Racing Grand Nationals Once Meant Prepping Your Car in a Hurry
When I attended my first NASCAR Grand National race at the Richmond Fairgrounds on a Sunday afternoon in April 1963, I had no idea that nine of the drivers in the starting field had been in action Thursday night at another GN event in Augusta, Ga.
In those days, I think it’s safe to say none was a “big money” team, but they somehow managed to drive from Georgia to Virginia and presumably do at least a little work on their cars before putting them out for 250 grueling laps. Ned Jarrett won the Augusta race and finished second at Richmond, so he gets the “iron-man” (or “iron-mechanic”) award.
Ned makes a pit stop - and notice that the window rolls down.
This is identified as being from the last race run on the dirt at Richmond, but it’s also supposedly from the 1967 Capital City 300, and the last dirt race was run the next spring, so make of it what you will.
When the gang returned that fall, it was by way of Hickory, N.C., where they had raced Friday night - not as long a drive, but I can’t imagine any of the guys who made both shows (Hickory was 250 laps and Richmond was 300) feeling like going out for a couple of cold ones afterward.
In 1965, NASCAR scheduled a 400-lapper on the asphalt at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Va., on Saturday night and then ran Richmond’s 300-lapper on dirt Sunday afternoon. I don’t recall any cautions for drivers nodding off, but it wouldn’t have been a surprise. With that kind of schedule, it’s also no surprise that nobody did well in both races. Neil “Soapy” Castles finished eighth at Manassas and fifth at Richmond, completing 657 of a possible 700 laps in the process. Neil had a temper, so it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to get him riled Sunday evening - assuming he wasn’t already back out on the highway headed south.
Couldn’t find a photo of Grand National/Cup racing at Old Dominion, but it was a good track for watching just about anything.
This week the Monster/Cup Series runs at Dover with a typical schedule, having had off since last Sunday’s race at Chicago. I’d like to see somebody go up to one of those teams and challenge them to run the schedule at the first Dover race back in 1969. That 300-lap race was run on a Sunday afternoon, barely 48 hours after most of the teams had raced in the Medal of Honor Firecracker 400 at Daytona.
That’s right. Finish up in Daytona at mid-day Friday, load up the car, drive for at least 18 hours (it’s 13+ hours today, and there weren’t as many interstates, four-lanes, or by-passes back then), set the car up for a completely different type of track, and pretend you got some sleep when you’re out there going 120+ miles an hour.
The first Grand National (pre-Winston Cup) race at Dover, back when the start-finish line was in front of the horse track-centric enclosed stands.
Give the award here to James Hylton, who definitely wasn’t “big money,” but who finished ninth at Daytona and third at Dover. I’d like to see one of today’s “developmental drivers” pull that off.
OK, it’s comparing apples-to-oranges, granted. Today’s cars require a lot more work, and the competition level is such that, if you let something slide like those ‘60s guys had to do, you’re one of the slowest cars in the field.
But let me ask you this: Which makes for more excitement, perfection-vs-perfection in a sterile setting or grit-n-grime with the possibility of a wheel falling off or the driver passing out?
For that matter, ask Tony Stewart which is better, a week to prep for all the engineering challenges of a Monster/Cup race, or less than 24 hours between Arctic Cat All Star Sprint Car events? There’s a reason you see Tony smiling more these days.
For me, I’ll take the real stuff, too.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
The racing world lost a giant last weekend when New England modified star Ted Christopher died in a plane crash on the way to a race on Long Island.
Christopher was a former NASCAR national champion, but above all he was a polarizing figure that you either loved or hated, because he raced to win and he raced aggressively. But I always thought his personality when he wasn’t behind the wheel was much more that of a guy you’d spend time with in the pits or the bar. He had a great smile.
He was 59 years old when he died, but the fire still burned, without question, and I’ll bet his appearance at a track brought out more fans than nearly anyone else there.
Certainly - as a percentage of total attendance - many times more than any of NASCAR’s sanitized developmental drivers. As Matt Kenseth fans start looking at schedules for other sports (or other forms of motorsports), it would really be nice if somebody would notice that.
RIP, Ted. You gave us a lot of thrills, and you can’t be replaced.