Old Days, Old Ways, Or New?
I love transponders, which now are in use almost everywhere in racing. Having full, complete results of a race available pretty much immediately is really cool, especially when they’re potentially available anywhere in the world via the various web entities that collect them. When I’m not at a race on Saturday night, I’m frequently keeping up with results from half a dozen or more tracks online. As a fan, it’s awesome.
There would have been a downside, though, had all this been around when I was a teenager, because buddy Dave Fulton and I frequently worked as scorers for major races at our home weekly track, Southside Speedway in Richmond, and sometimes elsewhere.
The old days at Southside Speedway in Richmond
In those days, for races that were too long to have one or two individuals score the whole field manually, each car had a scorer, who would dutifully note the number on a flip-down timing clock every time that car crossed the start/finish line. Teams were supposed to provide scorers, but inevitably some didn’t, and the track would recruit people from the stands to take the job. At Southside, volunteers got their ticket admission returned.
Of course, being calculating young men, we’d try to get the job scoring cars that looked too decrepit to last more than a couple of laps. If that happened as planned, you then got to watch the race from one of the best seats in the house for free.
If you driver didn’t pack it in early, you generally ended up silently cheering for him while you scored. Once I had a local guy, not a “backmarker” but seldom a contender for the lead, and in a 300-lap race, he slowly climbed through the standings, in part by waiting until the last possible lap to pit. He got as high as third place, and I was really happy for him. Then at last he pitted and promptly lost 32 laps changing a couple of tires.
I’d never have had that opportunity with transponders.
The thing is, a race still runs like a race, whether you have teenaged volunteer scorers or transponders, but many of the other changes in the sport have had more of an impact:
-- Races today usually have dozens of competitors on the lead lap at the end, while in the old days, there might have been only two or three (or even one), and the fifth-place finisher might have been miles and miles behind. That makes today seem better, but in fact, there was more to watch yesterday, when cars lost and gained laps in the pits and on the track, keeping the outcome much more fluid.
On February 27, 1965, Ned Jarrett won a 200-lap NASCAR Grand National (Cup) race at Spartanburg, S.C., by 22 laps over runner-up G.C. Spencer. Only seven of the race’s 16 starters were running at the finish.
-- Racers today consider it abject failure if their pit stops are a couple of seconds slower than the competition, but the sloppy pit stops of yesterday led to much more shuffling in the standings and - again - more uncertainty about the outcome.
-- Today nearly everybody finishes the race. I’ve seen races where a full field at the start was down to single digits by the end. The leader may have worried as much about parts breaking as about competitions. Made things more interesting if you were really into the race.
-- At the recent Charlotte Roval race, it was neat to see Matt DiBenedetto and Michael McDowell advance from the ranks of the also-rans to run with the leaders for most of the day. “Back when,” there was almost always some occasional racer or regular “independent” giving you reason to cheer for the underdog. With the charter system, the kind of underdog performance we saw at the Roval might happen three or four times a year; it used to be pretty regular.
When Lennie Pond lead the first seven laps of the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte, the fans went nuts. Where are the underdogs today?
There are more things like that - and you can argue with my conclusions about these - but taken as a whole, they mean the sport is different today. If you’re a “half-full” optimist, you can say that’s why lots more people are at the races than 40 or 50 years ago. If you’re a “half-empty” pessimist, you can say that the numbers have dropped off dramatically, and while there have been some tiny bright spots this year, there’s no way to say NASCAR is on a strong upward curve in popularity.
So what does that mean? Well, NASCAR obviously thinks that the major changes to the cars (non-stock vs. stock), teams (big corporate money vs. Joe Garage-Owner), drivers (much younger and corporately ideal vs. older and not always in total command of grammar) and money (million$ after million$ vs. buy me a couple of tires and I’ll put your name on the car) are for the good. I’m not so sure.
Either way, though, I think things won’t stay just the way they are. One day I’m not going to be around, and the person who takes my place in the bullseye of racing’s marketing machine won’t think like me. If NASCAR wants that person, things might have to change even more.
Think of it this way. I’m a huge cartoon fan, and to me, nothing is better than a classic, Chuck Jones-directed Bugs Bunny or Road Runner cartoon. Still, when I was watching cartoons with my grandson, I grew to appreciate SpongeBob.
However, the last time I watched a cartoon with him, it was one for the video game generation, computer-generated artwork with the perspective of the cartoon being similar to that you would have playing an action video game. To me, that was disorienting, but he seemed to like it.
Maybe my racing world is like my cartoon world, at left, and tomorrow’s fans will be more like the fans of the animated video at right, but things may well be very different.
Racing could be headed that way. I’ve joked about drone races with “drivers” being the ones controlling the drones, but that might not be too far from the truth. We’ve already ditched “stock cars” in stock car racing, so why not make them like what the kids control in their games.
Would racing gain popularity if it had more explosions? I don’t know, but the thought of it makes me glad I probably won’t be around. And on that cheerful note, I hope you enjoy this weekend’s race.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
I can’t leave you on a sour note like the one above. I had a really hard time looking for images to illustrate this week’s article - nowhere could I find old short-track pit stops or an old short-track scorers stand, but in looking I found some other images that were too good to pass up, and here they are:
Last year the New York Times had an interesting article about the “culture war” in auto racing between the NASCAR model and dirt track racing. I’m not going to link it, because readers would likely get too hung up on the factual errors it contained, but this photo of Tony Stewart is just priceless.
Finally, here are two images of the hero of my youth, “Rapid Ray” Hendrick, in the Jack Tant modifieds that carried him to hundreds of victories. Ray was about as old-school as they come, so nobody today is likely to knock him off the lofty perch he holds in my heart.