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From New York to Vegas, banquet has storied history

LAS VEGAS – It always began in Daytona, before the start of a new season, eventually unfolding in the Plaza Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida.
But in 1981, NASCAR officials packed up and moved the premier series’ annual awards ceremony to the bright lights and the big city, New York City in fact, and specifically the historic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the Starlight Roof.
Friday night, for the seventh consecutive year, the season-ending affair will take place here, at the Wynn Las Vegas, its home since 2009. Home of the Strip, miles and miles of neon and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
“It was unbelievable, the difference between the two (venues),” three-time series champ Darrell Waltrip told earlier this week when asked about the move from Daytona to New York City.
Waltrip, now a race analyst for FOX Sports, was the first champion to be honored in the Big Apple when he captured the 1981 title. Two years earlier, he had finished second.
“You’d go to Daytona and they had the ceremony down in the basement of the Plaza,” Waltrip said. “No media, no people, anything like that. Just all the guys that finished in the top 10 in points.”
But Bill France Jr., son of NASCAR founder William H.G. France, had bigger plans for the program. France wanted to make a statement for a sport once seen as a regional oddity but on the fast track to becoming a national phenomenon.
And New York City was just the destination France Jr. had in mind.
“Bill Junior wanted to take NASCAR out of the backwoods and put it not just on Main Street but on Wall Street,” said Waltrip. “Having the dinner in New York was a huge step up. It was making a statement. This wasn’t just a backwoods sport, a bunch of good ol’ boys; these guys are professional race car drivers and this would change the image of the sport. And it did.”
For the next 28 years, from 1981 through 2008, the season-ending ceremony was held at the Waldorf. The program quickly outgrew the Starlight Roof and moved into the Grand Ballroom after just three years. (“Like going from coach to first class,” Waltrip said.)
Concluding his first speech as series champion, Waltrip succinctly noted the wisdom behind the move, saying “We’re not intruding here; we belong here.”
He was the perfect ambassador during that time for the growing sport. He was well-spoken, attractive and perhaps most importantly not the least bit shy in front of a microphone.
“I wasn’t afraid to go on TV shows, all those morning shows I did in New York that first year,” he said. “All those things were fun for me. I loved it, I enjoyed it; I thrived on it.”
As much of a boost as the move gave to the series, there were issues that eventually arose. The hustle and bustle of a city of millions proved to be a significant hurdle for fan-friendly events held outside. The weather could be a factor. And the New York media was often less than receptive.
“They’d give out $10 (million)-$15 million and there wouldn’t be anything about it in the paper the next morning,” Waltrip noted.
Trimmed out in holiday lights for the season, New York City proved to be a memorable venue. But eventually the hassle and the hustle became too much to try and overcome.
Since ’09, the season-ending celebration has grown into a nearly week-long affair in this oasis in the desert, with numerous fan-driven events and opportunities leading up to the final night’s awards program.
New York vs. Las Vegas, Waltrip said, showed the “incredible contrast” between France Jr.’s vision for the sport and that of his son, current Chairman and CEO Brian France.
“I think I will always be partial to New York,” Waltrip said. “There’s nothing wrong with Las Vegas. It’s a fun place to go and fun place to have an event. Just a difference in times, I guess.”
Several of today’s competitors say the move to Las Vegas has been good for the series. Fan Fest, Victory Lap and After the Lap programs are tailored for fans, and the more laid back pace of the vacation destination suits the drivers as well.
“While I do miss certain aspects of New York, at the same time I do think that Las Vegas is a great fit for us,” four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon said Thursday. “To be able to do what we do on Las Vegas Boulevard with the cars and the burnouts, to have the entertainment value of what the banquet is now for TV, I think it suits us very well.
“I personally like New York a lot and I like to be there. But I can also remember … trying to move from the hotel six blocks and it would take you 45 minutes; the snow and just a lot of things … were real challenges.
“Would I still like to go there from time to time? Yeah. Because I like New York and I had great memories there and I like the city even more so now than when I was going there for the banquet. But I think it makes sense here.”
Teammate Jimmie Johnson celebrated championships in New York as well as Las Vegas. Like Gordon, the Hendrick Motorsports driver, a six-time champion, admitted he enjoys New York. But for the post-season awards, he said, “it wasn’t fun.
“It was great to be in New York during the holidays and I think New York was an awesome spot to have our event, but from a social side and enjoyment side it wasn’t a lot of fun. It was a lot of work,” Johnson said Thursday.
“You come here (to Las Vegas) and the earliest thing we have is today at 11 o’clock. That’s pretty awesome. Clearly people were up all night having fun.
“So from a social and entertainment side, this is a great fit for us.”