This week, gentle readers, I ask as I have many times before, for your kind indulgence if it sometimes seems I spend more time looking in the rear-view mirror than I do looking forward. At 61, more than likely more of my life is behind me than lays ahead anyway. I’m no prophet, Lord I don’t know nature’s ways … though I do recall that Carly Simon album cover in graphic detail. Lately, as many times before it seems everything old is new again.
Unless you’ve been taking the COVID-19 quarantine way too seriously and having zero contact at all with the outside world, you’ll doubtlessly have heard about NASCAR’s much ballyhooed move to return Cup car racing to a dirt track next month. In this instance, the track beneath all that dirt is Bristol Motor Speedway where the Cup stars have been racing, often to good effect since twice a year since 1961, a track often listed as a fan favorite.
NASCAR in fact hit the dirt previously in 2013 with the Camping World Truck Series at Eldora Speedway, an annual event that has also become very popular with the fans by and large. That race wasn’t held in 2020 due to pandemic concerns and it didn’t make the cut in 2021 either. The Truck Series will run on the new dirt track at Bristol as well as the Cup cars. Why didn’t they just run the trucks and Cup cars at Eldora? After all, that track has shown it is capable of handling the logistics of a NASCAR dirt trace race already. But Eldora belongs neither to the International Speedway Corporation, now owned officially by NASCAR, or Speedway Motorsports Inc., the two track owning entities that host the vast majority of Cup, Xfinity Series and truck races on the NASCAR schedule annually. Eldora is owned by Tony Stewart, a former NASCAR driver and in fact champion. You can even see the driver formerly known as Smoke in some circles out there on an ATV grooming the track pre-race though given his girth he often looks like a monkey trying to hump a football doing so.
Not only is Stewart a rival track owner in a sport that doesn’t welcome competition in that regard at all; he’s gone so far as to propose and plot a rival “All-Star” style stock car racing series the Superstar Racing Experience (co-founded by Ray Evernham). In shades of the old IROC (in this case the International Racing Championship, not a crappy Camaro Chevy tried selling in the late-80s, early-90s to anyone who wanted to learn in detail what the rear of a Mustang GT looked like) will be spec cars with spec engines in hopes to make the series more affordable. Some notable drivers signed up to compete in the six race series include Stewart himself (natch…), Tony Kanaan. Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott, Helio Castroneves and Marco Andretti. While the series also promises younger drivers with some perhaps current or aspiring Cup drivers, if I saw a future in Cup for myself I’d be damned careful about signing on with a rival league … or even what someone in power might perceive as a rival league.
After the debacle at Talladega Superspeedway in its inaugural race, the NASCAR drivers discussed forming a union to promote their interests. Bill France didn’t much care for the idea. He ran at the drivers talking about a union off track property at the point of a shotgun. Drivers Curtis Turner and Tim Flock were banned from NASCAR for life. (Both were later reinstated.)
As recently as 1967 (which I’m willing to concede is none too recently; I was 8 at the time), NASCAR hosted 14 dirt track events and 34 races on paved tracks. RJ Reynolds’ Winston brand got to overhaul the schedule when they became the title sponsor. The 1971 schedule included fully 48 races, 25 of them on short tracks but none on dirt tracks. In 1960, the ratio had been 21 dirt tracks to 22 paved tracks.
Currently there is some concern the Bristol Dirt Track could provide single file racing with very limited passing opportunities. There’s also concern how the track could be tended to if things start going wrong. Unlike your typical local dirt track bullring, there is no downtime to allow track maintenance in the evening’s schedule to allow for track upkeep. And then of course there are concerns about rain and clouds of dust. The folks running the show seem to be tacitly admitting that things might not work as planned and until after the grand experiment they can’t say if they’ll even try it again next year.
Back on Aug. 4, 1956 NASCAR tried hosting an event at a half-mile dirt track in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Things didn’t go well. There was so much dust churned up, the fans on hand couldn’t see the race. There was in fact so much dust thrown up the drivers couldn’t see each other’s cars. It was a fine mess. One driver, Lee Petty, Richard’s dad, didn’t think much of it. Lee Petty is often called “irascible” because many others have used less polite terms. But he was not a ditherer. Seeing the mess unfolding he pulled his car to the inside of the track, got out, ran across the track and climbed up into the starter’s stand. Once he got up there, Lee Petty threw the red flag to conclude the madness. It’s telling that the race never resumed and Petty was never reprimanded by NASCAR for his impertinence. Beats all you ever saw, I suppose.
And you know what happened the very next week? The NASCAR Grand National Series headed off to a new race venue, Road America. And that was the last Cup race held at that track until they run the one scheduled for this year … because everything old is new again.
Some back story to that race. Tim Flock won that race but there’d been a big shakeup in the garage area. Flock had left the all-powerful, series dominating Carl Kiekhaefer team. Carl was a bit of a lunatic. He had his drivers spied on to ensure they weren’t having sex with anyone … even their wives.
Flock had landed a ride with Bill Stroppe (later an off-road racing legend) in a Mercury.
To date that race was the only NASCAR event run flag-to-flag in the pouring rain. The cars already had wipers and defrosters because they were after all “stock cars” with the emphasis on “stock.” Slick tires for stock car racing were still a ways off and the treaded street tires worked just fine. Lee Petty finished 13th and saw no need to flag the race early.
And this summer if it rains at Road America, competitors will race again anyway on treaded tires. Because everything old is new again.
There’s a lot of talk about that Cup dirt race in March and about the addition of so many road course dates to the Cup schedule. Why not combine them? Curiously enough it’s already happened. In 1955-56 the Grand National series ran two races at Willow Springs, California. Willow Springs was a 2.5 mile road course with a dirt surface.
When setting the Way Back Machine for a glance at the past, it’s not always necessary to travel back to decades ago. Admittedly in more dissolute periods of my life, what happened on a Friday evening was pretty much lost to fog banks that obscured the past by Monday morning. Mr. Peabody, a quick trip back to Nov. 3, 2019.
During a race Texas Motor Speedway, Bubba Wallace (then at the wheel of the No. 43 car) spun out. It was a curious looking spin many pundits noted and a somewhat suspect one as it likely allowed Wallace to finish better than he would have if the race was allowed to finish organically. Wallace would eventually be fined $50,000 and docked 50 points. He wasn’t actually penalized for spinning out. That stuff happens sometimes.
Rather Wallace was penalized for admitting honestly he’d spun the car on purpose after cutting down a tire. Further, Wallace charged NASCAR drivers routinely did the same and cited Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski as two drivers who taught him how and when to do so while he was coming up through the ranks. He must not have been taking notes too well. Wallace finished 25th in that race. Some other drivers complained loud and long about that set of circumstances. The spin and resultant caution occurred during a late race pit sequence. Kyle Larson had already pitted and felt that caution had deprived a chance he might have had at winning had the pit sequence played out.
One of the drivers who didn’t bust Wallace’s chops too hard was Kyle Busch. In retrospect, Busch’s comments seem almost prescient. He warned NASCAR to be careful in how much to fine Wallace and what sort of points fine to impose noting that they’d likely be setting precedent for future fines and penalties for similar infractions.
A funny thing happened during Friday night’s (March 5) Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Busch did what he normally does during the races he interlopes in the truck (or Xfinity series) races. He started 29th but took the lead by lap 48. The only issue he seemed to have was on restarts. After he pitted, Busch’s left-rear tire rubbed noticeably sending up smoke signals.
Never fear, assured the broadcasters tasked with covering the race on TV. After a few laps, the tire temps and thus pressures would come up and eliminate the rub. Remember Boyle’s Law?
Not this time. On lap 80, Busch cut down his left-rear tire. He was able to maintain control of the truck despite being caught up in frantic traffic on a restart. It wasn’t until he had slowed dramatically and gotten onto the apron that Busch’s Toyota went into a slow lazy slide that kept him out of the wall and any other race cars’ side. Immediately my Uncle Martin the Martian antennas were fully extended. It may sound like I am damning the younger Busch brother with faint praise, but no way. He’s too damn good a driver to lose control in that circumstance. Busch was already in quite the mood in a not-at-all-unusual set of circumstances. Over the radio, he was screaming at his crew chief wondering why every other truck he was competing against had the rear quarter panels flared but his truck had that same fender rubbing against a tire. Recall that Busch not only drive the No. 51 car but he owns it. That sort of error could cost a man his career.
Now do I believe as some have said that Busch “let” John Hunter Nemechek win that race in hopes of deflecting some scrutiny of his curious spin? I do not. When at the wheel of a potentially-winning racecar, Busch has only one speed: WFO. He’d run over his own granny if he had to win a trophy. That attitude has won Busch scores of fans and detractors alike, but give up a win? Not in this lifetime.
If NASCAR agrees, what sort of fine or penalty will they impose? Obviously it doesn’t matter. He’s a wealthy young man. He doesn’t compete for points towards the truck championship. Any penalty would be purely symbolic – which is another reason I don’t like Cup interlopers getting to run events in the lower series.
Imagine, if you will. that one of Kyle Busch’s drivers like John Hunter Nemechek is competing for the series title in the last race of this year. But another unnamed driver at the wheel of a Chevy or Ford is closing on Nemechek and whichever of those two finishes the race better will take the title. Might not a helpful team owner like Kyle go ahead and take the competitor out? What could NASCAR do about it if it happened?
Think no such thing could ever happen? It already has on Nov. 18, 1956. Buck Baker won that year’s Grand National (now Cup) title after one of his Carl Kiekhaefer teammates, Speedy Thompson, wrecked and seriously injured Herb Thomas, handing the title to Baker. That concerns me because sometimes everything old is new again.