Chicken bones. It used to be about chicken bones.
On Friday night, the NASCAR world will be aglitter. Spotlights will roam across the crowd – about 1,500 attendees are expected – in the ballroom at the Wynn, one of Las Vegas’ trendiest hotel/casinos. NASCAR drivers, team owners, crew chiefs, officials, sponsors and a few hundred fans will be decked out in formal finery.
Those gathered will be entertained by a performer list that includes comedian Howie Mandel, the band Train and entertainers from the popular Beatles LOVE show on the Vegas Strip.
A fine meal will be served, and chances are some of the selections consumed won’t be in the vocabulary of many of those seated at the white-tablecloth-covered tables.
But it used to be about chicken bones. Pretty simple.
Before the Sprint Cup champion was honored in Las Vegas, the season-ending banquet was held in New York City. Before that, it was in Daytona Beach, NASCAR’s home.
In the 1950s and 1960s, NASCAR’s annual awards were handed out in a decidedly low-key (at least compared to today’s pyrotechnics) affair held in a dining room at the Princess Issena Hotel on Seabreeze Boulevard in Daytona Beach.
The banquet later was moved to the Plaza Hotel in Daytona Beach, but the early awards gatherings at the Issena, a relatively small hotel built in the late 1800s, set the pattern. (Sadly, the Issena was destroyed by fire about 30 years ago).
NASCAR president and founder Bill France Sr. said a few words, and checks and trophies were awarded to the top drivers and team owners, and there was dinner. Much of the pomp and circumstance of today’s awards banquets was missing; then it was mostly about picking up the checks from the previous season (the banquet was held in the days prior to the following year’s Daytona 500) and enjoying the evening with friends and competitors.
“We used to go down there for weeks at a time before the 500 because they used to qualify for it like they do the Indianapolis 500,” said NASCAR Hall of Famer Bud Moore, who picked up championship checks, along with his driver, Joe Weatherly, for the 1962 season. “The banquet was a part of all that. It was a pretty good-sized deal. They changed it around some over the years, but everybody showed up to pick up their checks and trophies and have a good time.”
Formal attire wasn’t a requirement in those days. Most drivers wore standard suits and ties, although there was the occasional white dinner jacket.
Drink didn’t flow as freely as today. After the banquet moved to the Plaza, NASCAR official Ken Clapp remembers “whatever you had to drink you brought from the saloon.”
There was the occasional celebrity. Clapp remembers meeting actress Joan Crawford at one of the banquets. She wasn’t there because she was starstruck by the drivers. She was accompanying her husband, who was a Pepsi executive.
And then there were the chicken bones.
At the Issena, after the speeches and the photographs and the trophies, it was not unusual for the first-time guest to be surprised by the sight of a fried chicken leg sailing across the room. Boys will be boys, you see, and it was only natural that a minor food-fight skirmish would break out to spice the evening.
And no one was fined or suspended.
The chicken bone toss? You don’t get that at the Wynn.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.