The prize money wasn’t nearly as great. Neither was the media coverage or fan support.
Still, the drivers who raced in the NASCAR Cup Series in the earlier era say they had more fun than the guys racing today.
It wasn’t exclusive to the big names like the Pettys, Allisons and Bakers, as many of the independent racers echoed the same sentiment a week ago at the annual “Stocks for Tots” fundraiser at the NASCAR Technical Institute.
“Back when I ran in the 70s and 80s, racing was more like a family thing,” said Bill Hollar who competed in the Cup Series for more than a decade. “Everybody was real close. Today, it’s all about the big marketing, the money and all that.
“The drivers, once they run 2-3 years, they’re millionaires. When I was running, you were lucky to make enough to get to the track the next time. But, we did it and we loved every minute of it.”
It was a sentiment shared by Baxter Price, who raced in the Cup Series from 1970-81 and later fielded cars for Johnson City driver Mike Potter.
“We were always underfinanced, but we always had a lot of fun,” Price said. “It was a struggle, running on old tires, couldn’t afford to buy new ones. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t take anything for it.”
No situation is perfect, even for today’s racers.
Sure, they are compensated, but today’s stars face enormous pressure. The driver of today must perform on the track, but that’s far from everything. He has a number of sponsor and NASCAR-mandated appearances, as well as hospitality and other promotions.
Today’s drivers are away from home over 200 days and spend more time in airplanes in a single year than many older drivers did their entire careers.
They have a number of people to answer to and have the added pressure of not disappointing the guys on their team.
On the flip side, the old-school drivers were more often than not one of, if not the, chief mechanic on their race cars, and were responsible for everything from towing the car to the track to repairing any damage.
There was a sense of pride in that craftsmanship. Cecil Gordon, who drove the yellow and blue No. 24 Chevrolet in 450 Cup races and later gained more fame as a member of Dale Earnhardt’s pit crew at Richard Childress Racing, felt his cars were as well-built as any on the track.
“I was a relief driver one time for Donnie Allison at Dover,” Gordon remembered. “But, their cars drove just like mine. I always felt like I had pretty good equipment.”
It was a different approach to the Cup Series back then.
In an earlier era, the races often featured a eight or nine well-financed teams with the rest of the teams independents.
Among the independent efforts, there were varying degrees of support as Hollar described a race within a race, with about four different classes of cars.
The cars weren’t bunched up often like they are today, but without the safety innovations of the past 30-40 years, the dangers were much greater.
Hollar remembers being bruised all the way up his left side after his car hit in a t-bone crash by the oncoming car of Tighe Scott at Pocono in 1976. To this day, he’s thankful that was the extent of his injuries.
A similar crash ended Bobby Allison’s career at Pocono in 1988, and other t-bone crashes resulted in fatalities.
While there were corporate sponsors even in the earliest NASCAR races and later factory-backed teams, Hollar pinpointed the time when the sport really changed.
“It all changed around 1988 when the big corporate money started coming into it,” he said. “Before that, it was mostly independent drivers. There were 10 cars which really had some money behind them. “The rest of us, we worked, raced and had fun.”
Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.