It’s A Shame That The Firecracker Has Fizzled Out
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
What’s in a name? Well, plenty for some of us who follow auto racing. Which is why this coming weekend’s Sprint Cup race contains a hint of bitterness that will ever so slightly taint the event no matter how exciting it turns out to be.
The race scheduled for Saturday at Daytona International Speedway is the Coke Zero 400. The name, of course, being dictated by the soft drink company which pays big money to call it anything it wants.
But the thought here is that that is poor marketing at best and uncaring disregard for racing history and culture at worst.
The original Fourth of July NASCAR race had one of the best names ever – The Firecracker 250. Beautiful.
Beautiful for a number of reasons: It fit perfectly with the holiday, it evoked the image of explosive racing and it even conveyed a Tennessee Williams-like image of smoldering Deep South heat and humidity that oppressively clings to the Southeast during the depths of summer.
As a Northerner growing up in the 1960s, it was the name of that race that first caught my attention. The Firecracker 400.
Then, there was the blurry black-and-white tape and film which showed those wildmen of NASCAR tearing around those wonderful high banks. There were the fuzzy photos of those Southern boys covered with sweat and rubbery grit and getting in and out of cars that looked the ones in the neighbors’ driveways.
Most were wearing the kind of white, saggy-necked t-shirts that my dad wore when he went to work in the backyard vegetable garden.
The Firecracker 500 from Daytona Beach, Fla. Beautiful.
Then, of course, there was the racing itself.
It began in 1959, the year DIS opened. According to lore, the first Firecracker was supposed to be an open-wheel race but Big Bill France dropped that idea in the wake of the racing deaths of Indycar and USAC drivers earlier in the year.
So, France opted to host a second stock-car event at his new track. It would be a 250-miler originally and be held on the biggest holiday of the summer. It would be known as the Firecracker 250. Hot dogs, burgers, slaw, watermelon and racing. Cool.
The first race was won by Fireball Roberts; more coolness.
In 1963, the race distance was changed to 400 miles. The Firecracker name stuck with the new distance attached to the end. Fireball also won that race.
The distance stuck. The name did not. In 1984, it became known as the Pepsi Firecracker 500.
In 1989, NASCAR traditionalist were abandoned all together as Pepsi and 400 stayed in the title, but Firecracker did not.
In 1998, the race was moved from the holiday itself, to the Saturday night nearest the Fourth of July.
In 2008, it became Coca-Cola’s turn to cash in as that company bought naming rights and the race became the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola.
Not beautiful at all – unless, one would suppose, you are a soft-drink retailer or a dentist.
What did not get trashed during the race’s long tenure was the ability of the event to produce memorable races.
The best, most memorable of the bunch was undoubtedly the 1984 Firecracker 400 when Richard Petty won his 200th and final Cup race as President Ronald Reagan looked on live.
Pepsi’s decision to drop the Firecrack portion of the title never made sense to me. Coke’s refusal to re-insert Firecracker back into the title makes no sense either. Would it really kill product sales to give a nod to history and culture and keep the race the Firecracker? Geez, you would think they would be able the market the heck out of that name and image.
As it stands, Dale Earnhardt Sr. never won the Firecracker. Neither has Davey Allison, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Tony Stewart. They have all won the Fourth of July weekend event at Daytona, but never the Firecracker.
Kind of a shame. A small one, perhaps, but a shame nonetheless for those who value tradition and just plan cool stuff.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments