As I scan what seem to be near empty grandstands at many televised races, I consider the future of the sport we so love. I wonder who’ll fill the seats in years to come and wonder if today’s kids are being exposed to auto racing.
The more I thought of who’d fill the future seats, the more I thought of a news release I wrote for the Richmond track in April 1999. I was media relations director there for 10 seasons from 1990-1999. I have written hundreds (if not thousands) of news releases over the years, but I’ve never been tempted to bore new readers with one. I am going to make an exception to my own rule and share just this one old news release because it captures, I think, the essence of planting the seeds to grow future race fans.
Upfront, let me set the stage by saying that the late and legendary Richmond promoter, Paul Sawyer was partial to Modifieds and children. His grandstands were always open free of charge for all practice sessions and children under age 12 were always admitted free of charge to all non-Winston Cup events at his track.
I hope you might enjoy this old release. It received widespread publication at the time and many nice comments. I treasure the thoughts it embodies even more now that I am a multiple-time Grandpa.
Thanks for letting me reminisce.
RICHMOND, VA (April 13, 1999) – The senior citizen and the preschooler walked hand in hand from the pickup truck toward the main entrance of Richmond International Raceway. The elderly gentleman sported a ball cap emblazoned in two colors – Petty blue and Day-Glo red. A stylized #43 adorned the front of his cap. The young boy wore a spiffy, brand new cap. It was colored like a rainbow shining in the afternoon sun, following a brief thunderstorm. It, too, had a stylized number on the front and sides – #24, as well as the words “Rainbow Warriors” embroidered across the back.
Approaching the grandstand gate, the pair stopped in their tracks as the crisp morning air was pierced by a rumbling, thundering sound similar to no other. “Wow! Let’s hurry Grandpa,” exclaimed the youngster. “Hold on one second, son,” the grandfather requested, savoring the full-blown roar of two NASCAR Featherlite Modifieds reverberating off 94,030 high rise aluminum seats and then resounding through the gate opening just ahead of the pair. “Listen to that music just a minute,” begged Grandpa, even as his step hastened.
As the two fans – born generations apart – squint in the sun, a jet black and radiant yellow tornado roars off the fourth turn. The velocity is so great it feels as if the pair’s jackets will be pulled into the maelstrom. Observers note a tight grip maintained on Grandpa’s hand.
The black and yellow tornado rushes into the shade toward turn one before it is suddenly apparent that the heart throbbing commotion is being caused by not one, but two NASCAR Featherlite Modifieds. Jockeyed by two New Yorkers at that, the name on the black #7 Chevy is Tom Baldwin, while Tim Connolly is neatly lettered on the #4 Dodge. Both the drivers and the cars are familiar (and famous) to fans of the NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series. Baldwin hails from Bellport, while Connolly claims Endicott as home. The two Yankees are at the Sawyer family’s Richmond International Raceway today testing tires for Goodyear – tires they’ll use when the entire Modified brigade returns to this bastion of southern culture the night of May 13 for the SAFETY-KLEEN 150, the Thursday opener for NASCAR’s 3-night RIR engagement.
“Did Jeff Gordon drive Modifieds, Grandpa? How about Ward Burton? I bet they were good NASCAR Modified drivers,” exclaims the youngster – just a hint of question in his tone.
A gentle “Nope” from Grandpa leaves a puzzled look on the youngster’s face. The look turns to a beam, though, as Grandpa says, “Jeff’s crew chief, Ray Evernham drove ‘em and worked on ‘em before he moved south. And, Ward’s crew chief learned all about racecars working on NASCAR Modifieds for his dad. Look, there goes Tommy Baldwin, Junior’s dad again right now,” Grandpa shouts, as “Tiger” Tom Baldwin puts his RIR-sponsored mount through its quick paces.
“Know how you love to watch ‘Mr. Excitement’? Well, Jimmy Spencer was a two-time NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series champion. And, Dale Earnhardt’s Winston Cup driver, Steve Park won 16 Modified races before he joined Dale. That’s the same number of Modified wins that Mike McLaughlin got – before he started driving in the Busch Series. But, Jeff Fuller won 31 NASCAR Featherlite Modified races. Only two Modified drivers have more wins than that.
“We’ll get to see Reggie Ruggiero (38 NASCAR Featherlite Modified wins) here with his Modified in May. And we’ll see the all-time NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series winner in September, when Mike Stefanik (58 NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series wins) brings his new NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series ride to Richmond. Ken Bouchard was the 1988 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year after driving on the Featherlite Tour and Brett Bodine won three tour races.
“Son, I can remember when those last two guys I named had brothers driving NASCAR Modifieds before they started in Winston Cup. I’m talking about Ron Bouchard and Geoff Bodine. But, that was in the days before the touring Featherlite Modified Series started in 1985,” Grandpa patiently explains. “When we come back in May, those two fellows on the track will be the ones to watch, along with Reggie and Mike Ewanitsko and Chris Kopec. I even hear Rick Fuller will be back. He won the first Featherlite Modified Series race at RIR in 1990 – before you were born,” laughs Grandpa.
“Grandpa, are you gonna talk again tonight about the good old days and Joe Weatherly, Ray Hendrick, Eddie Crouse, Sonny Hutchins, Runt Harris, Ted Hairfield and Bill Dennis in Modifieds here on the dirt track? Are you gonna tell me how Junie Donlavey had his #90 Ford Modifieds here before they ever built that first NASCAR superspeedway in Darlington in 1950 and how he took Bob Apperson and Runt Harris down there for the first Southern 500?
“Are you gonna tell me about the ‘Woodchopper’ – Glen Wood and his #21 Ford Modified winning here on the dirt, too? Are you gonna tell me how Paul Sawyer started out owning NASCAR Modifieds? Are you gonna tell me again about how Eddie Flemke, Junior’s daddy came to Richmond with Denny Zimmerman, Rene Charland and Red Foote in Modifieds and y’all called them the ‘Yankee Bandits’?” quizzed the youngster.
“Nope,” fibbed Grandpa, telling a small white mistruth. “I’m gonna think of which of these NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series drivers will be NASCAR’s next superstars.”
“Good,” said the youngster. “And, I’m gonna pull for that yellow Dodge of Tim Connolly’s when we come back for the SAFETY-KLEEN 150. It’s the only Dodge body in the Series.”
“One more thing, son – did I ever tell you about Red Byron winning the first-ever NASCAR race in Virginia right here at Richmond in 1948 in a NASCAR Modified and how he was the first NASCAR Modified champion and then won the very first NASCAR Winston Cup championship in 1949? He was the first NASCAR Modified driver to make it big in Winston Cup,” Grandpa continued to the yawning youngster…