Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: When an Especially Snowy Day in Rockingham Affected Racing

For quite some time, the NASCAR Cup Series schedule was, shall we say, somewhat whacky.

Not to say that some fans think it is still somewhat whacky, but then, the sanctioning body will never satisfy everyone.

For many years, with the last one coming in 1981, the season began on the road course in Riverside, Calif., in January before moving to the most prestigious race of the year, the Daytona 500, in February.

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Although I’m sure there is one, I never learned of a logical reason why the season always began in California, hardly a bastion of NASCAR support. At the time, that was pretty much concentrated in the Southeast.

Some suggested that NASCAR was hedging bets against the weather. By opening up with events in California and Florida, the odds were good that winter chill, or worse, could be avoided.

That turned out to be a good strategy. Riverside International Raceway races were run on schedule, as were those at Daytona International Speedway for over forty years. However, as you may know, that has changed recently.

But the situation was altered somewhat after the Daytona 500. The schedule moved onto Richmond Raceway, which conducted its first event in 1953, and Rockingham Speedway, located in the state’s Sandhills country, in 1965.

Sometimes Richmond was the third race of the season and at other times it was Rockingham. But it didn’t make much difference. Many times over the years, both events were often plagued by winter cold, freezing rain, icy conditions and even snow.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this came in March of 1980 at Rockingham – which fell victim to what has been called “The Great Blizzard of 1980.”

The 1980 NASCAR Cup Series season started dramatically. Darrell Waltrip, driving for DiGard Racing Co. for what would be the last year following some hard contract wrangling with team owner Bill Gardner, won two of the first two of three races at Riverside and Richmond.

But it was Buddy Baker who grabbed most of the headlines. He was the driver of Harry Ranier’s No. 28 Oldsmobile. Painted black and gray, the car was so quick that Day-Glo pink tape strips were applied to its front bumper so competitors ahead could see it coming.

Baker, a leadfoot from Charlotte who loved superspeedway racing, was always quickest in practice and easily won the pole. The thinking was that if he kept his Olds in one piece, he would be the easy winner.

He was. He won the Daytona 500 by a whopping 12 seconds. That’s how far the field was behind him when a caution flag flew on the final lap. His average speed was a record 177.602 mph.

Naturally, Baker was elated. And why not?

“I’ve been trying to win this race for 20 years,” he said.

Following Waltrip’s Richmond victory, the circuit moved to one-mile Rockingham, one of the most unique racetracks in NASCAR. Rockingham fans liked it because, among other things, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. They had an uncluttered view of the entire speedway.

They also liked it because a Rockingham race lasted nearly five hours. Average speeds reached slightly more than 100 mph, which meant it took nearly that much time to complete 500 laps.

Competitors, however, weren’t too crazy about that – especially since Rockingham wasn’t known for hefty payouts.

But Rockingham was also known for bad weather. Although not the case, it seemed its races were always stalled or postponed by rain, or worse.

It was worse in 1980.

The race was scheduled to run on March 2. But things turned ugly almost as soon as the weekend began. Dark clouds rolled over the speedway. Drizzling rain turned into light snow showers, which became snowflakes that fell in increasing quantity.

By late afternoon on March 1, there was an exodus from the speedway. Nearly everyone returned to their motel rooms with the knowledge there certainly wasn’t going to be a race the next day. They weren’t about to risk a hazardous trip back home. It was time to hunker down.

Dale Earnhardt didn’t think that way. The 1979 Rookie of the Year, who was attracting a great deal of attention, declared to a group of us that he was going home – period.

“I’m spending the night at home,” he said. “This ain’t nothing.”

Many worried that he was making a mistake since reports said the snow was heavier in the Charlotte area.

That didn’t matter to Earnhardt. Later, a phone call revealed that he made it back to his Lake Norman home safely – and quickly.

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As everyone anticipated, the race was called off. On the morning of March 2, about five inches or more of snow had been dumped on the area, which included the Holiday Inn in Southern Pines where most NASCAR officials and media stayed.

It was clear no one was going anywhere. So, a group of us decided to make the most of it. The late Joe Whitlock, then Earnhardt’s public relations rep, converted his room into a tavern, which soon became well-populated.

A small group of media members confiscated a large metal serving tray and started sledding down a small hill in the rear of the motel. They called themselves “The Five Man Fiji Island Bobsled Team.”

Since none of the motel’s staff could not navigate to work, rooms went uncleaned (linens only) and dinner consisted of salty snacks and soft drinks collected at an open convenience store – which took a while.

The next day, snow was still on the ground but it wasn’t enough to deter traveling back home. In my case, that meant a nearly three-hour journey to Roanoke – which I did not eagerly anticipate.

The race was rescheduled for March 9 because NASCAR did not follow a next clear-day rule in those days. Promoters thought no one would attend a race on a Monday.

Of course, things have changed over the decades. Riverside and Rockingham are gone. Daytona and Richmond are much changed and vastly improved from what they were. You don’t have to be told how many times the schedule has been modified.

The weather has, at one time or another, affected the planned schedule of every race. A whopper of a snowstorm struck Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1993, for example. And rain, again, messed with Daytona just a few weeks ago.

It’s nothing new. But then, reckon no one had to tell you that.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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This reminds me of the 2018 Martinsville spring race which was moved to Monday for heavy snowfall in late March which is quite unusual. The cold temperatures kept the brakes and tires cool so the race ran green almost entirely, with just the stage breaks and one incident as I recall.

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