It was 20 years ago today,
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play
Since then they’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.
Being old is one thing. Feeling old is another thing entirely. For the smaller percentage of you who were around at the time, Sunday marked the 51st anniversary of one of the seminal rock albums of all time, the Beatles seminal Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
But naturally this column is based on the work of Billy France not Billy Shears, so what exactly were Billy F and his band of loyalists up to twenty years ago this weekend? In a sport that has either temporarily or permanently lost so many of its defining race dates it’s heartening that the World 600 (and the soda pop company didn’t get naming rights until 1985) was run on Memorial Day weekend back in 1998 just as it was this year. But things have indeed changed. Not a single driver who raced on that May evening (and the 600 wasn’t a night race until 1993) still competes full time in Cup racing any longer. (Coincidentally enough Elliott Sadler, a NXS title contender this season, made his first Cup start in the ’98 World 600. Derrike Cope also won that races and still competes in NASCAR occasionally.)
Jeff Gordon won the 1998 World 600. It was one of 13 Cup wins Gordon managed that year, a record that once seemed unassailable in the modern era though this year as hot as he’s started out Kevin Harvick could potentially match or even break that record. (Yes, it’s a long shot but it is possible.) By coincidence Gordon had also posted his first points-paying career Cup win at the World 600 in 1994.
Gordon also went on to win the 1998 Southern 500 to claim two of the three crown jewel events of that season. (Some guy named Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998.)
So how did the two races stack up against each other? There were nine lead changes in the 600 mile event Sunday night, most of them as a result of pit sequences. The 1998 event featured 33 lead changes. The official margin of victory Sunday night is listed as 3.823 seconds but third-place Denny Hamlin was more than 10 seconds behind Busch when the merriment finally dragged out to its inevitable conclusion. There were nine cars on the lead lap when the checkered flag waved. In 1998, Gordon beat second-place Rusty Wallace by four tenths of a second. The lead changed hands 33 times in that race with 12 different drivers taking a turn at the head of the pack. (Four drivers led this year’s race.) While Gordon won the ’98 600, Mark Martin led the most laps in that race ahead at the stripe 164 times. By sheer coincidence, nine drivers also finished on the lead lap at Charlotte in 1998. A lot of fans left Charlotte disappointed and early after Dale Earnhardt (Senior) crashed out of the event on lap 336 without having led a single lap that evening.
Jeff Gordon was hitting his stride back in that era and was extremely unpopular with a lot of older fans as a result. ABG (Anybody But Gordon) T-shirts were readily available in the parking lots outside of stock car races. Gordon was especially unpopular among the Earnhardt partisans just as Earnhardt, his bad old self, had once been despised as the new kid in town when he started beating drivers like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson. The enthusiastic cheering that thundered after Kyle Busch wrecked during Saturday’s NXS race is nothing new in this sport.
Also of note is that 175,000 folks showed up to see the 1998 600-mile marathon. Stock car racing was nearing the zenith of its popularity and the Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry kept the turnstiles spinning like a top. Back in those days the crowd would likely have been much larger if there were more seats available. Just about every stock car race back then was a sellout, and if you wanted to go to a race you often had to purchase tickets months in advance…..if you could find them. Getting tickets to the very popular Bristol night race involved placing your name on a waiting list and hoping a few years down the road you might be offered a couple of the new seats BMS was adding to their coliseum as quickly as they could.
I’d say a generous estimate of Sunday night’s crowd would be somewhere in the 50-60 thousand fan range. Rather than adding more seats a lot of tracks are actually tearing them down to avoid folks seeing huge swathes of unsold seats on a weekly basis. To pay lots of money to have seats removed is a pretty fair indicator the track operators don’t ever expect demand for tickets to once again reach the lofty heights that were once the norm.
But how about setting the Way-Back Machine to the Memorial Day weekend of 1967? People were sleeping on sidewalks (voluntarily), money clenched tightly in their fists, waiting to lay hands on a monaural copy of Sergeant Pepper’s with guys in high school discussing the draft and the ongoing war in Vietnam that had caused the sitting president of the United States not to run for re-election. NASCAR was still a largely Southern sport back then so fans tended to be a lot more conservative than mainstream America and a lot more likely to support the war, and Richard Nixon…or George Wallace. If you were looking for some good grass in the rural Carolinas, they’d likely try to direct you to the local seed and feed hardware place on the other side of the tracks.
But outside the simmering swamp of politics and regionalism, something remarkable was happening back in 1967. Richard Petty, who a lot of folks still thought of as “Lee’s boy” and not yet the “the King,” was completely dominating the sport in his bright blue factory Hemi Plymouth. Between November 13th, 1966 (Augusta GA) and November 7th, 1967 (Weaverville) there were 49 points paying races that made up the 1967 Grand National (today’s Cup) series schedule. Yes, back in the day NASCAR routinely ran races on weeknights and the locals beat feet to get to those tracks to see the big goings on. It wasn’t like you could watch any races flag to flag on TV in those days.
In that era, both the Daytona 100-mile qualifying races paid points, and drivers could only be in one or the other. So Richard Petty ran 48 races that year and won a jaw-dropping 27 of them. From August 12th at Winston-Salem to Martinsville on September, 24th Petty won ten consecutive races. He also posted top 5 finishes in 38 of that year’s 48 races. In 1967 Petty’s average start was 2.4 and his season long average finish was 5th. I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that nobody is ever going to eclipse that 10 straight win or 27 win season mark. Nowadays people like to say what remarkable things drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have achieved and the records they might one day shatter. But as in any attempt to discuss who’s the best stock car driver of all time, one should add the qualifier “other than Richard Petty.”
What might have been the most remarkable part of the 1967 World 600 was the fact Richard Petty DIDN’T win it. In fact he never even led a lap that day. Despite having won 200 Cup races, Petty’s career stats are less than stellar at Charlotte. He won five times at the track in 64 starts and one of those was a qualifying race for the big event in 1961. (Yes, they ran qualifying races at Charlotte. Yes, Petty was racing in 1961.) He won the World 600 three times; in 1975, 1977 and the rain-shortened event in 1983. (In another statistical oddity, Petty won only one Southern 500 and that was in fact in 1967.)
Jim Paschal, also at the wheel of a Plymouth, won the ’67 World 600. Most of you have never heard of him but Paschal was in fact a pretty good shoe with 25 Cup victories during his career which stretched from NASCAR’s debut year of 1949 to 1972. That’s one less win than Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who you might have heard of time to time) and one more than Brad Keselowski.
Paschal led 334 laps that afternoon in 1967, 33 laps fewer than Kyle Busch managed Sunday. He took the lead for the final time on lap 161 and led from there to the checkers. Paschal’s margin of victory over David Pearson is listed as 5 seconds, and third place Bobby Allison was the only other driver who finished on the lead lap. Petty finished fourth but was three laps off the pace at the end. While nobody was listed as failing to finish that race due to a wreck, Cale Yarborough retired due to “steering” issues after an incident and more than half the field (23 of 44 entries) retired due to mechanical issues, mainly engines. Perhaps the most significant drivers to lose a mill that day were Donnie Allison and pioneering black driver Wendell Scott at the wheel of a two year old Ford, a former factory race car ‘65 Cup champion Ned Jarrett arranged to have sold to Scott for a token amount.
Younger fans tend to roll their eyes and point to statistics like only three cars being on the lead lap at the end of the race as proof in their minds the racing was boring back then. But with the cars nowhere near as reliable as they are in the modern era (especially with the engineers at Chrysler and Ford going hell’s bells looking to increase horsepower) anything could happen on any lap. The first stock car race I attended live was the 1973 Daytona 500. If you look at the record books you’ll see that Petty beat Bobby Isaac by two laps and assume it was a terrible race. What the stats don’t show but I can recount as an eyewitness is Buddy Baker seemed to have the fastest car that afternoon and it seemed Baker, whose bad fortune at Daytona was every bit as frustrating as that of Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip after him, would finally ring the bell. But late in the race Petty began reeling in Baker and the fans on hand (including this one) were on their feet screaming and pumping their fists urging on their favorite. With six laps to go Baker’s engine expired in a huge plume of smoke down the backstretch and the matter was settled. Petty went on to win what I can assure you wasn’t a boring race at all. Remember that line about lies, damned lies and statistics?
70,000 fans showed up to see the ’67 World 600 and once again, that number was limited by the amount of seats available. There was no live TV coverage of the event so if you wanted to see if Petty could continue his incredible winning streak you had to buy a ticket. The rest of us would have to wait for short articles in the next day’s paper’s sports section.
So while some things about our sport are in fact better than they used to be, inarguably some things are also worse and show little sign of improving. Having been along for five plus decades of the Magical Mystery Tour that is Cup racing I’d like to see NASCAR concentrate on improving the level of competition (without using restrictor plates). The TV ratings and attendance issues will fix themselves once the racing itself gets better.
A Veritable Plethora of Racing: While Memorial Day weekend is and forever should be a time to remember and honor our fallen soldiers it also coincides with what many argue is the biggest weekend in auto racing.
As per usual, the Grand Prix of Monaco turned out to be more of a spectacle than a race. Given the mind-blowing performance of today’s F1 cars, racing them on the streets of the Principality of Monaco is, to borrow a phrase from Kyle Petty, sort of like racing jet-fighters in a gymnasium. The real drama during the race involved waiting to see if Riccardo’s engine would finally expire over the last 60 laps. The usual suspects in the Ferrari’s and Mercedes seemed to accept early on that while they had very little chance of gathering more points at Monaco there was a very strong chance pushing the limits could cost them a lot of points if it all went wrong and potentially cost them a shot at a title.
The Indy 500 has always been about pageantry and a valid argument can be made that the track’s design that dates back over 100 years is no longer suitable for open-wheel racing. The zero-turn mowers that cut the grass at Indy probably put out more horsepower than the cars that won the first few 500s. Indycar decided this season on a new rules package that lowered downforce to “put the driver back into the equation.” They may have gone a bit too far. NASCAR tried a similar experiment and it didn’t work out in stock car racing either. It would seem the France family of Daytona and the Hulman-George family of Indianapolis are not on speaking terms. Either that or they simply refuse to learn from one another’s mistakes. Perhaps someday we’ll see the World 600 moved from its awkward Sunday evening date to Saturday night in the hopes of getting some of the NASCAR regulars to run the Indy 500 again (and perhaps entice some open wheelers to come drive the 600 as well. As an aside, World Driving champion Jackie Stewart attempted to qualify for the fall Charlotte race in 1967 but failed to make the race. ) Congratulations to Will Power for a hard fought and emotional win Sunday afternoon.
The World 600? A 4 hour and 23 minute snooze-fest and a truly putrid excuse of an automobile race. Yes, I accept that in racing or any other pure (as in non-scripted) sport you’re going to have an occasional blowout. But it seems to me the ratio of blowouts to classics has gotten unacceptably high. Some will say left to their own things will get better. Reminds me of that guy I knew who was just certain he could beat that freight train to the crossing. May he rest in peace.
My pick for the best race of the weekend? I’d have to go with the Indy Light 100-miler at the Speedway on Friday afternoon. I really had no intent on watching the event (to be truthful I had no idea it was to be televised until they mentioned it during Carb Day practice for the 500.) When I saw only eight cars were entered in the race I almost switched the TV off, but I believe the remote had once again snuck off to its secret hiding place somewhere in the depths of the couch.
The only driver in the field I’d ever heard of (sort of) was Brian Herta’s son Colton. But once the race began it was mesmerizing. In forty laps there were 20 passes for the lead with six drivers bound and determined and capable enough to grab that trophy. The lead changed hands five times in the last five laps (when’s the last time a Cup race was determined by a last-lap pass?) as the drivers used the draft to slingshot around one another inches or less apart. The whole affair took about a half hour to run, a near perfect length for today’s distracted millennials. Herta’s margin of victory was three hundredths of a second. (About the length of a dollar bill.) The caution-free race ran at an average speed of 191 MPH which is in fact about 25 MPH faster than the 500 itself.
While I continue struggling with Verizon’s cable package, I once again feared I was getting the audio from another event during the Indy Light race. The commentators seemed determined to call the race itself. There was no mention of who they had dinner with the previous evening, accountings of their own successes in auto racing or a stream of lousy jokes that caused them to chortle at their own wit with a sound like Snuffleupagus trying to cough out a hairball. It was novel to listen to announcers who actually seemed intent on calling the action as part of the show not being the show themselves.
So at least in my case, an hour-long race with a short field of drivers I’d never heard of turned out to be so compelling I found myself searching the internet to see when the next Indy Light race will be televised. (June 24, from Road America at 10 p.m. ET. Hmm. Do these cars have headlights?)
There’s nothing so wrong with auto racing that an exciting race, despite its challenges, can’t fix.