They Don’t Always Have To Use The Lights

As time goes on, I’m sounding more and more like an old grump who hates all change. The problem is, I’m not yet a creaky old man and I hated change as a teenager. What’s my latest gripe of something that’s changed? The nighttime major sporting event. This isn’t something that harkens back to my childhood in the sixties. This is a relatively new phenomenon that occurred less than ten years ago.

Actually, the Super Bowl was first played at night in January of 1981 – when Jim Plunkett and the Raiders stunned the heavily favored Eagles in New Orleans. I don’t recall it happening again until about ten years later, when the Giants beat the Bills in Tampa. It started to become common in the mid-nineties, but when Denver beat Green Bay in January of 1998, it was still daylight when the game was over. I can also remember most of the Super Bowl that followed the 2002 season, featuring Tampa Bay and Oakland, being played in daylight. I don’t think it’s happened since.

I prefer baseball played in daylight. I still remember being depressed when the lights went up at Wrigley Field in the late-eighties. I understand why the World Series went to primetime. Most World Series games are played during the week, when most of us are working. It makes sense to put those games in the evening, but I would still like to see at least one World Series game each year played in daylight.

Racing is the latest sport to slip to the dark side. Charlotte was one of the first big-time tracks to install lights. Since then, it has become almost commonplace for a racetrack to have lights. I would venture to guess that most ovals that feature either a NASCAR race or an IZOD IndyCar Series race have lights these days. I don’t have a problem with most lighted tracks. With summertime races, it’s a lot more pleasant for participants and fans alike to attend a night race than it is to endure the heat in the middle of the day. Plus, the cars can look spectacular at night.

It even makes sense for Daytona to have lights, with a NASCAR race run in July as well as the Rolex 24-hour race. But just because they have lights – that doesn’t mean they have to always use them, does it?

Yesterday, we witnessed change that I actually approve of. Up until a few years ago, the Daytona 500 was run in complete daylight – from start to finish. As we’ve all heard by now, this is the tenth anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Notice that even though the race was over, there was still plenty of daylight left. I believe it was around 2005 when they started ending the Daytona 500 after dark. As recently as last year, this trend had continued. My question was – why?

The starting time of the Daytona 500 was listed as Noon – Central time. When I saw that time, something told me that if I tuned in then, I wouldn’t be seeing drivers about to climb into their cars. Instead, I would probably be subjected to a concert by a country music starlet that will resemble something I could find in any bar in Nashville on any given night. Then, I feared that we would get some shameless FOX promo for Glee or American Idol that may or may not involve the awkward pairing of Steven Tyler and Larry MacReynolds. If we were lucky, the green flag would probably fall somewhere around 2:30 CST, which means the race would be over around 7:30 CST when it is very dark. That would have a long day to spend with Darrell Waltrip.

Much to my surprise (and delight), this was not the case. Instead, the pre-race actually started in the morning and things we’re going in earnest by just after noon. We did get the obligatory country music pre-race concert, but at least it was a big name – Brad Paisley.

And then there was the race, and what a race it was! It was a great sight, seeing a fresh-faced Trevor Bayne, from Knoxville, TN, come away with NASCAR’s biggest prize. Adding to the excitement was seeing one of the richest names in stock car racing, the Wood Brothers, return to victory lane at Daytona for the first time since 1976. It was the Wood Brothers that were hired by Ford, to run the pit stops for Jim Clark in the 1965 Indianapolis 500. It was also the Wood Brothers that fielded AJ Foyt, when he won the Daytona 500 in 1972.

Who would’ve thought at the beginning of the day that one of the oldest teams in the field, featuring the youngest driver in the field – would win on a day that featured the strangest looking two by two "hump-drafting" that I’ve ever seen. I’m not a NASCAR fan at all, but you have to be happy about what is now a part-time team knocking off all the big boys. It gives hope to the Sarah Fisher’s of the IndyCar world.

It is a sign of the upcoming apocalypse that I am writing two consecutive posts that praise NASCAR. I know it’s a coincidence that moving the race back to the daytime produced one of the most popular wins in a while, but finishing in the daylight just seemed right. Since NASCAR is so quick to take credit for the invention of the SAFER barrier, the HANS device, helmets, seat belts, fire suits and the genesis of motor racing itself; I want to claim a little credit for the IZOD IndyCar Series on this one.

Since taking the helm of IndyCar almost a year ago, Randy Bernard has redefined the tag line used in all sports which is "Listening to the fans". All sports entities say they do it, while few seldom really do. Mr. Bernard’s predecessors certainly didn’t do it , so we were all just a little skeptical when he said that he would. It didn’t take long, however, for him to make good on his word. His actions spoke much louder than his words.

Many NASCAR fans wondered out loud why NASCAR’s biggest and most historic event had been pushed back to finish in the dark. What was the point? Does viewership increase that much on Sunday night? It appears that NASCAR took a page from Randy Bernard’s playbook and actually listened to their fans on this one. In my opinion, it made for a much better show.

Fortunately, there are no lights at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Supposedly, as long as the Hulman-George family owns the track, there never will be. I don’t want to ever see the day when the Indianapolis 500 is run in primetime. I know all of the arguments about not terrorizing the good citizens of the town of Speedway, which are all well and good – but I just don’t want to see it. There would just be something almost sacrilegious about seeing eleven rows of three, racing to take the green flag against a blackened sky. Nor do I want to see a bottle of milk hoisted high into the darkness, or the glimmering reflection of a bank of lights coming off of the Borg-Warner trophy.

There was something very forbidding about watching a darkened victory lane celebration at Daytona. The Harley Earl trophy got lost in the shadows of Daytona’s victory lane. It just didn’t seem right.

I promise I’ll get back to writing strictly about the IZOD IndyCar Series after this. But kudos to NASCAR, FOX Sports or new track president Joie Chitwood for making the call to move the Daytona 500 back into daytime from prime time, and recognizing that some sporting events are best viewed by natural lighting. Imagine watching the Indianapolis 500 after dark. Tell me if you think that picture looks right. I don’t.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “They Don’t Always Have To Use The Lights”

  1. They need to keep the 500 a daytime thing, but I could see Nascar wanting to run the Brickyard at night.

  2. Joie Chitwood does have a number of years overseeing the running of the Indianapolis 500, it wouldn’t be a big stretch to believe that experience had something to do with running the Daytona 500 at the same time of day.
    One very practical reason I am sure the Indy 500 will never run at night, especially with all the effort to save money, is that adequate lighting for the entire racetrack, infield, and surrounding areas, would be monumentally expensive and who wants to add that expense to their budget?

  3. Last years Daytona 500 was supposed to end during the day as well. The embarrassing pot holes delayed the race long enough to end it under the lights.

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