Martinsville Went Right, So What Keeps Going Wrong?
(This article is going to cover some ground I’ve covered before, so if you’re not inclined to listen to my “same-old, same-old” rants, go make a sandwich or something - but look at the “Loose Lug Nuts” down at the bottom.)
The Martinsville Monster/Cup race weekend-before-last actually earned a higher TV viewership rating than the previous year, making it the first race this season broadcast on cable/satellite to be watched by more fans than in 2016. In fact, it broke a streak of seven straight races on NBCSN that had double-digit decreases.
Hmmmmm… whaddya think? Were the ratings higher because viewers expected to see wrecks and drivers behaving badly, or was it just because it was a rainy, dreary, cold day in some parts of the country and you couldn’t do anything outside? Do you think, maybe, it was because Martinsville isn’t a mile-and-a-half track, offering something different to watch?
There have been a lot of races this year that were forgotten by Tuesday, but Martinsville wasn’t one of them. Was there a correlation between anticipation of this kind of action and the higher TV ratings?
My guess is that all of those contributed. I don’t watch just to see wrecks, but a little bumping and rubbing doesn’t hurt, and seeing PR-perfect racers lose their tempers doesn’t hurt either; not that I want to return to the early days of tire irons and pistols being used or threatened.
I’ve said it before, but here goes again: the playoffs, the nutty point system, the nit-picky inspections and the constant rule changes certainly don’t help, but they aren’t NASCAR’s real problem. The real issue is that the basic product - the race itself - just isn’t as compelling anymore.
So why is that, and what can we do about it?
Forgive me, but I’m going to do my “old-timer” thing to illustrate. Let’s drift back 50 years and see what was happening then.
Here’s a Martinsville start from 1967, the spring Virginia 500. Richard Petty won both races at the “paper clip” that year.
For starters, NASCAR wasn’t nearly as popular, and we shouldn’t forget that. The fall race at Martinsville that year drew an announced crowd of 13,500, and NASCAR wasn’t ashamed to tell you how many butts were in the seats then. Now we don’t get that info, but it was easy to see that the crowd was probably three or four times that size, at least - and in 1967, you didn’t have the option to stay home and watch on TV.
In 1967, Richard Petty beat Dick Hutcherson by four laps, and Eddie Yarboro finished 10th, 51 laps behind. The race wasn’t a nail-biter.
In fact, NASCAR was struggling in 1967, because Ford and Chrysler were supporting the sport, but for the most part, GM wasn’t, and Toyota?
This is what Toyota would have brought to the track in 1967. Try bumping Chase out of the way in this one, Denny.
NASCAR had cooked up a sort-of competitive Chevy, ostensibly owned by respected mechanic Turkey Minton, but at Martinsville, with Tiger Tom Pistone behind the wheel, it lasted only 49 laps. Bobby Allison had the innovative, built-with-no-help-from-NASCAR Chevelle #2, but it blew up before the halfway mark. Petty led the last 195 laps.
For all the publicity it stirred up at the time, the Turkey Minton Chevelle didn’t leave much of a footprint; I couldn’t even find a picture on Google. On the other hand, Allison’s #2, entirely privately financed and raced, is easy to find. Unfortunately, without a charter, Bobby would have a hard time firing up crowds today like he did back then.
So other than the fact that I’m one of those stupid old geezers, why do I look back fondly on 1967. Here you go:
- In 1967, you made the race with mechanical and driving talent, not charters/owner points/provisions or other products of the NASCAR Welfare System. I think fans liked that.
- You could take a shot at the big boys, because cars didn’t cost as much as the gross national product of Trinidad, and if you put one together that could pass inspection, you might just take the green flag. You might even bring some fans along. (You might even entice a couple of them to help change your tires, because you didn’t have a paid pit crew, let alone an engineer.)
- If you were a local driver, you might bring a lot of fans along, even if you didn’t have much chance of winning the race.
- You had to know something about driving, because your car used tires as hard as my head, and downforce was something that had to do with airplanes or some weird European sport.
- You knew the rules, and if you were good, you knew how to bend them a little. If you got caught, it was considered more like a speeding ticket than mass murder.
(Time for a story: You’ll get a link below to a neat video about NASCAR in 1976, and in it, Bud Moore talks a bit about bending the rules, explaining that you might try 20 little things on the car that weren’t exactly legal, and if NASCAR caught you on 10 of them, you had still gotten away with the other 10 and had a better car for it, or at least so you hoped.)
This Smokey Yunick '67 Chevelle, shown here with Curtis Turner behind the wheel, never won a Grand National race, but you’ll find few vehicles from that era that are more fondly remembered, and one reason is that it seldom was legal.
Everything on my list above gave NASCAR a more human face in 1967, and people liked that. There wasn’t yet a big audience, but that’s because there was virtually no TV and no R.J. Reynolds to market the sport in a way the France family couldn’t. NASCAR didn’t grow because of charters, NASCAR-designed cookie-cutter cars, look-alike tracks or driver-development-program drivers. Those came along when the sport was super successful, and those in charge convinced themselves that they were the geniuses responsible for the success and could implement all their other grand ideas.
Like the way that turned out, do you?
It’s a good thing beating a dead horse isn’t illegal, because here I go again: Get rid of those things dragging the sport down and go back to what made it successful, and we might salvage something.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Go back in time and check it out for yourself with these “old days” videos on YouTube (photos are not from the films):
1963 Daytona 500:
This is one of my favorite “the-way-it-was” films. Look at how much water the pace car splashes through at the pit road entrance when the race starts. Look at the cars with working, roll-up windows, lug-nut wrenches, and gas caps that look like what you’d have had on your car then. Plus, this is the great story of Tiny Lund’s win in the Wood Brothers car he was given after saving Marvin Panch’s life in a preliminary sports car race.
1961 Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville:
Whole-race videos aren’t easy to come by from Martinsville’s early days, but this short film’s fun, if for no other reason than seeing a couple of Thunderbirds in the field.
Here’s a little longer film of the 1972 Virginia 500:
1953 Southern 500:
Darlington used to produce films of its races (note the cameraman in the pace car, above), which would be shown in theaters or other venues during the off-season. In Richmond, these events were presented by one of the civic clubs. There weren’t many other opportunities to see races you’d missed in person, so these were popular, and the quality is more than decent. Step WAY back in time.
Dave Fulton pointed me to this one, which covers personalities more than races but tries to capture the flavor of the 1976 Winston Cup season. The late Kenneth Campbell, longtime associate of Paul Sawyer at Richmond, was the executive producer, and Dick Brooks, then driver for Junie Donlavey, is the primary narrator. Donlavey, Bud Moore and Richard Petty fans will be especially pleased to see long segments on their heroes. (This is where Moore talks about cheating the way it used to be viewed.)
That’s Kenneth Campbell at right, with Ned Jarrett and announcer Sammy Bland.
NASCAR Dirt History:
This is a recent (and brief) TV production, tied to NASCAR’s return to dirt with the Camping World Truck Series at Eldora, but it has some good dirt footage.