Stock Car Racing Magazine ~ Lessons Learned from Old Covers
Here’s a pretty cool web page. Russ Thompson has been one of our sports most gifted photographers for a long time, and this collection is indeed a gift to all of us who enjoy racing history.
Among other things, the site displays the covers of nearly all the issues of the late Stock Car Racing Magazine, and although getting through all 40+ years of them is quite an achievement, I recently waded in long and deep enough to come up with a few observations on where things have gone and might be going in our sport.
Herewith, the words or photos of inspiration and then the observations, in chronological order.
May 1966 - The magazine’s first issue featured newly crowned NASCAR Grand National Champion Ned Jarrett on the cover. Old-timers can still tell you that Ned enrolled in the Dale Carnegie Course to enhance his “Communications and Human Relations Skills for Success.” He already had the driving skills. It’s important that Jarrett made use of those skills as a broadcaster after his driving career ended with retirement at age 34, but even more important that fans knew so much about him: that he once worked in his dad’s sawmill, that he once raced under his brother’s name, that his wife was Martha, that he was “Gentleman Ned.” We learned some interesting details about Bubba Wallace at Daytona, but William Byron might attract fans quicker if he was seen in a more human light like that.
December 1968 - The cover photo was of Cale Yarborough, but headlines included: “USAC Roundup: DeQuoin, Wentzville, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Springfield” and “Modifieds: Trenton 200, Ray Hendrick.” Yes, USAC raced stocks, and in their heyday they rivaled NASCAR for status, especially outside the South. Yes, Modifieds once received nearly as much media attention, at least for major events like Trenton and Langhorne, as Cup/Grand Nationals. Others might disagree, but I think NASCAR played an intentional role in stomping out other sanctioning bodies and even types of racing that took limelight away from Cup. Today, that hurts the overall coverage of motorsports, which hurts NASCAR as well. Ironic.
November 1971 and December 1971 - Following up the 1968 comments, the November issue featured the Pikes Peak Hill Climb on the cover - younger readers can look that up online - and December featured not only USAC and Modifieds (with Norm Nelson’s USAC Plymouth pictured on the cover), but also Trans-Am (at the high point of stock car SCCA road racing) and unsanctioned major races. Obviously, nobody at Daytona noticed, but there was plenty of room for all.
September 1975 - “Marty Robbins Gives Up His Hobby.” It was pretty cool to have a genuine Nashville star joining the Grand National boys on occasion and actually running decently - he also raced successfully in late models at Nashville. The lack of any opportunity for such a thing in Cup racing today is another limiter of NASCAR’s popularity.
August 1978 - “Dirt Is Beautiful: Dirt Track Special Issue,” with a sprint car on the cover of STOCK Car Racing Magazine. Why not? We could celebrate all kinds of racing, right? Well guess what - dirt track racing is doing pretty well these days, and while sprint cars never got as big as NASCAR stocks, they haven’t lost popularity either, and they survived the retirements of Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell better than NASCAR has weathered the losses of Gordon, Stewart, Earnhardt, etc.
November 1982 - “Ronnie Thomas, Struggles.” It’s OK to shine light on those not running for the lead sometimes. Thomas had a good personality and added to the sport’s draw. Today we mostly know the non-charter drivers as people who must have the money to buy those rides. Spending time depicting them as real people might expand that image.
September 1986 - “Mike Waltrip: Future Superstar or Just Darrell’s Brother?” No comment.
February 1990 - “Racing You Can Afford! - How to Build an IMCA Modified; Low Dollar Mini-Stock; Dynamite Street Stock; Racing on Pennies.” If you want racers - which are kind of needed if racing’s going to survive - they need to start somewhere. Don’t you think NASCAR should have some helpful programs at this grassroots level?
October 1994 - “A Racer’s Wife Pleads: Make Speedways Safer.” Amen. It also occurs to me, though, that we seldom get to know racer’s spouses anymore. Does anybody cook breakfast for the guys like Flossie Johnson did? Does anyone share the triumphs and tragedies like Linda Petty? Maybe we just have to shield them from the nuts in the fan base, but I wish today’s wives (maybe husbands, too, if we get some of them) could be more than eye candy or displayers of requisite emotion for wins or wrecks.
October 1995 - “How Car Owners Pick Drivers.” Wonder how that article would be different if written today, 22 years later.
May 1998 - How things change, Part 1: “‘I Told Ya So!’ Behind the Scenes/Earnhardt’s Big Win.” How things change, Part 2: “Backstage at Racing’s Hot Bikini Contest.”
May 2001 - “Dale Earnhardt Tribute Issue.” Has NASCAR ever recovered?
February 2005 - “Roush Tryouts at North Wilkesboro.” We lost the track, and we lost an interesting method of finding new star drivers. It was flawed but better than waiting to see which “contestant’s” check clears first.
February 2007 - “America’s Best Short-Track Driver: NASCAR Champion Philip Morris.” How many seats on NASCAR’s top touring circuits should have been given to this guy to see if he could kick it up that last notch? Unfortunately, he apparently failed the corporate sponsor tests, and instead we get the assembly line of grinning young nobodies with checkbooks.
November 2008 - “Finding Money: Tips for Supporting Your Race Program.” Probably as important a read as racers and racing could stumble over today, but not enough did. SCR folded after this issue.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
My last article included an ad for a 1958 Grand National race at Champion Speedway in Fayetteville, N.C., and if you’d looked at it closely, you would have noticed that the program included a 150-lap feature, plus two 25-lap heat races. I know the heats offered for Xfinity races year-before-last didn’t reach the top of the popularity charts, but I can’t help but think this is an idea that might be worth trying again.
Nobody complained about qualifying when the Trucks run heats at Eldora.
Of course, the real purpose of these races is to determine who starts and who doesn’t when the field has more cars than can start the feature, and many saw that as the flaw in the Xfinity experiment. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that they didn’t do that back at Fayetteville 60 years ago, either - all 29 cars on hand started the feature on the one-third-mile oval.
Still, what would you prefer, heats that do nothing other than set the starting field or time trials for a less-than-full field?
Looking back even farther, the NASCAR advertisement referenced last week, which showed all sanctioned weekly tracks in 1954, had a surprising number of those tracks racing during the week (Detroit’s Motor City Speedway raced on Monday and Thursday nights as well as Saturdays, and Pontiac, Mich., Speedway ran on Sundays and Wednesdays), and as many running Sundays as Saturdays, even including Sunday racing in the Bible Belt South.
That got me to thinking. These days it’s rarer and rarer to find a track that runs any night other than Saturday. I think that Southside Speedway in Richmond was the only track in all of Virginia that ran on Fridays last year, and weekly Sunday oval racing was nowhere to be found. Pennsylvania is a little better than that, with more than half a dozen Friday tracks, including the well-known Williams Grove and Lernerville Speedways, and there are even a couple of tracks racing on Sundays. Those numbers seem to be in permanent decline, though.
Could that reflect anything other than an overall decline in our love affair with the automobile? Does it mean that the youngest among us might even live to see speedways repurposed for drone races or something “virtual” that only exists on a screen?
“Remote Control Holders, start your engines!”