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Waid’s World: Yes, It’s Been a Strange Year for NASCAR, But Not the First One

In my mind, there has never been a more changed, convoluted or stranger NASCAR season – across all its three major series – than in 2020.

And I don’t have to tell you why. It can be explained simply: COVID-19.

Schedules were altered like never before. Some races were not open to any fans and only select media. Others were open to only a few spectators. Access to garage areas was limited. Infields were empty – among many other things.

We have gone through a year of masks, hand washing and sanitizers. Not to mention, at one point, trying to find toilet paper.

Oh, and among many other things (like attending church), no NASCAR Awards banquets. Only studio TV. You realize, of course, that in the interest of safety, we were encouraged not to congregate in numbers.

As I’ve said before, when it comes to 2020, we ain’t never seen the beat of it.

And I think you will readily join me when I express the hope that 2021 will bring us back to normalcy. Enough is enough.

Yes indeed, the 2020 season was unique. I can’t think of any other year in NASCAR that matches it.

But when it comes to a dramatic change to the norm that altered NASCAR not only for a year but for decades to come, one season comes close.

For 17 years, from 1955-71, NASCAR’s Grand National circuit (now he NASCAR Cup Series) consisted of as many as 62 races conducted on asphalt and dirt tracks of various length from coast to coast.

But in late 1971, a meeting between NASCAR President Bill France Sr. and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. – instigated by team owner Junior Johnson – led to the establishment of the Winston Cup circuit.

France convinced RJR that it could best spend the excess dollars it had on hand after the government banned television advertising was to sponsor an entire circuit and create a point fund.

Which RJR did so through its Winston brand. The first point fund it posted was $100,000 – a huge sum for the time.

But the tobacco company was savvy when it came to spending money. It realized that many of NASCAR’s races were held in ridiculously small venues with low attendance and even lower media attention.

It realized it would be spending money needlessly.

To remedy that, RJR mandated that all races of 250 miles or less be removed from the Grand National schedule. If there were any races of such distance, they would not be part of the new Winston Cup Series.

As a result, the 1972 schedule consisted of 31 races, at least 20 fewer than in past seasons.

You can just imagine what a significant alteration that was for NASCAR — fewer races, which meant less expense for the teams, more available money to win and the security of a circuit-wide sponsorship.

And it all happened just after a year in which NASCAR was foundering, losing factory funding and sponsorship.

As much as all of this provided needed stability, it was only two years later that NASCAR endured yet another dramatic alteration. And this one was not good.

By the autumn of 1973, the oil producing nations of the Middle East announced a boycott on all exports to Europe, Japan and the United States. The plan was to significantly raise oil prices.

The result was devastating in the U.S. Gasoline prices skyrocketed as supplies dried up. Long lines of cars formed at stations all across the country awaiting any fuel that could be attained.

Gas stations rationed fuel in an attempt to stay open. President Richard Nixon said all stations would be closed from 9 p.m. on Saturday until midnight on Sunday in an effort to conserve energy.

And motorsports came under fire.

The thinking was that any sport which required cars to go fast – and thus used up needed fuel – was not in the public interest of the time and therefore should be abolished.

This put NASCAR’s head on the chopping block, never mind the fact (one of many, by the way) that a race used far less fuel than it took to fly an NFL team from Washington D.C. to San Francisco and back.

After much back and forth between race-sanctioning bodies and the federal government, France, no longer NASCAR’s president but still the influential head of International Speedway Corp., came up with a plan in which all the sanctioning body’s tracks would cut fuel consumption by 25% across the board.

He made the first step by dropping the 24 Hours of Daytona event and reducing the 1974 Daytona 500 by 10% — or to 450 miles.

Other tracks adopted similar methods or reduced their starting fields.

As 1974 progressed, the oil crisis passed. There were many other issues that year, but none of them came close to anything that threatened NASCAR’s very existence.

Yes, there have been times in the past that have brought change — good, bad, permanent or temporary — to NASCAR.

And now, in 2020, it has happened again.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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