DAYTONA BEACH, Fla – Saturday night will be an end of an era in Daytona. Saturday will be the last time that NASCAR will invade Daytona Beach on Fourth of July weekend.
That alone, has been a huge topic of conversation in the NASCAR garage this weekend. It’s tradition. It’s patriotic. It’s what feels right. When you think of racing during the Fourth of July weekend, you think of Daytona, nothing else.
Next year, this race weekend moves to Indianapolis. A track with a long standing history in itself.
For me, while I call Indy home, it’s a move I’m still not fond of. My family started coming to this race in 1984 for Petty’s 200th win. For the last 35 years, Daytona is the place which brings my family closer together than any other point of the year. This has been a family vacation for us for nearly four decades. This year, my two boys (ages 5 and 1) join my wife and 30+ family members on the beach for one last year.
Due to where this race falls next year, my kids will be in school. We can’t all come back. It will be a weekend trip for me and only that – a weekend trip. Plus, why come to Daytona for Fourth of July weekend when the race will be in my hometown?
The same could be said for many other racing fans in attendance on Saturday night. What about the drivers? How do they feel?
“I think traditions are important and as a sport, we stay true to a lot of traditions,” said current points leader Joey Logano. “But, I also think if you don’t change tradition, you’ll always be where you’re at. You can never move forward. When I think about where this race is gonna be placed next year, the final race before the Playoffs, here we go. Think about it. If you come into this race and you think you’re 30 points to the good, and you think you’re gonna be alright to getting into the Playoffs, I wouldn’t think that’s a safe place to be at at all.
“I think that piece of it, even though not’s not on the Fourth of July and we’re all used to it being on this weekend, this race being here, but I think where it’s gonna be placed is just gonna add drama and I don’t see where that’s a bad thing in sports at all.”
Most of the others share his sentiments. While all of them say this is all they ever knew, they point to tradition being broken here a lot over the years.
See, this race has been a mainstay on the NASCAR schedule since DIS was constructed. The original plan was to host a 300 mile USAC race on July 4, 1959. Unfortunately, after a couple of fatalities in testing, NASCAR decided to cancel the USAC visit and move the race to a second NASCAR date instead as the annual July trip was born.
The race would start at 11 a.m. ET to get the event in before the daily threat of thunderstorms arrived. The 250 mile race was set.
In a few short years, the race kept growing in popularity, so a move from 250 miles to the current 400 mile system was adopted. Change No. 1.
From 1959 to 1987, the race was always scheduled for July 4, regardless of the day of the week. Beginning in 1988, the race was moved to the first Saturday of July (that nearest to July 4). Going forward, the race would only be held on July 4 in years in which it fell on Saturday. Change No. 2.
In 1998, lights were installed and the race moved from late morning to primetime. Change No. 3.
But, change isn’t always good. When NASCAR moved the Southern 500 from it’s traditional date on Labor Day weekend from 1950 through 2003. But, they moved the annual stop to Darlington. Now, the series would go to Fontana on Labor Day Weekend. That didn’t pan out very long. Then, the date was moved to Atlanta. Again, not ideal.
In 2015, NASCAR admitted their wrongdoing and moved the date back to Darlington. It has been a hit ever since.
Now, NASCAR has to hope that they get this right. The fan base now isn’t what it was when they made drastic changes for 2004. I applaud the effort to get the fan base growing in the right direction again, but some changes are risky.
The move to August makes sense in the fact that the regular season starts and ends in Daytona. Plus, how thrilling will this race be as a regular season cutoff race? Anyone can win there, so everyone will be on edge that race weekend.
But, how will the attendance look?
It’s no secret, this race used to be packed. I mean, there were 180,000+ coming here in this races’ hey day. Now, it’s more like 40k. How will it look when this race is moved from a family vacation destination and date equity to when most kids around the country are back in school?
Families can’t come and make memories in Daytona Beach anymore. That could lead to a more local crowd. Unfortunately, the local crowd hasn’t exactly packed the grandstands here in February. Other than the Daytona 500, the other races are run in front of empty grandstands far less than what we see for this weekend. Will we see a crowd of even this magnitude in August?
What about tourism?
I’m afraid that if the attendance continues to slide, then this race eventually gets moved to the road course. Then, if that doesn’t work, do they keep two races moving forward?
That’s why this decision is a risky one. The drivers seem to applaud it. Can it pay off?