From Michigan to Rhonda, N.C.
A What-Went-Wrong Tour
PART I – The Preface (and the Article That Was Supposed to Be)
It seems like ancient history, but it hasn’t been that long since NASCAR was turning them away at the gates and swimming in media attention. Amazing, isn’t it?
Let’s go back to 2003. We really don’t have to go that far, but “15 years ago” has a nice ring to it – doesn’t seem like forever, but it’s been enough years that we know the changes since then haven’t been a fluke.
Let’s look at Michigan, where the MENCS stars and cars alight this weekend. (Don’t you agree that whoever decided we should be stuck with “MENCS” needs to be encouraged – with a baseball bat, if necessary – to pursue employment outside the motorsports industry?)
In 2003, the two Cup races at Michigan drew 160,000 and 150,000 fans, according to the estimates that we actually got to see back then. Today, attendance is a secret, and we know it’s because the numbers keep getting uglier.
Ryan Newman doing his victory burnout after winning at Michigan in the 2003 GFS Marketplace 400
The second MIS race of the year was the GFS Marketplace 400 in 2003, with the sponsor being a specific store format for a regional grocer/distributor. (The previous year’s sponsor, the Farmer Jack grocery chain, later disappeared, and I don’t see evidence that the Marketplace concept is part of Gordon Food Service /GFS), either.)
The majority of the team sponsors around then aren’t with us anymore, either – some just not in NASCAR and some not in existence.
The big difference, though, it seems to me, is that – through the first 22 races of 2003, we had seen 15 different drivers in victory lane, representing eight car owners. That compares to 8 different drivers and 5 owners this year (with two of the owners, Joe Gibbs and Barney Visser, in a pretty close partnership).
Only four cars have won in 2018 at a non-restrictor plate (freak show) or road course race.
I wish I could blame this on the charter system, but in fact all of those owners back then probably would have had charters. Nevertheless, it was possible then to try your luck without having the deck stacked against you as it is with today’s charters. In 2003, Gene Haas was doing that for the first time with various drivers including Jack Sprague and – in the second Michigan race – the late Jason Leffler, and Busch Series car owner Bill Baumgardner was trying his luck in Cup with Tony Raines. Both teams were reasonably competitive, which probably wouldn’t happen today.
Jason Leffler in the Gene Haas ride
That being said, I’ll stick with my guns and say that the lack of ability for new owners to bring new blood into the sport without a charter hurts NASCAR today. “Sorry, Mr. Kauffman.”
PART II – This Is Worth Writing About – The ORIGINAL Junior
This wasn’t supposed to be part of this week’s article, but when I saw the photo on Facebook, I couldn’t help but include it.
Veteran moonshiners and bootleggers (left to right) Willie Clay Call, Junior Johnson, and Millard Ashley pose in front of three of Call’s most potent moonshine vehicles on his farm outside North Wilkesboro. Photo from Facebook post by Keith Reinhardt of Jonesville (God’s country), North Carolina (via Grand National Stock Car Racing History Until 1972).
Look at that picture and see the true heritage of NASCAR. I’m almost ready to say forget everything I’ve written previously about this sport, but “NO!” That’s not appropriate. Stage racing IS hurting the sport. The charter system IS hurting the sport (a lot). The looks-nothing-like-stock cars ARE hurting the sport. Driver development programs ARE hurting the sport. But if we still had Junior Johnson, the rest might not matter enough to make a difference.
The friends-when-it-was-the-latest-thing fans had no clue about Junior, and that explains why they were so quick to run to something else when it became the-next-latest-thing. The geezers who are left understand.
If you’re of a certain age, this man and this car have a meaning that will never fade.
Junior Johnson was more than a race driver. He was a personality, a story. A moonshiner’s kid who did time (for a crime that only existed because of the intolerant people in society) and pulled himself up to fame. He had little “book learning,” but his brain was (and I guess is) sharp enough for him to succeed at nearly anything. When Junior was on the track, it didn’t matter whether he won or lost, he was still Junior Johnson, a guy we all felt we knew.
Dale Earnhardt was the same way, and so was Bill Elliott. Ned Jarrett was the ultra-nice guy, and Darrell Waltrip made a great villain. Those stories kept us talking between races and kept us interested even when the winner finished on a lap by himself.
Who’s like that today? Whose story keeps you coming back?
NASCAR, can you put 2 and 2 together? Are you listening?
No Loose Lug Nuts this week, but congratulations to Chase Elliott on his win at the Glen and best of luck to dad Bill, coming out of retirement to run one more time.