Maybe it's just me enamored with the way NASCAR was back in the good old days: Richard Petty from North Carolina, David Pearson and Cale Yaroborough from South Carolina and the Allison’s an the Alabama gang, obviously from Alabama. This is the way NASCAR was when it truly was fun and the way it ought to be.
Not only were these drivers from traditional Southern states and away from the cosmopolitan centers (sorry Charlotte’s Steve Wallace) but Charlotte is no Randleman. Similarily, Timmonsville where Yarborough is from, will never be mistaken for Atlanta or Charlotte.
But these drivers also happened to be the best in the business and headlined the sport. That is what made it great. On top of that they had budding rivalries-real on-the-track rivalries and not boring name calling-through-the-media rivalries like with whomever Kyle Busch is mad at in a given week for “stealing” “his” latest win before he pouts off.
Despite this fact, we’ve still got good personalities that differ from the boring, corporate-ass kissing vanilla, politically correct drivers like California’s Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon or the marketing media machine Dale Earnhardt Jr who sold out his roots long ago (insert T.I. rap ad)
Unfortunately those drivers-Indiana’s Tony Stewart, Las Vegas’ Kyle Busch, and Rochester Michigan’s Keselowski are all natives from outside of the South, thus they cannot and will not ever be embraced or viewed the same way in the same respect.
All drive in a similar aggressive demeanor that while it may infuriate their opponts on the track, is reminiscent of the way Petty, Yaroborough, Missouri’s Rusty Wallace, and Pearson all ran on a regular basis.
Now we could turn this article into a sappy nostalgic “you raced with what you brought” piece but who hasn’t already read that before which would be just another unoriginal scathing piece introduction on the car of tomorrow into the sport, and NASCAR’s constant evolution and denial of its roots even if they claim to be going back to them.
So is there any hope? A look at a few drivers
* denotes rookie with ages in parenthesis
North Carolina-Austin Dillon*, (19) Jeffrey Earnhardt (20), Ben Stancill (20), Coleman Pressley (21)
South Carolina- Jeremy Clements* (26) (Kertis Davis was released)
Tennessee- Trevor Bayne (18)
Georgia- Ken (27) and Brett Butler (24)* (Butler Bros. Racing), John Wes Townley (20), David Ragan (24)
Virginia- Danny O' Quinn (24)
Kentucky- Dillon Oliver ASA, (20)
Mississippi Tommy Joe Martins (23) (ARCA)
Texas- James Buescher (19)
Smart money is on Brett Butler whose already in the Camping World Truck Series as a rookie or John Wes Townley whose in the Nationwide series. But the real gem may be Richard Childress' grandson, Austin Dillon (pictured) who certainly will have the support, connections, and bloodline to succeed which I hope he does.
Not that there as ever been a Cajun driver but note the asbsences from Arkansas, Florida, and most horrifying, Alabama. While North Carolina leading the pack is a good sign, whether any of them actually succeed is anyone's guess.
You think NASCAR is fun now with boring Johnson winning over half a dozen races each year including half the Chase? You think it's fun knowing unless he—I mean Chad Knaus—messes things up, he’s all but assured to get his fifth straight title?
He’s already erased Yarborough from the books as the only driver to win three straight titles, why not pass Jeff Gordon in his continual quest for the nostalgic “drive for five” campaign?
I mean tradition is already just a thought it today’s corporate NASCAR, so what if another milestone that reminds us of yesteryear, of when many of us broke into the sport as fans is erased by a driver who probably doesn’t even realize the long term damage he’s doing each time he wins another race for the good of the sport and the image he gives it as NASCAR’s unfortunate posterboy.
How can you support a driver who not only doesn’t come from Southern stock as NASCAR’s pioneers: Allison, Pearson, Yarborough, Petty, and Jr. Johnson did but because of this lack of history, doesn’t have a true appreciation or grasp of its impact since he’s known nothing but winning ever since he first sat in the No. 48 car? If you never had to come up from the bottom how can you appreciate being at the top as these drivers did?
Today’s drivers don’t fix their own cars. At best they offer suggestions to their car and crew chief in between shooting their latest commercial, pushing their latest product, or attending their latest red carpet event.
How many of them would even know how to fix their own car or actually do manual work on it the same way a Richard Petty, Dale Inman or throwback country drivers would have since that is what they grew up doing, was often their only passion, or the only life they ever knew, thus it was a matter of necessity? If you’ve ever seen the movie Dale you know what I mean.
Jeff Gordon’s demise hurting the sport but not as much as Johnson dominance
Last year I wrote a piece on Jeff Gordon’s decline prior to a race at Martinsville where he’d won the grandfather clock seven times. Now I’m no Gordon fan in the slightest but seeing him decline the past few years the way he has is a bit sad even from he biggest opposition like myself.
He debuted in 1992, Richard Petty’s final race being his first one. He had three titles by the time he was 28 in 1998. After picking up 13 wins that year and another title in 2001 to give him four, it seemed inevitable that he would one day catch and pass The King, much to the chagrin of traditional fans like me.
However, the Chase format has cost Gordon two additional titles, which to go along with his 82 career wins, (average of 4.8 wins a season in his 17 years) he would have had an astonishing six championships. Two of those directly went to Johnson (2006 and 2008), which saw Gordon leading the point’s standings going into the Chase before they were reset.
Basically for many fans, Gordon, like Jeff Burton, who debuted the same year (1992) are throwbacks and the final remaining ties to the Winton Cup series, when NASCAR was still a majority Southern sport, racing in mostly Southern venues throughout the South but most of all wasn’t the commercialized, media monster it has become today.
This is why people hold them to a higher regard than the spoiled drivers of today to which the polished Johnson is no exception.
There will be a day when Gordon is simply out there racing for the love of the sport, similar to a Joe Nemechek, with no chance at winning, qualifying in the 30s, that many fans will realize for the first time, how far NASCAR has fallen and how much they actually miss Gordon who was good for the sport.
In his day to hate him was fun but now with Johnson basically replacing him, it's rather annoying than fun since the robotic Johnson is even more dominant and less interesting and personable overall.
What is NASCAR going to do if Johnson, god forbid makes it five or even six Championships in a row? Ratings will plummet as the suspense will be gone. If you think NASCAR has problems now with attendance, give the impersonal Johnson a few more championships and many fans will abandon the sport forever.
Phoenix has already cut its capacity by 20,000 making it the smallest venue on the circuit which says a lot with Martinsville and Darlington still on it. Richmond recently cut seating 12,000 and instead widened their seating space, and Daytona reduced seating from ____ to 148,000.
There was a time when NASCAR got too big for its britches. When they thought expanding to non-traditional places like Fontana Calfornia, Kansas City, Kansas, and Las Vegas was a good idea and the way to go. While the latter two have worked out for the most part, it still doesn’t look or feel right among the traditional base, to which and of which, I speak.
This year we are going to find out who the real fans are.
NASCAR goes corporate
Starting around 2001 when NASCAR was in the midst of leaving its roots having already kicked tiny “Redneck” North Wilkesboro speedway off the circuit because, who wants to go to that moonshine stilling watering hole when we could go to glamorous Fontana instead? After preparing to ax Rockingham and the Southern 500 at Darlington, it became a popular fad for the average fan to follow NASCAR.
For the first time, with NASCAR going national and even global, people would tune in for more than just the Daytona 500 to which always gets great ratings. Even the most casual fan could tune in and appreciate its importance.
Cultures began to clash as the new influx of casual fans, knowing nothing of the sport’s history, would come to tracks not with overalls, racing shirts or confederate flags, but with khaki shorts, polo shirts, and sun glasses. They didn’t even know how to dress the part because the sport had gone commercialized and they were simply along for the ride.
The transition was complete in 2005 when after North Wilkesboro and The Rock were taken care of and the real Southern 500 killed, the original series sponsor Winston cigarettes, one that goes back to the very heart of NASCAR’s conservative, traditional, rural and Southern base was replaced with a more widely accepted, metropolitan, corporate lead sponsor in Nextel of the cell phone brand.
This trend continues today with Sprint after their acquisition of Nextel in 2008.
So who are the real fans? Real fans are the ones that will continue to find a way to go to their regional race track even if the economy isn’t the best. Real fans, regardless of where they live in relation to the Mason-Dixon line, will show up at the track instead of taking the easy way out and watching the race for free from their air-conditioned living rooms.
Real fans are the ones that will never claim “NASCAR—that's so 2003” because it isn’t, you just got here too late to really appreciate or understand it.
NASCAR’s Southern Savior?
If you think NASCAR is fun now with non traditional (Ie. Northern) drivers like Johnson, Busch, Stewart, and Kenseth dominating as of late evidenced by their Championships in recent years, just wait if or until a hot shot rookie driver from the backwoods of North Carolina or Alabama emerges and dominates the sport as in decades past.
That is what NASCAR desperately needs even if they wouldn’t care to admit it. Ratings would skyrocket as an official return to racing normalcy. The base would be appeased after years of seeing their tradition and history compromised.
Who is that driver? I don’t know but the best we can hope for it's one of these kids above or even yet to be discovered, becomes the next Johnson-one we can all appreciate and not the polarizing fool that is the former.
In a perfect world, who ever he is (note stay home Danica wannabes) would come from a moonshine stilling background, be sponsored by either Jack Daniels or Jim Beam, both of whom recently left NASCAR, thus they would be available for the right driver.
He'd have grown up watching reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard , loathe vanilla drivers like Gordon, Johnson, and Kenseth, and most importantly would back up his talk which would have to include an distinguishable drawl that the entire base would find suitable, with the same aggressive driving brought forth by his Southern forebearers.
If he really wanted to appease the base, he could always pick a fight on the track or otherwise (see Allison-Yaroborough 1979 Daytona 500-the first televised race) with one of NASCAR’s biggest Northern bad boys: the whiny Kyle Busch or Tony Stewart and turn them into the wall on a continual basis.
And after winning his latest race en route to what was certain to be his first of many championships, as sort of a middle finger to Johnson and the rest of all things wrong with NASCAR, he would complete his victory lap at Darlington of all places, confederate flag in hand, as he circled the track.
And the base would rejoice for they would finally have a leader, their leader. The leader Junior could have always been but due to lack of talent and desire (two wins in his last 134 races), the Marketing Machine as I call him, never was and never will be.