Old Versus New ~ Age Versus Youth
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and a warm welcome as well to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR, on this cloudy, dismal day in North Georgia. After the race at Talladega, I’m both amazed and amused at some of the comments I’ve read that fall into the vein of declaring it “the worst race ever!” I must have watched a different race from those surly folks, as I saw what’s been missing from racing at the giant tracks for the past 30 years… the ability of the fast cars to pull away from the slower ones and break up that huge pack that is always an accident of major proportion just looking for a place to happen.
The sharp difference of opinions is nothing new. As usual, I expect it stems from looking at the race from differing aspects. What youth doesn’t realize is that age has been where they are, and the young have never experienced what the aged know from experience. I’ve been around since dirt was invented and should be able to speak intelligently on both old and new.
Are there differences between racing in the early days and racing in the new millennium? Of course there are, and their number is legion… far too great to cover in one column or even one book of some length, but that has never stopped this writer from trying. First, we need to establish some categories, as there are several things that have contributed to the end product of the change… cars, tracks, drivers, and features.
Let's begin by looking at the cars. Immediately following WWII, the cars available for racing were all of per-war vintage, as auto manufacturing plants had all converted their equipment to build whatever was needed for the "war effort." Those were important words when I was a child, and everyone strove to do things for that war effort, even if it were only saving string and rolling old tinfoil into balls… I know not what for, but I was happy to do my part for the war effort. The war ended when I was seven, mind you.
Those would be the first cars I saw race as a teenager… 1939, '40 and '41 Fords, Chevys, Plymouths and others, both stock and modified, graced the dirt or gravel/tar mix of Spencer Speedway in Williamson NY in the mid '50s. As America rebuilt and moved into more affluent times, cars once again became readily available, and the stock cars that raced became newer and newer, evolving into those gorgeous fin-adorned marvels of the late '50s and on to the longer, sleeker "boats" of the '60s. The evolution continued with the coming of the "Muscle cars" and big-block engines. Ah, but as with all things, that too passed. The escalating price of gas almost demanded smaller cars with smaller engines, and the demand was heeded in the early '80s and accentuated in the '90s. In the first decade of the new millennium, stock car racing saw the birth of the COT, a one-size-fits-all mistake that now rests in peace as something that came and left without fanfare and quite frankly without acceptance or regret. Today, we have the "Gen-6", which is better in all ways than its pudgy little predecessor, but is it the best ever? One thing for sure, it's faster! And way out there on the horizon, the “Gen-7” looms.
Let's leave the cars for now and move along to the tracks. At the start, stock cars raced only on dirt, primarily because dirt was all there was. Yes, my purist friends, I know that Indy was paved and there were select others, but they never made it onto the NASCAR schedule in the early days. I don't believe NASCAR ever raced on the boards either, but they were there as well. So dirt short tracks it was, “back in the day." Quarter-mile, 3/8-mile, 1/2-mile tracks were the norm. Many only boasted a single Armco barrier or in some spots no barrier at all. Spectators just got out of the way if an errant car headed in their direction. Yes, we lost a few, but that was racing in the '40s and into the '50s. With those '50s though, came Darlington, supposedly the track that dreams are made of. Well, she made Harold Brasington's dreams come true, when he opened his version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Eastern South Carolina. That the track was well over a mile shorter than the Speedway in Indianapolis, or that one end had been "chopped" somewhat in order to spare a minnow pond, didn't matter to Brasington or anyone that raced on the track dubbed "The Track Too Tough To Tame." She opened her gates in 1950, and change soon followed.
Whether it was the success of racing at Darlington, once they got that tire thing figured out, or the fact that those beautiful finned autos of the '50s were more suited to running on pavement than dirt is debatable, so feel free to discuss that among yourselves. By 1959, Big Bill France's dream track, Daytona, opened for business, albeit a couple years later than he'd planned. Tracks such as Atlanta and Charlotte followed within a year. By 1969, Big Bill swung wide the gates to a track quite capable of handling those big boats and muscle cars with the big block engines. At 2.66-miles per lap and banking as high as 33°, the Alabama International Motor Speedway (AIMS) was a sight to behold and has hosted some of the best, and some of the most deadly racing stock cars have ever produced… once they got that tire thing figured out. We know her today as Talladega, which leads me to think perhaps there should be a sub-category, delineating the change in racing due to the addition of restrictor plates to both Talladega and Daytona in 1988.
The year 1971 brought new Series sponsor R.J. Reynolds into racing, and with that entity came new ideas. One of those ideas came to fruition the following year, when the sponsor mandated a shorter 31-race schedule, down from 48 the previous year, attained by the elimination of any race less than 250 miles in length. By that time, the Series had moved beyond the dirt tracks, but the move negated any chance of them returning. By the 1980s, we were down to only four short tracks in the Series, Martinsville, Richmond, North Wilkesboro and Bristol. In 1996, North Wilkesboro passed from the scene, never to return. With the approach of the 1990s and through that decade, new tracks began to spring up like wildflowers along the highway, each with a strong desire to secure a date on the Winston Cup schedule. Many did, and that was accomplished by extending the schedule, from a low of 28 races to the present count of 36 races, and removing races from the old schedule.
As noted, North Wilkesboro lost both dates in a tangled and rather ugly business alliance between two old men with a common love of money. (Ask me about North Wilkesboro sometime) Darlington, the grand old lady that started it all, lost her venerable and historic Labor Day race, the Southern 500, to an upstart entry from California, where they blame empty seats on folks going shopping. Oh please!! North Carolina Motor Speedway lost both dates to chicanery, becoming the victim of a lawsuit in which she was not involved. In short, "The Rock" was the payoff. And so it went, through the '90s and into the new millennium, with old tracks closing or ceding a date to newer ones coming in. One of the most recent to lose a race date was my home track, Atlanta Motor Speedway, once known as the "Perfect Oval" before reconstruction.
As the 2010 season bowed in at Daytona, another problem became startlingly apparent when the aging Superspeedway developed a pothole between turns one and two that Bondo couldn't fix, finally necessitating red flag periods totaling 2 hours and 24 minutes… and sending many fans home. That added Daytona to the growing list of tracks deciding that it was time… or past time… to repave, all in a quest to improve the "racing" for the diminishing fan base. Then, just when it would seem that everything old was new again, what arguably was the best race of the 2013 season to date was run at that shopping center turned race track in Fontana. Why? According to the pundits, it's because the pavement there had aged for over 10 years and had become "seasoned." Things such as that make it more than difficult to define good and bad.
Next, we have the drivers, and this one can get tricky. Starting at the top, with our first two 7-time Champions, can anyone really say that Richard was better than Dale, or that Dale was better than Richard? Those two did race each other, but at very different times in their respective careers. Dale was a rookie on the upside when Richard was on the downside of his successes. Richard won more races, but in a very different era, where instead of 28 or 29 races a year, there were upwards of 60. You choose. I'm not going there. Then there’s Jimmie, with seven of his own, all of which were earned under some version or another of the new cockamamie Chase/Playoff thing. This scribe isn’t touching that part either.
Comparison of drivers of the '50s and '60s with drivers today has to be subjective at best, because of all the changes to both cars and tracks. One thing that does occur to me though, is that I have never once heard a young fan talk down or disparage any one of the old heroes of NASCAR. They, it would seem, realize that they didn't know those men, so they depend on folks like me and a thousand other oldsters to tell them what it was like back then. That's why I feel it so important to tell them the truth. Conversely, I have heard old fans, over and over ad nauseum, compare today's drivers unfavorably to those from other eras, implying that they are somehow not equal in manhood to those they remember from their youth. Well, those drivers of past decades came from the time of my youth as well, and somewhere, somehow, our memories are not quite the same.
We're told how manly the drivers were that drove without power steering, and how easy today's "kids" have it because they have that feature. Hmm… is it ever mentioned how many of those "kids" of today work out on a daily basis, while I don't recall hearing of a single member of the old guard doing that? Now, before you rush to comment, surely there were strong and muscular men among them… muscles developed mostly from hard work. Names such as Earnhardt, Gant and Yarborough come immediately to mind. On the other hand, who was taller, Mark Martin or Little Joe Weatherly?
Visiting another side of the coin, we tend to celebrate and make heroes of men from the early days that trained on beer and hard liquor, lived the party life to the max, cheated on their wives with regularity and hit each other with weapons such as wrenches, and occasionally employed fire arms as well. While some of that makes for amusing stories, much of it is also against the law of the land and is punishable by long jail terms. This one will probably get me in all sorts of trouble, but if you were a racer, with whom would you prefer to race, A.J. Allmendinger after he'd taken one Adderall or Curtis Turner after imbibing a fifth of Canadian Club? I know my preference; your results may vary.
There is a stat that should be part of this, but quite honestly, I don't know that it exists anywhere but in the race by race breakdown of the early races found in Greg Fielden's Forty Years of Stock Car Racing. That would be the number of relief drivers used in races from each decade. If you've followed any of Matt McLaughlin's 50 Years of NASCAR History here on Race Fans Forever, you've found hundreds and hundreds of references to relief drivers. How many of those do you recall since the millennium began? Oh yes, you're going to remind me that today's cars not only have power steering, but better cooling systems with in-helmet coolers. This is true, but isn't that all part of the "change" we're talking about? There have been changes, perhaps millions of them over 60-some years, but have those changes made the racing better or worse? Please, don't lose sight of the goal. Might it not also indicate that these "kids" today are a pretty tough lot in their own right?
Finally, I put "features" on the list so as to include all of the safety upgrades that have been added over the years. Sadly, many of them came to exist as the direct result of the death of a driver or drivers… seat belts that have now evolved into 7-point harnesses, inflatable bladders in gas tanks that prevent the flammable liquid from escaping in great volume, fire retardant Nomex suits, greatly improved full-face helmets, custom-fit carbon seats, state of the art head and neck restraints, and finally the best of all, the SAFER barriers. Gentle readers, this much I can promise. There is not a driver of a bygone era that would not have loved any one of those features, let alone all of them… and many gave their lives to see them come to fruition.
Keeping all of that in mind, let's move along to a quick comparison of racing stats themselves. This one is easily accessed and you may do so at your leisure. Just browse http://racing-reference.info … any race, any year, and check the number of cars on the lead lap. As you go backward through the years, that number will shrink. When you get back to the really "Good ol' days", it will many times read "1." Second place is often several laps behind, and no telling where 10th place might be; quite often, out of the race before the end. We complain today about teams starting and parking. "Back in the day", that was the order of the day, but it was seldom done on purpose.
Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. There are arguments and points on both sides of this one. As a friend once told me, I've had the pleasure of being around for all of it, so today I've shared some thoughts and memories with you, my gentle readers. The younger fans among you never had the chance to watch the old boys run, but you can find tons of old races, both dirt and asphalt, on YouTube. Go shopping there and watch some. We had a lot of fun going racing back then. The drivers all had personalities, and we knew that because they were all accessible to the fans. In those days, it really was true that racing was a "Family."
The very best I can wish you is to have as much fun with racing as I've had in the 65 years I've been hanging around race tracks. It wasn't all bad, but it wasn't all good. Today's racing is different, to be sure, but which is better or worse? Oh no! I'm leaving that one strictly up to each of you to conclude for yourself. Here I've presented many points to ponder to help you reach the right choice for you. I have, and quite frankly, it surprised me. Trust me on this point… Sunday’s race was far from the worst race ever! FAR!
And now for some good ol’ kick up your heels Classic Country in our Closeout this week. This is a rare recording of the Old American Barn Dance Show from 1953. Please enjoy it with me.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!