Bill France Jr. was the architect and engineer to get NASCAR the attention it so coveted when it moved its Awards Banquet 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 NYC and at the Waldorf Astoria in 1981.
For more than 30 years since it was founded, NASCAR was known primarily as a Southeastern sport. But if the sport was going to grow and became more accepted around the country, it would have to take itself to bigger and better plateaus.
And there was no better plateau in the country than the Big Apple, 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 get NASCAR the attention it so coveted, choosing to make a huge statement by moving the sport’s highlight of each season—it’s annual Awards Banquet—to New York, and most notably to the most prestigious hotel in the world at the time, the legendary Waldorf-Astoria.
The overwhelming desire for France and NASCAR? If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere, so it was up to you, New York, New York, to show the good old boys and girls from the South a party like they’d never seen before.
“You’d go to Daytona (where the Awards Banquet had been held in the Plaza Hotel for roughly 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 finished in the top 10 in points.”
But then came 1981 and Waltrip became the first NASCAR driver to be honored in NYC and at the Waldorf.
And for nearly another 30 years, New York became NASCAR’s home away from home. The Apple became so important to the sport that the league opened a business and PR office in town to generate national media attention as well as build relationships and attract sponsorships, advertisers and more.
“Bill Junior wanted to take NASCAR out of the backwoods and put it not just on Main Street but on Wall Street,” Waltrip told NASCAR.com. “Having the dinner in New York was a huge step up. It was making a statement. This wasn’t just a backwoods sport, a bunch of good ol’ boys; these guys are professional race car drivers and this would change the image of the sport. And it did.”
Waltrip then made perhaps one of the most poignant observations he ever has when it came time to analyze why it was a good thing for NASCAR to come to New York: “We’re not intruding here; we belong here.”
While New York welcomed NASCAR at first, unfortunately, the open arms began to slowly close over the years, especially over the last several years of its Awards Banquet relationship. New Yorkers grew tired of having to shut down Times Square during a work day—and causing massive public transportation and traffic disruptions and detours—for several hours to allow NASCAR to have a victory parade to honor its yearly champion.
And even though all of New York City’s major media outlets were invited to attend the Banquet, it got to the point in the final years that if you were not a fan of NASCAR and you’d pick up any of the local newspapers, you wouldn’t know the sport was in town for its annual horsepower hootnanny.
“(NASCAR would spend) $10 (to) $15 million and there wouldn’t be anything about it in the paper the next morning,” Waltrip told NASCAR.com.
And the chagrin went both ways. The Waldorf and its Grand Ballroom eventually began to wear on NASCAR folks. One yearly banquet and awards program began to look like another.
Plus, NASCAR drivers and their families didn’t like the thousands of dollars that came out of their own pockets to stay at the Waldorf, endure traffic where it might take 45 minutes just to move less than a mile, to pay highly inflated prices for food and, more often than not, and to fight the very cold temperatures—if not outright snowstorms that caused countless NASCAR-ites to come down with bad colds, the flu or even pneumonia – that took place in late November or early December.
When NASCAR fell short of its goal of building a racetrack in Staten Island due to environmental concerns, as well as all of the related infrastructure costs that the sanctioning body would likely have to reimburse the city and state for, the marriage between the sport and the city finally reached a divorce after the 2008 banquet.
It was then that NASCAR traded class for klitsch, moving the Awards Banquet to Las Vegas in 2009 for the next decade. While NASCAR now calls Nashville its home for the annual awards banquet, every so often some folks in NASCAR suggest the sport go back to New York maybe every few years.
While it’s a great idea, it’s unlikely to ever happen again.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski