I get a little sentimental at this time of year, thinking about how some things in NASCAR were indeed better in days gone by. I’m not alone.
For years, NASCAR’s competitors, fans and media celebrated the Independence Day holiday at Daytona International Speedway and the running of the Firecracker 400, as it was known for decades.
It wasn’t because the race was uniquely competitive, although there were some great shows. Rather, it was the very nature of the event that made it special. It was very much unlike the season-opening Daytona 500. That was, and is, a much-hyped, most important and most well-known NASCAR event.
It’s the foundation of Speedweeks and is accompanied by other races and events that once took nearly two weeks to complete. Over those two weeks, the media was constantly busy. With so much news to report and race coverage to file, things could get hectic.
The Firecracker 400 was so vastly different. There was only the single race and all activities were finished in a matter of days. It certainly didn’t have the status of the Daytona 500 and that meant the coverage was not widespread — and to be honest, it didn’t need to be. But for the media that did have to work the summer event, it was undoubtedly one of the most popular.
There are reasons for that.
The Firecracker 400 meant summer days at the beach. It was one of the few races at which many media members brought their families.
For competitors, it was the same. In fact, the Firecracker 400 meant a vacation for the Petty family, year after year. Richard and Lynda would pile all the kids into a car and drive to Daytona for days of sun and fun with a race thrown in.
“It was our thing,” Kyle Petty once said. “It was Daytona every July for the race and dad’s birthday (July 2).”
I had a personal experience with the Petty vacation. One year, a day after the race, I saw Richard get into his family-loaded car in a fast food restaurant parking lot in Cheraw, SC. I decided to follow him to his home in Level Cross, N.C. It wasn’t long before I questioned my decision.
The route north didn’t involve an Interstate and the Petty vehicle did at least 60 mph — for the most part — in 45 mph, two-way zones. Mind you, not always. Petty maintained the legal slow speed as he passed through small towns.
Otherwise, I wasn’t accustomed to this sort of thing and admit I got a bit nervous. But I stuck it out.
When we stopped at an intersection very near the Petty home, I breathed a sigh of relief. I would be able to continue on my own.
Then Petty stuck his head out the window and looked at me with a big smile on his face. He waved at me.
He knew I had been behind him all the time.
In Daytona in July, it all made sense. While dad (or mom) was working at the track, the rest of the family could hit the beach or the pool.
And the workdays weren’t long. Everything at the track started early in the morning and was usually over by early afternoon. Everyone wanted to get the heck out of there to go sit by the pool and have a cold one.
If a team was still working on its car at one in the afternoon in an otherwise empty garage area, the media knew it was having problems.
But they weren’t about to wait around to find out. For years, they appointed a single writer — usually a rookie — to remain at the track and be the pool reporter.
“You find out what you can and if it’s anything important, either call one of us at the motel or take notes and bring them to us,” the veterans sternly decreed.
By two or three each afternoon, motel pools were teeming with activity. Media folks, drivers, crewmen — and in many cases their wives and kids — were conversing, laughing and swimming. It was like a big family reunion.
One year, crew chief Buddy Parrott put on a diving exhibition. He repeatedly leapt off the board in one twisting maneuver or another.
As I recall, it was at this time we found out he used to be a diving champion.
The Firecracker 400 was unique in another way. It began at 11 a.m., earlier than any other NASCAR race. There was a good reason for that. You don’t have to be told it gets hot in Daytona Beach in July. So, the idea was to get fans out of the track quickly to get them out of the heat … and back to the beach as soon as possible.
It was the same for the competitors and media. The race lasted no longer than just over two hours ¯ most of the time — and they could be poolside by early afternoon.
One year Neil Bonnett, driving for the Wood Brothers, won the race in dominating fashion. After brief visits to victory lane and the press box, he left the empty speedway.
The media had to stay back for a while. After all, there was work to be done. But they made it quick. After all, this was not the Daytona 500.
A few media guys made it back to their motel at 3 p.m. and discovered Bonnett lounging that the pool, a cold beer in his hand.
“What took you guys so long?” he asked with a smile.
The July 4, 1984 Firecracker 400 has gone into NASCAR history as one of its most memorable and singular races, largely due to the presence of President Ronald Reagan.
But that’s another story.
The Firecracker 400, a daytime race with a unique midmorning start, hasn’t been around for some time. Change and progress have had their effect.
But they haven’t done anything to erase memories.
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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