Strollin' Down the Beach
Thinkin' it Must Be Time to Start Racin'
I really was strolling down the beach a week or so ago, but it was at the Outer Banks, and instead of the high banks of Daytona within easy dreaming distance, there were a few tourist-oriented go-kart tracks and Digger’s Dungeon, the museum and home of the Grave Digger Monster Truck. There IS a track there, but it’s a monster truck course. I’m told you can pay for a ride - no charter required.
My selection of shells at the beach wasn’t quite this good, but you get the idea.
Maybe I should have stopped and taken the ‘Digger’ for a spin.
Truth be told, I looked at shells more than I dreamed of stages and splitters - actually, those would be nightmares - but since Daytona’s nearly upon us, I have been thinking… mostly thinking back.
The 500 has been held on this year’s date, February 18, only six times previously, in case you’re interested. Richard Petty won the first two, in 1973 and ‘79, and you could probably make a buck off a non-geezer fan by betting she/he couldn’t tell you what kind of car The King drove that second day. It was an Oldsmobile, and you could probably make some money with newer fans betting on: 1. Petty driving Oldsmobiles at all; 2. Oldsmobile being active in racing; and 3. Oldsmobile being a car.
A man and his Oldsmobile.
Probably the most notorious 2/18 500 was in 1990, when Dale Earnhardt dominated the race, only to run over debris and blow a tire on the last lap, handing the win to Derrike Cope. Earnhardt hadn’t yet won a 500 then, and his fans were stunned. He somewhat made up for that disappointment by winning the ‘90 Winston Cup Championship.
Other winners were Dale Jarrett in 1996, Michael Waltrip in 2001 and Kevin Harvick in 2007. From 2012 until last year, the race was pretty much run a week later (something that also happened in the 1960s), so this is the first time since ‘07 for a 2/18 race.
This will be the 37th straight year that the Daytona 500 has led off what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (sorry, guys, but MENCS as a popular acronym has about as much of a chance of catching on as “encumbered” did), but of course it hasn’t always been that way, and since I’m happiest when I’m up to my elbows in the dust of history, here comes that story.
From 1963-81, Riverside was the first NASCAR (Grand National and then Winston Cup) race of the calendar year, followed by Daytona, but the earlier years of that period also were when NASCAR frequently started the season in the late months of the prior calendar year, right after the previously season had ended. Various races were run in November and even December, mostly in the Deep South but some as far north as North Carolina. The tracks tended to change regularly, though, so it must not have been at the top of NASCAR’s greatest ideas list.
Riverside - a long-time part of NASCAR history, with some great racing.
From 1957-62 (with ‘57-’58 on the beach/road course and ‘59-’62 on the current speedway), Daytona was the first race of the calendar year, if not the season, but the really earlier years of NASCAR had a different script. In 1956, a January race was run at the old dirt horse track at Phoenix (the track the current speedway replaced on the schedule). Buck Baker led a parade of Carl Kiekhaefer Chryslers in the top three spots, followed by Marvin Panch and Lee Petty, but most of the other competitors were West Coast drivers (Panch was from California but was running most of the Grand National circuit).
One of the “prior year” races on the ‘56 schedule had been run in November 1955 at West Palm Beach, Fla., on a half-mile dirt track that was very much a regular part of NASCAR’s early years. Oddly, that was the second race run there in 1955, because the track also had run a 1955 season race on February 6. That ‘55 race was the last of four occasions when West Palm Beach run ahead of Daytona on the calendar year’s schedule. It also had a second November date (1952), and its final Grand National Race was a second 1956 season event, run the week after Daytona.
Not a great photo, but this is said to be a 1966 image of the South Florida Fair and Palm Beach Speedway.
This is NOT the winner of any of the Grand National races at Palm Beach, but there were lots of others, because the track hung around until the early 1980s, when one of those people who hate it when fairgrounds have race tracks succeeded in getting it torn down.
Just for the record, nobody who won at West Palm Beach ever went on to win the 500.
In 1955, there was a second race in the calendar year before Daytona, and it was run at Jacksonville, Fla. The Jacksonville winner didn’t take home the Daytona trophy, either.
Having mentioned that Kevin Harvick won the most recent 2/18 500, I should add that there were 13 drivers in that race who will attempt to make the field this year, plus two who didn’t make it in ‘07.
The soapbox beckons when I note that there were 61 entries in that 2007 500, and with no charters to be acquired - by whatever means - non-qualifiers/non-starters included the then-new Red Bull Racing team of Brian Vickers and A.J. Allmendinger, two Bill Davis entries, Paul Menard in a Dale Earnhardt Inc. entry, and Kenny Wallace, driving for an obscure Colorado furniture guy named Barney Visser. Despite this unconscionable failing by NASCAR that left some pretty high-buck sponsors in the garage, the race got great TV ratings and drew an announced crowd of 185,000 (cue “Those Were the Days, My Friend” on the stereo or phone.)
Once upon a time, the Daytona qualifying races really meant something, because there were 30 or so cars in each, and maybe 20 or more racers were going to go home because of how they turned out. That meant a pretty good crowd showed up to watch, too.
Do you really think that Barney Visser would try to get into Monster Cup racing today without a charter? If charters and cars that resemble air force jets more than stockers would just disappear, maybe we could return to big fields, meaningful qualifying and - who knows - even bigger crowds.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
The Saturday after Daytona, the ultra-brave folks at Lincoln Speedway will try to open their sprint car season for 2018. If the weather is like it was two Saturdays earlier, they just might get the thing run.
Pennsylvania’s Lincoln Speedway tries to start its season in late February, and when it works, a huge crowd turns out, even in cold weather, to see the action.
Of course, some years it looks like this.
I just went to a local race car show, and I think everybody’s ready to get back to racing. I know I am. I love college basketball, but would go to a halfway decent race if there was a conflict. If somebody offered me tickets and a ride to a race while the Super Bowl was being played, I’d follow it on my phone and listen to discussion about the ads later.
Even with its ills, I think fans are ready to get back to NASCAR, too. We’ve got a whole season ahead of us to gripe, but for now, let’s just hear that first, “Drivers, start your engines,” and see the green flag fall.
Every now and then I just see a picture I like while I’m looking for something else, and this is one of those. The caption I saw for it sounds wrong, so I won’t repeat it here, but the dynamics of working on the car make it worth reprinting. Hope you like it, too.
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