DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The irony here in Florida on this hot summer week is hard to ignore. On the East Coast, fans get ready to cheer on their favorite vehicle at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night. On the Gulf Coast, residents prepare for the unimaginable sight of oil on their gorgeous white sand beaches. Camera phones on the Atlantic side will record some of the fastest cars on the planet, while camera phones on the Gulf side will record tar balls.
This is not the fault of auto racing. NASCAR had nothing to do with the Deepwater Horizon explosion and NASCAR has no responsibility to help clean up the mess the explosion created.
But what many don't know – or forgot – is that NASCAR started its engines at Daytona in the middle of an oil crisis before, and responded with leadership and ingenuity. This weekend might be another opportunity to do the same.
The year was 1974. OPEC penalized the U.S. for its support of Israel by enforcing an oil embargo that jacked up gas prices and created painful shortages. Long lines formed at gas stations all over the country. License plate numbers were used to determine whether motorists could fill up. The Republican president, much like the current Democratic president, called for a move away from reliance on foreign oil. President Nixon shuttered gas stations for the greater part of Saturdays and Sundays – race days.
That put a spotlight on NASCAR. Why was gasoline being used to ferry drivers around tracks when it wasn't readily available to regular Americans trying to go to work and school? Why race cars at all when driving cars became so taxing? The glare became brighter with the introduction of live television – the start and finish of that year's Daytona 500 would be broadcast live to America for the first time.
Then as now, NASCAR's contribution to the problem was overblown. Flights in and out of Miami burn up a lot more fossil fuels than a few spins near the beach in Volusia County. But then as now, Daytona symbolizes the nation's worship of the gas-powered automobile, and Bill France, Sr. knew it. He canceled the 24 Hours of Daytona and reduced all Speedweeks distances by 10 percent. That included the Daytona 500, which became, in effect, the Daytona 450. The race remained 200 laps, but the green flag flew on Lap 21. Richard Petty won a thriller in the waning miles.
Things are different now. Gas is pricey, but easy to buy – thanks in part to offshore drilling. While an entire nation suffered from the '70s oil crisis, only a region is suffering now. But that region is the same region as the site of this holiday weekend race. And it would be a bit tone deaf to turn away from the reality that the state of Florida – and the entire Gulf Coast region – is facing a hellish scenario that has no end in sight. No one can say the oil will stay away from the Atlantic side of the state, including the shores of Daytona Beach.
NASCAR is trying to figure out how to recognize a devastating situation that affects many of its fans. The sport has had internal discussions about what, if anything, it should do, but hasn't settled on anything yet.
Well, here's an idea: repeat history.
Shorten Saturday night's race by 50 miles. Call it the Coke Zero 400, but make it the Coke Zero 350. Give fans an escape from the news cycle and that awful video of a dirty gusher, but also give them a symbolic gesture of support. Don't make a political statement; make a human statement: one of Florida's treasures is in danger, so another of Florida's treasures is showing solidarity.
And for those who want every lap they paid for, consider this: the Daytona "450" in 1974, with its 59 lead changes – a record that still stands today – remains as one of the most competitive races in Daytona history. The Coke Zero 350 could be just as memorable, for all the right reasons.