HARRISBURG, N.C. — In more than 35 years of writing about auto racing, we’ve seen plenty of teams unload and prepare a backup car, but this is the first time we’ve ever had to write a backup column.
Blame it on the coronavirus.
The 675 words that originally filled this page looked at 10 drivers we thought could win the 60th running of the Knoxville Nationals. That column became useless, however, when officials announced sprint car racing’s annual late-summer classic in Knoxville, Iowa, would not be run this year due to crowd restrictions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
So instead of looking ahead, let’s take a trip down memory lane to September 1970 — 50 years ago — when a decision by the USAC board of directors forever altered the American racing landscape.
On Sept. 14, 1970, the USAC board met in Indianapolis and approved a four-pronged proposal to revamp the USAC National Driving Championship by forming two new racing divisions. The sweeping changes, envisioned by USAC Executive Director Bill Smyth, included:
1. Cutting the number of championship car races from 20 to 12.
2. Raising the minimum purse to $50,000 or $500 per racing mile.
3. Creating a “triple crown” championship computed on the results of the three 500-mile races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway.
4. Spinning off the championship dirt and road races by creating two new racing divisions for each of those separate types of cars.
In discussing the plan prior to the board’s vote, Smyth said, “I really have a feeling that racing is at a point that under good management it could find its place in the sun, a place it never had before.
“Fans have been a rather parochial group in the past. I feel that road racing has had as much to do with bringing in a broader segment of the public as any other factor,” Smyth added. “It’s about time we stop preaching in the monastery and start going out to the highways and byways.”
USAC President Charles Brockman announced the changes.
“USAC will be sanctioning eight to 10 road-course races next season,” Brockman said. “There will be a separate point system for the road courses and a separate road-course champion.
“USAC is also planning at least four championship dirt races next year with the hopes of expanding the schedule further if several tracks improve the safety aspects of their facilities,” Brockman concluded.
As a result, Al Unser won what many consider the last true USAC National Driving Championship. The 1970 schedule featured 10 paved ovals, five dirt tracks and three road courses. Unser won 10 of the 18 events, including the Indianapolis 500 and all five dirt races.
The 1971 USAC-Marlboro Championship was comprised of 11 races and Joe Leonard won the title. There were four dirt-track events with George Snider the inaugural champion, while the road-course crown went to Jim Dittemore after only two races on a single day.
It was several years before the full impact of the USAC board’s action on that September day was fully realized, but it eventually ended the era in which sprint cars and midgets served as the road to the Indianapolis 500.
– The American Flat Track motorcycle race at The Dirt Track at Charlotte, originally set for April 4 but postponed due to the pandemic, has been rescheduled for Oct. 9-10 as part of the Bank of America ROVAL 400 NASCAR weekend across the street at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The motorcycle event has been expanded to a doubleheader with all three AFT classes slated to be in action on both Friday and Saturday nights.
“The Dirt Track at Charlotte is one of the favorite destinations for our teams and riders as the facilities are outstanding and the famous Charlotte red clay makes for high-speed thrills all evening,” said Michael Lock, CEO of American Flat Track.
– It’s still early, but anyone want to venture a wild guess as to what will be the top auto racing story of 2020?