TweetThat’s History! NASCAR’s Checkered (Flag) Past, One Story At a Time: This is NOT Your High School History Class
Amy Henderson · Friday April 1, 2005
Note: This column originally ran on Junuary 8, 2005
Before you think that, as the resident history buff here at the Frontstretch, writing a column on the “good old days” (whenever those were) of stock car racing, that it’s going to be a rehash of your scary high school history teacher (you know the one; no sense of fashion or humor; droned you off to la-la land with long-winded descriptions of either dead guys or old battles), let me assure you, I am none of these things. Well, OK, I can be a little long-winded, but in a GOOD way. As for the scary part, well, those are just rumors…
I probably counted history as my least-favorite subject in school. It wasn’t until later that I realized that why I love history now is exactly why I hated it in high school. What makes history amazing is not the dates of battles, who was there, or which side was victorious when the smoke cleared. It’s the smaller stories within the larger picture: the heroic last deed of a dying officer, the letter from a terrified young soldier to his sweetheart back home, the simple fence line that halted a charge and changed the face of a whole war. The stuff you never learned in your textbook.
Racing, like history, is easy to reduce into neat little statistical packages, giving the bare minimum of information. For instance, the first Southern 500 was run at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day, 1950. Johnny Mantz won the race, the longest to date. A field of 74 cars began the day, nearly twice the field of today’s events. Sure, that’s history. The way your high school textbook packaged it, I bet. What, when, who, where.
But frankly, it’s also boring. If all I knew about racing’s past were the W’s, I’d have nodded off before you could say “Daytona Beach-Road Course.” Here’s the real story, or at least a taste of it, in a nutshell. Because the Southern 500 was by far the longest race most of its drivers had ever experienced, none of them really know what to expect. Anticipating that they’d be thirsty sometime during the race, several drivers brought beverages that they could sip at throughout the race. That’s not the fun part; drivers these days all do that. Like today’s competitors, most of those drivers filled their containers with water. Someone, seems to me it was Buck Baker, brought tomato juice. It seemed like a good idea at the time. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea if not for one minor glitch. Baker crashed. Safety workers took one look at the juice-covered Baker and abandoned him for dead, mistaking the red juice for blood. Only the driver’s frantic hollering made them realize their mistake. Oops.
Apparently NASCAR was a good bit more lenient with its drug and alcohol policy in 1950, because we also have the guy who brought beer. I guess they hadn’t invented the ever-useful Rule 12-4-A yet. In any case, after several circuits, the beer-swilling driver got a punishment more fitting than any ever handed down by the sanctioning body. Several laps on Darlington’s notoriously rough surface, and that driver’s car was described by others in the field as bearing a remarkable resemblance to a washing machine on heavy-duty cycle with too much soap. Poetic justice did apparently once exist in NASCAR.
Finally, there were the “tire issues.” That notoriously rough Darlington surface was, as it still is, hell on tires. As racers rapidly finished off their rubber, they began to look for alternatives. They bought them, as is still common these days, from teams whose luck had ended early. When those ran out as well, people got creative. They begged, borrowed, and stole tires from every available resource, chiefly the ones belonging to fans and located, conveniently, just outside the track, in the parking lot. Imaging trekking to your distant vehicle only to discover that its tires had participated in the on-track action and were, well, gone. And we complain about the parking lot situation today.
Now THAT’s history. What makes it real is the personal side, the side that makes you feel like you were THERE (and if you, like my students, have the preconceived notion that anybody who likes history that much must be an antique herself, let me assure you that I was not there. In fact, one of my parents had yet to be born on that day.). The side that makes you wish you were there. That’s the side I’m going to share in the coming months in this column. If you’re new to the sport of racing, I hope you’ll fall in love with it all the more. If you’ve been a fan for too many seasons to count, I hope you’ll be reminded of why you fell in love in the first place. So, join me each week, and I’ll introduce you to some of the people and places that times seems to have forgotten, and to the lighter side of racing. One story at a time. Because, that’s history.
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