Well, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season is over, and the new series champion, a very deserving Kyle Larson (don’t even try to argue with me) will be officially recognized at the Awards Banquet and Ceremony in Nashville.
This will be the second year the affair has been held in Nashville. It was held in Las Vegas from 2009-19.
Now, I won’t argue that Sin City and the Music City are great metropolises that offer plenty of sights, sounds, entertainment and, uh, shall we say “other” things. It’s only logical that NASCAR would hold its post-season gala in either of them.
But from 1981-2008, the home for NASCAR festivities was New York. It grew from humble beginnings to a week-long series of press conferences – many of which were accompanied by either a breakfast, lunch or dinner – to associated award ceremonies and sponsor functions. It seemed there was always something going on.
However, once upon a time, NASCAR’s presence in The Big Apple was a humble one. Heck, there were likely several weddings that were more ornate and well-attended.
More on that later.
Given how today’s NASCAR awards program is the large, glittering entity it has been for years, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when it was almost a second thought.
It was held in Daytona Beach during the week of the Daytona 500. The venue was the Plaza Hotel, at the time perhaps the largest hotel along the beach on Highway A1A.
As glamourous as today’s ceremony is, when it was held in Daytona, it was pedestrian – very much so. I discovered that when I attended in February of 1981.
The large banquet room was largely empty. I had heard the public could buy tickets to attend, but it certainly appeared few bothered.
Of course, the media was invited. But few attended.
“I’ll go to that thing if they hold it at the dog track. That’s where I’m going.”
Only the top-10 drivers from the 1980 season were allowed to attend and accompany champion Dale Earnhardt.
Today, when it comes to NASCAR, it’s tuxedos and evening gowns. In 1981, well, let’s just say Earnhardt was decked out in clothes provided by his sponsor Wrangler. He may have been the best-dressed person there. Several of the few fans who attended were in shorts.
It was at this time NASCAR President Bill France Jr. contemplated change.
NASCAR was attracting more national attention than at any other time in its existence. The CBS flag-to-flag broadcast of the wild Daytona 500 – a race that is firmly entrenched in stock car racing history – was seen by millions. Their curiosity over the sport grew immensely.
Newly born cable TV networks were searching for content, and they found it in NASCAR. Several races, and more in the future, were broadcast. That meant more people had more opportunity to watch them. And they took that opportunity.
France reasoned that if NASCAR was going to take advantage of all of this, among other things, it had to bring its “chicken and peas that only a few bother to attend” awards banquet to an end. Get out of the backwoods.
And go where?
France seized upon New York. Get NASCAR away from the sand and onto Fifth Avenue. Let’ s show folks drivers are not just “good ol’ boys,” they are trained professional athletes.
Besides being one of the world’s great cities, New York was the media capital of the world. What better place to promote NASCAR and its competitors?
By New York standards, the first awards banquet was decidedly unspectacular. While it was held in the legendary Waldorf-Astoria, it was conducted in the Starlight Roof, a very handsome facility but tiny when compared to the Grand Ballroom, where future, much expanded and technically robust ceremonies were held.
In 1981, wives were not invited. Nor were most drivers and virtually no crew chiefs or crewmen.
Business attire – not tuxedos – was required. That meant coats and ties. I can assure you that there were many who had never worn either for anything associated with NASCAR.
For most of the media, the trip to New York was going to be an adventure. You must understand that a large majority of them were from the South, where at the time, NASCAR prospered as a regional sport.
They knew full well New York wasn’t going to be anything like, say, North Wilkesboro. They also knew they would be able to experience some of what The Big Apple had to offer – and it had a lot to offer.
But it took some adaptation.
All had to take a cab from LaGuardia Airport to the Waldorf. Hard to believe, but for some of them it was the first time they had ever ridden in a taxi. It was always a rental car, but newspaper budgets wouldn’t stand for that in New York – not to mention that, when it came to the traffic, guys were scared to death.
After he arrived at the Waldorf, one media member from the deep South said, “Man, I was scared to death. But tell me, if you want to drive a cab in New York, does it help if you don’t speak English?”
They were all introduced to New York prices. You can just imagine what a room cost at the Waldorf in early December – the start of the holiday season.
As soon as he got to the hotel, one media member had work to do. So he retired to his room and decided he would order room service.
Later, he said: “You won’t believe this, but I ordered a cheeseburger and fries, and it cost $16!”
Remember, this was 40 years ago.
Several media guys converged in the lobby to go to Sir Harry’s Bar. Not unexpectedly, they spent quite some time chatting and drinking. But not to worry about inebriation. When most got their bill, they were stunned into sobriety when they learned they had spent as much as $11 per drink.
“Well, boys, this is New York after all. We ain’t at the Boar’s Head in Daytona.”
There are many more such recollections. But the point is that first awards banquet in 1981 was quite the learning experience for nearly everyone.
Nevertheless, NASCAR wasn’t going anywhere. The ceremonies grew larger, more elegant and more spectacular as the years passed.
And the media grew more sophisticated. Well, most of them, anyway.
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