Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Imagine smelling a mixture of exhaust fumes, burnt rubber, grease, and gasoline, laced with a residue of cigarette smoke and intensified by dust that refused to settle. While I understand why many people would never want to draw a single breath in that environment, that carcinogenic cocktail was intoxicating and exhilarating for me as a little kid in the southern US.
That was the dense atmosphere that enveloped small-track racing.
I’ve always believed that the era when you start watching sports will set benchmarks that will color your opinion of everything that happens next, even decades later. The same is true about the time when you start working for a company. But declarations about whether one era is superior to another miss one important point. In every era, the athletes strive for the best possible performance with the best equipment, experience, and opportunities they can get their hands on. Regardless of the year, the measure of the sport is the intensity of its competition.
Racing is no exception. Take a close look at the picture above. Besides the apparent age of the cars, you’ll notice the same guardrails you’d find on any old backroad highway. Beyond the track, you’ll see tall trees instead of tall grandstands. The lack of banked turns probably means the drivers spent all afternoon teetering on the narrow line between speed and spinout.
Was this a fun afternoon at the local small track where drivers turned up more for the love of racing than for a big payday?
In a way, yes it was. But it was also an official NASCAR Cup Series event, the 1971 Richmond 500,the first small-track race of that season. The last small track race of the previous season, the 1970 Tidewater 300, took place four months earlier. These two races remain special to me personally, because they straddle the immense fault line between the NASCAR’s classic and modern eras. They mark one moment in time when classic NASCAR ended and modern NASCAR began. But they are also important experiences, because my father and I are probably among the few people who witnessed both races live in person.
Until I was 10 years old, professional sports for me meant auto racing. When I concentrate, I can still conjure up memories not only of the sights and sounds, but also the overwhelming scents around the pits and the haulers. Small-track racing was a full sensory experience.
That 1971 Richmond race – held 50 years ago this month at the old Richmond Fairgrounds – was also the first small-track race ever held in what NASCAR fans now take for granted as the Cup Series. The venue held 14,500 people at the time, and I assume that doesn’t include the people sitting high in the trees beyond the back straightaway. (Yes, that was a thing.) The average speed that day was 79.8 mph on a roughly half-mile track wasn’t even paved until 1968.
How the switch flipped from classic to modern
NASCAR’s classic era – the one powered by independent drivers in real stock cars without major corporate sponsorships – had unofficially ended with the Tidewater 300 on November 22, 1970 before only 3,200 fans at tiny Langley Field outside of Norfolk, Virginia. After the 1970 season, the RJ Reynolds tobacco company signed up as a major sponsor of NASCAR’s premier race schedule. The United States had banned tobacco advertising on television starting in 1971, and RJ Reynolds needed a new way to advertise. NASCAR offered an ideal outlet and welcomed the infusion of money after major automakers announced they would reduce their levels of support.
That was the asteroid that struck the small tracks of NASCAR and eventually the independent drivers who helped sustain them. It’s similar to when a successful business start-up receives a huge influx of capital from a powerful investor. The nature of the business inevitably changes, and it risks losing a lot of the atmosphere that used to define it.
The partnership with RJ Reynolds launched NASCAR’s modern era, the one that endures and still evolves today. But the extinction wasn’t sudden. In early 1971, you could hardly notice the difference at first. In the picture above, Richard Petty – who won that first Richmond race in 1971 – had his familiar #43 in “Petty Blue” but without any major rear-panel sponsorship. Independent driver James Hylton’s #48 carries a car dealership (Mullins Ford) as his sponsor.
The lineup at Richmond, like the lineup at Langley, featured a long list of great independent drivers. Besides James Hylton, the starting grids of both races included Bill Champion, Cecil Gordon Henley Gray, Elmo Langley, Dave Marcis, J.D. McDuffie, Wendell Scott, and Jabe Thomas, among others. One independent, though, made his only Cup appearance in the race at Richmond: Al Grinnan, a mainstay of NASCAR’s late model circuit. In one of my upcoming posts, I’ll have a lot more to say about him.
For the 1972 season, RJ Reynolds and NASCAR worked out a deal to create a significantly shorter schedule featuring more larger venues. Richmond, Martinsville, and Bristol were among the small tracks that survived the cut, but a few tradition-rich tracks would disappear from the schedule for good. Over the years, the influx of sponsorship money and the demand for faster racing helped the surviving smaller tracks expand.
By 1972, most drivers had postcards to sign for fans who came down to the pits to talk to the drivers, touch the sheet metal of the hot cars, and soak up the atmosphere. These are the postcards signed by Cecil Gordon and Dave Marcis, which I received at other small-track races.
This NASCAR expansion was not unique in North American sports. In hindsight, I learned that the period 1970-1971 was a watershed time for every professional sports league. They all embarked on the change from classic to modern and never looked back. Baseball’s National League bid goodbye to Forbes Field, Crosley Field, and Connie Mack Stadium and cemented the cookie-cutter stadium era when huge multi-purpose, artificial-turf venues opened in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. But the American League was still struggling. If that crowd of 14,500 at the 1971 Richmond 500 seems small, keep in mind that only two AL teams (Detroit and Boston) averaged more fans than that per game in the 1971 season.
In football, the AFL and the NFL consummated their merger to form the mega-league we know today, and promptly launched one of the longest-running TV series in history: Monday Night Football.
The NHL grew to a mere 14 teams total, adding Buffalo and Vancouver. The NBA celebrated its 25th anniversary season, but the upstart ABA remained competitive by luring future Hall of Famers such as Julius Erving. Soccer was truly a fringe sport in 1970, but the New York Cosmos came into existence that year and enter the national consciousness in the latter part of the 1970’s when international stars such as Pele created a frenzy.
Classic vs. modern …?
The track at Richmond is now ¾-mile long and average race speeds now top 100 mph. The facility welcomes over 50,000 fans to its 500-lap events. The picture below shows the track in 2012 when they allowed me in for an impromptu tour. What a difference to the 1971 version!
As nostalgic as many are for the classic eras (including me), it remains hard to draw comparisons and make judgments between classic and modern. My benchmarks for fun at the track will always be those small track events run under sunny skies or dim floodlights. But the common denominator is that the athletes in any sport look for the biggest advantages they can find, given what they have. As long as that never changes, the enjoyment of sports will remain timeless.
Frank has road-tripped for over 25,000 miles in the United States. He keeps going despite all those miles, because he knows he has still only scratched the surface of what this country has to offer. He normally writes about small-town food on Wednesday, but decided to post this after NASCAR’s dirt-track races at Bristol last Sunday. Photo credit to Russell Luby on the first two pictures.