What We've Lost ~ What I Miss
I attended my first NASCAR Grand National (Monster/Cup) race 55 years ago. I’m far from the oldest fan in that regard (although I might be getting uncomfortably close).
Here’s Richmond in 1965, a couple of years after I started my race fan career in that section of the bleachers you can see in this photo.
I’ve attended a few more than 100 “premier series” races in the half-century since then, which makes me far from the most experienced fan. I’ve watched a lot of races on TV (although none for the past two or three years), listened to many more on radio (going back to Hank Schoolfield’s Universal Racing Network) and - more recently - followed a good number online.
I’ve eaten a lot of track food (and survived, so far), bought a lot of programs (even wrote articles for a couple of them), covered races for newspapers, worked with a track’s public relations staff on race weekends, interviewed drivers, taken a train to a race, been rained and snowed out, met awesome and awful people (and probably been identified by others as being in both those groups), hoarded racing materials at home, and felt really odd when I was somewhere without news media access on a Monday and couldn’t find out who won.
Undeniably, progress took Cup racing from the top photo to the bottom one, but something was lost along the way that is really costing NASCAR today.
Monster/Cup racing (and NASCAR in general) today is carefully packaged, nearly antiseptic entertainment, surrounded by lots of money (albeit much less than 10 years ago).
I haven’t been to a Monster/Xfinity/Camping World race in person in nearly five years, and I miss going, but not as much as I feel I should. Here’s why.
I miss drivers having other occupations. Everybody knew that Tiny Lund ran a fish camp, Harry Gant was in construction, Curtis Turner bought and sold timber. My early favorite, J.T. Putney, was a pilot. Mark Thompson got lots of publicity back in February for starting the Daytona 500 at age 66, but he also was a great story because he had a life outside of racing.
If Tiny Lund was your favorite driver a little over half a century ago and you didn’t see enough of him at the track, you could go down to Cross, S.C., and rent a boat from him to catch some cats or stripers.
I miss the chatter about who was entered in an upcoming race, because it wasn’t the same drivers every week. It seldom affected who won, but it was interesting.
I miss seeing a racer drive his own hauler to the track. I miss open haulers where you could see the car, too.
I really miss local track standouts getting a chance to race against the NASCAR travelers. They might have had no chance of winning, but you followed their place in the race and considered a Top 10 finish a moral victory, even in your guy was 16 laps behind the winner.
Local hero Sonny Hutchins put Emanuel Zervakis’ Chevy on the outside pole at Martinsville and raced ahead of Richard Petty for the early lead.
I miss the NASCAR travelers running at the local short track the night before the GN/Cup race.
I miss the heartbreak of your underdog hero racing his way into the Top 5, only to lose six laps while his volunteer pit crew was changing a tire.
I miss frontrunners having to battle their way through lapped traffic constantly. When did that become something to avoid, as drivers seem to see it today? Traffic made for more passing, even without 20 cars on the lead lap.
I miss the parade of visiting pace cars being the highlight of pre-race.
I miss high school bands playing the National Anthem (and I remember the time Universal Network’s Bob Montgomery’s mic was left on during a particularly slow rendition, and he could be heard muttering, “sounds like a funeral dirge.”)
I miss characters, like Billy Woods, who would accept tips from some drivers to put “hexes” on others, or drivers like Joe Weatherly and Jabe Thomas, who clowned around.
No idea of the context of this photo, but it looks like the Southern 500 parade in Darlington with Joe Weatherly representing South of the Border. Whatever it is, it shows a driver who knew how to have fun.
I won’t name any names here, but I miss drivers who weren’t good looking and who regularly mangled the English language.
I miss cheating being a game where, if you got caught - you got disqualified but could come back next week with things hidden a little better and try again. I miss the fans enjoying that game, not making it sound like moral turpitude.
I miss the cars being cars, although if someone wants to see the sport reflect current reality and begin an SUV racing series, I’m game to see how it goes.
I asked Google for “SUV racing,” and it gave me this. Can you kind of use your imagination a little?
I miss teams being able to fix a race car by borrowing parts from somebody’s sedan in the parking lot or making a quick trip to the junkyard.
OK, I could go on (and on and on), and you could leave for something more pleasant, like mowing the lawn, but here’s my point. I won’t deny that these are the ramblings of an old guy who just wants things back like they were when he was (and felt) young, but they’re more than that - they’re a reflection of how racing has lost its personality, replacing it with something that - based on attendance and TV ratings - isn’t going over all that great.
But I also understand this conundrum: When all these things that are my fond memories were the norm, NASCAR was a much smaller world, with fewer fans and much less money - and a lot less television exposure. Am I willing to trade all the neat stuff that came with its growth for what I consider to be the “golden” elements of racing?
In a word, yes.
Disclosure: I make that choice easily, because I have no pony in the race, I would in no way be financially harmed if NASCAR’s size reverted to what it was 50 years ago (when EVERY NASCAR employee was listed by name in the race program, and 90% of those were people getting paid $10 or $20 a race for some specific race-day job). No, my preferred outcome would cost a lot of people their jobs. I hate the thought of causing anyone else pain, but I don’t see those jobs surviving, anyway, if the status quo continues too much longer.
Don’t want to see it; don’t know how to avoid it.
Another societal change that would affect how my “retro” world would work is the internet. Here there’s a glimmer of the positive.
I love music, but my musical taste runs decidedly counter to what’s most popular. I don’t listen to radio, and even Sirius/XM doesn’t customize musical choice enough for me. But I still have plenty of access, via Pandora (and its counterparts) and most of all YouTube. One member of a fairly obscure group I kind of like recently left to try her luck as a solo act, and now she’s released an EP of a few songs, all recorded in one go, while a video crew was also recording everything. The first music video from that effort was available on YouTube well in advance of the EP’s release. Not long ago, we went to a small club to see an obscure band I like, and I noticed a camera set up in the back of the room. The next week, not only were a couple of that band’s songs available as videos on YouTube (admittedly with poor sound quality), but so was a song by the even more obscure opening act. That’s how much things have changed FOR THE BETTER to give us more choice.
All that is or could be available to racing, too, and with fewer commercials. We just might need to get used to seeking the stuff out in odd places online and having a Roku to play it on the TV. I can do that.
It might not bring back the parade of visiting pace cars or put Joey Logano behind the wheel of his hauler, but for racing that feels like racing, that has personality, and that plays to my sports soul, I’m willing to see big changes take place.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
One of the things you hear a lot when people suggest changes for NASCAR is that the season be shortened, but I think that’s baloney. The problem is that the product needs to be fixed, not how many times we have to endure it. Sears and Kmart keep closing stores, hoping that more people will shop in the ones that are left, but I don’t see that producing a miracle turnaround. No, if you create racing that people can’t wait to see, they’ll watch it as often as you allow.
Up here in South Central Pennsylvania and nearby, the streak of lousy weekend weather continues, and I think some tracks have lost more than half their race dates so far this year. I hear we’re entertaining some rules changes to make sure people can watch a race next Saturday:
Inspectors will be responsible for bringing their own scuba gear.