Time was when I used to go to the Daytona 500 every year. For one thing, the Florida weather in February made a stimulating change from the white skies and drizzle of England; for another, go to Daytona for a NASCAR race and the sense of occasion is overwhelming. On my first visit, in 1972, the 500 was won by AJ Foyt, and although once Richard Petty had retired he faced no serious challenge, I came away entranced by the whole thing. Although NASCAR has boomed in the last 20-odd years, and — unlike virtually every other form of motor racing on earth — continues to boom, to my mind not all the changes have been good. In terms of marketing it makes Formula One look like Steptoe and Son, but that marketing has become all-pervasive, and along the way something has been lost.
The racing, for a start, is not what it was — and that used to be the entire focus of NASCAR. Nowhere is this more apparent than at places like Daytona and Talladega, the big tracks, where speeds have been substantially cut back. When I went to the 500 in 1987, Bill Elliott’s Ford took the pole at more than 210mph. Now, two decades on, every year the pole speed is around 190. Still pretty quick, I grant you, but 20mph down on what it was 20 years ago; and when you’ve seen both, trust me, there’s a big visual difference.
Probably speeds had to be cut if the big tracks were to stay in business. In the late-80s Bobby Allison had a huge accident at Talladega, and a portion of the debris fence was torn down. Mercifully no fans had been hurt, but there was a clear message: in America, the land of litigation, the consequences of killing, even injuring, a spectator would be devastating.
Therefore, the cars had to be slowed down, but the means by which this was achieved has been an endless source of controversy and discontent. The advent of the ‘carburettor restrictor plate’ at races on the big tracks slashed horsepower to such an extent that now, at Daytona and Talladega, the cars do not so much accelerate as gain momentum. Once they’re up to speed, yes, they’re going quickly as all hell, but it takes an age to get there.
NASCAR seems to have a happy knack of achieving the right result at the right moment
The majority of the drivers hate `restrictor-plate’ races. “You’ve no throttle response if you need to get out of trouble,” the late Dale Earnhardt used to say. “You’re runnin’ wide open all the time…”
On safety grounds, therefore, they don’t care for this rule, and that’s somewhat ironic, if you think about it. And the other negative aspect of `restrictor-plate’ racing is that it has effectively killed the last-lap slingshot moves which used to be the hallmark of the Daytona 500. Time was when you needed to be second at the start of the last lap; now you need to be first. “They shoulda left the motors alone,” Earnhardt growled, “and slowed the cars down by aerodynamics.”
Whatever, none can dispute that the cars were slowed down. The pole lap for this year’s 500 was 190, 1 mph faster than Cale Yarborough managed—in 1968.
Probably the best race I ever saw at Daytona was not, in fact, a 500, but the Firecracker 400, which used to be run each year on the Fourth of July. In 1984 this was the Wednesday before the inaugural (and only) Dallas Grand Prix, so it made perfect sense to go to Texas via Florida. The humidity was insufferable, I remember, and the experience of getting into the circuit on race morning in no way eased by the need to pass through airport-style X-ray arches. Why? Because President Reagan would be showing up later in the day, and security was off the clock. To that end, announcements on the PA the previous day had requested that patrons should, please, not bring handguns into the track. In normal circumstances it was presumably kosher.
NASCAR seems to have a happy knack of achieving the right result at the right moment, and back in July 1984 it was the right moment for Richard Petty, stock car racing’s all-time favourite hero, finally to score his 200th victory. ‘The King’ had been pegged on 199 for quite a while and, well… Petty… Reagan… Daytona… Fourth of July… it all had a nice ring to it, didn’t it?
When the race started, the President was actually on Air Force One, en route from Washington to Daytona, but he was patched through to the track and gave the command, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” Brought the house down, that did, Democrats in Florida being about as common as vegetarian piranhas.
Petty and Yarborough were the front runners for most of the race, and the last 40 laps were real cat-and-mouse stuff. At the final stops Richard’s crew serviced the number 43 Pontiac brilliantly, getting their man out before Cale’s Chevrolet was moving. Within a dozen laps, though, the two were bumper to bumper again, Yarborough exactly where he needed to be for the slingshot on the final lap.
“Cale’s car was a bit stronger today,” Petty grinned, “so about eight laps from the end I started slowin’ down the pace, by about a second a lap. I knowed he wasn’t gonna pass me — even if I slowed down to 80 mile an hour — so I cut back the rpm on the straightaways, tryin’ to lull him to sleep. Both of us was pumped up for that final lap, but then, about three from the end, I see this cat flippin’ inside Turn 1…”
The yellow lights came on, but under NASCAR rules ‘yellow’ means nothing until the end of the lap, where the yellow flag is displayed at the start-finish line. Suddenly this lap was it, for thereafter the field would undoubtedly run ‘under caution’ through to the chequered flag. “At that point,” said Petty, “all strategy fell out the window — you just had to go do the job. The accelerator went wide open, and I didn’t come off it until I got the flag. It was just gonna be a matter of actin’ and reactin’, and it just happens that I’m the one sittin’ here talking to you, and Cale’s someplace else.”
By the time he came to the press room, Richard had already received his trophy from Reagan. “I think,” he murmured, “it blowed the President’s mind to see us runnin’ side by side at 200 mile an hour…” He had beaten Yarborough by a couple of feet, and to this day in NASCAR circles folk will tell you that he had a big motor, this to guarantee the desired result.
Whatever, Petty won his 200th, and Reagan was there to see it. The significance was not lost on Richard: “The President bein’ here will get the news in a lotta places I couldna got in myself.” A long pull on the cigar. “And the fact that it was my 200th win means that Richard Petty’ll get the President in a lotta places he wouldna got in by hisself!”
My old friend Chris Economaki counts that day at Daytona as a seminal one in the explosion of awareness in NASCAR: “It started a sea change in respect of racing in the USA. Reagan got on Air Force One and flew to Daytona Beach for the express purpose of going to an auto race, not to see some banana republic dictator.
“Believe it or not, Reagan was an auto racing announcer when he was a young man, on WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa. So now here he is, as President, interviewing Richard Petty, and the next day, on the front page of the New York Times, there’s a photograph of the President of the United States with a racing driver. And that opened the floodgates. My phone rang off the hook for 10 days after that — guys from advertising agencies, and so on, who were suddenly aware of auto racing. NASCAR was on a roll…”