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Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Beach races wane, then DePalma turns tide

By GODWIN KELLY
NEWS-JOURNAL SPORTS WRITER

DAYTONA BEACH — Bob Latford is a walking, talking stock-car encyclopedia who has written several NASCAR-related books.

Latford grew up in Daytona Beach, and worked in public relations in motorsports. His final duty was acting as the CBS Sports NASCAR historian, spoon-feeding statistical pearls to the annnouncing team.

Bob Latford (Photo: The News-Journal)

“When they started racing on the beach in 1946 -- before NASCAR was even formed -- Bill France Sr. had his gas station on Main Street and that was on my way to and from school.

We´d stop there, and every once in a while somebody would have a race car in there working on it. Bill Sr. asked us one day “Hey, you and your brothers want to make some money? We´ve got this race coming up on the beach and we need people to sell programs and stuff.”

So my brothers and I went down there and started doing that. We went down there and worked concession stands and a lot of other things. I was 11 years old.

We saw in Benny Kahn´s column in The News-Journal that Big Bill was having a meeting at the Streamline Hotel about some kind of racing organization. That was in early December of 1947.

On the way home from school we just dropped our bikes outside and went up to the meeting, which had just ended. I heard Bill Sr. on the phone calling Cannonball Baker to be the first czar of the new sport. The title was later changed to commissioner. I remember how that room was filled with cigar and cigarette smoke.

The beach races in 1946 and ´47 were on the old beach course. When NASCAR started in 1948, they moved to the last beach course, which was down near the (Ponce) inlet. The south turn was down near the lighthouse, and the north turn was up two miles away.

We worked all those races. I did about everything. My favorite job was spotting for announcers. Big Bill would find me and tell me to “Go down there and help so-and-so with this or that.” It was all pretty exciting.

I´d keep coming back here from college. I worked with Houston Lawing, who did PR work for Bill Sr. for the first Daytona 500 when I was still going to the University of Florida. When I graduated, Houston offered me a job in the PR department at the Speedway.

During the first Daytona 500, I covered the entire pit road for the press box, gathering information on who fell out and why and so forth. I was standing in Johnny Beauchamp´s pit box when he and Lee Petty hit the line for a photo finish.

It took three days to determine the winner because nobody had anticipated a 500-mile race with that kind of finish. That immediately established stock-car racing as a viable, competitive sport.

Let me tell you about putting that points system together. In 1974, I was public relations director at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and I went over to Talladega Superspeedway for a race. I saw Bill France Jr., who was then president at NASCAR. He and Bill Sr., and Winston Cup director Bill Gazaway called me over to the office.

I thought something bad was going to happen to me. But Bill said “You´ve always been interested in numbers and math. Would you be interested in a project to give us a better points system? The one we have is confusing. Heck, the competitors have a hard time understanding it. If the competitors can´t figure out the system, the fans certainly can´t.”

So he asked me to look at a new points system. After the race, I came down to Daytona and met with Bill Whitlock, who was NASCAR´s communications director, and Phil Homer, who was a marketing services manager.

We tossed around some ideas. What are we trying to do? We were trying to determine the champion of the entire circuit, not just selected races. We talked about what we wanted to do and how we needed to get there.

We discussed people like Fireball Roberts and Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner, who were the three biggest names we had ever had in the sport. None of those three was ever a champion because they always ran up front. They put on the show. They were the drivers the people came to see. But because they ran hard every lap, their chances of being around at the finish was not good. They were more likely to crash or blow up compared to somebody that didn´t push that hard.

We decided that somewhere in this system we needed to have a reward for the guys who would get up there and run hard, so that´s where we came up with a five-point bonus for leading a lap and five more for leading the most laps.

Phil owned the Boot Hill Saloon at the time, before it was a biker bar. We went there after work one day to have a couple of beers. We sat there and talked about it and tried several formulas. We started at 175 points and drop by five points for each of the top five positions, then by four for the next five and by three from there back.

It hadn´t been that long since we had started 50 cars in races, so they wanted a break all the way to the end of the field. Using that formula, it goes all the way back to 54 places, if necessary. We worked it out on cocktail napkins. I applied that formula to the three previous years to see how it worked out. I went back to my office in Atlanta, typed it up and sent it to Bill Jr., and it was adopted as submitted for the 1975 season and has remained unchanged ever since.” -- Bob Latford

Special Report: 100 YEARS OF RACING
Traveling a long way from establishing land speed records, automobile racing has taken a different turn. Now, due west of the sands where racing began, sleek-bodied stock cars race on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.

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