NASCAR’s (sort-of) Memorial Day Tradition Is Traditionally Followed by ~ Not Much
Before Charlotte Motor Speedway existed, NASCAR had several brief Memorial Day/Beginning-of-Summer “traditions.” The 1949 Strictly Stock season didn’t start until mid-June, but by 1950, NASCAR had Memorial Day competition for the Indy 500.
(Quick aside: Memorial Day didn’t become the last Monday in May until 1971; prior to that it was May 30, and the Indy 500 ran on whatever day that was, except that it ran on Monday when the 30th was a Sunday.)
Johnny Parsons on his way to victory in the Indy 500 on a Tuesday in 1950.
So on TUESDAY, May 30, 1950, while the gentlemen were starting their engines and the milk was cooling at Indy, 29 of NASCAR’s finest were six hours or so east in Canfield, Ohio (about midway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland) for a race that would become known as the “Poor Man’s 500” (even though it was only 200 laps/100 miles). Bill Rexford won (on his way to the season championship) after Curtis Turner’s engine blew.
With the summer properly ushered in, NASCAR took two-and-a-half weeks off, then returned to Vernon, N.Y., another fairgrounds track, for another 200-lapper.
The Poor Man’s 500 continued for a couple more years before Bill France moved the Memorial Day date south to the new, one-mile Raleigh Speedway in North Carolina. Despite May 30 falling on a Saturday in 1953, the race’s 15,000 crowd was smaller than Canfield the year before.
Racing at Canfield. This is supposed to be from a NASCAR event, but the track was more associated with MARC/ARCA.
In 1954, Raleigh moved its date to May 29 (keeping the race on Saturday), and a Memorial Day event was run the next day in Charlotte, so it’s doubtful anybody in the NASCAR traveling circus had time to fire up the grill that year.
Raleigh switched its date to July 4 in 1957, and Memorial Day (a Thursday that year) was celebrated at my current home track, Lincoln Speedway in New Oxford, Pa., where Buck Baker seems to have won by leading only the last lap and finishing ahead of Fireball Roberts, Paul Goldsmith, Marvin Panch and Speedy Thompson, all of whom were on the lead lap, a rarity for long dirt track races back then. Finishing last was local hot shoe Johnny Mackison, whose grandsons are still racing hereabouts.
This being the period when NASCAR frequently sanctioned competing Grand National races on both coasts, there also was a Memorial Day race in Eureka, Calif., won by Lloyd Dane.
By this time, NASCAR seems not to have cared about going head-to-head with Indy, because weekday May 30 races became scarce, and there was no continuity as to who ran on the weekend closest to Memorial Day. At first, Charlotte didn’t change that.
The inaugural World 600 took place in June – postponed from Memorial Day weekend - but a regular date wasn’t settled on for a while: the race ran on Memorial Day weekend, then a week later, then a week earlier, where it stayed for a few years. Again, there was no consistency of who ran after Charlotte; various short tracks held the date.
Joe Lee Johnson on the way to victory in the first World 600.
That inconsistency was mostly because, in those days, NASCAR reserved the right to use the weekend after a major race (Daytona, Charlotte, Atlanta and Darlington, mostly) for a rain date, and any smaller race scheduled then would be cancelled.
Nothing like telling the little guys how much you love them, right?
So in 1965, for example, you could have gone to Indy or listened on the radio as Jim Clarke conquered the 500, or you could have gone to southwestern North Carolina to see Ned Jarrett prevail over G.C. Spencer at Harris Speedway.
They’re still racing at Harris Speedway. Wouldn’t you like to see a Cup race there?
In 1967, Charlotte finally moved to Memorial Day weekend for good – although it always raced on Sunday, not whatever-day-Memorial-Day-falls-on. Still, promoter Richard Howard played to the crowd by competing with Indy. At one point, Charlotte posted a larger award for winning the pole. The speedway even used the cartoon character Underdog in its branding. Eventually, that played a role in NASCAR catching up with and passing IndyCar racing.
But no tradition was built around the next weekend, even with Charlotte having to race on Monday, not the next Sunday, if it rained. Before the little tracks were brushed off the Grand National/Cup schedule, a different one followed Charlotte each year, until 1971, when Dover grabbed the date.
Since that time, the only track in Delaware ever to hold a Cup/GN race has held its race the Sunday after Charlotte nearly 30 times, and since Delaware’s pretty well known for its beaches, I guess it’s a good tradition to have a track on one route to those beaches run the first race after Memorial Day.
A great way to start the summer: Memorial Day Weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, then racing at Dover, only a short drive from the Delaware beaches – only not this year, because Pocono follows Charlotte in ’18.
Trouble is, NASCAR can’t leave it that way. Back in the early days, Riverside had a couple of streaks using the date, and Texas World Speedway (last seen housing hurricane-flooded cars) was there for three years. Nashville and more recently Kansas have tried the date.
Then there’s Pocono. You know, “Give us two summer dates but please leave at least a couple of weeks between them.” Pocono’s run this weekend will be its fourth time following Charlotte over a period of 36 years. Not exactly a tradition.
This little history survey – for which I owe great thanks to RacingReference.info – has no moral or happy/unhappy ending, but I have a couple of wistful sentiments to share:
First, I’m sorry that Charlotte’s World/Coca-Cola 600 isn’t the big deal it used to be, but rather is just one of 36 equals in NASCAR’s homogenized reality.
Second, I’m sorry there isn’t a nicer tradition for the weekend after Charlotte, the “first weekend after summer’s start.” We almost have a NASCAR tradition with Dover, but this weekend the race is at Pocono.
Maybe you could just celebrate the weekend’s quirkiness by taking in a race at Lincoln (sprint cars) or Harris (double points plus kids bike/big wheels races). Ought to be fun.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
I continue to have trouble with criticisms of the Cup teams for current rules issues. This is all about NASCAR’s rules structure, not dishonest mechanics/engineers. The rules are like the tax system: the goal is to push the envelope as far as you can but don’t break through – or at least don’t get caught.
If you don’t push the envelope, you don’t go fast enough to win, and then you lose your sponsors and – as a driver – your ride. So what do you do?
If you want decent racing and less drama, simplify the cars AND the rules and put the drama back on the track, not in the inspection center.
Also, I don’t understand those who condemn anyone caught cheating today but complain that Smokey Yunick isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
I’d go on, but I don’t want to keep sounding like a grumpy old man. (No Comments!)