I’m not going to blame NASCAR for making it snow this weekend in Southern Virginia. The sanctioning body can only respond to the weather, not control it, and how to respond to bad weather with a worsening forecast is one of those “damned if you do” and “damned if you don’t” situations. There’s no changing the “damned, it is, in fact, snowing in Southern Virginia on the weekend before Easter, who knew?” reality. It does seem that just last week I was suggesting the Cup schedule start in mid-April to eliminate this sort of happenstance, though. Blind hog, meet acorn. But I digress.
The snowstorm ended up dropping about six inches of snow at the Martinsville track and its immediate surroundings, which is a pretty big deal for the area. Those of us in the winter-weary Northeast blasted by four Nor’easters in a month look at our friends in Virginia like a freckle-faced kid in overalls and a straw hat proudly showing off the minnow he caught even while we continue clubbing at the Great White Shark that is our unending winter of 2018.
So for those of you here in the Northeast, in the Midwest or worse yet New England, six inches is what we term a “nuisance storm.” But for Virginia, well this is kind of a big deal. Local cops who might have spent Sunday directing traffic into and out of Martinsville were needed to respond to families stuck in a ditch in their Family Trucksters. Similarly, ambulances that were expected at the track not for the drivers but for fans who might get injured or fall ill, were needed in their home communities to tend to local citizens. To tie up EMT resources to hold a race would be self-centered and shortsighted at the very least.
Even if the roads to the track were fine, and for the most part they were, anyone who has ever been at Martinsville knows getting there was only half the problem. Many of the parking lots at the track are very steep and still grass-covered, not asphalt. Even after a good rain storm at Martinsville, it’s not unusual to see vehicles spinning their tires and sliding backward down those hills while other fans dive for their lives to get out of the way. I don’t know what sort of race the cold temperatures at Martinsville would have yielded Sunday but I do guess that the parking lots would have looked like a demolition derby.
I’ll take the unpopular opinion here and state that postponing the race was the right decision. The only question I (and many fans with tickets in hand slithering down Virginia highways before dawn) will raise is the timing of the announcement. I am in complete sympathy with any race fan who had tickets to Sunday’s (or Saturday’s) races that won’t be able to attend Monday. That sucks. But what would suck worse is to also have to drive home with a crumpled fender and hood because another driver, even one with four-wheel drive with anti-lock brakes and traction control, did something completely Virginian and rammed into a race fan who was en route to a race that was canceled while he was still sorting out the paperwork with a State Trooper. Had the race been canceled Saturday night, those fans would have had the option to head home then or early on Sunday morning after the plows went through.
The 800-pound gorilla in this situation is the TV networks. If fans are paying a lot of money to attend a race (and they are) you ought to see what the TV networks are paying for a race like Martinsville. Postponing race(s) to Monday dooms the presenting network to horrific ratings that in some cases require partial or full refunds to advertisers. If there is the slimmest of chances that somehow the race can be shoehorned in on the date scheduled (or even that the race could be run long enough to make it official) the networks want to give it the old college try. So that puts the network types and their six-figure checks in direct conflict with the interests of race fans and their 100s of dollars race tickets, motel rooms and travel expenses. And in my eyes at least, the interest of the fans must come before the networks and TV viewers nice, cozy, safe and warm in their recliners at home.
In this instance, I wish that the race would have been canceled Saturday evening when it became evident that there was to be a significant (by Southern standards) snow event and even if the track could be made ready for the race the parking lots could not possibly have been prepared or safe.
I did find it heartening that a bunch of fans who would not be able to attend the race Monday offered their tickets free of charge for any fans who could make the race Monday. That speaks to the continuing camaraderie among race-fans even if there are a lot fewer of us than there used to be.
I have been asked, when was the last time that snow caused postponement of a NASCAR Cup race? It last happened at Atlanta in 1993. Georgia was pummeled that weekend with a couple feet of snow in what was called “the Storm of the Century” though there have been a couple more “Storms of the Century” since. Yep, 25 years ago. Some of my fellow writers here had not started following the sport yet. Some hadn’t even been born. Even some drivers who will race Monday at Martinsville hadn’t been born yet.
The Atlanta race was postponed to the following weekend and was won by Morgan Shepherd, driving for the Wood Brothers team. It was Shepherd’s last of four career Cup races and the last Wood Brothers win until 2001 (on March 25 of that year, coincidentally enough.) It was one of just four wins the team has managed since that date.
Snow also delayed the Atlanta Cup race back in 2008. The XFINITY Series race at Bristol in March 2006 had to be red-flagged for a while due to snow. (On March 25 of that year. Is there a pattern here?)
Snow has caused some problems, but over the years rain has been a far bigger issue, as might be expected of a sport that is run entirely out of doors. But other circumstances have caused havoc during races as well.
During a race at Wilson (NC) on March 29, 1959 (I was a fetus at the time) the front grandstands caught on fire. The local fire company doused the flames and fans were moved to the backstretch grandstands. Fortunately, the race was far from a sellout perhaps because it was run on Easter Sunday. Junior Johnson beat out Curtis Turner that day.
To the best of my records, that was the only time NASCAR’s top series ran on Easter. But it wasn’t the only fire during a NASCAR race. On Feb. 25, 1965, a fire erupted along the backstretch at Ashville-Weaverville. Once again the local fire company knocked down the blaze with the help of some fans and even drivers who helped fight the flames. Unfortunately when the cars returned to the track the rushing air of the racers reignited the fire which had to be doused again before the race would proceed. Eventual 1965 Cup champion Ned Jarrett won that race.
Fire also caused a real mess on the scheduled weekend of the 1998 Firecracker 400. Wildfires were burning up much of Florida that weekend but right until the bitter end, NASCAR insisted they were going to race. That meant tens of thousands of fans were going to be driving down highways with flames on either side of them and occasional road closures to try to get to the race. I recall this distinctly because a neighbor of mine called me. He was planning to pack his family in the motorhome and head off to Daytona to see that race. He wanted my take on whether the race would be postponed or not. I, in turn, called the track at Daytona and was assured the media was reporting false news about the fire conditions and things weren’t as bad as the media hype was claiming. The race was absolutely positively going to be held. So Kev and his family left and were in fact at the GA/FL state line when they got news that the race was postponed. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t been at a race since.
Sometimes NASCAR remains insistent that the show must go on no matter how horrid the weather. Rain really clobbered Daytona for the Firecracker 400 in 2015. (So, yes, James Taylor fans, Florida can indeed see fire and rain.) Those of you who stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to see that race conclude probably best recall Austin Dillon’s Chevy damn near went through the catch fence into the stands on the final lap of the race. Some might recall Dale Earnhardt Jr. won that race though most of you were probably passed out on the couch by the time that happened around 3 a.m. The race hadn’t even started till almost 11:30 that night.
At Daytona sometimes you get both fire and rain. The weekend was plagued by rain forcing the start of the 2012 Daytona 500 to be postponed until the next day. More rain that day meant the race didn’t start until 7 p.m. ET. Juan Pablo Montoya managed to trump the weather by running into a jet-dryer and sending the machine up in a ball of flames. That was another REALLY late race if I recall.
So when’s the last time NASCAR blew a call by rescheduling a race too early? In 1997, the Talladega spring event was scheduled to run on April 27 but had to be postponed until Monday due to heavy persistent rain. It continued raining that Monday morning and NASCAR decided to postpone the race until May 10 of that year mainly due to the fact the next race the following weekend was at the brand new venue in Fontana. Of course, by early afternoon of April 28, the clouds had cleared despite some rather dire forecasts and NASCAR would easily have been able to get the race in rather than come back in May. It seemed the drivers were none too delighted by the lengthy postponement and just wanted the race over with. The rescheduled Talladega event was one of the ultra-rare races run at the track without a single caution flag and was completed in two hours and 40 minutes. Mark Martin won and beat feet to the local airstrip to go home.
One NASCAR race was postponed for over a month by the greatest tragedy on American soil my generation has known, 9/11. NASCAR was scheduled to compete at New Hampshire the following weekend, but America was still reeling and getting back to its feet after that heinous attack and all the innocent lives lost. Major League Baseball and the NFL quickly canceled all their games scheduled for that week and weekend. Holding them would have been difficult at least if for no other reason because all commercial and private flights were still grounded.
I was scheduled to cover that race for a former website and I did in fact put in yet another call to Daytona. Absolutely, positively, I was told, the race would go on as scheduled. So I put away the airline ticket to Boston and hopped in my old Thunderbird. I really wasn’t into a race that weekend but I do recall having my spirits lifted by all the American flags hanging from nearly every overpass on the highways heading north. At one point I was close enough to make out the smoke at Ground Zero before heading off further north. I was somewhere in Vermont when I got the news the NHMS race had in fact been postponed. More than a little annoyed I kept driving and went to visit my sister and then brother-in-law at the Inne they owned in Vermont. The only major sporting event that ran as planned that weekend was the IndyCar race in Germany. That’s the race where Alex Zanardi lost both legs in a savage wreck exiting the pits.
The NHMS Cup race was rescheduled to the end of the season and run on Thanksgiving weekend. Many scribes working the event were forced to scramble to find some semblance of Thanksgiving dinner many miles from their homes. I sat that one out still major league pissed-off at the last minute cancelation. And of course, wanting to enjoy a good meal with my family.
So yes, postponing races can happen for a variety of reasons and how to react is an inexact science. It’s not NASCAR related but I think there’s something to learn about how a Fortune 500 (parent) company handled that 1993 Storm of the Century. To date, the 36 inches of snow we received that weekend remains the largest amount of snow I’ve ever had to deal with at one time my entire life. That Storm was no nuisance. It was a life or death challenge. The Governor of Pennsylvania decided Sunday night, as the storm was dying down, to ban all vehicles from all roads in the Commonwealth until further notice. How harshly was that edict enforced? My then brother-in-law got a whopper of a $300 ticket for venturing out… on a snowmobile… to get diapers for his infant daughter who picked that weekend to develop a severe case of diarrhea. People literally froze to death in their homes only miles out of one of America’s biggest cities after the power went out.
At the time I was the assistant manager at a chain tire store I won’t name. (Yes, I will. NTW now NTB. If you work for them quit. They are idiots of the most loathsome degree.) I was also recovering from a back injury I suffered in a two-story fall at the store and was on limited duty. As the snow piled up outside and the winds began howling I was naturally expecting a phone call that all the stores would be closed that Sunday. The roads weren’t closed yet, but already most of them were littered and blocked by abandoned cars whose drivers had gotten stuck.
But when the phone call came in, it was to inform us that everyone was expected to be at work the following day. I was left with the unhappy task of having to call everyone on the schedule to tell them it was business as usual. Their responses were mainly equal parts disbelief and profane. The wife of one of my salespeople threatened to divorce him if he even tried to make it to work that day.
I had recently (so recently I was digging through boxes to find a clean glass to use) moved to an apartment about a mile from where I worked after the 90-minute commute both ways to my former residence got to be too much to handle six days a week. Because of the back problem I’d borrowed my friend’s 2WD S10 and lent him my F150 Four by Four. The Chevy was buried up to the top of the letters on the tailgate so off I slogged in thigh deep snow with howling winds feeling like the only person alive left on earth. It was eerily silent out there that day other than the winds. When I got to the store I was flummoxed. The main entrance had this weird semi-circle shape and the blowing winds had piled snow up in front of the door six feet deep. Despite the restrictions the doctor had me under, I went ahead and dug out the entrance with my hands. I figured I’d get warm quicker getting inside than turning around and walking home. Once inside I got a shovel and finished off clearing the entrance as well as finishing off my lower back.
I was supposed to have a crew of three salespeople, seven tire mounters, two mechanics and an alignment tech. One salesman showed up then spent the next few hours asking when she could go home. I had no tire mounters but I did have a very angry customer. He had a plow truck and he needed a new set of (very oversized) 35×12.5×15 inch mud terrain tires. I don’t know what one of those beasts weighs but coupled with a steel rim it was a lot. Mounting and balancing them was about all I had in me, only to have the dude screaming at me because of all the money he said he’d lost not being out there plowing while I “goofed off.” I had in fact gone so far as to fill the tires with starting fluid and ignite it to seat the beads, a decidedly risky business.
Later that afternoon the merriment ground to a halt. A transformer in the industrial park blew and caught on fire. The fire trucks couldn’t get there. The lights went out. So did the heat. I called the Regional Manager to report we had to close. He was incensed. He said he was out driving and the roads were challenging but passable. Of course, he was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, not the back roads. He also wanted me to fire everyone who hadn’t shown up that day. I told him that I was off the next day so he should touch base with Tom the manager to relay that order. Despite the power being out he wanted me to stay at the store in hopes the lights came back on. He asked me to call him a half hour to update the store’s status, perhaps wanting to make sure that I didn’t abandon my post. Finally around four with the lights still out (and ironically enough our lot still now plowed) in his infinite grace and wisdom, he let me go home.
Only I wasn’t going to be able to make that walk. I called a friend with a Jeep but his truck was stuck. He did come and get me on a snowmobile and we did, in fact, get stuck once on that mile ride home on a sled. I went inside, cracked a beer, turned on the TV and learned that all the roads in the state were closed effective immediately. I don’t think I got back up off that couch in the next 24 hours my back hurt so badly. In fact, I was never able to return to that job. (So I started writing about NASCAR on the Internet as it turned out.)
Many fellow employees were fired from the four stores that week because they weren’t willing or hadn’t been able to make it to work. The company lost a lot of very well trained, very hard working and very customer friendly salespeople as a result. Within 18 months the store I had worked at closed for good at least partially because they hadn’t been able to hire any good help. I was actually glad when it closed. I’m not vindictive but they never changed the contact info with the alarm company so at least a couple times a month I’d get a late night phone call from those folks telling me the alarm was going off and I needed to go meet the police at the store. Yes, I sometimes reacted badly to those calls including one five minute rant in which I developed several new curse words including one that charged the listener with having carnal relations with a puppy. So to sum up, that’s how you don’t handle a weather-related crisis.
So to all the fans who traveled to Martinsville this weekend tickets in hand who weren’t able to stick around for Monday, I feel your pain. For all the fans at home who were inconvenienced Sunday, hey at least you’re not out several hundred bucks and hopefully, you know how your DVR works. For those of you lucky enough to have tickets and Monday off I hope you really enjoy the race. Just remember the warning sticker that ought to be on the sun visor of your truck or SUV. “Hey, Bubba, yes this thing has 4WD, ABS, and traction control. But it can not defeat the laws of physics. The nut behind the wheel is still in control of whether you ultimately make your destination or end up wrecked and upside down in a ditch oozing stupidity out of every pore of your body.” Things could be worse. You might have been waiting for a race at Kentucky rather than Martinsville.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.