Are Today’s Dreamers Dreaming of Becoming Tomorrow’s NASCAR Stars?
On a recent mini-vacation with my extended family (immediate family plus siblings and a niece), one of my sisters and I somehow ended up in a friendly rock-skipping competition at a lovely mountain river beneath a covered bridge. The outcome was a tie, but I was disappointed that my ability at that essential childhood skill had gone downhill so badly.
I’m a lefty, and I remembered for my daughter that the same arm that was struggling to skip rocks once was going to take me to major league baseball stardom . . . in my dreams, at least.
That dream was probably at about age 10. Later, it was replaced by the fantasy of taking the checkered flag at a NASCAR race. To pursue that dream, in 1968, Dave Fulton, Chris Young and I bought a ’57 Oldsmobile with the idea of converting it to a hobby stock racer. We proved to be pretty good at tearing it down from its passenger car status, but less skilled at rebuilding it into a race car. It ended up in the woods in Virginia’s Northern Neck, used for target practice – I was pretty decent at marksmanship but never extended that activity to my dreams.
Not exactly what my first race car would have looked like – had it ever been completed – but you get the idea
My guess is that dreams of racing success were pretty prevalent in the South and other regions of the country for the generations before and immediately after me, but I suspect they have been on the decline ever since.
I’m pretty sure that’s a big part of the problem today for NASCAR and motorsports in general.
Let’s face it. It doesn’t matter if the cars look stock, or if the drivers came up through the ranks, or if the owners love racing more than making a profit – if young people today don’t give a crap about fast cars, the sport we love is dead and just hasn’t had the life support system cut off yet.
Although I’m not certain, I suspect that’s the case.
After all, as I noted previously more people today are buying Tesla 3s than Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers and Toyota Supras combined, and many more people are buying SUVs than cars in general. Granted, part of Tesla’s popularity is that it’s the first commercially available electric vehicle to go really fast, but no dual exhausts or glasspack mufflers are going to make a Tesla sound sexy.
Squealing tires are nice, but it’s not the same as a throaty roar
The speed enthusiast among car/truck/SUV buyers has become a niche, far too small a niche to keep racing as we know it alive.
It was inevitable, really. There are just too many vehicles on the road today to allow speed, at least in the way we thought of it in our youth.
When I’d been driving probably a year or so, Mom asked if I would take a great-aunt to a wedding or funeral (I forget which) across Richmond, and of course, I said yes, because that would give me an hour or more alone with the car while she was attending the event. I used that time to take the old Chevy out on I-95 and let ‘er rip, getting up to a little over 90 before the car started making funny noises – fuel pump, it turned out.
OK, it didn’t look quite this bad
Misfortune aside, that was how I felt about a car. Today, an idiot can still let ‘er rip on I-95, but with the amount of traffic, it’s a lot more dangerous than it was back then, even for an inexperienced driver.
For drivers just getting started today, the tedium of most driving likely overcomes the thrill of speed – and maybe even creates interest in the soon-to-come self-driving vehicles.
Traffic, car costs, insurance costs, harsher drunk-driving penalties – all that and more contributes to the ongoing death of the car culture, and I don’t know that there’s much we can do about it.
In the future, might someone ask whether you really want to drive that car, or would you rather let the car do the driving while you enjoy other things?
There’s not much we can do about its impact on racing, either. Today, you can’t take the family car/SUV out to race it on the track, and you pretty much can’t see it raced by somebody else there, either. While watching some short track racing remains an economical pastime – you can spend more at the movies or a ballgame – the same can’t be said about NASCAR, even if the downturn has made some tickets cheaper. There are many more options for your entertainment dollar.
How about this: danger? It’s always been part of racing, and except for the most terrible instances – multiple deaths or a particularly gruesome incident – in the past we tended to accept it . . . with regret. But society seems less likely to embrace that attitude today.
And yet . . . we applaud the sport’s safety improvements, but how else do you explain the relative popularity of Daytona and Talladega, where the chance of “the big one” can’t help but include the chance that somebody will get hurt – or worse.
(I guess that’s an area where the shift to electric cars wouldn’t change much, though: instead of the danger of fire, we’d be looking at the possibility of electrocution.)
These are all issues the sport will have to address. I’m kind of glad I probably won’t be around for what happens. If some shifting back to “stock” in stock car racing happens while I’m around, I’d like to say I lived to see it. The same holds for cost-cutting and the end of the charter system, so that the top circuits are open to challengers, not just invested businesses.
And if it comes down to racing for electric SUVs, I’m willing to give it a try.
A future Daytona 500 publicity photo?
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Answer me this: Last Saturday night I was at Port Royal Speedway in central Pennsylvania for an awesome night of short track racing, in front of a crowd that seemed to me to be no more than a couple thousand people. Just over an hour up the road, Penn State was playing football in front of 100,000. Why is it OK to freeze your butt off at a football game, but racing is strictly a warm-weather sport?
A comment from colleague Kelly Meiste to my article last week got me to thinking about former NASCAR Chief Scorer Morris Metcalfe, a really nice and interesting guy I was able to meet and work for as an “old days” manual scorer for major races at Richmond’s Southside Speedway. When NASCAR was smaller, not only could you get to meet a lot more drivers, you could meet the officials, too.
Morris Metcalfe at work
One of our former colleagues here, Jeremiah Thalheimer, is now a fulltime NASCAR official (who seems capable of becoming “chief” of something over time), and I hope he has the opportunity occasionally to make a positive impression on fans the way Morris Metcalfe did on me. (In the interest of job security, he might not tell stories quite like Morris did, though.)