Once upon a time far, far away but not all that long ago, at least in the grand scheme of things, a bunch of men with big plans sat down at the racing round table to hatch a scheme to take over the world. (Or at the very least, make a whole lot of money.)
Mr. Peabody, set the Wayback Machine to Dec. 12, 1947. Your coordinates are 140 Atlantic Avenue, Daytona Beach, Fla. 32118. The Streamline Hotel was an art deco disaster in light green and aqua in a town that was pretty much nowhere at the time other than a couple weeks a year. That’s when drivers (and fans) from around the country gathered to race on a track that was mostly beach but also included some of highway A1A.
In the Ebony Bar atop the hotel, a group usually listed at 35 members consisting of track promoters, drivers, mechanics, race car owners, moonshiners and other ne’er do wells gathered with a mission. They were out to organize a national auto racing series that would crown a champion and they were fixing for it to be a big deal. Very big, indeed.
The Ebony Bar was the sort of place where they served hard drinks to men who wanted to get drunk fast and didn’t need any characters around to give the place atmosphere. But a character, in fact, didn’t just crash the party: He called it. That man was Big Bill France Sr. France and his guests were, in fact, hard-drinking men. Any photo I’ve seen of the gathering shows most guests glassy-eyed and leaning a bit to starboard.
In addition to a lot to drink, these men had a lot to talk about. The meeting officially concluded Feb. 21, 1948. Doubtless more interested parties drifted in and out in addition to the original 35 during the two month-plus bacchanal. That is, if they could find the joint. Back in those days, you didn’t give directions in Daytona Beach by telling someone go past the speedway, take a right at the light, keep going straight until night and then boy, you’re on your own. Back then, Daytona International Speedway was over 11 years from being built.
Instead, what you might have seen in that era was signs along the dunes between A1A and the beach that read “Danger! Poisonous Snakes!” See, Bill France organized the February beach races in those days, and he was incensed an occasional spectator would climb over the dunes to what, in fact, was a public beach without forking over the admission charge. In reality, there were no poisonous snakes at Daytona Beach. But if there were, Bill France had imported sacks of them to bite skinflints who wanted to crash his party without paying.
One of France’s ideas for the new race series seemed particularly absurd. He wanted the race cars in his series (which he wanted to call Stock Car Auto Racing or SCAR until his fellow attendees shot down that unfortunate acronym in favor of NASCAR) to be brand new production cars. In the early days, there were no rules against foreign cars competing. In fact, a Jaguar driven by Al Keller won a NASCAR race in New Jersey, the only victorious overseas automaker until Toyota came along and crapped in the stock car punch bowl more recently.
Keep in mind that during World War II, all the major U.S. automakers (and there were a lot more than the Big 4 back then) ceased producing civilian cars to make bombers, fighters, ships, tanks, Jeeps and other material necessary to fight the Axis across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. With the horrific war finally over and the Allies having prevailed, there was a huge demand not only in the U.S. but around the world for any new cars. Waiting lists for a new Ford, Pontiac or Packard in any color other than olive drab were months if not years long.
The idea that a returning G1 or other gainfully employed American citizen would wait all that time and spend all that hard-earned cash and combat pay on a shiny new Oldsmobile, then take it to a dirt racetrack risking wreck damage, mechanical mayhem or worse, was almost blasphemous.
But there were, in fact, some blasphemers out there. Lee Petty, patriarch of the Petty clan, talked his neighbor into lending him his 1948 Buick for the first NASCAR race ever held. (Charlotte Speedway on June 19, 1949. No, not the Charlotte Motor Speedway. This one was a ¾-mile dirt track.) Unfortunately for Petty and doubly unfortunately for his neighbor, Lee rolled that car on lap 105 of 197, totaling it. Perhaps Petty gave the neighbor some of the 25 dollars he won that day for his 17th-place finish. What is known is that Lee, Richard and Maurice Petty were forced to walk home that afternoon. Given Lee’s reputation for being ill-tempered even under the best of circumstances, my guess is it wasn’t a very pleasant walk for the Petty children.
But the use-your-own car routine appeared to gain traction. A total of 28 cars, not one of them older than three years old, showed up for that year’s Strictly Stock Daytona Beach and road course race in July. 41 cars entered the February Daytona Beach race in 1950. So the idea of racing new and gently used cars wasn’t so absurd after all, as it turns out. My guess is those who invested in the idea made out handsomely. I know at least one of them did: Bill France Sr.
When France proposed a 2.5-mile, high-banked paved course (built mostly on land he had the city give to him), doubtless there were howls of laughter from those who thought such a thing impossible. Yep, we’ll be there again this February.
It is part of history that we tend to see the founders of a mighty enterprise as visionaries: brilliant and benevolent people. Such is the case with our founding fathers despite their peccadilloes, or Henry Ford, who was actually a loathsome son of a bitch. Some will try to glamorize NASCAR’s founding fathers as well. Truth be told, while they eventually succeeded beyond their wildest imagining, a lot of them were pretty much thugs.
Back in those days, small towns in the rural south had racetracks the way that a stray hound has fleas. There were many other sanctioning bodies hosting championship series besides NASCAR. But if a driver participated in a non-sanctioned race at a non-NASCAR sanctioned track, he lost all the NASCAR points he’d accumulated to date that season. When the drivers made noise about unionizing, France met them with a gun in hand to discuss the idea. Suffice it to say, France was not in favor and the organizers were not in favor of the idea of being shot dead. It never happened, though Curtis Turner and Tim Flock were (temporarily as it turns out) banned from the sport for life. It’s ironic that the Spaniards originally came to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth. The Streamline Hotel 35 came to the Sunshine State searching for a Mountain of Loot and damned if some of them didn’t find it.
Even basing the NASCAR organization in Florida was a bit of an odd call. The Carolinas were and still are the cradle of stock car racing. But France owned a service station in Daytona Beach so if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, the mountain will come to Mohammed. Back in that era, before air travel became commonplace and at least somewhat affordable, Florida was, in fact, far, far, away. The trip wasn’t equivalent to the pioneers taking covered Conestoga wagons across the Rockies to the promised land, but loading up the wife and kids into a Plymouth station wagon for a ride to Florida was a major undertaking indeed. In that era, cars were a lot less reliable, mechanics even less scrupulous, and few vehicles were air conditioned. (You had to hand crank down the windows in most of them to escape the hellish, sulfurous smell of your older brother’s farts.) Flat tires were all but guaranteed on any road trip of length as were full-blown temper tantrums by the younger members of the clan, if not Mom and Dad.
Back then, most of Florida was a hellhole rife with swamps, gators and mosquitoes the size of fighter jets. But chintzy roadside attractions littered Florida, and starting in 1950, Little Pedro’s South of the Border (conveniently at the halfway point between New York and Florida … or so they claim) had carloads of red-faced, sweaty, worn-out children. That Little Pedro’s South of the Border never sponsored a NASCAR race car, much less a NASCAR champion, is a major disappointment to me. Of course, these days air travel from the northeast to Florida is commonplace and relatively affordable. Good luck getting the pilot pull over to the roadside attractions, though.
Over the decades, Bill France’s brainstorm did, in fact, flourish. For a while, NASCAR wasn’t only a rapidly growing sport, it was “the next big thing.” The reins were passed from Big Bill Sr. to his son Big Bill Jr., who, if he was a still a bit of a thug, was at least a more well-polished one. And then, the reins were handed to one Brian Zachary France and all four wheels fell off the circus wagon practically simultaneously.
I’ve never seen or even heard of a better example of the dangers of nepotism. You could tell he was clueless every time Brian Z. spoke, usually while bright red in the face and waving his arms around like he was swatting hornets. During the few instances he wasn’t lying, the third generation France was wrong on whatever topic he was speaking about. He tended to use a tidal wave of words without a tablespoon of common sense to back them.
Brian France was so convinced that NASCAR was going to continue its rocket-like ascent that the best of course of action was to drive away lifelong NASCAR fans and tracks that contained the scrolls of the sport’s history. He’d replace them with newer, younger, hipper and wealthier fans, paired with newly constructed palaces of speed in diverse geographical regions where folks had never shown much interest in auto racing.
As it turns out, Brian France managed to drive off a large percentage of the old-time fans quickly but was far less successful attracting richer people in geographical regions that continued to show little interest in auto racing. That occurred despite France’s attempts to lead a big brass band on parade with Mike Helton falling in step, stomping his elephantine hoof in time.
But that’s spilled milk under the bridge, I suppose. Life doesn’t offer a handy rewind switch. If it did, I’d have likely worn mine out before my adolescence ended.
Faced with the extraordinary problems stock car racing faces today, perhaps it’s time to rekindle some of that spirit of the Streamline Hotel. Better to fail trying to do nobly than to succeed in doing nothing.
This week, NASCAR announced its new rules package for 2020. There were a few changes announced, most of which will be invisible to the fans. Other than that it is more of the same old, same old. As for the schedule released a month ago, there was no major overhaul nor a single new venue added. NASCAR admits their polling indicates the fans would like to see more short tracks and road courses. But that simply couldn’t be done in time for next year. Maybe in 2021.
Likewise, fans haven’t embraced the Gen-6 cars as they don’t race real well at some of the tracks currently on the schedule. If Sunday’s race at Dover (Oct. 6) didn’t put you to sleep, you might want to talk to your doctor about insomnia. Yes, they’ll need to be redesigned. But there’s simply no time to do that until at least the 2021 season.
It’s true that fans were drawn to NASCAR racing initially because the race cars looked like what many of them drove on the street. But a common chassis and common bodies are much more affordable for the team owners. Reading between the lines, most of the changes announced this week are at least intended to save the team owners some money, limiting things like wind tunnel time and the amount of chassis each team can have. How that’s supposed to trickle down to cheaper ticket prices for the fans is beyond me. It seems what NASCAR is saying is the old business model of how a race team operates is no longer a profitable one. We’ll have to make it cheaper to get in the game.
Keep in mind these changes do come at a huge human price down the road. The numbers I’ve seen indicate that somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 highly-skilled NASCAR team members, particularly fabricators, aerodynamicists and research and development types will lose their jobs. Not yet, but the handwriting in on the wall. Some of those workers have skill sets that include things like welding that will be useful in other businesses (if likely less lucrative). Some of those displaced workers will be able to find jobs working for the companies that build the common chassis and engines, but not all of them. Some tough times lay ahead for people whose only fault was being good at their jobs.
Yes, I mentioned common engines, too. NASCAR thinks not only will they be much cheaper but they’ll help equalize the playing field between bigger teams and smaller ones. Perhaps the common engine specs will also attract some new manufacturers into the NASCAR racing fold. If that effort brings Dodge back, I’m all for it. If it brings more foreign car companies to the sport, thanks but no thanks. The day I read a headline that a Hyundai Elantra won the Daytona 500 is the day I quit on NASCAR altogether. But there’s no way to go with a new engine rule until at least 2022 with the new chassis being designed at the same time.
So it seems the NASCAR is, at long last, willing to admit that all is not well. The sport does, in fact, face some stiff challenges as evidenced by declining TV ratings (which could lead to financial Armageddon the next time the TV deals have to be renewed, given how addicted the sport has become to the opioids of TV money) and sagging attendance numbers. The recent downturn actually caused some tracks to spend money tearing down seats for the sake of appearances.
Yeah, there are problems and NASCAR is ready to address them. Eventually. This strikes me like a homeowner waking up in bed one night to find his bedroom ablaze. At that point, he dials up the local volunteer fire company and asks, “How you guys looking for one, possibly two pumper trucks late morning this Wednesday? Grand. Pencil me in. Any chance there’s still a ladder truck around for Thursday? It would need to be later in the afternoon because my daughter has soccer practice right after school. Brilliant! We’ll look forward to seeing you then. Sorry about all the noise in the background. That’s just our smoke detectors. And our little Mikey screaming about something. He’s a great kid. I’m going to miss him.”
Most people thought NASCAR’s founders were crazy and nobody was going to risk damaging a rare brand new car to race it. Nobody thought any passenger car was going to last 500 miles of racing at the first Southern 500. They thought Bill France Sr. was insane when he laid out his plans for Daytona International Speedway. In times of crises if you must sin, sin boldly.
Screw waiting another three years, NASCAR. Fix things now.