Can We Make Charlotte a Big Deal Again?
Well. Another Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is in the books. To me, the sad part of that statement is that it should come in all-caps with lots of exclamation points, like the Kentucky Derby, the Masters, or – for many years – the World 600 at Charlotte.
A full grandstand cheers the start of the 1964 World 600
Unfortunately, NASCAR’s marketing model dictates that every weekend’s race is a big deal, but all are pretty much the same kind of big deal, except for Daytona and Talladega, which are bigger deals because the people who make NASCAR’s decisions are the same people who benefit financially from those races being extra-special big deals.
There’s no such monetary connection for Charlotte, so it almost has become just another race. This sport suffers because of that.
We’re three weeks away from the 70th anniversary of the Strictly Stock/Grand National/Cup Series’ birth, which was a race at Charlotte. The old three-quarter-mile dirt track was a pretty big deal back then, and Big Bill France probably held his first event there on purpose.
The Strictly Stocks are off and running in the first-ever race for today’s Cup series, at Charlotte in 1949
By my very unofficial count there have been 148 GN/Cup races at tracks identified as being in “Charlotte,” but I’m going to alter that a bit, because Charlotte Motor Speedway itself officially is in Concord (it once was said to be in Harrisburg), and so was the old Concord Speedway (not to be confused with the current track of the same name), which hosted 13 GN/Cup race as well. Add Concord’s events, and the total becomes 161.
The GN tour ran in the area six times in 1956 and again in ’57, including events at the Charlotte Speedway mentioned above, the Southern States Fairgrounds half-miler, and Concord’s half mile. Charlotte was a big deal.
After Charlotte Motor Speedway was built in 1961, the short tracks slowly disappeared from the schedule – Concord was the last to go, holding its final event in 1964. In 1962, Charlotte Motor Speedway had four races, including two qualifiers for the World 600 – like the Thursday races at Daytona, they counted as full-fledged GN events back then. Since then, for more than half a century, the schedule has stopped in Charlotte for the World 600 on Memorial Day weekend and for the variously-named 500-mile race in October – now on the Roval.
Charlotte, including the dirt track shown in this photo, remains one of the showplace facilities in motorsports
When the Charlotte superspeedway came on the scene, it shared that label with Daytona, Atlanta and Darlington – no one else running NASCAR. That, plus the World 600’s unique length, made it special, but in the Richard Howard and Humpy Wheeler days, promotions made it even more special. For years it had a huge award for winning the pole position, and it generally offered one of the season’s highest purses, second only to the Daytona 500 most years.
This wasn’t all that made Charlotte a big deal, but it didn’t hurt
Even after race purses reflected television money more than ticket money, Charlotte retained a spot of honor, although by 2015, the last year NASCAR trusted us with purse information, it had slipped behind Indianapolis and its sister Speedway Motorsports track in Texas.
Still, for many years – until NASCAR shoe-horned Talladega into the equation – the “Big 3” of the Cup racing season were the Daytona 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500. We looked forward to them as such.
Could that magic return?
It wouldn’t be easy. Qualifying used to be a big deal at Charlotte, spread over three days and with big money involved, but NASCAR and the charter system have given us a qualifying system that nobody cares about, anymore, so that’s out. Charlotte’s prerace activity was always special – remember Humpy’s school bus jumps? – But while the current patriotism theme is great, it doesn’t translate much to TV, and that defines how most of us think of a race, sadly.
A bigger purse or higher attendance? Sorry, that’s top-secret, classified data, and mere fans don’t have the security clearance.
When the all-star race, known way back when as “The Winston,” was a big deal, that contributed to Charlotte’s special status, but it’s lost its luster, too.
Darrell Waltrip after winning The Winston in 1985
Maybe if NASCAR put on a real push to make the 600 a special event, fans would pick up on that. Yeah, that’s likely. Let’s see NASCAR do something extra special for a Speedway Motorsports/Smith family track – can you say “snowball’s chance in hell?”
I don’t have an answer to this one, I’m afraid, but I really miss the kind of feeling the World 600 brought to us when it was truly one of the highlights of the GN/Cup season. Charlotte is and always has been as important a place to the sport as any in the country, and even though today’s politicians there – like their colleagues elsewhere – fawn over football and just smile when racing is mentioned, we know better.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Last week I talked about the negative influence of money on NASCAR racing and the obstacle all that money posed to some possibly positive changes. Here’s another.
Shouldn’t we finally admit that NASCAR is primarily a Southern/Southeastern regional sport and market it more to the market that knows and loves it?
Do you follow the TV ratings stories on Jayski (HOORAY! that it’s back.) after races? The top cities in the ratings are always in the South. For the All-Star race, Greenville, S.C., was #1, followed by Charlotte and Richmond. (Sad that Charlotte wasn’t #1 for a big race in its own backyard, but there’s no accounting for some people.) Richmond was #1 for Kansas, followed by Greenville, Greensboro, Charlotte and Indianapolis. (Well, somebody outside the South is watching, just not in Kansas.)
This sign ought to say something about NASCAR
The problem for NASCAR is that it needs the “national” label for all that sponsor money, even if a lot of the attraction elsewhere is of the “phantom” variety.
I’m not saying kill off all the races outside the South; rather, NASCAR should recognize its “home market” and nurture it accordingly.
A lost opportunity for NASCAR’s schedule-makers – It’s a shame that NASCAR’s 2020 Cup Series schedule didn’t incorporate some of the more radical changes folks have suggested, like bringing back a race on a dirt track. Had it done so, it could have been scheduled at the end of September and been part of the Playoff. That also would have made it the first dirt race in the series in almost exactly 50 years. It was on September 30, 1970, that the pre-Cup Grand National series ran on the N.C. State Fairgrounds track in Raleigh. Wouldn’t that have been cool?