Looking Back to the Beach
There’s a clean-up of sorts going on in the Buhrman archive – some of the recycled cardboard boxes were falling apart, and I’d flat run out of room – but work recently screeched to a halt when I found my copy of Speed on Sand, Bill Tuthill’s story of racing on Daytona’s (and Ormond’s) beaches. Every so often, I need to pick up this book again.
Bill Tuthill was one of the original officers of NASCAR but later was pushed aside by Bill France. He ran the Museum of Speed in Ormond Beach, Fla. (then home of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird land-speed record car) and was known to many of us as a columnist for Hank Schoolfield’s Southern MotorRacing newspaper.
The legendary 1947 meeting at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona, when NASCAR was founded. That’s Bill Tuthill, left, and Bill France at the head of the table. Tuthill called the meeting to order. A 1951 NASCAR Annual Report referred to the association as founded “by Bill France and Bill Tuthill,” but the official history later cut that partnership in half.
In this day of sanitized sports, it’s hard to imagine racing on the old beach-road course at Daytona. One straightaway was the beach – you had to race at high tide or you lost most of the race track – and the other straight was a two-lane highway. Each was about two miles long. The turns were beach sand hardened with other compounds. The whole thing had more hazards than a championship golf course, and it’s amazing that only a couple of drivers lost their lives racing there.
The beach-road course at Daytona
Forcing customers to pay to watch was difficult – if you had a boat, you could just anchor off-shore – and like any temporary course, the set-up/tear-down added to your expenses. The first race in 1936 was a disaster, and for years the track was known primarily for the Daytona 200 motorcycle race, which grew to national prominence while car racing barely survived.
Then, after World War II, Daytona Beach gas station operator, Bill France, moved the course (toward Daytona and away from Ormond, if my sense of direction is correct) and got some folks together to found a sanctioning body: NASCAR. The rest… well, you know what they say.
You can make the case (although Tuthill doesn’t) that the beach-road course was the key to NASCAR’s success. Not that it paid well – hardly; Daytona’s purse was dwarfed by Darlington and usually exceeded by other tracks. In 1949 (before Darlington), the beach-road course race was in a three-way tie for second-best paying race out of eight total (Langhorne was first), and by its last season, 1958, it ranked behind Darlington, Trenton, Raleigh, Martinsville, Asheville-Weaverville and Riverside. What it had was location, location, LOCATION.
Races at Daytona took place at the “Birthplace of Speed,” the home of the land-speed records on the beach (1902-35) and auto and motorcycle racing since then. Generally, the races enjoyed public and government support – this was tourist country, after all, and race fans clearly were tourists. It all fit, and it all generated publicity, which brought the identities of racing and Daytona close together. From the start, NASCAR had its headquarters and somewhat signature race there. Daytona gave NASCAR legitimacy.
The Bluebird on the beach. The earlier land-speed record runs on the beach helped make publicizing NASCAR’s races there easier and probably drew them more media coverage.
Speed on Sand is filled with old photos and lots of statistics, perfect for a history geek like me; if you’re in the same boat, I see quite a few copies available online via used booksellers.
It also has some tidbits that most people don’t know, given the NASCAR-centric Daytona history you’re likely to read today. For one thing, the 1958 Grand National/Cup race wasn’t the last race run on the sand. The Daytona 200 motorcycle race continued to be held there for two more years, apparently because the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) was hesitant to sanction a race on the high banks of the new speedway.
Also, while he might not have the stature of some contemporaries in racing history, Paul Goldsmith has a Daytona distinction nobody else can match: he’s the only racer ever to win both the beach-road course NASCAR Grand National race and the Daytona 200 for motorcycles. Goldsmith, who never drove a full season in GN/Cup competition (127 starts total over 11 years) might just be the most underrated racer of his era.
Paul Goldsmith – he could drive just about anything to victory.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
As much as the Monster/Cup series has suffered in attendance over the past decade, the Xfinity series has probably had it even worse. As best I can tell, at Richmond, for example, Xfinity attendance these days seems considerably less than half what it was in the glory era. My “blame-meter” points to some of the same culprits as Cup: consolidation of team ownership, lack of competition for getting into the starting field, cars that long ago ceased to look anything like “stock.” But here, I’ll add one more.
Excuse me, but is this seat taken?
As much as seeing the same 35 or so drivers every week has hurt interest in Cup racing, I think it’s decimated Xfinity. This used to be the place where the Saturday night hero really could shine, where owning a car to race three or four times a year was possible. Today the series is filled with “who’s he?” developmental drivers instead of local heroes, so if you’re a fan, why bother?
I say let’s bring back one of the old gimmicks of major races: hold “qualifying” events at weekly tracks throughout the region or country and guarantee the winners a spot in the field for the big show. You just picked up a few thousand fans from each of those tracks who now have an interest in your race.
Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania used to do that regularly. A list of “eligible starters” for the 100-mile “National Championship” race in 1954 included 24 winners of “Championship Elimination Races” at local tracks (plus NASCAR’s National Sportsman Champion, Johnny Roberts). The local tracks were in 13 different states as far away as Nebraska and South Dakota. That guaranteed the race some good names to publicize and it drew interest from the fans who had seen those drivers earn their spots.
Langhorne was a 1-mile circle and was one of the best-paying tracks in NASCAR’s early days.
Of course, this would require some rule standardization, but it might be more likely to happen if NASCAR had reasonable rules the rest of the world could follow, and that would require the brain trust to admit its error in getting us to the point we are now.
Even with legalized gambling on sports, I’m not betting that will happen.