More than the Loss of a Great Driver
Like anybody else who’s a true race fan (and old enough to remember), I am mourning the loss of Sam Ard, who died Sunday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s dementia.
In my heyday of attending paved short track racing in North Carolina, more-or-less the period of 1975-85, Sam was a guy whose car made me smile when it showed up in the pits. At tracks like Trico/Orange County in Rougemont, Caraway in Asheboro and Cumberland County in Fayetteville, he might not have been an every-week regular, but when he showed, you knew he’d be in the mix. Those white Chevys sponsored by Thomas Bros. Country Ham (and owned by Howard Thomas) were fast and tough. He could even put the #00 on the hard clay at Wilson and stay at or near the front.
In the early days of what is now the Xfinity Series, when the rules gave driving and mechanical skill a shot against cubic dollars, Sam Ard could hold his own against anybody. That’s why he emphatically won two championships.
But I mourn more than the loss of a human being who did a damn good job with a skill I really admired. I mourn the loss of part of the sport that gave him a chance to excel.
You see, back in those days, an owner like Howard Thomas didn’t ask you to bring a sponsor along in order to drive his car; he just wanted a winner. The same was true of Jack Tant with Ray Hendrick and other owners whose drivers were fast but didn’t necessarily look or speak like they’d just come from a Hollywood casting call. I don’t think Sam ever had to do a Thomas Bros. Country Ham commercial.
A sport changes, though, when it’s driven and controlled by money. Back in the day, Ned Jarrett got a lot of attention for taking the Dale Carnegie public speaking course so he’d better represent his sport - and it paid off for him during and after his driving career - but he was the exception. Look at the Grand National Division’s Top 10 in points for 1963, the year I started following the sport:
1. Joe Weatherly
2. Richard Petty
3. Fred Lorenzen
4. Ned Jarrett
5. Fireball Roberts
6. Jimmy Pardue
7. Darel Dieringer
8. David Pearson
9. Rex White
10. Tiny Lund
Just for fun, you can add the next two as well: Buck Baker and Junior Johnson.
How many of those guys would get a developmental driver contract today (not that they needed developing)? Even the most personable among them might pick up a tire iron (or even a pistol) to help settle a dispute. Think of the executive in the corporate marketing office being told somebody who might look more to him like a refuge from “Deliverance” was his new spokesperson.
PLEASE, don’t think I’m in any way criticizing or making fun of these people. I admired the hell out of every one of them. I’m just depicting the environment that - for most - was part of the comfort zone, and that was OK in a sport where entertaining the fans and settling on-track supremacy was paramount, not selling paint, candy, subs, package services, or even beer.
I’m not sure you can have it both ways.
This is Sam Ard leading Dale Earnhardt (Sr.) and Bobby Allison. I’m guessing none of them would have much luck as a young driver seeking a Monster Cup ride today.
Part of me thinks that all our griping about playoffs and goofy point systems, charters and weekly rules changes, those who run the sport and those who just make a living off of it . . . all of that is beside the point. Some sports have survived having the rough edges shaved off so they’d be acceptable to corporate sponsors and TV, but racing may just turn out not to be like that.
As I’ve said before, the weekly short tracks with the rough edges appeal to me more today than the spectacle of NASCAR’s Monster. The powers-that-be know that, though, which is why they’re looking at audiences besides me to fund the future. I’m not sure there is such an audience, though, so all I can do is wish ‘em luck.
the meantime, I’ll just look for somebody at Lincoln, Path Valley or another
weekly track up in this neighborhood who looks a little and drives a lot like
Sam Ard, and I’ll be happy.