LAS VEGAS, Nev. – NASCAR’s Champions Week has been held in Vegas for three years now and it appears it has established roots in Sin City.
The event was pretty much an understated one when it first came to the Nevada desert, largely because it was the inaugural effort and glittery Vegas is used to big-time stuff, celebrities and all.
But in a short space of time, NASCAR and the city have found the means to expand stock car racing’s presence by creating more events and gatherings that lure both the media and, hopefully, the fans.
I’m guessing that not everyone is satisfied. Without casting a stone at Las Vegas, many retain the opinion that NASCAR was bettered served during the two decades its Awards Ceremony was held in New York.
Manhattan is the epicenter of American corporations. It is the world’s media giant. What happens in New York often affects the pulse of national politics and economics.
There was a time when NASCAR believed it belonged there, amid the energy and hub-bub and away from sleepy Daytona Beach, where the banquet – a chicken and peas affair – was held during Speedweeks. It went largely ignored by fans and media alike.
The only time old buddy Tom Higgins and I attended was in 1980, when Dale Earnhardt was honored as the Winston Cup champion. We figured that, as his friends, if we didn’t go he would never forgive us.
A sign of how just humble NASCAR’s awards ceremony was 31 years ago, other than the Winston Cup trophy, presentations made to Earnhardt were a silver belt buckle and an outfit from Wrangler, his sponsor.
Over the years that followed in the Big Apple, NASCAR’s champions received everything from whopping big checks to solid gold car models, diamond rings and mink coats – just to name a few goodies.
But when NASCAR first arrived in Gotham, it was such small potatoes that few knew about it and even fewer cared.
Yes, it came to the Waldorf-Astoria. But rather than occupy the historic and impressive Grand Ballroom – which would be its venue later – 1981 Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip and team owner Junior Johnson were honored in the Starlight Roof.
Make no mistake; the “roof” is a handsome facility. But when it comes to size I daresay some hotels in Vegas have men’s rooms that may be as large.
NASCAR’s first appearance in New York was, shall we say, basic. It was not a formal, black-tie dinner. Suits were adequate. There was no entertainment – celebrities such as Harry Connick Jr., would come later. There was no champion’s ball featuring a well-known rock group. Major sponsors and the auto manufacturers did not offer pre- and post-banquet receptions.
Invitations – none for wives – were as limited as the seating.
In New York in 1981 NASCAR was not on any high level of cultural importance.
And certainly, when it came to culture, most of us who attended the inaugural event were far removed from, oh, say, the normal Waldorf guest. We were considered more suited for a Super 8.
Think of it. Here’s a bunch of rednecks from a redneck sport, conducted mostly below the Mason-Dixon Line, coming to a city choked with affluence and all that comes with it.
Some may have thought: “Why, by golly, some of ‘em are going to see a skyscraper for the first time.”
No, in actuality, it wasn’t as bad as all that. But a lot of us suspected that is exactly how we would be perceived and we decided to milk it for all it was worth.
We’d stand on a street corner, looking at the sky with out mouths agape. When one of us spotted someone eyeing us curiously, he would say:
“Reckon that building would hold a mess o’ corn!”
We’d go into one of the posh Waldorf restaurants for breakfast (knowing we’d be lucky if we got out of there for less than $25 apiece) and ask the waiter:
“Y’all got any grits?”
We would venture into a bar – believe me we had no trouble finding more than our share of them – and say to the bartender:
In time references to culture, or the lack of it, disappeared. As the NASCAR awards grew in stature, the sanctioning body’s presence in New York expanded, largely through its own efforts.
It reached the point where race cars paraded on busy streets, the champion’s many tasks included a whirlwind tour of media outlets – print and electronic, local and syndicated – and included open-public visits from Times Square to the New York Stock Exchange.
But eventually NASCAR outgrew its Grand Ballroom. And as much as it had thrown itself at the media, it had never really gained daily headlines or television presence.
It seemed, in time, that New York began to turn a cold shoulder with the opinion that perhaps NASCAR was simply not worth the effort.
That’s not hard to fathom. A parade of stock cars along Times Square during the rush hour had to anger commuters – who surely loudly complained.
Maybe the expense of being in New York during the opening of the Christmas season grew too daunting for budgets.
With open arms, Las Vegas came calling. Among other things, it declared it had facilities that could accommodate NASCAR nicely.
I daresay that where New York began to snub NASCAR, or at least the perception of it, Las Vegas offered to more than overcome that. Want the Strip for a parade? Let’s deal.
It seems the city and NASCAR have done a good job nurturing the seed planted three years ago.
There are those who will always bemoan the loss of NYC. I can understand their reasons.
But, at least to me, the difference is not about what each city offers; rather, it’s about environment.
One city is distinctly different from the other, in physical size, public amenities, cost and even ambiance. You don’t have to be told that.
However, I am convinced that whatever anyone can experience in New York can do the same in Las Vegas.
Perhaps the only difference is that, it some cases, it might be easier in one than the other.
Regardless, NASCAR is back in Vegas to celebrate its season and its champion.
Those who will attend won’t be yokels, by the way. That stereotype ended years ago.