- Bill France Jr. was the architect and engineer to give NASCAR the attention it so craved when it moved its awards banquet to New York City.
- And for nearly another 30 years, New York became the home of NASCAR.
- Darrell Waltrip was honored as the first NASCAR driver in New York and the Waldorf Astoria in 1981.
For more than 30 years since its inception, NASCAR has been known primarily as a Southeastern sport. But if the sport is to grow and be accepted across the country, it would have to evolve into bigger and better plateaus.
And there was no better plateau in the country than the Big Apple in New York City. If NASCAR was to be accepted along with some of the biggest names in sports—like baseball’s New York Yankees, the NBA’s New York Knicks, the NHL’s New York Rangers, and the NFL’s Jets and Giants—New York was the place to be.
Bill France Jr. was the architect and engineer to give NASCAR the attention it so coveted, and decided to make a big mark by moving the highlight of each season of the sport — the annual awards banquet — to New York, and more importantly, to what was then the most prestigious hotel in the world World. the legendary Waldorf Astoria.
The overwhelming longing for France and NASCAR? If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere, so it’s up to you, New York, New York, to show the good old south boys and girls a party like they’ve never seen before.
“They went to Daytona (where the awards banquet was held at the Plaza Hotel for about 30 years) and they had the ceremony down in the basement of the Plaza,” NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip once told NASCAR.com. “No media, no people, anything like that. Just all the guys that made it in the top 10 on points.”
But then came 1981 and Waltrip became the first NASCAR driver to be honored at NYC and the Waldorf.
And for nearly another 30 years, New York became the home of NASCAR. The Apple became so important to the sport that the league opened a business and PR office in the city to capture national media attention, build relationships, and attract sponsors, advertisers and more.
“Bill Junior wanted to take NASCAR out of the backwoods and not just onto Main Street, but onto Wall Street,” Waltrip told NASCAR.com. “Having dinner in New York was a big step up. It made a statement. This wasn’t just a hillbilly sport, a bunch of good old boys; These guys are professional racers and that would change the image of the sport. And it did.”
Waltrip then made perhaps one of the most poignant observations he’s ever made when it came time to analyze why coming to New York was a good thing for NASCAR: “We’re not imposing here; we belong here.”
Unfortunately, while New York initially welcomed NASCAR, its open arms slowly began to close over the years, particularly in the final years of its relationship with the awards banquet. New Yorkers were tired of having to close Times Square for several hours during a workday—causing massive traffic delays and detours—so that NASCAR could stage a victory parade to honor its champion of the year.
And while all of New York City’s major media outlets were invited to the banquet, it’s gotten to the point in recent years that if you’re not a NASCAR fan and you were going to pick up one of the local papers, you wouldn’t know that Sport was in town for its annual horsepower hootnanny.
“[NASCAR would spend]$10 (to) $15 million and it wouldn’t be in the paper the next morning,” Waltrip said NASCAR.com.
And the anger went both ways. The Waldorf and its Grand Ballroom eventually began carrying NASCAR folks. An annual banquet and awards program began to look like the other.
Also, NASCAR drivers and their families didn’t like the thousands of dollars that came out of their own pockets to stay in the Waldorf to endure traffic where it could take 45 minutes just to move less than a mile to get around paying grossly inflated prices for food and, for the most part, and battling the very cold temperatures – if not outright snowstorms – that left scores of NASCAR members ill with bad colds, the flu, or even pneumonia – the end November or early December.
When NASCAR fell short of its goal of building a Staten Island racetrack due to environmental concerns, as well as all the associated infrastructure costs that the sanctions agency would likely have to reimburse the city and state, the marriage between the sport and the city was accomplished after the 2008 banquet eventually a divorce.
Back then, NASCAR traded class for Klitsch and moved the 2009 awards banquet to Las Vegas for the next decade. While NASCAR now refers to Nashville as its home for the annual awards banquet, occasionally some folks in NASCAR suggest that the sport may return to New York every few years.
While it’s a great idea, it’s unlikely to ever happen again.
consequences car week Contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski