NASCAR pioneer Latford says 55 is enough
By Tim Packman

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (Oct. 22, 2000) More than a half-century of involvement in NASCAR has been enough for one of the sport's pioneers.

Bob Latford has decided Sunday's Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at North Carolina Speedway will be his last race. The man, who has been to every Daytona 500, was in the room when NASCAR was born, was an innovator of the current point system and even had his hand in a victory lane tradition still used, is retiring.

Latford is the sole editor and writer of a weekly publication "The Inside Line," and is the author of three books; "Built for Speed", "A Celebration of NASCAR" and "Understanding Winston Cup Racing." He has worked public relations for several tracks and is the booth historian for television networks.

When something happens in a race and someone needs to know when the last time it happened, Latford gets the call.

The 65-year old man with the deep voice and handlebar mustache began his labor of love with racing at the age of 10.

"I sold programs for the beach races in 1946," he said. "I then worked concession stands, scoring and spotted for announcers. I just did anything to stay involved."

His involvement did continue as the sport of racing grew.

On his way home from Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., Latford and his brother stopped in to the Streamline Hotel one afternoon in 1947. Bill France, Sr. was having a meeting and the boys wanted to see what it was all about. Little did they know what a historic day it was when the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing was born.

Latford got out of the Army in 1956 and was attending Florida University when a friend of his working for NASCAR got drafted into the service.

"Bill France, Sr. and Houston Lawing offered me a job in the public relations department for this new Daytona International Speedway they were opening," Latford said. "I've been at every Daytona 500 since."

Through the years the "unofficial official historian" for NASCAR has seen his share of drivers and changes.

"To see the Flock Brothers, Fireball Roberts, Neil Bonnett and having known them and the quality of people they were was great," he said. "The biggest change is the money and the size of the crowds that are part of racing today."

Latford was part of some of the change himself. When the points system was changed for NASCAR in 1974, he was part of it. The informational exchange between the press box, public relations and scoring has his name on it.

One of the more visible innovations of his involves Victory Lane. The term "hat dance" refers to the multiple hats a winner wears for photographers after winning.

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

Latford would like his legacy to be what he gave to the sport. The changes he was part of, the books he has written and the historical information he has logged for future use. Dave Marcis qualified in the top-10 last Sunday at Talladega and Latford was the first person called to see when was the last time the driver had done that.

With NASCAR heading into the 2001 season, Latford says it is time to step down and let the sport go into the next century. He wondered if he would actually be able to stay home and watch a race on television for once.

"I don't know," he said, "I've never done that."