A Quick Surf Through NASCAR History
(and some thoughts on what it means.)
Easter doesn’t usually fall this late, so in most past years there has been a NASCAR Monster/Sprint/Nextel/Winston Cup/Grand National race on this weekend. With the usual help from Racing-Reference.info, I took a look at some of those from decades past and added some thoughts about where we’ve come/gone.
2007 - Cue up “The Boss” singing “Glory Days.” On April 15, 2007, the NASCAR Nextel Cup (boy, that title sure didn’t last long) series was at Texas Motor Speedway, where Jeff Burton bested Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Jamie McMurray to win the Samsung 500. Fourteen cars finished on the lead lap.
Fewer than half the cars in the starting field were driven by racers still active in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series today, and there were 51 cars on hand to try for the 43 starting spots. Somehow, it seems like ancient history seeing names like Kyle Petty, Robbie Gordon, Sterling Marlin and Scott Riggs in the line-up, and it was a little surprising to me to see that Paul Menard, Reed Sorenson and J.J. Yeley have been in the game that long.
The big difference, of course, was that in those days NASCAR was proud of its attendance figures, and that number for Texas was 191,000. Ouch! The purse was six-and-a-quarter million dollars.
1997 - Jeff Gordon won the Food City 500 on April 13 over Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin. Of the 43 starters and four non-qualifiers, only one car was driven by a racer who ran at Texas last weekend: Derrike Cope. (There also was the recently/finally retired Michael Waltrip.)
Car owners did a little better. Those active 20 years ago and today included Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Richard Childress, the Wood Brothers, Petty Enterprises (with a different ownership structure back then) and single-car entrant Joe Gibbs. Felix Sabates also was an owner in those days and remains involved with the Ganassi team. Oh, and here’s a surprise: while they haven’t been owners continuously at this level for 20 years, in the hunt then and now were Mark Smith and Joe Falk as well.
The big difference was how many owners there were. At most 2017 races, there are 20 (21 with Tommy Baldwin); in 1997, there were 35, and only six owned more than one car. There were seven owner-drivers in that group (if you include Kyle Petty); today there are none.
The purse was $1.1 million. Fourteen cars finished on the lead lap.
1987 - Bristol (April 12) was the closest event to the date this is being written, and Dale Earnhardt got the win over Richard Petty, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki in the Valleydale Meats 500. Seven drivers finished on the lead lap.
In 1987 short track races had smaller starting fields, and there were only 30 starters for Bristol - by design. There were 38,000 fans in the stands, according to Racing-Reference.info, and everybody probably thought that was a pretty good crowd. The purse was $238,000.
The biggest difference of all: it was the Winston Cup, and four tobacco products were primary car sponsors as well.
Although no one in the starting field remains active in Monster/Cup, there are drivers who ran then and are still putting on helmets (as well as the recently/finally un-helmeted Michael Waltrip). Morgan Shepherd was a Top-10 finisher, and Ken Schrader came home 17th.
Rick Hendrick (three cars), Petty Enterprises and Stavola Brothers (two each) were the only multi-car teams entered.
1977 - On April 17, Cale Yarborough won the Southeastern 500 (no presenting sponsor for most races in those days) by seven laps over Dick Brooks, with Richard Petty, Neil Bonnett and Benny Parsons trailing even farther behind. Yarborough led all but five laps of the race.
Of the 22 cars running of the finish (out of 30 starters), 18 were on laps by themselves. James Hylton and Richard Childress finished seventh and eighth, both 21 laps behind, and Cecil Gordon and Ferrel Harris were battling for position 66 laps back in 17th and 18th.
There were NO multi-car teams in the field, although 1st National City Travelers Checks sponsored Benny Parsons, Bobby Allison and Skip Manning. The Wood Brothers and Petty Engineering were the only teams that remain active. There was not a single sponsor present that is primary sponsor of a Monster/Cup car today.
The announced crowd was 30,000, and total purse was less than $80,000.
1967 - The Gwen Staley 400 (named for the promoter’s late brother, who was killed in an accident at Richmond about a decade earlier) was won by Darel Dieringer. Like Cale Yarborough 10 years later at Bristol, he was driving for Junior Johnson, and he was even more dominant, leading every lap. Yarborough (then driving for the Wood Brothers) was a lap down in second, followed by Dick Hutcherson, Jim Paschal and Paul Lewis.
Hutcherson and Paschal were on the same lap at the end, four laps behind Dieringer, and the only other cars still running on the same lap at the finish were Wendell Scott and Bill Siefert, who were 32 laps behind in 13th and 14th. Thirty-four cars started the race, which paid a purse of about $18,000. About half the starters were owner-drivers.
The announced crowd was 9,400.
1957 - (“Hey, Mr. Peabody, does the WayBack Machine guarantee your return when you go back this far?”) On April 14, the Grand National stars and cars ran on the one-mile circle at Langhorne, Pa., and Fireball Roberts won over Paul Goldsmith, Speedy Thompson, Billy Myers and Buck Baker. The winner and runner-up finished on the lead lap.
Oddly - because three cars were listed as being out of the race due to crashes and one, factory Ford driver Bill Amick, stalled on the opening lap and never got underway, there was only a single caution for three laps in the 150-lap contest, which appears not to have had a name.
(Editor’s note: Not all races had names “back in the day”, but we’re sure that the drivers had lots of names for races at that big left turn… none of them printable in mixed company)
Although Langhorne’s fall race, a 300-lap/miler, was the second highest paying event on the 1957 schedule (after Darlington’s Southern 500, which paid more than twice as much), the spring race was much more mundane, paying only $6,525 total. Still, a crowd of 17,000 showed up to watch.
Roberts collected $1,890 for the win, and only 10 of the 28 starters earned more than $100.
The multi-car ownership numbers actually were higher here than in the next decade or two, with three factory Fords (officially Pete DePaolo Engineering), three Hugh Babb Chevys, two Bill Stroppe Mercurys and two Petty Engineering Oldsmobiles, the second driven by Ralph Earnhardt, Dale’s dad and Junior’s granddaddy. Twenty-eight cars started (the bigger fall race would draw 48).
Observations - The races “back then” were much less competitive, paid much less and were seen by far fewer fans. NASCAR enjoyed a “Golden Age” from the mid-1990s until just after the economic crash of 2008, not even two decades, and things have been sliding back ever since. Nevertheless, NASCAR remains more popular and lucrative (for somebody) than it was at some point around 20-25 years back.
Was it just a fad that’s run its course - the Beanie Babies of the sports world? Was it a successful concern wrecked by bad management? Was it just the victim of an economy that won’t stop punishing its core fans?
Was it the Chase, the Car of Tomorrow, the charter system, DW/MW on TV, the departure of cigarette smoke? Are people just crabby and complaining about everything these days?
Maybe it was a little bit of all that, but the more important question is how to prop things back up and at least halt the decline. In an article the other day Monte Dutton, after talking about how much more fun Texas Motor Speedway had been when things were going wrong there, concluded, “Get rid of smooth, and add lots of bumpy, and it would fix a lot of what’s wrong in the NASCAR of today.”
I think Dutton might have something. NASCAR has gotten too sterile. The cars all look like their paint jobs alone cost more than Langhorne’s purse in 1957, and they still all look pretty much alike, too. Where’s the scrambling owner-driver for the underdog-loving crowd to cheer? Where are the stories behind the drivers or the owners?
That’s not the whole story, but it’s a start. Bring back personality, in the drivers, owners, cars and tracks, and you give people something for their emotions. Let go of the corporate stranglehold.
Paul Sawyer wasn’t about flash and glitz - even if there was a little P.T. Barnum in his back pocket - but he made a race fan out of this writer, and today’s NASCAR movers and shakers could learn a little (or a lot) from his example.