 miles per hour, but you need to remember that those early years had no tracks smaller than one-half mile, because there was a separate “Short Track Division” for the smaller ovals, where the pace might have been slower still. In 1951, a half-mile dirt track at Rochester, N.Y., recorded an average speed of 40.708 mph. Lee Petty won, but we don’t know his victory margin.
This is Martinsville in 1950, not Rochester in ‘51, but the racing speeds were nearly as slow, and as you can see, the racing was close.
I was intrigued by the 1955 race at Las Vegas Speedway Park, that one-mile horse track that was a colossal failure - and the builder was under indictment for embezzling funds raised for the place when he turned up dead in his motel room. Here, on a one-mile track, winner Norm Nelson averaged only 44.449 mph for a race that was supposed to have been 200 laps/miles but was called after 111 due to darkness. Apparently, there were numerous wrecks, too. (The poll speed was nearly 75 mph, but that still seems a tad slow for a full mile.)
When the Indy Cars raced on the Vegas track, they averaged 84.818, but neither division returned after its inaugural event, and the track disappeared after less than a decade.
After the Short Track Division closed up shop, some of the shorter tracks were added to the Grand National schedule, and the slowest average speed I could find was for one of those. On October 27, 1957, Buck Baker won a 250-lap race on the one-third mile dirt Greensboro Fairgrounds track in North Carolina at an average speed of 38.927.
In 1956, the Convertible Division averaged only 36.492 mph for this Greensboro race, won by Bob Welborn, with Glen Wood’s #22 finishing third. The speed didn’t hold down the crowd.
But that race barely claimed the “slowest” title, because less than three months earlier, 14 intrepid racers had taken on a nine-tenths mile temporary road course at the Kitsap County Airport in Bremerton, Wash., and when the excitement was over, Parnelli Jones had won at a speed of 38.959. I think I’d rather have been at Talladega.
Parnelli Jones won the Kitsap Airport race, which may have been his first big-time victory. (See more about this race below.)
For comparison’s sake, the GN circus averaged 39.258 when Lee Petty won at Bowman Gray Stadium’s one-quarter mile paved oval in 1958, and the slowest race at Islip, Long Island’s one-fifth mile was 42.428 in 1967. Not sure what happened on the airport road course, but it couldn’t have been pretty.
So how do I wrap this all up?
Let’s just say that miles-per-hour and competitive excitement aren’t necessarily linked directly. I love Lincoln’s “tight” half-mile, and I love the high-banked quarter-mile dirt track at Path Valley Speedway, a little more than an hour northwest of me, still in South-central Pennsylvania. What makes them exciting is that the cars run close together, pass each other a lot, and don’t have to be backed by cubic dollars to be successful.
Path Valley Speedway in/near Spring Run, Pa.
That’s what makes the difference. Aerodynamics, tires, and dollar bills have taken that away from many Cup tracks (while Talladega adds the closeness back in by the necessity of drafting, to me, that ain’t the same thing).
Take away the splitters, spoilers and about 20-30 mph of speed, and you might get some old-fashioned racing that would get the butts off the bleachers with excitement. Would somebody at least try that before this sport dies?
Some years ago I attended a race at Wyalusing Valley Motorsports Park, on one-fifth mile (measured generously) dirt track sort-of near Towanda, Pa. (near the Pa./N.Y. line), which was running go-karts and micro sprints. The track was so small that the micros looked like full-sized cars on it, and despite the fact that everything was primitive, I had a great time, even though I’m not a big kart-racing fan. If it had been closer to my house, I would have returned with enthusiasm. (Sadly, the insurance company covering the farm on which the track sat forced its closure.)
Action at tiny-but-exciting (and lamented) Wyalusing Valley.
I won’t watch Talladega Sunday, because I don’t need 200 mph speeds to make racing exciting. Weather permitting, I’ll be at Lincoln Saturday, and expect to see better racing. I wish it didn’t have to be that way.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
I found an article about that Kitsap County Airport race, written back in NASCAR’s relatively recent boom days, when International Speedway Corporation flirted with building a new track at nearby Bremerton, Wash.
The 1957 event was part of Seattle’s Seafair celebration, and it originally had been a sports car race at another airport closer to the city, but was moved because of traffic congestion problems. Kitsap County hosted sports car races for three years, drawing smaller but still profitable crowds, and then the Civil Air Patrol, sponsors of the race, invited NASCAR in for 1957. Not only was the 14-car turnout disappointing (30-40 had been expected), but the crowd was only 2,500, well short of the 15,000 for the previous year’s sports car races. The CAP took a financial bath, the race moved to another airport the next year, and major racing events became a fond (?) memory at Kitsap County Airport.
According to a story in the Kitsap Sun, a local gas station operator “sponsored” two of the cars in the NASCAR race by giving each 100 gallons of gasoline, spiked with methanol. The drivers turned up their noses, saying they had their own secret ingredients for cheating. The doctored gas ended up in their tow trucks.
While selecting photos for this article, I came across the one below, showing the 1948 Tucker entered in the Poor Man’s 500 Grand National race at Canfield, Ohio, Speedway, a race won by Bill Rexford at an average speed of just over 42 mph. Unfortunately, the Tucker broke an axle before the race began (see tow truck photo) and finished last.
Joe Merola of Wilkinsburg, Pa., drove the car, one of seven GN starts in his “career.” This seems to have been the Tucker’s only appearance, though.