NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: When Were the Good Ol’ Days of NASCAR?

“Back in the good ol’ days…” is a phrase heard all the time in NASCAR.

Back in the good ol’ days, the racing was great and every finish was exciting.

Back in the good ol’ days, the drivers were real racers.

Back in the good ol’ days, NASCAR wouldn’t have stood for this.

Waxing nostalgic is everywhere these days, and it’s certainly understandable.  The sport has changed — and changed drastically — in the last 15 years after a period where little had changed.  Some of those changes were not well-received, and that’s not without good reason; some of those changes — many of them, even — were not necessary, especially at a time when the sport was quite healthy. Changing the game too much at one time makes it a different game, and that’s a thin line to walk, between keeping the new fans coming and the old ones sticking around.  On some counts, NASCAR played that game all wrong.

But when exactly were the good ol’ days?

For some fans, they represent the sport’s earliest days. Compared to some other professional sports, those early days were not too long ago, and some of the people who painted them so colorfully into legend are still here to tell the tales.  But those people, and those fans, are becoming fewer in numbers.  Next season will mark the 70th anniversary of NASCAR’s first sanctioned event.

For others, it’s whatever era into which they entered the sport, a coming of age not of years but of experience.

Maybe somehow that’s the crux of it.  It’s about a time of relative innocence, when it was about fast cars and favorite drivers going in circles so fast they might have turned into butter.  As years and then decades go by, humans lose the natural optimism of youth, and it’s what in later years we miss, because we’ll never see the world through those eyes again.

66f09cc2a93b95a5614aa3b6ef42a5de 11
When Jeff Gordon won his first race in 1994, only five other men finished on his lap. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

It’s no different with fans’ love affair with the sport, really.  Eventually it’s not just about drivers and speed anymore, but abut rules and sponsors and money or lack thereof, and then it’s much easier to become jaded.  What might have been a great race 20 years ago when it was a favorite driver battling for a win or a title becomes just another turn around the track for a new generation of drivers.

There’s no doubt the sport has changed.  Drivers have become less relatable as they have to live up to the demands of a corporate sponsor who expects a certain performance on and off the track.  There was a time when that mattered less, but when you’re asking for millions and tens of millions, the cost is greater.

If it means painting on a plastic personality, so be it. If it means spending hours of the weekend at a corporate event instead of signing autographs, well, that’s what you have to do to have the money to be competitive.

The sponsors don’t shoulder all the blame, though.  The sport was built on the shoulders of the likes of Richard Petty, who would stay after races to sign autographs until the last fan was satisfied because he recognized that fans were the ones who made it possible for him to do what he loved.  If a few drivers bowed out of the post-race airport stampede and stuck around for an hour to give fans a picture or a signature, it might go a long way toward restoring the bond fans once felt with their racing heroes.

Cars are different, too.  Once beautiful and iconic, the Fabulous Hudson Hornet has given way to the plain-jane Toyota Camry.  Cars strayed from their stock counterpoints drastically almost from the start, but until the mid-1990s, they at least had to look like them.  The racecar template had to also fit the street version with little variation.

Then that all went away as manufacturers vied for an advantage and NASCAR allowed them to build more and more different machines.  And when they tried to go back to cars that more closely resembled their stock counterparts, we found that cars have evolved on the street as well.  Street cars are more aerodynamic now, and even if NASCAR went back to using street templates, it wouldn’t be the same.

And, if we’re brutally honest here, we’ve all got glasses with varying degrees of rose-colored lenses.  We’ve seen some great races through the years, barnburners that came down to the wire for an exciting finish.  But no matter the era, we’ve seen some clunkers, too. One or two cars finishing on the lead lap isn’t compelling unless they’re door-to-door at the checkers, and there were plenty of races where they weren’t.

hof
As the new generation enters the Cup Series, the legends hit the Hall of Fame. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Was every race in the good ol’ days (whenever they were) great? No.  Was our perception of them different because of a favorite driver, a now-defunct track or some other factor? Sometimes.  It’s not fair to say all the races were exciting, and it’s not fair to say they’re never exciting now.  In our collective conscience, though, those now fading in memory will always be the elusively alluring days we can’t recapture.

It’s pretty hard to say the drivers today aren’t real racers.  They’re certainly more corporate and less accessible, and that could stand to change.  But to say they don’t try just as hard to win every week (and some try every bit as hard to win a feature at an out-of-the-way short track on a Tuesday night, too) isn’t the truth. Many of not most are less relatable for sure, but the stories of earning their way to the top are still there for many of today’s stars.

And as for what NASCAR would or would not have stood for, well, that’s a mixed bag, too.  It’s hard to believe that either Big Bill France or his son would have seen any need for a playoff system.  Stages? That seems a bit more plausible, but who knows?  Nobody.

Back in the day, the sanctioning body was less stringent than they are now about policing the sport.  One prominent team once removed illegal parts from under the hood and stashed them in the trunk of the racecar during post-race inspection and either were not caught or nobody really looked all that closely because of the team name.

Sound familiar? It should, because in some respects, things haven’t changed much.  Some will call cheating on a team any time it sets a tire on track and overlook what looks blatant by other teams. That’s the nature of fans.

NASCAR has a rich and wonderful history, and hopefully it will be told down the generations of fans. But when were the good ol’ days?  Whenever fans found themselves lost in the pure innocence of watching fast cars and scheming drivers.  Whenever they were enchanted by it all.

There’s no time frame, no special year.  The only thing certain is that nothing will ever live up to those halcyon days when there was nothing but racing.

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

17 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
kb

Well everything was normal as the ebb and flow of sports go, till the Little DICKTATOR was handed the keys to the Kingdom and just had not a clue. Forgive me that I cannot remember the name, A well known writer wrote a couple installment piece (I believe on NASCAR DOT COM) and it basically said what we all knew, Brian was a slacker without much ambition. I could be wrong, but…..

Then if memory serves his personal drama became the sports drama because of his marriage, remarriage, divorce, all the dirty secrets trying to be kept quiet..and then comes new TV CONTRACTS…A ANSWER TO HIS PRAYERS…and well it has been down hill ever since, imo. The guy could not run a lemonade stand to satisfy his core customers…the paying fans. He obviously has not learned a lesson with the last minute Hail Mary having MONSTER ENERGY come on board. I don’t think he cares however. NASCAR by a big umbrella is a huge employer…hate to see so many people potentially out of work because of the greed and stupidity of this person who seems to have many problems. Nobody at CASTLE DAYTONA is recognizing the very serious issues facing them, not a one has stepped up..TO POTENTIALLY SAVE THEIR OWN ASSES!. It is all good and wonderful to them! Fucking idiots!

russ

Excellent point to this article. Nothing today can possibly compare to the memories we have. Memories made up of a combination of excitement, naivete, and romanticism with a touch of fantasy thrown in.
Maybe we shouldn’t try to compare the two, because there is no comparison. Maybe the thing we miss most about the good old days is…… our youth.

WhiskeyThief

I think, for me, the “Good Ol Days” were the days of the Winston Cup (1971 – 2003). The rules for points in a season were not changing every year, the cars during the beginning of that era were based on production cars and the personalities were still there. The cars started changing around 87-88 when they allowed front wheel drive 4-door cars to race as 2WD rear wheeled race cars, and that to me was just the beginning of the end, but it wasn’t the killer that the Car of Tomorrow was.
It’s when Men drove the cars, not boys. You had big strong men that endured 500 miles / laps and did it with bad tires, cars with suspension and often without A/C and heat shielding.
It’s often refereed to as the “modern era”, but the cars and the drivers were still raw and tough.
TV was doing a great job coming in during the late 70’s and expanding coverage during the 80’s and 90’s. Then TV got evil with the commercials and the coverage just became annoying and sucky as they showed less and less racing, less of the personalities, and let about the sport.
Overbuilding of the 1.5 mile tracks was just starting at the end of that era too, you still had great tracks that were distinct and not “cookie cutters”.

If I had to put it down to an era in NASCAR, I think the R.J. Reynolds Winston Cup era was the Good Ol Days.

DoninAjax

From an earlier article:

“So based on this reporting, we know NASCAR’s CEO makes rogue decisions, does not show up to the majority of the races and is not very engaged in key planning for the future — all while presiding over the biggest decline in the sport’s history (the WSJ said TV viewership is down 45%).
After the WSJ report, it also appears confirmed France does not own a stake in NASCAR.
Kind of crazy, huh?”

So it appears the Emperor sold his stake in the family business that he inherited and is driving it over a cliff. Maybe if he still owned a piece of the company the decisions would be different. Maybe.

The good old days ended when the drivers didn’t have to live off the money they earn on the track. Motivation!

Bill H.

Well, maybe the leaders were not door to door, but at the end of every single race somewhere on the track two or more cars were door to door for position, and that entertained the discerning fan enormously. At any time during every race, somewhere there was racing for position. I never, ever walked away from a race with the impression that it had been boring, even races where there was only one car on the lead lap, until the advent of the aerodynamic element somewhere in the late 80’s that turned racing into a parade. I quit going to races because I walked away from them most of them having been bored to death from initial green to checker.

Bill H.

Note that even on the rare time today that there is a change of position, it is almost never contested. The announcer says of the car that gets passed, “He knew that soandso was faster, so he just moved over and let him go.”

DoninAjax

Maybe the good old days were when the green flag dropped and the race was allowed to play out on it’s own. No gimmicks for commercial time and Brian’s game-seven-moment contrived endings.

D Smith

i have a television gripe too.
Really tired of lap after lap of in car camera. seeing nothing but some drive moving his arms.
Tired of having a big screen TV and only seeing 10% of the actual race on it.. The other 90% being graphics, commercials, ect.
The tv providers are too in love with their gimmicks to just show the damn race

Capt Spaulding

Amen

Capt Spaulding

I would love to see one race covered like in the early 80s…..on air at 1200, green flag at 1205, and only use camera angles and positioning as was used in that time. No ticker, just top five positions dislayed. While we’re at it, no lucky dog, no wave arounds, no stages, no double file restarts with only leaders, and since NASCAR is so adept with analyzing what requires a yellow flag or red flag, race back to the finish line

Moparjeff

I agree that the ‘good old days’ had a lot to do with tv coverage in the 80s and early 90s. Wide shots showing a dozen cars at a time, blimp shots showing half the track. And announcers who could be fun without being goofy. Buddy Baker, Ned Jarrett, Ken Squire.

Clyde Hull

Another TV gripe with NASCAR. Showing every pit stop for the higher running cars. When you go to a race, you go to watch cars passing each other, not to see what is happening in the pits. It’s about time the TV networks realize that, and show racing on the track, which is what we tuned in for!

Bobby DK

Benny, Ned and Buddy. Dale, Rusty, Terry, Bobby, Bill, Mark, DJ, Davey, Alan, Kyle, Ernie, Harry, Lake, Dick, Sterling, Kenny, Jeff, and Geoff. All of you who knew who I was talking about just by their first names, raise your hands. You get an A. Maybe just nostalgia but those were my better days. Men with personality who worked hard and just raced cars.

Tim S.

Bonus points for mentioning Ernie. NA$CAR.com couldn’t even list his ’97 win in their “10 great moments” at Michigan, on its 20th anniversary. Plenty of other carefully-curated items in there. They mention the history that fits their agenda.

wildcatsfan2016

Before Brian Z France was in charge

Moparjeff

Fundamentally for me, the ‘good old days’ began to erode away when the cars stopped being at least ‘stock appearing.’ I think the Chevy Lumina was the beginning of the end, a front drive car that was allowed to compete as a rear drive and was also allowed to deviate from the until that point standard rear spoiler rules. From there we got the ongoing spoiler/aero wars that ultimately led to the COT, which officially killed the ‘good old days.’

Now manufacturer matters for very little. Engines are not stock based and cars are virtually identical. Back in ‘the good old days,’ manufacturers mattered because one body may have been better on speedways, another may be better on short tracks, etc. So now we have a situation similar to the IROC series, which eventually died a silent and unnoticed death. I hope the MENCS (or whatever its next name is) doesn’t follow the same fate.

Gregg Hunter

One quick and easy way to improve competition–remove the splitter and side skirts. Have a minimum of 6″ ground clearance. That would be the end of the down force issues and require the cars to be driven.

Long term the cars should return to something along the lines of the road race sedans I’ve seen on other series. Stock bodied sedans, full roll cages, production based engines and drivetrains. All manufacturers have a 3.5 liter V6. Sure the cars would be slower, but I remember some great racing at Charlotte at 160 mph.

The current need for teams to have 20 million dollar budgets is unsustainable.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch