NASCAR will miss Bob Latford

Posted: Thursday, October 26, 2000

Nobody knows NASCAR like Bob Latford.

While walking home from school one afternoon, he and his brother once stuck their heads through an open door at the Streamline Hotel like adolescent boys sneaking a peak in the girls' locker room. The year was 1947, and the meeting, called by Bill France, proved to be the birth of the National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing.

Latford has meandered through the sport like Forrest Gump, not only watching history being made, but unwittingly having a hand in it. He sold programs on the old beach course in Daytona Beach, Fla., before they had the Daytona International Speedway. He created the first public relations offices at several speedways. He invented a points system that remains the formula for deciding championships.

How many races did Tiny Lund win? What color was Dale Earnhardt's first race car? What's Buddy Baker's real name? Just how old is Dick Trickle?

Bob Latford knows, and he doesn't need a floppy disk to find it. It's committed to memory and preserved by a reverence that the sport's past and future will always be about its people.

After guiding stock-car racing through the last 52 years, Latford is ready to trade in his high-octane existence for a quiet Sunday afternoon at home. The Pop Secret 400 at the North Carolina Speedway last weekend was Latford's last race. The unofficial historian of the sport is retired.

Racing will never be the same.

''To see the Flock brothers, Fireball Roberts, Neil Bonnet and having known them and the quality people they were was great,'' Latford said last Sunday at the North Carolina Speedway. ''The biggest change is the money and the size of the crowds that are part of racing today.''

Racing has certainly changed since Latford's first race. He saw the sport evolve from backwoods to Main Street America.

His most-lasting contribution is the point system. While it's come under fire in the past 10 years for rewarding consistency, not winning, Latford stands by his system.

''If you compare it to the other scoring systems from other racing circuits, it withstands any scrutiny,'' he said. ''The people who've won championships in the past are the drivers who've deserved to be champions. They are the ones who win races, run up front and who maintain a high level of consistency throughout the entire year.''

Latford also invented the now-famous ''hat dance'' in Victory Lane. That's a routine where sponsors have a picture taken of the winner wearing their hat. Done properly, drivers can go through 50 different hats in a barrage of photos in a few minutes.

''The 1963 Daytona 500 was rain delayed, and we were sitting in the Firestone Building,'' Latford said. ''They (Firestone) were wondering what they could do if one of their cars won. I suggested they put a hat of the winner when the pictures were taken.''

Now that Latford has decided to stay home on Sundays, he will miss the traffic, the noise, the long lines and a diet of concession stand cuisine.

But most importantly, racing will miss Bob Latford.

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