NASCAR goes from “Backwoods to Wall Street” for the awards ceremony in 1981

  • Bill France Jr. was the architect and engineer for NASCAR’s long-desired interest when the awards banquet relocated to New York City.
  • And for nearly another 30 years, New York became NASCAR’s home away from home.
  • Darrell Waltrip became the first NASCAR driver to be honored in New York City and at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1981.

    For more than 30 years since its founding, NASCAR has been known primarily as a southeastern sport. But if the sport is going to grow and become more accepted across the country, it’s going to have to take itself to bigger and better plateaus.

    And there was no better getaway in the country than in the Big Apple, New York City. If NASCAR is accepted alongside some of the biggest names in sports – baseball’s New York Yankees, NBA’s New York Knicks, NHL’s New York Rangers, NFL’s Jets & Giants – New York was the place to be.

    Bill France Jr. was the architect And engineered to catch NASCAR’s long-desired attention, choosing to make a big statement by transporting the sport’s highlight of each season—it’s annual awards banquet—to New York, most notably to the world’s most famous hotel at the time, the legendary Waldorf-Astoria.

    Darrell Waltrip

    Darrell Waltrip, left, takes top honors at the NASCAR Awards in New York City in 1981.

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    The overwhelming desire of France and NASCAR? If they can get there, they can do it anywhere, so it was up to you, New York, New York, to show the good boys and girls of the South a party like they’ve never seen before.

    “You’d go to Daytona (where awards banquets have been held at the Plaza Hotel for nearly 30 years) and they had the ceremony in the basement of the Plaza,” NASCAR Darrell Waltrip Hall of Fame He once told “No media, no people, anything like that. Just all the players who finished in the top 10 in points.”

    But then came 1981 and Waltrip became the first NASCAR driver to be honored in New York City and at the Waldorf.

    And for nearly another 30 years, New York became NASCAR’s home away from home. Apple has become so important to the sport that the league has opened a commercial and PR office in town to attract national media interest as well as build relationships, attract sponsors, advertisers, and more.

    “Bill Jr. wanted to take NASCAR out of the backwoods and put it not just on Main Street but on Wall Street,” Waltrip told “Dinning in New York was a huge step forward. He was making a statement. This wasn’t just an isolated sport, a group of good boys; these guys are professional race car drivers and that would change the picture of the sport. And it did.”

    Waltrip then delivered perhaps one of the most moving remarks he ever had when it came time to analyze why it was a good idea for NASCAR to come to New York: “We don’t intrude here. We belong here.”

    While New York welcomed NASCAR at first, unfortunately, the open arms have slowly begun to close over the years, especially over the past several years of the awards ceremony relationship. New Yorkers are tired of having to shut down Times Square during a workday—and cause major public transit and traffic disruptions and diversions—for several hours to allow NASCAR to stage a victory parade to honor its annual champion.

    And though all the major New York City media were invited to the banquet, in recent years it has gotten to the point that if you weren’t a NASCAR fan and would have picked up any of the local papers, I Don’t Know Sports was in town for its annual hootnanny horse.

    Darrell Waltrip and Johnson Jr

    Junior Johnson, right, also got into action at the Waldorf.

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    Waltrip said, “(NASCAR will spend) $10 (to) $15 million and there won’t be anything about it in the paper the next morning.

    And the grief went both ways. The Waldorf and the Grand Ballroom began wearing NASCAR. The annual banquet and awards program is beginning to look like another program.

    In addition, NASCAR drivers and their families didn’t like the thousands of dollars that came out of their own pockets to stay in the Waldorf, put up with traffic where it might only take 45 minutes to move less than a mile, pay exorbitant prices for often, and have to battle freezing temperatures. —if not the outright snowstorms that have caused countless NASCAR cataclysms—with severe colds, the flu, or even pneumonia—that occurred in late November or early December.

    When NASCAR fell short of its goal of building a racetrack on Staten Island due to environmental concerns, plus all related infrastructure costs that the city and state sanctioning body would likely reimburse, the marriage between the sport and the city finally came to a divorce after the 2008 banquet.

    At that time, NASCAR replaced the class with the klitsch, and moved its awards banquet to Las Vegas in 2009 for the next decade. While NASCAR now calls Nashville its home for its annual awards show, some people often suggest that the sport should return to New York perhaps every few years.

    While it’s a great idea, it’s not likely to happen again.

    Continued car week Contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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