Who Could Make NASCAR A Little Spicier?
“I want to hold your/I want to hold your/I want to hold your/I want to hold your/I want to hold…”
That’s supposed to be a written version of the sound of a stuck record, at least to those old enough to know what a record is and what happened when it stuck. To anyone else, sorry ‘bout that - I have no clue of an analogy for SnapChat.
I really want to take another pop at “what’s wrong with NASCAR,” but I don’t want to sound like… well, to other old people, at least, a broken record. And I have said a lot of this before - not sure I can say it differently in a way that would be better.
I started off looking at the history of the Monster/NASCAR/Cup/GN Rookie of the Year award and how it used to mean something, because at least some of the contenders were name racers, who’d been stars at some local track or geographically distant racing series. But this year’s competition has some decent names, too. Maybe what it lacks is a sponsor (Raybestos for many years, with a great PR guy named Jimmy White) to make you care about it. Maybe what it lacks today is a racing series you care about.
When Jeff Gordon won Rookie of the Year in 1993, Bobby Labonte and Kenny Wallace were also-rans for the award - not too shabby a field of contenders.
Then I started looking at how we used to have many more teams race, so there might be some variety from week to week in starting fields. That was before a bolt or washer could set you back a million bucks, back before you had to have a charter to play.
(Spoiler alert: stuck record coming up fast.) God, I HATE the charter system.
Then, as I was poring over old race results at Racing-Reference.info, I saw Joe Mihalic.
Those who don’t know what a stuck or broken record is probably don’t know about Mihalic, either, and the mainstream NASCAR-oriented media don’t help a damn with it. Here’s a typical “bio” entry:
“Joe Mihalic (November 8, 1926 - ) is a former NASCAR driver from Pittsburgh, PA. He competed in thirty-eight Nextel Cup Series (oops, looks like this hasn’t been updated in a while) events in his career, spanning from 1974 to 1978. 1975 was his best year, finishing 34th in points and earning one of his two career top-ten finishes. His best effort, though, was a 7th at Bristol in 1974.”
Based on that, you could reasonably ask, “Why the hell should I get excited about this guy?” Well, because before Mihalic took his relatively brief fling at the big time, he was one of the best short track drivers in Western Pennsylvania and nearby tracks in surrounding states. You owe yourself a trip to this web page to learn more about a guy for whom the word “legendary” isn’t a stretch.
Joe Mihalic and one of his early rides. His Grand National #61 is below.
So here’s why this caught my attention. Joe Mihalic had lots of fans (like so many drivers then, he was in his late 20s when he got into GN racing), and people enjoyed seeing a great local driver taking his shot at the kings of NASCAR in his pennies-vs-dollars racer, and when he got that seventh place finish at Bristol, it was a big deal.
There are lots of Joe Mihalics in NASCAR history; people who gave the Grand National (or whatever-Cup) series a shot on a shoestring and gave people who cheer for the underdog a reason to watch or attend. Bill Dennis and Lennie Pond were among that group to race fans like me, who had seen them run at Southside Speedway in Richmond. Johnny Rumley tore up the North Carolina short tracks and won twice in 51 Xfinity (Busch) starts. Don Biederman is a true legend in Canada, but here he was just another guy who ran a few races in a car that was sort-of fast.
If you know racing, these names will always mean something, even if their NASCAR premier series stats aren’t glitzy, and when they ran those races, it added something to the draw. Then we started being limited to people who could bring along sponsors or family money. God bless ‘em, and I don’t mean anything personally, but what will you be able to say years later about Brent Sherman, Kevin Conway or Timmy Hill?
I know you have to have at least some chops to advance through go-karts and scale cars to K&N and/or ARCA, but you don’t exactly grow a huge fan base that way.
I’ve said this before, too, but I’m cheering as hard as I can for Stewart Friesen in the Camping World Truck Series. This guy (who’s 33, by the way, not 19) could leave 95% of the other CWTS drivers (and a lot of those in Monster or Xfinity as well) in his dust driving modifieds, but he’s running his truck as an outsider team, and he’s struggling.
This photo is from Daytona, but Friesen also wrecked at Dover. He also won a local dirt-track race, though.
In a system that has come to reward boring, he could be the antidote, but he’s more likely to be a modern-day Joe Mihalic.
And that’s a damn shame.
On another, somewhat related subject
Guy Smith, whose “Roaming the Raceways” column in Area Auto Racing News (that’s a real printed-on-paper publication, btw), is one of the most honest observers of racing from a fan’s viewpoint. Recently he went to Memphis International Raceway, the 3/4-mile facility that once ran Xfinity and Camping World races, to see NASCAR return with the K&N East series (which he jokingly refers to as “kids and nephews”).
Smith reported that tickets for the 125-lap race were a reasonable $20 and concessions were quite fairly priced. (I don’t think Americrown was involved) The K&N series was the whole show, and only 15 cars entered, so it must have looked kind of lonely. Even with a “halftime break,” the race only lasted about an hour, which might have made that 20 bucks seem a bit steeper.
Smith’s summary: “The NASCAR ship continues to sink.”
I really wish it weren’t so, but there are so many things that need to change and so many obstacles to the changes that have to take place - there seems no way for the turnaround to happen.