One primary problem when race fans get together to debate (OK, argue) whether a race was “good” or not, is defining what makes for a “good” race. Plenty of passing? An unexpected outcome? And if the last three laps are nailbiters that have the majority of the crowd on their feet make up for three hours of relentless tedium on the track watching the same driver lead hundreds of laps at a time with seeming ease?
Is a race won on fuel mileage, like this weekend’s Xfinity Series race, a good one because of the suspense of waiting to see if a driver like Tyler Reddick comes up short on gas a good one? Or would it have been a better race if Reddick’s car had stalled, out of fuel, coming out of turn 4 on the final lap handing the win to Christopher Bell, who clearly had the best car and had driven the best race of the evening even if at points it was like watching paint dry on the fire hydrants along Main Street on a summer’s Saturday evening in July?
One key differentiation between races people consider good ones and ones people dislike is the finish. Again, does a good finish and unexpected outcome in the last five minutes of a three-hour event make it a good race? I’d argue a good finish can make a bad race palatable, but a bad finish won’t make a good race a boring one. I’ll cite here the 1973 Daytona 500. In the interest of full disclosure, let me add that the ’73 Daytona 500 was the first NASCAR Cup event I ever attended live (I was 13 that day). My late father took me to the race. And if that’s not enough we showed up in a hot pink VW dune buggy rental car and the rain stopped just before the race, meaning there was no appreciable delay.
Oh, and Richard Petty won. At 13, I was already a huge fan of the King. It was one of seven Daytona 500s Petty would go on to win. Looking at the stats for the race you might think the event was a bit of a snoozer. Petty’s margin of victory was two laps over second place Bobby Isaac. 10th place Vic Parsons (no relation to Benny or Phil) was 10 laps behind. One could argue Buddy Baker really stunk up the show leading 156 of 200 laps.
Yes, Baker had the fastest car that day (and one of the best looking I’ll add). Late in the race, Petty short pitted in an attempt to beat his faster rival on fresher right side rubber. On lap 190, Petty streaked into the lead and the crowd of over 100,000 fans was nearly all on their feet screaming at a volume that would have sent the Walls of Jericho crashing to the ground. Six laps later, as he was visibly reeling in Petty every lap, the engine in Baker’s Dodge let go in spectacular fashion.
Oddly enough, while he didn’t finish the race Baker was credited with a sixth-place finish, albeit six laps behind Petty’s Charger. It was a great race, at least by the standards of the 60 -year-old version of that 13-year-old kid in the hand-lettered “Richard Petty #43” t-shirt. And therein lies two indisputable truisms: No race you attend live is ever boring and no race your favorite driver wins can be half bad.
Those are the complications of judging between good races and bad ones. Call it the “Miss Congeniality” factor. For a large part of NASCAR fandom, if their favorite driver won the race it was not only a good race it was a great one. To examine the other side of the coin, if a fan’s least favorite driver wins it was a lousy race, even if there were five passes for the lead on the last lap and the winner took the checkers upside down and on fire playing Dixie on the harmonica.
In a similar vein, every once in a while there will be one of those races that leave the vast majority of fans grinning like they just emerged from the smoke-filled rear cargo area of a VW Bus at Woodstock. We’ll call those races the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Factor.
Just about all of you will recall that Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998. And the crowd went wild, though the late Intimidator was much more of a polarizing figure during his career than he has been since his tragic passing. How many of you recall there were only 13 passes for the lead during that entire’98 Daytona 500? Or that the race was ultimately allowed to end under caution that afternoon a tactic that was allegedly to make sure Earnhardt won because Bobby Labonte was coming fast. Nowadays, that sort of race ending would likely have a fusillade of beer cans raining down on the track after the checkers and likely a full-scale riot if Earnhardt had lost on the final lap. Again.
Earnhardt had seemed to dominate at Daytona but still come up short of a win in the 500 more ways than the gloomiest pessimist could list given a full week’s time and a brand new box of Crayolas with a built-in sharpener. I mean come on. Earnhardt led 155 of 200 laps in the 1990 Great American Race. He took the white flag as the leader just about exactly three hours into the race. But then Earnhardt cut down a tire. The story at the time was that the Intimidator ran over a chicken bone a slovenly fan had tossed onto the track. My personal recollection is the bird bone in question might have belonged to a wayward seagull that had been recently dispatched to whatever afterlife awaits a bird that I’ve grown up considering a rat with wings. Earnhardt lost that race to Derrike Cope. How the hell do you lose one of the crown jewel races in stock car racing to Derrike Cope?
Either way, under caution or not, Earnhardt finally winning the 500 drew a thunderous applause, even from some his most stalwart critics. It was finally his time, and as long as he didn’t make a habit of winning the Daytona 500 that was OK. It’s interesting in that it wasn’t only Earnhardt that battled a seeming curse to win a Daytona 500 in the midst of their Hall of Fame careers. Similar nightmares plagued Buddy Baker and Darrell Waltrip in their primes. Both went on to a win the 500, and my guess is most fans were well pleased to have it finally work out for them both.
Regular readers know I start to consider any race boring when there’s more than a two-second gap between the leader and the second-place car, or the tenth place driver is more than 10 seconds behind the leader, both of which happen routinely during modern day NASCAR races. The action might be frantic for a couple of laps after every restart (and NASCAR cleverly invented stage racing to ensure there’d be at least two restarts to break up green flag monotony). Races that meet either of my two criteria are not racing they are formation flying.
There’s less of them these days than there were in the past, but for some percentage of fans their perception of the quality of a race is decided in part by which brand of car the winner drove. Ford fans hope a Ford wins. Chevy fans hope a Chevy wins. Dodge fans hope Dodge will return to the sport someday. Buick fans hope they aren’t displaying early signs of dementia. And Toyota fans hope McDonalds soon starts offering a McWhale sandwich and that they can play with finger paints during lunch at work again.
Let’s admit to one of stock car’s dirty little secret. For a small subset of fans any good stock car race is going to have some crashes. They want to see cars hit the wall… hard. They want to see cars up in the air, upside down and on fire. For years, that was the general public’s perception of stock car racing fans in general. I talked myself blue in the face trying to say it wasn’t so, but I was finally forced to admit there were, in fact, a small percentage of fans who feel that way. My wish for them is they never see a “good” stock car race again. I think Humpy Wheeler, former General Manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway said it best: “People want to see the lion-tamer but his head in the lion’s mouth. They don’t want to see it get bitten off.”
What other subconscious criteria do we use to try to decide if a race is a good one or a bad one? I often hear people discussing the number of lead changes. If last year’s Southern 500 had 30 passes for the lead and this year’s rendition had 15, last year’s race was twice as good, right? Well the NASCAR marketing people tried that approach (if you can’t convince them with facts confuse them with statistics).
There are a lot of passes for the lead during some somnolent races bordering on outright unwatchable tedium. Why? Driver A gets into the lead early. No yellows interrupt the action. Finally driver A’s team decides they are going to short pit. Driver A heads for pit road. Driver B inherits the lead. Since Driver B was running second and suddenly finds himself in the lead, technically a lead change has taken place. But the lead was surrendered by Driver A not taken by Driver B. Driver A returns to the track and is over one second a lap faster than driver B on fresh rubber. Driver B then decides he will go screeching into the pits to hoping he emerges within sight of Driver A. Thus, Driver A turns the lead over to Driver C, and NASCAR adds another “pass for the lead” to the statistic.
And there’s likely to be more passes for the lead as each team and driver decide it’s worth the risk of getting caught by a yellow on pit lane a lap down versus the benefit of fresh rubber. It’s sort of like Valentine’s Day Dinner at the Old Folks’ home, there’s a whole lot passes being made but not much action.
Toward the end of the segment, the drivers that elected to stay out on worn rubber decide it’s finally time to pit before pit road closes down two laps before the stage ends. There is wholesale swapping of the lead once again. Much passing, little action. So for a while, I watched each race ultra-carefully while listening to MRN. I taped each race and checked my work afterward, counting only competitive passes for the lead, the sort that makes the crowd on hand stand up and holler. It was a depressing task. Often there were only one or two rear passes for the lead. There were seldom more than four or five even in a 400-mile event. It got to be too depressing of a venture so I quit while I was still sane and not a narcoleptic.
Perhaps, trying to sort races into the categories of “good ones” and “bad ones” is a fool’s errand. Not all fans are going to agree with either assessment, even though there are now radically less fans to voice their opinion on the matter. You might say a lot of people voted that the new version of NASCAR isn’t so good, and they voted with their feet and their wallets not showing up at the track anymore or even bothering to watch on TV any longer. That would help explain declining ticket sales and lower TV ratings.
At one point I used to run an adder on my weekly race recap, asking fans to rate each race on a scale of zero cans of beer to a full six pack of the good stuff. Zero cans obviously meant that race was utterly without redeeming social value, one of the worst races ever. A six pack rating meant the event was one of the all-time classics that fans would still be discussing decades later. As you might imagine, there were only a few six packs most weeks. There were also very few zero’s most weeks. If there were a bunch it was because an unpopular driver had wrecked, someone like Jeff Gordon, who’d been leading at the time.
Originally, most races were rated between 3.5 and 4.5, though as the years passed it gradually slipped down to a 2.25 to 3.0. Then, I got shifted to Tuesday deadlines rather than Mondays and the poll went away.
The last weekly pool asking fans if a race was good or not I’m aware of runs each Monday morning on Jeff Gluck’s Twitter site. Gluck poses the question strictly as “was it a good race? Yes or no.” That’s his deal and I do not question it. It’s probably a lot easier to do the math afterwards his way than with mine. I have noted lately that the number of positive ratings to poor ones is often surprisingly high by my standards. That doesn’t make me right or wrong, it just makes me think I am out of touch with a large percentage of fans who go to Jeff’s page first thing every Monday morning to vote.
I mean, obviously, if they get out of bed early on a Monday morning for any reason other than their homes being ablaze, a chance to drive a Dodge Viper or to see a Springsteen concert broadcast live from Europe or Asia we are fundamentally very different types of people. How would you rate prime rib? Oh, yes that’s great! How would you rate Jack Link’s Original Beef Jerky? Oh, I like that too, sometimes. So both are equally good? Nope, prime rib is a 6. Beef Jerky is a 5. Fluffy delicious dinner rolls, served heated with a stick of cool Land O Lakes butter beside the basket is a 5.5, or when served with prime rib and a big cold mug of suds is a 10. Coke Classic was a 4.5. New Coke was a 0. Red Bull was a 5 until I had to get triple bypass. Artichokes and anything that resembles or smells like an artichoke, as in a well-used urinal cake with a dash of green spray paint is a 0.
But every once in a great while one of those races you’ll never forget happens along. The spring race at Darlington in 2003 wasn’t looking like it was going to be anything special. The fact the race had been rain delayed to Monday was a negative, as many fans were unable to watch on TV due to work commitments and some ticket holders were unable to come back on Monday.
Since the statute of limitations is long since up I’ll admit I watched that race on TV, laying on the carpet below window level because I called in sick that day and I worked right down the street from my house. They all knew I was home watching the stock car race, I just needed to maintain “plausible deniability.” I was a bit surprised by how competitive that race was but well pleased since Darlington is my favorite track. Fully, 11 different drivers took a turn at the front that day, albeit some of them briefly. But oh, that last lap. Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch were banging fenders. Tires were smoking. Cars were getting sideways and fans were screaming. In perhaps NASCAR’s most epic finish Craven edged out Busch by .002 seconds. Let me write that out in English. Two-one-thousandths-of-a-second. The blink of any eye is typically a tenth of a second. Not only were fans watching not sure who was going to win late in the race they weren’t even sure who had won after the race.
Most people don’t expect too much of a Cup race at Kansas Speedway. Back in late September 2008, two drivers got into a bit of a squabble over who wanted the win more that day. Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards both took extended turns at the front. On lap 219, Edwards surrendered the lead to Johnson. On the final lap, he appeared to have Johnson’s number and nearly passed him. On the final corner of the last lap, Edwards threw NASCAR’s version of a Hail Mary play. He drove into that corner so fast and out of control, and one of two things was going to happen. He was going to win or he was going to hit the wall trying. The latter was the actual outcome, but it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a stock car race. And the crowd went wild
And finally, you have what I’ll call the “Sixth Sense” result. That’s one of those races with such a surprise thrown in at the end you’re still not sure what you just saw happen after the race. Mr. Peabody set the way back machine to February 18, 1979. Beta-coordinates, Daytona Beach FL. Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough were having a bit of a scrap over who got the big trophy. There were 36 lead changes that day amidst the 41 drivers who qualified for that race.
Many of you hadn’t even been born yet that day. Just about all of you have seen the finish replayed countless times. Allison and Yarborough began rubbing than banging fenders, tires were smoking the crowd was going insane. Neither driver was going to lift. Both ended up going nose-first into the wall in a coordinated sequence that would have stunned a water ballet team. Richard Petty, who’d had an uncharacteristically slow 500 leading just 11 laps, snuck into the lead and a huge roar erupted from the grandstands. And suddenly the TV cameras were swinging towards the south end of the track and Ken Squier uttered those unforgettable words. “And there’s a fight…..” as Allison and Yarborough decided to settle the score right then and there.
Bobby Allison pulled off the track to go to his brother Donnie’s aid. Most of the East Coast of the United States was buried by a blizzard that day, and with only three channels on most TVs that day a huge amount of viewers at home got their first glimpse at what a NASCAR stock car race looked like live. And a good many of them found the sport to their liking. Some would tune in occasionally to a race afterward, but some folks were addicted and those folks would make up the majority of the longtime long-suffering fans of our sport. A race rated a three wouldn’t have done that.
Occasionally, people will ask me to put dates to the so called “Golden era of NASCAR racing.” I’d say it was born Feb. 18, 1979, and it ended Feb. 18, 2001 at the same track.