This Week's History
(Note: This week several different thoughts were competing for attention as I planned this article, and when I couldn’t discern a clear winner, I decided to include all three of the finalists, so there are three not-quite-related segments below. I’ll try to get my brain more organized by next time, but I make no promises.)
It’s hard to believe – at least for me – but this is the 14th year in a row that the NASCAR Cup Series has ended at Ft. Worth, Phoenix and Homestead. It’s surprising to me how little parts of the current schedule have changed.
The last time things were different was in 2004 when NASCAR forced poor Darlington to run on November 14, between Phoenix and Homestead. Fortunately, that effort to freeze the old lady out of her spot on the schedule failed. The year before that, Rockingham had held that frigid November date, which, along with a “spring” date in February, were enough to help push “The Rock” off the Cup schedule, sadly.
Check out the already-long shadows cast by the starting field at Darlington in 2004
The current schedule seems to work pretty well. Phoenix and Homestead are obvious choices for a late-year date, and things appear to be working OK at Ft. Worth, despite the concurrent scheduling of the Formula One race in Texas this year.
Numerous tracks have tried the late-season, potentially cold-weather dates, including promising-but-ultimately-unsuccessful venues like Ontario, California, and the old Texas World Speedway in College Station. Where it really gets interesting, though, is in the pre-Cup, pre-“Modern Era” years before 1972, when the schedule was much bigger, and Bill France would schedule just about anybody able to pay a purse and patch the fences well enough to keep the freeloaders out.
In the mid to late 1960s, places like Hampton and Richmond in Virginia and Weaverville in the North Carolina mountains (near Asheville) held November race dates and welcomed bundled-up fans for one last look at “the stars and cars of NASCAR.” Earlier in history than that, end-of-year races generally ran only into October, because NASCAR would start the next season with some events in November or even December. At least those weren’t determining the championship.
My favorite was always the November 7, 1965, end-of-year race at Dog Track Speedway in Moyock, N.C., one of the more obscure speedways in GN/Cup racing history.
Here’s the outline – years ago – of Dog Track Speedway, which was located less than a mile below the Virginia-North Carolina state line
There are lots of legends about whether dog racing ever actually took place at Moyock, but the track really did begin with that objective and only adopted auto racing when the possibility of greyhounds was permanently shot down. For about a decade, the track ran weekly races plus several Grand National events.
Ned Jarrett was having a great year in 1965, his last full season of competition, and he had already locked up the championship before Moyock, but his win there (over Bobby Isaac, Buddy Baker, Jim Paschal and Tom Pistone – Richard Petty did not compete) also tied him with Junior Johnson for most victories, 13. Johnson had retired after racing at Rockingham the previous week, and Isaac was driving his car. To make sure Gentleman Ned’s season got into the record books as a “Triple Crown,” an area fan added just enough money to the winner’s purse for Jarrett’s season winnings to surpass Fred Lorenzen’s as the most by any Grand National driver. The difference was $1. (Note: This doesn’t match some records, like RacingReference.info, but my understanding is that they also include end-of-year awards.)
Gentleman Ned Jarrett – NASCAR’s 1965 Grand National Champion
A race the previous year was the only one at Moyock for which an attendance figure was available, and it was 5,400. If the Tidewater 300 in 1965 was comparable, only a relative few witnessed one of the great days of Ned Jarrett’s career, and the ceremonies recognizing the new champ probably weren’t quite what they’ll be after Homestead next month.
This Week’s History-Related Editorial
We race fans are nothing if not human. We complain about something, and then when NASCAR tries to respond to the complaint, we complain about the response. Sometimes that’s totally justified, but we’d complain regardless.
Take the championship race. Over the years, NASCAR has repeatedly tinkered with the point system to ensure it was as close as possible at the end of the year. Then the playoff system (f/k/a The Chase) was added, along with elimination rounds to ensure that there’s a knock-down, drag-out battle on the final Sunday. We hate it all.
Yet in my beloved early days, close championship races were the exception, not the rule. Also, for the first quarter-century, points were generally awarded based on how much a race paid or how long it was, and the year’s final race typically wasn’t a major one, so there was little chance it would change things.
An example: In 1968 (50 years ago), points were awarded based on the length of a race. David Pearson went into the season’s final race with a 127-point lead over Richard Petty. The race, a 100-miler at Jefco Speedway in Georgia, awarded 50 points to the winner with a one-point drop for each position afterward – Pearson would have been the champ even if he hadn’t entered. As it was, he lost one point of his margin to Petty – they finished second and third beyond Cale Yarborough, who hadn’t run the full series schedule.
David Pearson with a few baubles from his 1968 and ’69 NASCAR Championships – neither title race was all that close
We didn’t really start to complain about things like that until NASCAR started beefing up the championship payoff and the publicity surrounding it. Then we demanded to be given a close race. Be careful what you ask for; you might get it.
This Week’s Perspective Editorial
I write a lot about NASCAR’s history, history that frequently goes back 40, 50 or more years, and I suspect that makes it pretty irrelevant to many younger fans. Sometimes I think about that and start to understand why NASCAR maybe shouldn’t think like I do in its efforts to attract younger fans.
After all, a race fan would have to be over age 26 to have been born before Richard Petty ran his last race. A fan under 35 was born after The King last won. My first NASCAR hero, Joe Weatherly, died in his race car 54 years ago. That’s an eternity.
You’re really got to be an old fart like me to remember “The Clown Prince,” two-time Grand National Champ Joe Weatherly. I’m not sure when racers stopped wearing saddle oxford shoes
These younger fans have no idea about dirt screens on the front of cars – or of Cup cars racing on dirt at all (that ended 50 years ago). The idea of a driver racing with an open-faced helmet and maybe even without a uniform might be met with disbelief. More than one race a week? Give me a break!
Some of that brings fond memories to geezers like me, but it’s not part of my argument to look at the past to restore some excitement to NASCAR. I’m fine with all the safety improvements, and while I wouldn’t mind seeing dirt tracks make a comeback in Cup, I recognize there are realistic obstacles to that.
What I think could be brought back from the past is the cheaper, simpler race car and the idea that anybody who can go fast should have a shot at getting into the race. Give the fans cars and drivers they can identify with, and maybe they’ll start filling more seats.
There’s old, there’s new, and there’s timeless beauty. This stock car looks like a “stock car.” We can do this again.