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TGITS. Those last two letters, which aren’t usually attached for the first three, are for “Tony Stewart,” for whom I emphatically thank God (or “goodness” if you’d rather not get God involved here).
In a recent interview, Stewart was asked what might help cure NASCAR’s ills, and at the top of his responses were points right in line with what’s been appearing in this space for several years now: we need drivers who have earned their stripes (and fans) with years of success in local weekly racing, and those drivers should have and show some personality.
Tony Stewart’s personality and honesty meant you didn’t always get the painted-on smile, but sponsors and fans loved him, anyway. They still do.
As it is now, we have very young drivers who haven’t had time to build a fan base, and the only way to tell them apart is by which corporate logo is largest on their uniforms.
In this environment, we could switch to drones or self-driving cars, and it might take a while before that many people noticed.
OK, let’s be clear – it’s not entirely the drivers’ fault. They’re in a sport completely controlled by corporate sensibilities, and nobody wants to say or do anything that would upset the marketing VP or – God forbid! – A board member.
But I think we need to blame NASCAR at least a little for that. After all, corporate influence is pervasive in football, basketball and baseball, and there are plenty of apples in those worlds that – while not exactly rotten – have visible stink bug bites on them. Why isn’t it OK for racing to have some of those?
We can, actually, and we have, as Tony Stewart made a career of showing (and that’s not even going back to Dale Sr. or Darrell Waltrip). It’s just that everybody is afraid to see if the next misstep is one that will cost them, and that’s a shame.
It’s hard to see a clear solution here. I don’t know that corporations have always been so scared of links to popular figures who have a darker side, but when they were more accepting of that, we didn’t live in the current era of almost continuous moral outrage about something. Today a single gadfly can create enormous problems for a corporation, so we’re probably stuck with a culture that values “least risky” over “most interesting.”
I’d certainly prefer the alternative, but I don’t think I’ll ever see a race winner in victory lane dissing the sponsor of the guy who tried to spin him out.
Also, realistically, the good ol’ days of more driver-fan contact we remember so fondly took place when there weren’t that many fans to interact with – even allowing for NASCAR’s reduced numbers today. Tony Stewart can promote Kasey Kahne racing at one of his All-Star Sprints, shows, because Kasey can deal with fan attention there without getting crushed. Initiatives like the Fan Zone at Richmond are good efforts at bring fans and racers together in the current situation, but it’ll never be quite the same as walking around the pits talking with those you’ve just seen race.
(Of course, it would help if the drivers had spent years racing on bullrings in front of 1,500 fans and really thought these bigger crowds were the coolest thing ever.)
Kyle Larson is a driver who seems to enjoy fan interaction. Let’s have more like him.
It might be too late to revert to Curtis Turner and the ever-about-to-start “brand new party,” and it might be too late for drivers nicknamed “Crawfish,” “Possum,” “Cannonball” or “Crash,” but it wouldn’t hurt to have drivers with a short fuse or even an odd way of saying things. (The first time my son heard a Ward Burton interview, he asked if Ward was from another country.)
It also might be worth focusing on drivers’ personalities and background circumstances, which – aside from Ross Chastain’s watermelon farm – NASCAR never does, anymore. Turn the clock back 30-40 years, and you had fans of the Southeastern stock car boys (Earnhardt, Elliott, Gant, Waltrip) against the ex-modified hot shoes (Bodine, Bouchard, Sacks), the Midwesterners (Rusty Wallace, Benny Parsons, Marcis), the guys who didn’t fit into a mold (Tim Richmond, Terry Labonte, Dick Brooks) – everybody had a group to cheer for – or against. Now we scarcely know where a driver comes from or what he did before magically popping up on NASCAR’s screen.
At some past point, somebody got the idea that “entertainment” was an abstract thing, as opposed to a complex organism made up of lots of moving and changing parts. We’re trying to recapture some of that old excitement now with rules changes for the cars and a fresh look at scheduling, but we can’t leave any of this other stuff out. The racing has to be compelling, as do those who race. We need to feel like we’re in the middle of something that lives and breathes to be exciting, not that just turns on applause-o-meters and takes all your money.
There are several well-known photos of Dale Earnhardt Sr. sleeping. You don’t see racers in unguarded personal moments these days, because they retreat into their haulers or motor homes. Show fans more of the person, and maybe some next-gen drivers will start building the fan bases of our heroes from years gone by.
I applaud Jim France and the others in power these days for seeing the NASCAR death spiral and trying to reverse it, but they need to look at more than the most obvious and egregious boneheaded moves of the past two decades. And as the car culture fades into memory, the human side of racing becomes ever more important.
Remember that, guys, and give it back to us.
(Oh, and back to my opening paragraph and the question of involving God – TGITS – in this issue. I kind of think God would be on our side here; otherwise, we wouldn’t have had so many weird characters in the Old Testament.)
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
The 2020 NASCAR schedule is being discussed like it was as revolutionary as racing on three wheels, but the changes haven’t seemed quite as earth-shaking to a geezer who remembers when there wasn’t much set in stone beyond Daytona in February and July, Charlotte on Memorial Day Weekend, and Darlington on Labor Day Weekend. Poor Richmond almost always had its fall race right after Darlington, but the spring race was all over the place, including well before “spring” officially arrived.
Next year it will be Sunday, April 19. The April date is OK for a Sunday race in Richmond, but the effort to move the spring race back to Sunday a couple of years ago saw pretty pathetic crowds, so we’ll just have to see how this works out.
When I remember those 110,000+ turnouts of 15-20 years ago, when I had to arrive before 9:00 a.m. (10-1/2 hours before race time) to avoid traffic backups and was lucky to get out of the infield before 2:00 a.m. after the race, it just makes me sad.
Fond memories of the NASCAR that once was.
… And speaking of Daytona, who comes out smelling the most like a rose in the new schedule? Nothing like being able to swap that too-hot July date for the last race before the Playoffs.
Of course, the fact that NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation are both controlled by the France family played not even a tiny role in that, right?