An Old Track and NASCAR’s Future
It is all but impossible for me to believe that it was 53 years ago when Dave Fulton and I got off that Greyhound bus and stood on the streets of downtown Darlington, S.C., on a very warm Labor Day morning.
I’m pretty sure Darlington’s downtown business district wasn’t this spiffed up in 1966, but it sounds like these buildings were there.
I don’t remember if we’d even done enough research (Google Maps not being available, yet) to know whether we could walk from the bus stop (not station) to Darlington Raceway, so it’s good that we could.
First, we ate breakfast at a big feed being held by one of the service clubs. Then we walked. When you’re that age and on a great adventure, the distance of such a walk isn’t really important.
When we got to the track, we saw lots of hung-over people and lots of evidence of what caused their hangovers. We also saw that you could make a fortune selling bags of ice in Darlington’s parking lot on Labor Day morning.
These guys are far too clean (and vertical) to have been at Darlington in ’66, but you get the idea.
Eventually, we saw a race. For the record, Darel Dieringer (in Bud Moore’s Mercury) won over Richard Petty, but what everybody from that era remembers is Earl Balmer taking down the first-turn guardrail and nearly ending up in the rickety press box just outside that barrier. That incident is why the record shows eight caution flags for 80 laps – fixing that guardrail required a long caution. 65,000 fellow race fans watched it all, unless they passed out first. (The press box was rebuilt in a safer location.)
Darel Dieringer, the winner
Earl Balmer paying the Darlington press box a far-too-close visit
In no particular order, here are some things that stuck in my mind:
- We sat in the covered grandstand, which was the loudest place I’ve ever been in for a race. The sound bounced down from that metal roof and reverberated so much that it wasn’t hard to imagine the real possibility of body parts coming loose and falling off. Ear plugs? Surely you jest.
- Because there was no banking on the front stretch, the cars ran up against the wall, so from the stands you could only see roofs passing by.
- It was fun watching a car’s “Darlington stripe” grow more and more severe as the car bounced off the guardrail in the turns. Not sure how that would work today with composite bodies.
- There was always something to watch, in part because there were something like 27 lead changes among 10 different drivers. Many happened as a result of pit stops, but it meant you really had to keep track of who was leading and why was trying to catch leader, because those roles changed a lot.
- We probably are lucky to be alive. The guy who offered us a ride back into town kept changing his route every time he saw a law enforcement officer directing traffic ahead.
A modest Darlington stripe on Fireball Roberts’ Ford
Here’s what I’m leading up to with all this: The whole scene – racing, noise, drunks, danger – added up to an incredible experience for two teenagers and helped cement racing as our favorite sport. I hope NASCAR succeeds in making what happens these days as compelling to tomorrow’s fans . . . or we won’t have to worry about having tomorrow’s fans at all
Times have changed, of course. Few parents today would likely allow a pair of teens – even at 17 – to take off on a Greyhound for a destination they knew little about. (Ours probably wouldn’t have let us do it again if we’d told them about the ride we got after the race.) Few tracks would encourage large civic club breakfasts, because the tracks themselves want all your money. Drunks aren’t as acceptable at races as they once were, and I don’t imagine freelance ice sales are allowed in the parking lots.
But there still has to be something that builds on the racing itself and brings people back. I think initiatives like Richmond’s “Fan Zone” are a good step – as long as they don’t cost an unreasonable amount (that’s unreasonable to ME, not to a corporate sales or marketing person). Car and driver appearances before a race are still a good idea.
The more of this for fans of all ages, the better
On the other hand, I’ve mentioned before that today’s rules are for TV viewing, focusing almost solely on battles for the lead, and for fans at the track, there needs to be more. Most of the track ISN’T where the lead is being contested, and that needs to be interesting, too. There’s work to be done here.
Frank’s prejudiced world, it’s also a negative that fans can’t really identify
with the vehicles being raced, because those race cars have as much to do with
my Hyundai as a stadium jumbotron has to do with an old black-and-white tube
television. Probably can’t fix this problem, but I still maintain, it’s
self-inflicted damage to the sport. Nevertheless,
Darlington will still be fun. The track is outdated, and the throw-back cars
are a nice effort at remembering the past. Now
if only I could get a good ice supplier and an old pickup truck.
In Frank’s prejudiced world, it’s also a negative that fans can’t really identify with the vehicles being raced, because those race cars have as much to do with my Hyundai as a stadium jumbotron has to do with an old black-and-white tube television. Probably can’t fix this problem, but I still maintain, it’s self-inflicted damage to the sport.
Nevertheless, Darlington will still be fun. The track is outdated, and the throw-back cars are a nice effort at remembering the past.
Now if only I could get a good ice supplier and an old pickup truck.
In my recent race track roaming, I came upon one weekly short track that actually had a sandbox built onto one end of a grandstand. I thought immediately of all those times I’ve seen kids carving tracks out of the dirt in front of the stands and playing with their Hot Wheels or other miniatures while the parents watch full-size vehicles race, and I thought this was a great idea. However, at the time I wandered by, there were no kids playing in this sandbox.
What do you think? Are sandboxes a thing of the past? What would you do at a track – big-time NASCAR or weekly – to make it more kid-friendly?