Collector Car Corner – The Daytona 500, racing highs and lows, and the future of motorsports

Collector Car Corner - The Daytona 500, racing highs and lows, and the future of motorsportsThe Daytona 500 hasn’t always been the first race of the season. Here, the late Dan Gurney wins the first NASCAR race of the season back in January of 1965 at Riverside Raceway in California. (NASCAR Photo)

The late, great author Ernest Hemingway once said, “There are only three sports; Mountain Climbing, Bull Fighting and Auto Racing. The others are just games.”

With this quote as inspiration, I’d like to answer one of the most frequently asked questions I receive from readers of the newspapers and websites that run my weekly columns: “Why does NASCAR open the season with its biggest race of the year, namely the Daytona 500?”

This question requires a twofold answer – so let’s dig in.

The very first Daytona 500 occurred in February of 1959 and was a spectacular event that ended in a photo finish between Lee Petty in his Oldsmobile and Johnny Beauchamp in a T-bird. It took three days to decide the victor after Beauchamp was flagged the winner and enjoyed the victory lane laurels. 

Collector Car Corner - The Daytona 500, racing highs and lows, and the future of motorsports
The first Daytona 500 held in 1959 ended in a photo finish that took three days to decide the winner. Left to right are a lap down Joe Weatherly, winner Lee Petty and runner-up Johnny Beauchamp. (NASCAR photo)

Following the study of photos and laps completed scorecards; Lee Petty was declared the winner. So, heritage ranks right up there as to why the Daytona 500 is the “Great American Race” and first on the yearly schedule.

However, most baby boomer fans will recall that the Daytona 500 wasn’t always the NASCAR season opener. As far back as January of 1965, the season began at Riverside Raceway in sunny California with Dan Gurney winning the 1965 Motor Trend 500 in a Ford. The last Riverside opener took place January 11 of 1981 when Bobby Allison won the Winston Western 500. After that the Riverside races were moved to June and November until its closing in 1988 with Rusty Wallace winning the final June event. 

So the Daytona 500 hasn’t always been the first race of the season. It kind of morphed into that position based on a host of other happenings. For now, it remains so.

Collector Car Corner - The Daytona 500, racing highs and lows, and the future of motorsports
The first Daytona 500 held in 1959 ended in a photo finish that took three days to decide the winner. Left to right are a lap down Joe Weatherly, winner Lee Petty and runner-up Johnny Beauchamp. (NASCAR photo)

The second part of the twofold answer is prize money. 

Daytona pays some of the biggest prize money to all three of its professional classes that compete during Speedweeks, including the Gander Outdoors Trucks, Xfinity Series and Monster Energy Cup. Excitement starts this Sunday with the ARCA 200 and then through a series of events culminating with the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 17. (See NASCAR.com for complete scheduling)

Traditionally, race teams receive extra monies based on attendance, qualifying races, special non-point races, television money, race purse, and other ancillary extras. Many teams, especially those that are underfunded, rely on this additional prize money to get off to a good start and make the initial races of 2019. Even on the Cup level, not every franchise team is loaded with sponsor cash. 

Unlike the stick and ball sports Hemingway notes as “just games,” motor racing is a very expensive, high tech sport that demands millions of dollars to compete. Included are transportation, payroll, home operations, feeding/lodging of race crew, and travel back and forth across the U.S. several times a year to name just a few of the monetary necessities. 

This leads us to sponsorship or lack thereof. 

Although NASCAR still delivers good TV ratings, Nielsen audience measurement ratings have dropped in recent years. These lower viewer ratings will have a negative impact when the next round of broadcast contract negotiations begins after the 2024 season. Currently partnered with Fox and NBC with a combined estimated $8-billion deal, the healthy cash flow will lessen, resulting in less cash to spread around. (NASCAR no longer posts purses paid to its competitors)

Additionally, major sponsors continue to thin out in all of the major motorsport arenas, not just NASCAR. The days of one corporate NASCAR primary sponsor coughing up $20-plus million for a top tier car is now in the minority. You’ll continue to see sponsors sharing events as team owners offer livery on their cars for “x” number of races instead of a full season. This helps reduce the cost to play and may entice companies that have not tried NASCAR racing a chance to test the waters as a smaller, associate sponsor.   

Collector Car Corner - The Daytona 500, racing highs and lows, and the future of motorsports
NASCAR racing is still a solid advertising buy as race fans support sponsoring companies. Pictured is the Roush Fenway Oscar Mayer No. 6 Ford to be driven by Ryan Newman in the Cup Series. Oscar Mayer will be a primary sponsor in several select races for 2019, including the 2019 Daytona 500, and a full season associate sponsor. (Oscar Mayer photo)

Still, utilizing NASCAR as a consumer-branding tool is a solid advertising buy. Most ad agencies admit that NASCAR delivers in moving advertiser product thanks to a rabid, dedicated fan base. Professional sponsorship programs include corporate entertainment whereas companies invite families of business partners to their corporate suites to meet their drivers and then enjoy the race. The end result is more product orders and usually an end display at the supermarket, auto parts outlet or department store.

This brings us right back to the business of racing, good and bad.

Having just returned from a press conference held Friday, Feb. 1, at Tioga Downs Casino Resort in Nichols, N.Y., I’d say there is still much good NASCAR news to report. There, in the Casino Ballroom loaded with area media, Michael Printup, president of historic Watkins Glen International (a NASCAR owned track) announced a new, multi-year contract. 

Collector Car Corner - The Daytona 500, racing highs and lows, and the future of motorsports
Michael Printup, president of Watkins Glen International answers media questions following a new multi-year agreement with Tioga Downs Casino Resort in Nichols, N.Y. (Greg Zyla photo)

Printup explained that Tioga Downs Casino Resort is now the Official Casino of Watkins Glen International, offering the ability to work in unison with a business noted for attracting regional tourism to its hotel and full gaming casino. Both Printup and Tioga Downs owner Jeff Gural expect many co-op opportunities, future economic development and a meaningful business relationship for both principals. 

Clearly, not everything NASCAR these days is negative.

And what is the biggest future concern for auto racing? (Asked by many readers.)

Personally, wondering where the next generation of fans will come from. It necessitates getting the youth off their cell phones and social media / gaming addictions long enough to enjoy something new and exciting. However, this may be a most difficult task, not just for NASCAR.

All positives and negatives considered – here’s to a great motor racing 2019 season.

(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto writer who welcomes reader questions / input on collector cars, auto nostalgia and motorsports at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840 or email at greg@gregzyla.com)

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