Can Racing Escape the Corrupting Influence of $$$?
Of all the articles I’ve written in this space, none is likely to brand me squarely as a go-back-to-the-way-it-was-in-the-old-days geezer as this one. So be it.
During a recent trip to Richmond, I drove down U.S. 1 and was pretty sure I could identify the years-ago location of the Richmond Auto Court motel. It was one of those old-fashioned places with little cottages spaced throughout a wooded area, each a motel room.
Can’t believe I found this postcard, said to be the Richmond Auto Court in 1955. By the time I was looking for race cars parked there, the trees covered a lot of the details shown here.
When I was still relatively new to driving, Dave Fulton, John “Chris” Young and I had a ritual for the evening before the September NASCAR Grand National race in Richmond, the Capital City 300. We would head out and stop at several new car dealerships, scouting the back lots to see if any of the soon-to-be-revealed next-year’s models were stashed back there. Then we would make the rounds of hotels and motels where we knew NASCAR drivers were likely to be staying – we wanted to see the cars (new models and racers) before anyone else in town.
It was fun, and what else were we going to do? After all, we had no cell phones.
The Holiday Inn was where we might see Petty, Pearson or any factory Ford drivers entered. The Richmond Auto Court was where the second-tier drivers stayed. I think we saw J.D. McDuffie’s car there once. Of course, a lot of drivers weren’t staying in town at all, because they were driving overnight to get there. Motels, even the Richmond Auto Court, weren’t in the budget.
This Bud Moore hauler would have been one of the nicer ones back in the mid-‘60s.
Last week I noted that Connecticut racer Dick Dixon drove eight GN/Cup races in 1965, finished in the Top 5 in five of them and in the Top 10 in seven, and for that he collected a tad over $2,200, total. Honestly, I have no idea what it cost to stay at the Richmond Auto Court in 1965, but for what racing paid then, any motel was a splurge.
Fast forward to the compound at Charlotte Motor Speedway where drivers’ six-figure RVs park today, then try to catch one of them for a conversation without a PR person hovering, reminding of a tight schedule of sponsor and VIP appearances.
(Please don’t accuse me of slamming today’s drivers here; this routine is hardly their idea. It’s just that, when your racing life depends on sponsorships, and those sponsorships can add up to millions of dollars, the sponsors get first dibs on your hide, and the rest of the world can wait.)
Still, the sponsorship money and the TV money and all the other money combine to mean that drivers (and quite a few others) live in very nice RVs, and today’s equivalents of the Richmond Auto Court don’t see the NASCAR business they once did.
To me that’s a shame, something I always say with apologies to those in racing who wouldn’t be living quite so well – or wouldn’t have jobs at all – without the current cash flow of NASCAR, even reduced as it might be. Notwithstanding the difficult circumstances my scenario might put these folks in, I look fondly back to the days of scouring junkyards the afternoon before a race to find a clutch or some engine parts, or of working on your car in a gas station down the road from the track to get it ready.
No, it wasn’t as competitive then, but that also meant there was more passing, even if a lot of it involved cars not on the lead lap. It meant fans cheered not only for their hero, but for the hero’s car to survive those last 25 laps. It meant drivers didn’t always say the right thing in victory lane, and occasionally they settled scores. It meant they didn’t always look like models.
I don’t know if this is fair to say, but to me it meant racing had more of a soul, not just a business plan.
Bottom line: to me, this was more exciting, and I’m willing to turn the clock back.
If my retro vision has any merit, no one is to blame for things being as they are. Drivers and teams simply are playing by the rules, just as those with a much different set of rules did decades ago.
The blame for those changed rules is simple: $$$. When there’s a lot of it floating around, things get a lot different – sanitized, regulated, predictable. Some would say boring.
Sure, racing can still be exciting, and sometimes today’s drivers let their emotions get the best of their programming, and it gets even more exciting. But I can also see exciting during a weekly short track, where the drivers look and act like the rest of us, the finishes are much less predictable, the winner gets a few hundred bucks, and somebody might even sack out afterward at a place like the Richmond Auto Court.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
A couple of weeks ago, when the PA Sprint Series IMCA/RaceSaver sprints were racing at Port Royal Speedway, one of the entrants, Ben McCall, came all the way from Fayetteville, N.C., a distance of nearly 500 miles. (This takes absolutely nothing away from Johnny Scarborough, who travels 400 miles from Bomoseen, Vermont, nearly EVERY weekend to race with this series.)
McCall had earlier driven from Fayetteville to Elizabeth City, N.C., on Friday night to race with the Virginia Sprint Series, another IMCA/RaceSaver group, and he finished seventh there. Then he and his father drove overnight to get to Pennsylvania for the PASS event at Port Royal Saturday.
Ben McCall at speed. The puzzle paint job denotes concern for autism.
It would be nice if this story had a happier ending, but McCall ended with engine problems and was loaded up to leave before feature time. Still, you’ve got to admire a couple of guys (father and son) who went to all that trouble for a couple of races that don’t pay anywhere near enough to cover expenses.
For Ben, the love of our sport required even more dedication, because he had to be at work early Sunday morning.
People like that give grassroots racing the soul that I believe it lacks at the big-money level.