Amy Henderson · Wednesday February 23, 2005
I’ve had the feeling something was a little off this week, and it finally dawned on me what that was. This week’s race, instead of being held at chilly, tire-eating Rockingham, will instead be held in sunny (we hope), warm, and, frankly, boring California Speedway. As I was wondering if and/or when NASCAR started putting money before racing, I thought of some other things that have change over the years. I wonder if, had the founders of the sanctioning body known what was coming, they would have done anything differently on those December days at the Streamline Hotel. Just for fun, I decided to take a closer look at the “good old days” compared to the “modern era” of turning left fast.
Then: The first NASCAR-sanctioned race was not its premier Grand National division, nor even the Sportsman division. It was the Modified division, with its open-wheel misfits in the world of fenders.
Now: NASCAR’s Whelan Modified Tour is still a staple in the northeast, and I hear that NASCAR is looking to expand the tour further south and west. Way to go, NASCAR!
Then: Ex-moonshiner and early NASCAR great Junior Johnson took home $66,385 in 1963, his career-high as a driver. Johnson’s career winnings as a driver over fourteen seasons were $276,660.
Now: Ex-desert kamikaze and current NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson (no relation) made $2,697,702 in his rookie year in 2002, his lowest full-season total. Prior to 2005, Jimmie Johnson has taken home a cool $13,938,922 in on-track winnings over just three full seasons. By finishing 43rd in last weekend’s Daytona 500, Bobby Labonte nearly equaled Junior Johnson’s career earnings, winning $276,444.
Then: The Grand National season schedule contained between sixty and seventy races each season. Teams running for a championship would select the races they wanted to run, usually running around 35 a year. The schedule covered venues all over the United States and into Canada, dirt and asphalt, large and small. The point system reflected the schedule, and I’ve never heard of teams complaining too much about the schedule. They were right.
Now: The Nextel Cup schedule will feature 36 races in 2005. The point system demands that teams run all of them, across the United States (with a Busch Series, but no Nextel Cup, race in Mexico) on asphalt tracks, large and small, mostly oval. Teams often complain about the length of the season and the lack of an off-week late in the year. They are right.
Then: NASCAR was catapulted into the modern era in 1972 when RJ Reynolds Tobacco signed on to sponsor the top series. The point system was revised, the schedule shortened, and the Grand National Series became the Winston Cup Series. 2005 Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon celebrated his first birthday, and defending champion Kurt Busch hadn’t been born.
Now: NASCAR enters its second season of its top series racing for the Nextel Cup. The schedule is longer than in the 1970’a and 1980’s, and the Chase for the Nextel Cup has change the point system, making the last ten races the most critical. Daytona 500 Champion Jeff Gordon will turn 34 in August. Cup champ Kurt Busch will turn 27 on the same day.
Then: NASCAR put a stop to some drivers racing in shorts, citing safety reasons. Breakable parts, like headlights had to be taped over for the same reason. Helmets were required but looked like they had been stolen from a safari. Tracks were bordered in cement of by metal guardrails, if they were bordered at all.
Now: For safety drivers wear fire retardant underwear, state-of-the-art firesuits, foot shields made of material developed by NASA, full-face helmets, and head and neck restraints. Racecars have fuel cells but no headlights, and tracks have soft walls and catch fences to keep both racers and fans safe.
Then: Tim Flock had a pet monkey that sometimes rode in the racecar with him.
Now: Tony Stewart has a pet monkey. It does not ride in the racecar, though.
Then: It was all about the glory in a go-fast-turn-left world.
Now: Well, some things never change.
Then: It was NASCAR news in the making.
Now: That’s history!
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