Back at the turn of the century, my sister and then-brother-in-law lived in rural Vermont. I took a lot of road trips to visit them and a lot of road trips while I was visiting, rather a necessity in that nothing of consequence was near their home unless you want to count a bad-tempered creek and a snowmobile trail that ran clear up to Canada.
On one of our journeys, we once again got sent down a VTDOT detour on some back road that was little more than a goat path. At a five-point intersection, there was yet another graying barn in an advanced state of disrepair with the usual flea market items scattered hither and fro across the parking lot. A sign on the barn door proudly proclaimed “New Antiques Made Daily.” I wasn’t the only one that got a chuckle out of the absurdity of the sign. I saw several other (lost) tourists photographing the sign using what were then called “cameras” in that cell phones and selfies weren’t things yet — antique or otherwise.
Yet NASCAR officialdom used to use a similar slogan and did so without the faintest blush or smirk. Mike Helton used the term “modernizing tradition” most often. Forget for a moment that things become “traditional” because they’re done the same way year after year. Taking the Labor Day weekend date and the Southern 500 from Darlington and moving it to Fontana was one “modernized tradition.” Like many other similar moves, it not only failed, it failed spectacularly. Confronted with the visual evidence of all the empty seats at the track, the then-track general manager famously suggested that all those missing fans were under the grandstands doing a little shopping. Lord knows that race wasn’t exciting enough to distract anyone from doing a little shopping.
A hard lesson learned, right? Apparently not so much. Ironically, while Darlington reclaimed the Southern 500 and its traditional Labor Day weekend date Daytona is about to lose its traditional Independence Day (or the nearest Saturday to the Fourth of July … another modernized tradition) to Indianapolis. The race formally known as the Firecracker 400, and the second points paying race at Daytona will run on (or around) August 29, 2020.
I’ll guess, though I’m uncertain, that the race at Indy will still be called the Brickyard 400 or something similar presented by some brand of hard liquor. The new date moves to July 5. For the record July is the most active month for tornadoes most years in the Midwest. Oh, and it tends to be hot as the blazes in Indy in July, though the same can be said of Daytona Beach. The late August date in Daytona coincides with the peak of hurricane season as well. You sometimes get the impression that some of the prime movers and shakers at NASCAR aren’t too bright.
Not that the weather was great at Daytona this weekend, and most years it’s not. So they moved a race out of the furnace of Florida in July, good for them, eh? No more lengthy weather delays on Firecracker 400 weekend caused by thunderstorms and downpours in the evening. Any reasonable person expected as much heading into this weekend. Florida is semi-tropical. During long, hot afternoons, the air gets superheated and thus is able to support huge amounts of water with the humidity adding to the misery for all those who find themselves stony-faced out there on the Fourth of July. You don’t have to be Madam Marie to know as things cool a bit in the evening and the breezes come in off the sea rather than from the land side, the atmosphere is no longer able to absorb all that moisture. At which point it beings raining — heavily. For hours at a time. On a racetrack that’s every bit of 2.5-miles around. Yep, it takes a while to dry Daytona International Speedway.
Oh, well. Nothing you can do about the weather, right? Well, actually, there once was a perfect solution to the stormy Florida afternoon and evening dilemma. Back then, the Firecracker 400 was run on the Fourth of July no matter what day of the week the holiday occurred on. And it began at 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning. A couple hours for the race and everyone is out on the beach by 1:30, well before the afternoon storms roll in. Simple. Effective. But another tradition that got modernized.
My guess is the “network partners” insisted on a Saturday date. And they probably felt that starting a race at 10 or 11 in the morning would hurt the ratings. It is my considered opinion that more people will tune in to see fast, loud racecars actually racing at 11 then will tune in at 8 p.m. on Saturday night to watch hours of insufferably bad and repetitive pre-race programming.
Anyone hear anything about a dust up between William Byron and Brad Keselowski this weekend? Ironically enough, Saturday night’s rain delay caused the race to be rescheduled for 1 p.m. ET, which is preferred by most longtime fans as the traditional starting time for races here on the East Coast. The powers that be at NASCAR’s “network partners” (not the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree either), felt certain they could boost ratings by moving start times to 2, 3 or even 7 p.m. ET. How’d that work out for ya’ll? Oh, right, judging by your ratings that was another tradition that could have stood with a little less modernizing.
Who knows if the revised date for the Brickyard will restore some of the event’s luster? (Funny thing how the race went from a sellout to a disaster just because a tire company bought a product that wouldn’t last on the re-grooved track surface more than 10 to 12 laps.) Deciding to let that debacle play out rather than red flagging the race, giving everyone their money back, and apologizing profusely for being such an unsavory band of morons was yet another modernized tradition. The customer is always right, someone told me once upon a time. “That customer is right out of here on his skinny white ass if we can find a new more affluent fan to replace him.” My guess is this modernized tradition will be yet another disaster.
I don’t think handing out free tickets and ice cold free beers could fill the grandstands halfway at Indianapolis anymore. So maybe we’ll eventually see the Firecracker return to Daytona Beach on the July 4 Weekend down the road a ways. Who knows? If that happens, maybe they’ll move the start time back to 11:00 a.m. as well. Some traditions don’t need any modernizing. Neil Bohr, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist some years older than Sheldon Cooper, once espoused, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
Older mechanics have learned along the way: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
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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