Let's Talk About what's Good with NASCAR
WARNING: Heavy rambling zone ahead – he’s at it again!
I haven’t been totally kind to NASCAR lately, it seems, and I want to spend some time here giving “the other side of the story” (as the late Paul Harvey would have said). Maybe it’s because I recently listened to Steve Phelps on Dale Jr.’s podcast, and I really want to like him and what it appears he’s trying to do to sort things out. I really hope – for all our sakes – that he and his colleagues succeed.
So let’s take a look at the good in today’s NASCAR (with occasionally unavoidable references to the bad and the ugly), from the perspective of a geezer who’s fan experience in this sport now extends back 56 years, about half of which included some official/hands-on (albeit, minor) experience.
Here’s Richard Petty taking the checkers on the Richmond dirt. (Photo from Richmond Times-Dispatch)
First of all, facilities are a lot nicer. My first race was at the then-dirt half-mile at the Virginia State Fairgrounds (Atlantic Rural Exposition, officially) in Richmond, which probably was in the top 10 nicest facilities around, thanks to the fair and Paul Sawyer. Restrooms were a little primitive but clean (I remember another track where I held my toddler son over the pit to pee, because I wasn’t letting his little butt touch that grossness.), and the concessions – lots of little State Fair vendors – were inconsistent but potentially awesome, especially the corn dogs (Pronto Pups), freshly battered and fried, and the sausage hoagies in the restaurant under the fourth turn stands. They even had beer, although I was far too young to partake.
This is obviously a little off topic, but the less regularly shaped a corn dog is, the more likely it was fresh battered, making for wondrous – if greasy – goodness. The old “Pronto Pups” at Richmond looked ever weirder than this and doubtless tasted a lot better, too.
Of course, because it was a dirt track, you weren’t supposed to wear your white shirt from church and sit on the second row coming off turn four, but nobody told me that, so I looked like a coal miner by the end of the race.
If you go to Richmond next weekend, the seats will be lots more comfortable and the view incredibly better from most of them. The restrooms are great, and the food is better than ISC’s Americrown division used to be – guess somebody told ‘em people won’t buy some of that lowest-common-denominator crap.
The staff is well-trained, and everybody works to give you a good “experience” at the track. I haven’t been to the Fan Zone yet, but it seems a great idea to put us as close as possible to the personal side of the sport today.
Richmond Raceway remains as good a place to watch a major race as there is on this planet.
The racing… well, more cars will run on the lead lap than in 1963, but I’m not sure the race will be better, because there were so many subplots then to keep us occupied. In this case, though, Steve Phelps noted about Martinsville that there was more passing back in the pack that TV viewers didn’t see because of the singular focus on the lead, and he’s right on the money there. If you really want to “take in” a race, go in person. TV just sucks by comparison.
I will note that one of the subplots back then was the real possibility that something bad could happen to your car: mechanical breakdowns and wrecks (fewer than half the cars in my first race completed it), losing five laps during a bad pit stop (amateur pit crews), etc. Today there’s too much perfection for that to happen, and we’ve lost something as a result.
This definitely was not what Tiny Lund had planned for Richmond that night (a couple of years after my first race).
I know everything costs a lot more these days at the track, but ticket prices are up everywhere in sports and entertainment. I don’t know that racing is any worse, especially given how purses have increased. I could have gotten the best seat in the house at my first race for $6 (my coal miner’s special was $5), but the total purse was less than $12,000, so if today’s payouts are anywhere near the $4 million-plus they were when NASCAR went to “secret pricing,” my ticket today should be over $1,500. Fortunately, it’s not.
Here’s a double-edged change: The track is kept a lot cleaner. It protects the cars, but it takes a little fun away from some fans. After the races on the old fairgrounds dirt track, a small army of us would walk all the way around the half-mile, some just for the ritual, but most looking for pieces of cars buried in the clay. I still have a couple of those souvenirs around somewhere. Once, there was a mangled quarter panel on offer behind the guardrail, but I knew the reception that would get at home and didn’t go for it. Today you’re lucky to find a candy wrapper out there.
We have better scoreboards (with video!) and better sound systems. We have better security in case the drunk in front of you gets out of hand. We have streaming this-and-that, so we can keep up with things on our phones that maybe we can’t see.
If good changes keep coming, we’ll have better racing, too. On his podcast, Dale Jr. said that, if he was President-of-NASCAR-for-a-Day, he’d kill off as much downforce on the cars as possible and make the front ends as blocky as possible to take a way a leader’s aero advantage and bring back real battles on the track. You go, Dale Jr.! (Hope Phelps heard that one like he’s heard things by keeping up with Twitter.)
This is from Bristol, not Richmond, but if we can get more “stock” back in these cars, maybe we’ll see guys fighting the wheel as they race side-by-side again. I’d pay to see that.
Sadly, I don’t think we have as much passion. Back then, we were passionate about our favorite drivers, especially if they were local, like Grand National Champion Joe Weatherly was (he was from Norfolk) when I attended my first race. There also were a couple of Richmond guys racing. Fireball Roberts and Fred Lorenzen were there, along with young Richard Petty and nearly unknown David Pearson. Net Jarrett had a local sponsor. You were a Ford/Mercury fan, a Chevy/Pontiac fan, a Plymouth/Dodge fan. There were things to yell about.
I didn’t know much about racing that first afternoon at Richmond, but I knew “Little Joe” was the defending champion, I knew he was from Norfolk, and I knew he was fast. When he won that first race, I wasn’t just a fan; I was a passionate fan. (Another Times-Dispatch photo)
There just doesn’t seem to be that much passion about today’s competitors, their teams or their cars, and that drives loyalty and attendance. I’ll still pin most of the blame on the charter system and developmental drivers, but NASCAR’s right, too – you can’t just replace the three most passion-inspiring drivers (Gordon, Stewart, Earnhardt) when they retire. This is just a tough problem.
I couldn’t attend Richmond this weekend if I wanted to, because it’s on Palm Sunday weekend, and I have to sing in church Sunday morning. A couple of decades ago, I drove back to Pennsylvania after the race, got two or three hours sleep and did that, but I was younger then.
Still, what we have today in NASCAR is a product that has elements that are much improved from what some of us remember as the “golden days,” and there are seemingly good people in charge of the corporate machine now who are pursuing changes that might just move things ahead again. There’s more to be done, though, so let Steve Phelps know what you think. Together, we just might accomplish something.
Steve Phelps, here with Bubba Wallace and Richard Petty, is making some pretty good moves and positive statements. Keep it going, Steve.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
My low opinion of the charter system has not changed, but I was somewhat sympathetic with Steve Phelps’ comment that NASCAR listens to car owners more now because it has to ensure that we have enough of them. OK, I’ll concede that’s a problem – to a point.
We carp a lot about the lack of full fields today (36-39 cars, typically, for a 40-car field), and NASCAR’s guarantees for fulltime teams surely causes that situation, but without those guarantees, it could be worse. The original emphasis on the point system (the Bob Latford version used from 1975-2010 – HALF NASCAR’s existence) was on making teams run all the races to share in point money, and that was important because many events lacked anything near a full field.
The previous year, when short tracks ran 30-car fields, Richmond and Nashville failed to draw that many, and both Dover and Pocono had 35-car fields when 40 or more would have been welcomed. Atlanta started 36, with no DNQs.
It was much worse under NASCAR’s original points system, which awarded many more points to higher-paying races than to the little 200-lappers that dotted the ’60 landscape. In 1965, Richmond’s fall race drew 37 cars; the spring race only 22. A 100-miler at Nashville pulled 15. An August race in Shelby, N.C., squeezed between higher-paying events at Nashville and Asheville-Weaverville, had only 14 cars.
I guess Big Bill’s spirit in the walls at Daytona won’t let anybody forget those days.
Still, I think the charter system is awful and kills any freshening effect of new teams and drivers coming into the series.
The charter system also removes competent part-timers from the equation today, and we miss racers like Texan H.B. Bailey, left, and country music legend Marty Robbins.
Just saw the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will join this year’s Indy 500 broadcast team. Here’s another example of NASCAR, even with how far it has fallen, still dwarfing everything out there in the U.S. motorsports landscape. Can you imagine what would have been said 50 or even 25 years ago if somebody had suggested putting a stock car racer on the Indy 500 telecast? Some claim Indy racing is on the rise while NASCAR is on the decline, but Indy remains Wendy’s to NASCAR’s McDonald’s in overall popularity.
It’s all a far cry from those awful days when Jackie Stewart or David Hobbs had to be added to NASCAR telecasts to lend legitimacy (and a foreign accent) to our sport. Thank God Ned Jarrett finally came along and showed that a country boy could explain it all in an intelligent and entertaining way. Now we get to loan out our talent.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., at center in left photo between Adam Alexander and Michael Waltrip, could enlighten Indy audiences this year the way Ned Jarrett, at right in right photo with worthy mic-mate Benny Parsons, did with NASCAR for some of the sport's best TV years.