Daytona Then and Now ~ Which Is Better?
Warning: This is another Frank Buhrman rant about (1) the misguided attention placed by NASCAR on the television view-ability of races (the only thing that matters is the battle for the lead; and (2) the lame-ness of pack racing and “big one” wrecking at Daytona and Talladega speedways. If the prospect of this topic might ruin your day, please read elsewhere.
For those who are left (if any), here goes. I recently recommended viewing old NASCAR Grand National (Cup) races on YouTube and suggested the 1963 Daytona 500 in particular. I will now contrast that race with whatever it was that happened Sunday, February 9 under the branding of the Busch Clash.
Exhibit A (note driver’s name on the door obviously covering another)
(By the time you read this, the 2020 Daytona 500 will have happened, which might or might not challenge my conclusions. You can make that call.)
I don’t have to replay the Clash for you, but I’ll characterize it. It was the epitome of a race made for TV: nothing happened outside the width of the camera lens. If you were watching the race on television, you got to see it all, but if you were watching from the stands, you saw a lot in one small corner of your total viewing range, and a whole lot of nothing in the rest (unless there was a compellingly attractive person sitting nearby, dressed to look a lot better than a Cup car).
A smaller field like that for the Clash actually works better for TV, because it makes fitting all the action onto a screen more likely.
That’s fine if you’re with the gang down at the sports bar, watching with friends and family at home, or – God forgive me – watching on your iPhone. If you paid a lot of money to occupy a seat at Daytona International Speedway, though, it says here that you didn’t get that great a deal. You had a better view on the screen, you didn’t have to pay speedway concession prices for your food and drink, and you didn’t get sunburned.
So what was so great about 1963? For starters, there were 50 starters, and they had to fight their way into the race and beat the TWELVE cars that didn’t qualify, cars driven by the likes of Buck Baker, Indy veteran Roger Ward, Bobby Isaac and Cale Yarborough, among others. There were no provisional spots for those who couldn’t win a spot in the field fair and square – NASCAR’s welfare system had yet to be invented.
Rodger Ward was the defending Indy 500 and USAC National Championship champ, but when he couldn’t get up enough speed for the ’63 Daytona 500, he went home, because NASCAR’s welfare system – provisional starting positions – did not yet exist.
Oh, and it had rained that morning. Without Air Titans and such, the track wasn’t dry by race time, so more effort was needed, including running the first 10 laps under caution to help. Even then, when the race started, there was water all over the place, including in the pits, where some pit stalls were lakes, and a very large puddle greeted anyone entering pit road.
In those days, drivers just sucked it up and ran with a few extra challenges.
Check out that water next to the track at Daytona in ’63. Not sure today’s drivers would approve of the conditions their grandparents were asked to live with.
Here’s where my contrast really becomes dramatic. Once the green flag flew for lap 11, it stayed out for the rest of the race – NO wreck-causing cautions for 190 laps.
Boring race, you say? I beg to differ. How about more than 30 lead changes among 11 different drivers and a constant shuffling of the top runners, in part because the long green flag run created numerous different strategies for the race and pit schedules that were all over the map. There was always somebody out there trying to squeeze a few more laps out of old tires and somebody else ripping up the competition on fresh rubber.
There also was the drama of which cars would finish, because a lot didn’t. Junior Johnson, in the legendary Ray Fox/Holly Farms Poultry Chevy, was the first front-runner to break, going out after leading 12 of the first 26 laps. Paul Goldsmith, having led 11 laps, was the next to go, retiring Ray Nichols’ Packer Pontiac after 39.
By that time, more than 20% of the starting field was in the garage, drivers like David Pearson, Jack Smith, Ralph Earnhardt and Bunkie Blackburn among those reduced to spectating.
That’s the way it continued: fast and not-so-fast cars coming into the pits, hoods being raised, or cars being jacked up so mechanics could look underneath. Then, after a collective drooping of shoulders, a car would be pushed back to the garage. By the end of the race, more than half the starters had retired, and several survivors were many laps behind.
In fact, only three cars were on the lead lap at the end.
So what in the heck is so great about that? Here’s what.
Tiny (21) and Ned (11) do battle
First, the race was a nail-biter to the end. The surviving front-runners – Tiny Lund, Fred Lorenzen and Ned Jarrett – pushed their gas mileage, with Lorenzen and Jarrett having to make quick stops late for that last sip of Pure Firebird needed to go the distance, while Lund – driving for the wizard Wood Brothers – stretched his fuel enough to skip that last stop and coast (almost literally) to victory. It was the ultimate storybook ending, as Lund had replaced Marvin Panch, whose life he had helped to save after a fiery accident in a preliminary sports car race.
The Panch wreck. Lund was credited with lifting the car so Panch could be pulled out
But it also gave grandstand fans more to watch. They had to keep an eye on all three cars when pit stops were in doubt, then they got to watch Lorenzen and Jarrett try to catch Lund while the South Carolina fish camp operator cheated reality to win on fumes.
Second, that more-to-watch factor permeated the race. Today, having a front-running car break is a rare occasion, but then it happened all the time, so you were constantly keeping an eye on cars of interest. You wanted to be the first to see that telltale puff of smoke as a car backed off going into a turn: was it tire smoke, or was that the first indication of pending engine trouble? Even if your favorite was only in 12th, you were looking at the distance to 11th and 10th or dreading a charge from the guy in 14th. These were things that required you stay awake and focus on the full race track, not just the few car lengths behind the leader.
Third, at a big track like Daytona, the cars were easier to spot. Paint jobs were simpler, and they didn’t change 20 times during the season, so you got used to the paint pattern on the #21 or the #3 or the #11.
Which car number will be easier to read at a distance?
Fourth, there were non-frontrunning cars worth your attention. If you were from Richmond, local ace Ted Hairfield was in the field in the Parker Snead #72 (at least until his clutch gave out after 11 laps). Snead might have been a relative of mine, by the way. If you were from the Midwest, several USAC stock car racers were in the field, and if you were down from New England, modified ace Red Foote was racing.
Back then, it was OK to be a part-time hometown boy and outqualify a big name. Your speed mattered; not how many dollars were behind your ride.
Finally, the 1963 Daytona 500 was 200 laps of racing (well, 190 laps of racing and 10 laps of track drying), not 60-70 laps of high horsepower chess and 10 laps of wrecking.
You are certainly allowed to disagree with all this, but I attended more than a few lengthy NASCAR GN/Cup races half a century ago and found them compellingly interesting precisely because a lot of the action was happening out of the view of a camera pointed at the race leader.
Battles for the lead are fun and exciting, but they aren’t all there is. To some people, they’re the best, but even if you love steak or lobster, when you have it every day for enough days, it ceases to be special. I’ll take some steak and lobster in my racing, but maybe some potatoes, green beans, sauce, soup and dessert, too. It makes the whole meal experience better, and in the same manner, a “360” view of a race will give you more to enjoy than an afternoon of lead changes.
This fan says it’s still important to create a race worth watching for those who paid good money to watch from up here.
So that’s why my dream would be a time-capsule trip back to 1963 to watch Tiny, Fred and Ned duke it out – using horsepower and strategy – rather than tickets to the 2020 Daytona 500. The show is richer in content, more honest, and more democratic. I can identify with the cars and tell one brand from another without having to stare hard at its decals. I can go home feeling that I got my money’s worth.
At least that’s my viewpoint. Again.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Story-within-a-story: Cotton Owens had the only Dodges in the ’63 Daytona 500 field, and he obviously didn’t know which model to race. David Pearson, driving a Custom 880 model, squeezed into the race in 50th position and lasted only 12 laps before leaving due to “handling” issues. He finished 48th. Teammate Billy Wade got a Coronet but hardly fared better, starting 46th and finishing 41st, lasting 32 laps before engine problems got the best of his ride.
You think maybe this had something to do with Pearson’s handling problem?
It eventually got a little better: Pearson finished eighth in the ’63 points with 13 top-5 finishes, while Wade was 16th and Larry Thomas (a non-Owens Dodge driver) was 22nd. The Coronet emerged as the car model of choice.
The next year the hemi engine arrived, and things were a lot different.