My grandad was a coal miner. Went into the Western Kentucky coal mines at age 12. Started driving a pony. Worked underground almost all of his working life. Its dust eventually smothered the life from him.
So coal mining is in my blood as I was raised on its history and lore.
One thing that always fascinated me were the canaries. Before the days of gas detectors, miners would take these caged little birds down into the mines with them as an early warning system for the presence of dangerous and deadly gases. These sentinel species were more susceptible and if they became distressed (or died) it signaled the miners to don their respiratory equipment and evacuate the mine.
The little birds saved many miners' lives.
In the business side of this industry known as NASCAR, I've watched for the last ten years or so trying to figure out if there is a "canary" present… a true indicator of the atmosphere surrounding the sport. Some sign, some metric out there that if sitting there nicely, swinging, carefreely singing its song, lets us know that all is well. However, if its behavior changes it bodes of different times ahead.
It has been an elusive hunt for sure.
Although only an hour away from Bruton Smith's Sparta track, I've never really considered this area I'm in as in the heart of stock car racing country. Being on the fringe like this, I thought it would be perfect for early indicators of shifts in the sport... or so I thought.
Early in my hunt I first thought that "colors" might be the canary. During the boom it was nothing to see folks out and about wearing a hat, shirt or jacket supporting their favorite driver. It was not unusual to be at McD's for morning coffee and see four or five come in during the brief time there. Soon the "colors" diminished and a sighting became as rare as seeing a spotted owl. Fewer vehicles in the parking lot sported decals and license plates. Was this an indicator?
Or maybe the canary was broadcast radio. I noticed that as time went on, it was harder and harder to find the race on my truck radio while driving around on race day. I remember long before the boom I could drive from my parents in Owensboro to the Eastern Kentucky Mountains on a Sunday afternoon and never miss a syllable. Soon dead spots appeared. Briefly, I entered the world of satellite radio, but it only temporarily masked things and race broadcasts that once welcomed weekly new MRN/PRN affiliates now had less to say on the subject. Was radio the canary?
Then I thought fantasy race games might be something to monitor. At one time they were everywhere. There was lots of participation. That soon died along with the corresponding water cooler chatter about last week's race and next week's speculation. Was that the canary?
Logically, one would think tickets would be something to keep an eye on. There was a time when unloading tickets when you couldn't make the race was never a problem as there was always someone around who was happy to snatch them up. Later, when you couldn't find any takers or when your friends let their ticket renewals lapse you had to ask had this canary stopped singing?
Maybe I should have noticed more when the once proud reports of race attendance ceased. Or maybe when I could see on TV the empty seats in the stands where I once sat. Or overhead shots showing green grass in parking lots where I once parked? Or when the tarps appeared... or stands disappeared? What kind of shape was the canary in now?
The NASCAR Cafe in Sevierville TN was a hopping place... for a while. When the show cars came down and the shutters went up and it started doing its best impersonation of North Wilkesboro, maybe the canary swooned a bit.
When long-time sponsors on prominent teams started exiting stage right, like Valvoline, Home Depot and DuPont, I thought maybe like the canary, they knew something that we didn't know. Or maybe when ESPN didn't even bid for half the TV rights, letting NBC back in; maybe that was a sign that something was amiss.
Surely, TV Viewership is a usable little bird but we're told it's not. Neither are stock prices. I never considered long time series beat writers as the "canary" but after seeing them let go (especially those who happened to comment on latest leadership attire) and being kicked to the curb, I wondered if I had finally found the elusive fowl.
Series sponsor, Sprint had been onboard as series sponsor for the biggest part of this century and gave two years notice they weren't returning at the end of their contract. With that generous head start, the search for a replacement resulted in a new series sponsor who paid less for the series naming rights than what it cost to field a single team in the series.
Given that the new sponsor only signed on for two years, the same as the heads-up term Sprint gave them that they weren't returning, is a search on-going as we speak? I mean if it took that long to find a replacement previously, shouldn't it be? Was all of this a sign that maybe the air was getting thin?
Not enough cars to fill the field...Owners finding more value leasing their charters than fielding teams... teams having difficulty finding sponsors... things this untrained hunter would normally think would be indicators of concern, something to make a canary dizzy. But alas, we're told that nothing is unusual, nothing of concern, all is normal.
So, after looking at a variety of possible indicators in my search for a single "canary" so to speak, I'm sad to announce I've found none. Each one explained away that all is normal, all is well.
So maybe, just maybe I've been looking for the wrong bird. Instead of a canary, maybe I should have been looking something bigger, the entire series, like a parrot so to speak.
Only time will tell us of the sport's true condition. It may just be "resting" from "bein' tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk". It might be "stunned". Gracious, it's been through enough to be in that state. Its current posture could be "preference" as the "Norwegian Blue prefers keepin' on it's back!". Or it could just be "pining for the fjords" (not Fords, fjords as this parrot would never pine for a Ford).
Hopefully, it's not an "ex-parrot" who if we "took the liberty of examining" when we got it home, only to discover "the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in the first place was that it had been NAILED there."
Or more accurately, only upright because it is anchored and propped up by tall stacks of money... TV contract cash.
Whether I should be hunting canary or parrot I'm not sure. One thing I do know is that, as they say around these parts, I'm glad it's not my duck. It's someone else's responsibility.
So this week, I'm going to try and catch some racing... and afterwards, maybe, just maybe do a little more bird watching.