Author's Note-This was written in the early hours before the sun came up on Cup's "Championship Sunday". This will be posted long after the checkered flag has flown and the final Sprint Cup winner decided. I hope you still find it relevant whenever it appears.
It's not right!
It's just not right that the season ends in Homestead. It's not right that we aren't going to Atlanta this time of the season. Of course if we did go back, it would be to the current track configuration, the quad-oval and not the “perfect oval” it was best known for.
[Editorial note: Atlanta International Raceway’s “Perfect Oval” consisted of 2 turns, each ½-mile in length, connected by 2 straightaways of ¼-mile each]
You remember an oval don't you? Two straights. Two turns. Quad-oval at Atlanta... that's not right either. The old configuration was unique and that was much of her appeal. Shorter straights with long, sweeping banked turns. You got to see the cars in those turns for a long time. That's why people came. That's why, when I got the call from my dad asking me if I wanted to join him and some of his co-workers from the steel mill for a road trip to the 1981 Atlanta fall race, I jumped at the chance.
Going to a race with my dad was always special. He loved racing. He's the one who got me into it. Next to our blood, racing was our bond. Maybe there is someone in your life like that? Just to have the chance to spend that time with him… I couldn’t care less if it was USAC sprints at Salem, Cup at Talladega, stockers at Central City or Baizetown for the goat races; if he was there, I wanted to be there. Now Atlanta was a dream come true.
When I said yes, his instructions were simple. “We have the tickets. Just be at the house by midnight Saturday. I'll be home from work at 12:15.” The crew would be at his house at 12:20 to pick us up. Don't be late. They won't wait.
It sounds simple enough, but you have to understand, at that time I was living in the far eastern end of the state of Kentucky, in Harry Ranier country and they were in Owensboro in the western part of the state. It was a six hour haul out of the coal fields to catch my ride, before even heading to the track.
My job then was inspecting coal mines, so my days were spent traveling the mountain roads of Floyd Co. Making my rounds that Friday found me traveling to the far reaches of my area, which meant about 125 miles before I even got started.
The excitement kept me tossing and turning all night. As the sun came up Saturday morning I gave up on trying to sleep. I did a few chores, tied up some loose ends around the place and threw my overnight bag in the back of my F-150. Then, with my faithful co-pilot, my Brittany Spaniel, Katie in the front seat riding shotgun, we pointed our Ford west to our first stop, some 300 miles away.
The night went just as Dad said it would. At 12:15 his Ford pickup rolled into the driveway. He just had enough time to change into his race clothes and give Mom a goodbye kiss before the van arrived at the appointed time.
Dad always dressed to go to races. Pressed dress shirt and khakis with new tennis shoes. Any race was an event worthy of more than just t-shirts and jeans. A race was something special! As I recall, we had van-full on that trip. Though I knew several of the guys from the steel mill I only knew one in this group… Carroll Rust, whom I knew by his nickname, "Teardrops".
He worked for a while as
Dad's pipe-fitter helper at the mill but I knew him as the owner, engine
builder, chassis man and body man for the #30 Ford driven by Maxey Colyer. "Teardrops" to me was our local Glen
and Leonard Wood combined. Since we were a Ford family and Carroll had the only
Ford running in the top stock division in the area we were huge fans and
followed his efforts for years.
Needless to say, with all the excitement of going Cup racing, along with the bench racing and mill stories flying around, there was no shut-eye as we rolled south. Though I don't remember much about the stories and lies of that night, the one thing I do remember was Teardrops telling me was to "Keep an eye on that Elliott. He's something special." It was good advice then. Those words are good advice now, 35 years later although the Elliott is of the next generation.
I really knew nothing of him, but Teardrops explained they were a family operation. Bill drove, his brother Dan worked on the chassis and his brother Ernie built the engines. Dad owned the operation, and they knew their stuff. Earlier in the season, Teardrops was having engine issues and desperate, called their shop for help. It was Ernie who answered the phone... and told him how to fix his problem. Teardrops was an immediate fan.
The road trip went off like clockwork. The sun had not been up very long when we stopped to catch breakfast at a little roadside diner not far from the track. Atlanta race traffic was notoriously bad in those days but our driver knew all the shortcuts and back roads around Hampton and dodged it all as we slid smoothly into our parking spot.
The race couldn't have gone better. The 328-lapper saw 36 lead changes with my Wood Brothers #21 with Neil Bonnet behind the wheel passing points-leader Darrell Waltrip on the last lap to win by a car length. Cale was right there for third. It was an incredible finish considering Neil did it with a tire going down. Before he got to Victory Lane the tire was flat.
It was also an incredible race considering points-leader Darrell Waltrip had a flat tire mid-race and got a lap down. Then, without Lucky Dogs and Wave Arounds, he raced his way onto the lead lap and was leading when the White Flag flew.
What a day! What a race!
Though I was a #21 fan, I followed Teardrops' advice that day, keeping one eye on that Elliott. He finished an impressive sixth, behind fourth place finisher (and points-contender) Bobby Allison and Georgia's Jody Ridley in Junie Donlavey's #90 Ford. Teardrops was right. Elliott was something special.
We didn't hang around for post-race festivities; we had to get back, as our driver was starting "Midnights" (12:00-8:00) at the mill that night. We headed north as the Series headed west to settle things the following Sunday in Riverside. Our trip home was a spirited recap of the race as everybody shared their perspective of the event. Things were still going strong when we pulled into the driveway back in Owensboro six hours later. We were finally home and road trip over... or so we thought.
Dad had been up well over 36 hours. I'd been up longer. As we were trying to wind down, I made the mistake of turning on the TV. Mom had left it on that relatively new sports station, ESPN, and they were welcoming race fans "here today to the Atlanta Journal 500".
Dad grinned and said "Son, can you pour me some iced tea?" and we settled in to watch the replay of ESPN's first live flag to flag broadcast of a NASCAR race. Four hours plus later we saw Neil beat Darrell... again. Finally satisfied, Dad said, "Let's call it a night."
The Atlanta road trip was finally over.
As I look back I ask myself, what made people act that way then? Drive forever to watch a race and do a down and back with no overnight stays? Why would we go well over a day and a half with no sleep to watch a race and then turn around and pass up a perfectly good bed to sit and watch a replay of a race whose outcome we already knew?
It's a difficult question, when now on Homestead Sunday, as the Chase finale will crown this year’s "Champ", I'm still trying to decide whether I'm even going to turn on the TV.
One answer is... racing. Racing then was real racing. Looking back, watching the replay of that final lap, I count my blessings I got to see it live.
I also wonder how it happened, for racing then had nothing we have today to "make" things exciting. There was no Knockout Qualifying to set the field, no "Boogity, Boogity, Boogity" to announce the start of a race. They had no 100% rule to make drivers race... they just raced. They didn't freeze the field on cautions and use GPS, timing loops and videos to set the field, instead racing back to the line to get their position. There were no speed limits on pit road or timing lines there to check speed. No one had heard of Lucky Dogs, Wave Arounds, Double File Restarts and Restart Zones.
Debris cautions existed then, but unlike today, they were nowhere near as common and frequently had actual debris associated with them. Races had no Green-White-Checkers finishes and no Overtime or Overtime Lines. Back then, the checkered flag dropped and the race ended when the announced race length was completed.
Winners took their cars to Victory Lane… in one piece... with all the tires on it and the engines intact. Years later, Alan Kulwicki's "Polish Victory Lap" was considered extreme and as rare then as a winner going straight to Victory Lane would be today.
The Championship was based on a driver's season of work. There was no Chase. There was no predetermined "Championship Sunday". The final race was only Championship Sunday if second place or more were close enough to make it so.
There was no "Win and You’re in". Waltrip had won four races in a row before Atlanta and it didn't give him a free pass to the last race; only valuable Winston Cup points.
Yet all the points he earned throughout the season, he got to keep and take into that final race; his points-lead was the reward for his season of racing. No Competition Caution Championship here, where all he’d earned was taken away so he could try to win it all in the last race.
There were no designated elimination races, no cutoffs. Every race was a potential elimination race for someone, as competitors were eliminated through lack of points accumulated and no longer being mathematically eligible, not being fifth worst or better every three weeks as we currently see. The focus then was on the front, not the back. It focused on winners, not those in the back, the "eliminated".
That year Waltrip was racing Bobby Allison, the next closest in points and the only one who had run well enough through the season to still be in the hunt, competing for the Winston Cup. That year there would be only two. Eleven years later at the same track we'd see six competing for the championship… something impossible and something we'll never see again under this current contrivance.
The TV race coverage then was just that... coverage of the race. The booth was filled with professionals whose only agenda was to... cover the race. It was in the days before ceaseless yammering, breathless commentary throughout and a screaming call to the flag.
In reflection, the best I can figure is that back then we did what we did because we were race fans... and this was a race... and as race fans, that's what you do.
There was no cell phones, texts or Facebook. Birds were the only ones who tweeted and Al Gore was years away from inventing the internet. If you wanted to follow the race your options were to be there, listen to MRN or if lucky, watch that new cable station called ESPN. We never thought another thing about it. That is just what race fans do when there is… a race.
Today, "Championship Sunday", I've got a decision to make. Do I watch it all, watch a part or not even bother?
Once, I'd not hesitated to drive across the state to ride through two states and return, then watch a replay; now I'm struggling to decide which button I'm going to push on the TV remote while sitting in my recliner.
Once, I knew it was a race. A pure, simple race. Today...
Is today's decision so difficult because I'm no longer a fan of racing or is what we see now no longer racing? Whatever it is... it's like not going to Atlanta this time of year...
It's just not right.