Bringing Back NASCAR’s Roots
In the early days of my “weekend warrior” media work at what was then Richmond International Raceway, getting the first entry lists for the weekend’s races was exciting in part because hardcore fans wanted to see which local short track drivers were entered in one of the races.
Those connections got lots of media coverage and arguably drove a good deal of ticket sales. I’m using Richmond as an example, but the same dynamic took place with quite a few other NASCAR tracks in various parts of the country.
By the time the ¾-mile track was built in Richmond (1988), the days were gone when Ray Hendrick and the Rebel Racing team could show up and run with the GN/Cup boys, but there were still familiar faces in the field to area short track fans. Ricky Rudd was a regular and always a Richmond contender. Rick Mast, Lennie Pond, Tommy Ellis and then the Burton and Sadler brothers were knocking on the door of stardom, and all were familiar to area short track fans. Veteran Cup car owner Junie Donlavey might still install a local in his #90 driver’s seat from time to time, too.
Here’s Ricky Rudd at Daytona. At Richmond, he was a bigger deal, because it was his “home track,” and the fans knew it.
There was even more excitement possible in what was then the Busch Series. In the first race run on the new track, the Commonwealth 200 on September 10, 1988, Ellis placed fourth, Jimmy Hensley was sixth, and Joe Thurman, Mast and Elton Sawyer also were in the field – and in the top 20 in series points.
Tommy Ellis in 1990. Think we could ever “dumb down” Cup/Xfinity/Gander cars enough so that a small outfit like Goo Goo Clusters could sponsor one again?
But one-off or occasional deals put others in the field, too. Southside Speedway regular Wayne Patterson got two or three starts around 1990, and his competitor Todd Taylor got a couple. Just a couple of years later, other drivers who had banged doors with Patterson and Taylor took their shots: Curtis Markham (later known as Denny Hamlin’s spotter), Eddie Johnson, Langley Speedway front-runners Danny Edwards Jr. and brother Greg.
Guys like Eddie Johnson earned occasional Busch (Xfinity) runs by being winners and being popular, attributes that bring out the fans.
By the June 1998 Hardee’s 250 at Richmond, Virginian Jeff Burton was in victory lane, with brothers Wayne and Kevin Grubb fourth and ninth. Sawyer, Hermie and Elliott Sadler and Old Dominion Speedway ace Mark McFarland also ran. Markham and Ashton Lewis Jr. were in the field that fall.
I’ll say it again: fans showed up to see these guys run. Then came driver development programs and more emphasis on a driver’s teeth than right foot, and the slow death of NASCAR began.
My sense is that this is one area where some people have realized the error of NASCAR’s ways over the past quarter century and are trying to recapture a little excitement via the connection between NASCAR stars and local racers.
That’s why I’m cautiously excited about the announcement that the Race Team Alliance (a group I still don’t like in general, mind you) has purchased Speed51.com, Bob Dillner’s media platform for all things short track and local. It still scares me, because the alliance (let’s call the “RTA”) could be screwing around with a good thing, but I’m going to hope that this is an honest and genuine effort to stitch the marriage of weekly racing and NASCAR back together, to the benefit of all.
To me, that would be quite a change. Back 15-20 years ago, when NASCAR got way too big for its britches, short tracks became an afterthought, except for the sanctioning fees they paid NASCAR for what seemed like very little in return – other than losing more and more prime race nights to conflicts with Cup events. As NASCAR grew, it pushed coverage of local racing off the sports pages, but that was OK, because all the dollars needed to be pointed at Daytona, anyway.
Now there’s a little more humility in the Florida corporate suite, but I still don’t see NASCAR doing squat to help strengthen local racing. Oddly, it’s the RTA seeming to come to the front.
The problem is that the RTA itself is the biggest obstacle to local racing getting a toehold in NASCAR again. A lot of those names I mentioned above got into racing via family-and-friend-backed small teams, competing in part-time schedules (or even taking the plunge and running a full season for a year or two). That’s impossible in Cup today because of the charter system (for which the RTA is the all-but-official face), and what little money is left for Xfinity/Gander teams gravitates toward RTA members’ satellite teams in those series – the deck is hopelessly stacked against the little guy.
Here’s the deal, Race Team Alliance: use Speed51.com to bring weekly racing and NASCAR back together, but unless you give these guys a shot at moving up, you’ll fail.
Nevertheless, in times as bleak as the last few years have been, you cling to that piece of debris that might keep you afloat a little longer, and I’m willing to see what happens with the RTA/Speed51.com partnership. I might regret it, but if it holds out any hope of a 27-year-old short-track champ getting a ride instead of a 19-year-old silver-spoon phenom, I guess it’s a chance I have to take.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
In last week’s Area Auto Racing News, columnist Ernie Saxton cited statistics from Hoosier Tires (admittedly not an objective outside observer) saying that short track racing generates 52 million tickets sold each year, more than NASCAR, NFL, NBA and NHL combined. (Of course, all of those other groups sell their tickets at much higher prices.)
I remember when NASCAR and other racing promoters would proudly say that racing was second only to horse racing in total attendance. I assume that was true then but have no idea if it’s still the case. Still, all those is a good reminder that, for all its problems at every level, racing remains a very popular sport, which should be a relief to anyone smothered under negative reports about it.
It also might help explain the Race Team Alliance’s interest in Speed51.com.
Unfortunately, empty seats are as easy to find at short tracks as at superspeedways these days. Maybe if everybody works toward the common good, that can change.
Also in Area Auto Racing News, I saw that DIRTCar, one of the leading national sanctioning bodies for stock car and modified racing on dirt (and a sibling of the World of Outlaws sprint car and late model circuits) is holding a six-race winter series in the Carolinas and Tennessee. Purses are a bit modest, but the first race at Cherokee (S.C.) Speedway ($10K to win) drew 38 cars, including some national “big boys.” Hey, NASCAR, it gives people something to do. Is anybody listening?
In its early days, NASCAR ran several Grand National (Cup) races in December, including the bizarre Savannah, Ga., event in 1964 on December 29 (that was a reschedule, to be fair). The last December event was in 1971 at Texas World Speedway in College Station. In its days as a regular stop on the tour, the Riverside road course regularly ran in January, and earlier, a short track in West Palm Beach, Fla., ran both in December and Jan/Feb. Phoenix’s old dirt fairgrounds mile also raced in January.
We used to be able to watch racing in January, thanks to Riverside. Maybe NASCAR can figure out how to bring winter racing back again.
It can be done, although today it would require some different thinking and likely downsizing of the enterprise, but there are fans out there who haven’t given up . . . yet.