Who on earth do you think you are?
A superstar? Well right you are!
But we all shine on…
The Winston, NASCAR’s All-Star race, started with a simple, easy-to-understand idea. Most great endeavors do. On May 25, 1985 twelve drivers, all of whom had won a race during the 1984 Winston Cup season, faced off against each other in a 70-lap sprint race run at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The length of the race was chosen to make sure every team had to make at least one pit stop. When the teams chose to make those stops was up to them.
Darrell Waltrip won the race beating Harry Gant to the checkers. The whole affair, start to finish took a tick over 40 minutes to run (there were thankfully no segments back then). My millennial nephew could watch a race that long even with his ADD. It looked like Winston, NASCAR, and Charlotte had a winner on their hands.
So, of course, someone decided to change things for the next year. (What is it with NASCAR always feeling the need to reinvent the wheel? And why do their wheel concepts invariably turn up as a square?) The second Winston was moved from Charlotte to Atlanta.
Oddly enough, it was run on Mother’s Day 1986, a date usually sacrosanct on the NASCAR schedule. Good old boys may not agree who the best driver is or which is the best make of car but they all love their mamas. (As do good old girls, I’ll add, before someone feels the need to remind me.) The move didn’t go over well. About 18,000 fans attended that second Winston. It was such a frightful crowd for that era it looked almost like someone had set a time machine ahead to Fontana in 2016.
It was decided after that debacle if there were indeed to be an annual all-star race in the sport it would be held on the weekend prior to the World 600 and it would always be run at Charlotte. (Originally RJR’s T. Wayne Robertson had envisioned the event moving track to track. Tangent alert. The fact T. Wayne isn’t in the NASCAR Hall of Fame is a stunning indictment of the illegitimacy of the Hall. I’m back now. No more bar stories. I promise.) That first Winston was broadcast on something called Jefferson-Pilot TV. (is Jefferson pilot the dude who flies the Jefferson Airplane?) Of note are the facts that Darrell Waltrip was too busy winning the race to make the event unwatchable from the booth and Mike Joy called the action. I’m not saying Joy is so old that he was around before scientists discovered dirt but my guess is he was born before someone started selling the stuff in sacks.
The decision to keep the race in Charlotte was wildly popular with both the drivers and team members. That two week stretch in May came to be known as the Home Stand. Since most race teams were headquartered in or near Charlotte and most drivers had homes in the area it was a couple weeks everyone involved with the sport could sleep in their own beds, spend some relaxed time with their families and friends and presumably do a whole lot of laundry given how bloated the Cup schedule has become.
For a while the race was well received, featured some outstanding action and became a fan favorite. In 1992 the race was held under the lights for the first time. (the idea a superspeedway could be illuminated for night racing at all was science fiction only a few years before, though in fact NASCAR had raced under the lights on the big track at Lakewood GA decades earlier. Just not well.) Fans who have been around that long may recall that barnburner of a race and we all gave out a collective, “Boy Howdy!”. In fact the winner of the race, Davey Allison wrecked after the race was over (he had some help wrecking after the race was over) and was helicoptered the hospital without even a detour through Victory Lane. The race got nicknamed “One Hot Summer Night” which is problematic in that meteorological summer doesn’t actually start until June 21st.
And of course folks just couldn’t help tinkering with an already good show in hopes (misplaced as it turned out) to making things even better. I won’t list all the changes made to the All-Star race. (that sounds like a good column for a rookie, Tom. Assign it someone will ya?) If I tried I’d either end up crying or getting angry because the events purity (and in my opinion usefulness) has been running on empty since back before Dodge got out of the sport. The event itself changed names numerous times as title sponsors came and went after Winston’s support went up in smoke. Race distances and formats have changed too many times to recall. Eligibility requirements for drivers have gone from that simple to understand (all of last year’s winners and cris-cross applesauce nobody else can play with us….) to a requirement said driver has a pulse or has had a pulse somewhere over the previous ten years or had a pulse while running an All-Star race in some sport or another. In large part cynics maintained that the relaxed rules requirements were made to ensure anyone named Earnhardt and other popular drivers would be in the race. Over the years it wasn’t uncommon to have drivers who had yet to win their first Cup race in the All-Star event. They added a consolation race to let everyone else try to earn their way in. Or have the fans vote them into the race. Or just slip some NASCAR official a fiver and lineup the car anyway because nobody knew what the Hell was going on when you came right down to it. I’m not even sure what this year’s event is called nor do I give a flying fig at a doughnut.
Along the way this event has suffered through various sorts of field inversions, giant pachinko machines, “one race only” paint schemes (I believe the first two were Bill Elliott’s Thunderbat, and Earnhardt Sr.’s silver car.) back in an era before NASCAR races changed paint schemes every week anyway. We had fans throwing their souvenir sit-upons at Michael Waltrip for beating Junior. We had Darrell Waltrip calling the entire crowd at CMS out to a fistfight at the local K-Mart parking lot. The track was levigated, repaved, and renamed a few times. And to this day as best I can recall NASCAR has only ever had one “do-over”. One year heavy weather was heading in just as the race was about to start. Fans had already been told to seek shelter under the grandstands. But NASCAR went ahead and started the race despite the fact it was already pouring in the first turn. Naturally a big wreck ensued. NASCAR threw the red flag then went ahead and told any driver with a wrecked car they could go to a backup without penalty and the race was going to be restarted from scratch….fortunately after it stopped raining. I believe in the sober light of the next morning a decision should have been made to go Jack Kevorkian on the All-Star race but like a bad penny it keeps coming back.
To go any further writing this I just had to look up the rules for this year’s “The Race Formerly Known as the Winston.” I regret having done so. I thought last year’s format was so baffling and bad it could not be made worse even if someone tried very hard on purpose. I was wrong. My brain hurts. As best I can understand it the All-Star event is back to 70 laps in format. Hallelujah for that at least. But the first sixty laps will be run in three 20 lap stages. The winner of each of those three 20 lap segments is automatically qualified for the ten lap final segment (as long as they are still on the lead lap at the end of the third segment so no fair winning a segment and parking your car until the final ten laps though presumably some dastardly driver could eke his way in by wrecking out a segment winner. Nothing I’ve been able to find (and not only am I glutton for punishment I’m tenacious) says what happens if one driver wins two or all three segments at the start of the race. I’m sorry but it gets worse. A total of ten drivers qualify for that final ten lap segment (presuming there are still ten cars that haven’t been destroyed to the point they can’t meet NASCAR’s new fan favorite five minute wreck clock.) The remaining seven (or eight if one driver wins two segments or nine if one drivers wins all three segments I’m guessing) drivers (in addition to the three previous stage winners) will make the field, I kid you not, based on their average finish in the three previous segments, They don’t say how two drivers tied in that regard will be separated. A game of rock, paper, scissors perhaps? Oh, this is very bad. So the driver who finishes second in the third segment (who’s on first….) could mathematically not make the final ten lap shootout (dash for the cash? The Big Kahuna? For All the Checkers? What the hell will it be called?) if he finished poorly in the first two segments say perhaps due to a first lap spin. Because it’s raining. Let me hasten to add that a female driver could in fact reach the final 10 if the fans vote Danica in but I’m still not adopting gender-neutral pronouns or using “they” which is plural and screws verb agreement all up.
OK, so now we have our ten drivers. Line em up, drop the green flag and let’s get going. Oh, no. Not quite yet my little pretties. At this point the field is sorted with the three (or two or one) stage winners up front (I’d guess that the guy who wins the third stage would be the pole-sitter but who starts second and third if a different driver wins stages one and two? Or do we go by their average finishing position. Seriously this is criminally badly thought out. Behind those drivers the other seven (or eight or nine) drivers will line up in ascending order of their average finish through the first three segments EXCEPT at that point pit road is open. Drivers may elect to pit at this point but do not have to. Whoever does choose to pit will return to the track in the order they leave pit road and line up behind the drivers who chose to stay out. EXCEPT that there will be two different tires available to the teams on Saturday night. I’m good with that. We’ve since this before in other forms of auto-racing most notably F1 and Indycar. But in those sports the softer tires are identified by the red lettering. NASCAR and Goodyear aren’t using red letters. Our soft compound tires will have green letters. Why? How the hell should I know? Is it OK to install green letter tires on the right side of the car and yellow letters on the left side or is that like wearing white pants after Labor Day? Or if a team decides to only take right sides, can they put greens on the right with yellows on the left? Is there a new rule that the cars must carry a spare tire and jack in the trunk?
But here’s the twist. No matter in what position they leave the pits after that stop, the drivers whose teams go with the softer compound green tires will have to line up behind anyone else who pitted and took the standard formulation yellow letter tires. But what happens if a driver commits a pit road violation on that stop (not that that ever happens during stock car races, right?) and comes out with the standard yellow letter tires. When he drops to the rear of the field does he line up just behind the other drivers on new yellow letter tires or does he have to get behind the drivers with the soft-compound green tires as well? Let us add a quick prayer rain doesn’t end the event before its conclusion, particularly after the third segment and the optional pit stops but before the green flag flies to start the final segment. Who wins? The driver leading at the time? The driver with the best average finish in the first three segments. The driver who won the fastest of the three segments? The driver whose team is leading the owner points? Aw, go ahead and pull a name out of a hat. It makes as much sense.
The original Winston was based on a simple idea and it worked splendidly. Simple is good. So how would I redesign things? OK, first off the event itself is moving to the Saturday night before the World 600. (Or in a perfect world the World 600 moves to Saturday night and the All-Star race is moved to Friday night as a preliminary to the NXS race.) We need another weekend off on the schedule. But the event does stay at Charlotte for perpetuity rather than moving around place to place like a saddle tramp. The Home Stand is good. We rename the event the T. Wayne Robertson Memorial so we don’t have to go changing the name every time we get a new title sponsor or eventually when NASCAR no longer has one.
We go back to seventy laps. No segments, no half-time breaks, no do-overs. Teams may pit anytime they want and as often as they want. Only green flag laps count towards the total, There are an unlimited amount of green,/white/checker finishes to attempt at the end of the race.
The race will be restricted to drivers who either won during the previous Cup season or who won a race that same season prior to Charlotte. No fan votes, No Open Race. No previous champion’s clause. No previous All-Star eligibility rule. Winning is the point of this stock car racing thing, not seeing how much soda you can sell. If you haven’t won in forty-some odd races you may in fact not be an “all-star”. You want some gimmicks to brighten things up? OK. Any Cup driver who won an NXS or truck race in the previous year would lose his chance to be in the All-Star race for stealing candies from kiddies.
One thing NASCAR has gotten right is qualifying. (Even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while.) Fans love watching the drivers enter pit road at top speed and slide to a halt in their pits. Believe it or not that’s how all pit stops used to be performed during races prior to the pit road speed limits being enacted after a string of tragedies. So I’d keep the qualifying format. Drivers would run three laps and anywhere in that period make a four tire stop.
As I see it, the entire event ought to take about an hour to run after qualifying. No we’re not going back to introducing each pit crew member by name. That took longer than the race itself. I figure five minutes to welcome the audience, explain the rules (and, again, if it takes more than a minute to explain the rules the format is probably not going to work) say the prayer, sing the song, and start the engines. The race itself would take 40 to 45 minutes. There’d be no commercial interruptions because our new buddies at Monster Energy love us so much they’ll pay the network the usual ad fees just to have their logo in the upper right corner of the screen. That leaves enough time to interview the winner, the second, third and fourth place finishers and anyone who might have happened to punch Kyle Busch that evening. An hour is ideal for TV and perfectly suited for those afflicted with attention deficit disorder. Afterwards everyone can enjoy the rest of the weekend in whatever manner they see fit.
And how much money is a big enough payoff to have the qualified drivers running with their knuckles dragging the ground the entire race? Sadly we can’t make money matter much anymore. Yeah, back when T. Wayne dreamt up the Winston Million it was an unprecedented and huge amount of money, more money than most drivers made in several seasons, more money than some made in their careers. While the average fan a windfall of six figures would be life altering and a seven figure payout would life transformative, for the big name drivers today a million bucks might be more of a tax headache than anything. Or perhaps it might be handy to buy a new motor coach or have the interior on their private jet redone. So we’ll make the payout a modest 100 grand (yes, I wish I could be that modest too) but donate an equal amount to a charity selected by the winning driver. To a lot of folks in some tough circumstances needing a hand up not a handout that sort of money still has a real impact.
The original idea behind the Winston was a simple one but it was a good one. Much like a 65 Ford Mustang was basically a Ford Falcon dressed up in jeans and a sports coat to make it a “sports car” Ford nailed the concept their first time at bat with the pony car. (How long has the Mustang been around? Richard Petty won his first Cup title the same year the Mustang was introduced.) But by 1973 the Mustang had become this swollen caricature of itself, more of a Clydesdale than a wild horse. It’s time to get back to the original concept. My guess is when the Winston folks came up with the idea they just thought it might be a fun afternoon at the race track. If the event broke even, so much the better. It seems everything done to the All-Star race has been done to increase profits at the cost of the fun. Make the All-Star race fun again and the profits will take care of themselves.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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