This photo was taken in 1999, leading up to the summer race at Indianapolis. Today, D.J. is commentating, Ricky is retired, and Dale Sr. is gone. Only Gordon remains from an era when NASCAR still belonged to the South.
Author's Note: I apologize in advance for the length of this article. The subject matter, while hokey to some, is very real and very emotional. Like so many from our area, our families grew up with NASCAR in our lives. It's time to explain to the mockers why NASCAR's woes do mean something to us as fans.
As a Southerner living in 2011, it's nearly impossible to fire up the memory banks and remember back to a time when purchasing gasoline meant digging for loose silver in your pocket, instead of the second mortgage and spare kidney it takes to fill up now. It's hard to remember the days when double cheeseburgers were the staple of a well-balanced diet, and how dietitians would hide in the shadows, twitching and sobbing softly to themselves whenever we'd pile melted cheese or gravy onto our mashed potatoes at the buffet line.
Today, dietitians lurk on every sidewalk, prepared to smack those chili-cheese fries to the ground before the guy at the cart can even get you your change.
Those of a younger persuasion probably have no recollection of things like VHS tapes, which were so revolutionary just a few short decades ago, but are relics now. Times change, people grow more culturally advanced and the beat goes on. The record player (another dinosaur from the Dark Ages) has been playing the same tune for generations.
We Southern folk, for better or worse, have an affinity for resisting change. It's just the way we are; try as we might, we are creatures of habit. Habits die hard, of course, and the antiquated ways from "back when" no longer fly in the modern world.
And so we go about our daily lives, content to just grit our teeth and bear it whenever a Northerner arrives down here in God's Country and insists on showing us how they did it back in Cleveland. This is our lot in life, and we accept it as best we can.
But NASCAR, though...
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, the red-headed stepchild of American sporting ventures, that used to be ours. Can you remember back so far, as to recall the days when stock car racing actually embraced its heritage, and personified the grit and determination of so many, toiling in the mills to make it through the week?
Were you even alive, then? NASCAR...NASCAR used to belong to the South. But just as sure as the textile mills are gone forever, NASCAR now belongs to New York, Chicago and all points glamorous. Like obedient little minions, we rattled our stills and cast our Longnecks into the air, blasting the traitorous bigwigs in the sport for selling out to Corporate America, while silently accepting the inevitable and giving up hope.
From the day they gave the Southern 500 to California, diehard fans knew the end was near. NASCAR, despite clinging to the dried-up roots that used to wax strong here in the Carolinas, doesn't belong to us anymore. The roots are cut: Petty grew old, Earnhardt up and died and NASCAR grew up into the albatross it is now.
For someone who didn't grow up in the midst of old-school NASCAR fans like I did, you cannot possibly imagine how painful the evolution of the sport has been to Southerners. For NASCAR to shun everything that made it so special and popular to begin with in order to gain mainstream credibility was a transgression that would parallel the Boston Red Sox demolishing Fenway Park and playing at Schick Stadium in Brookline, or the Los Angeles Lakers changing their colors to red and white and calling themselves the Swoosh.
Which Driver Do You Miss Most on Sundays?
Just as the Brooklyn Dodgers were the identify of the borough of Brooklyn decades before, NASCAR was the heart and soul of the South. Yeah, we had SEC Football in the Deep South, and ACC Basketball along Tobacco Road. The Atlanta Braves were the only option we really had for baseball back in the day, so we adopted them into the collective family.
But NASCAR, that was our family. Everyone knew who Richard Petty was, just as everyone today knows who LeBron James is. When Yarborough and Allison came to blows on the backstretch of Daytona, you were watching it. If fans of Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt were arguing over who the better man was, you had an opinion on it. When Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki died, your grief and depression was very real.
This is who we were, both as a collective group, and as individual Southerners.
Sports fans are a fickle bunch. We rise and fall on the fortunes of our favorite teams, or our favorite players. NASCAR was different for us, though. Sure, we had our favorite drivers, and God be with you if you blasphemed the good name of Chevrolet, proclaiming Pontiac or Ford to be the best makes in the sport.
But there was a deeper consciousness associated with being a NASCAR fan here in the South. We knew full well how much the rest of the country loved to make fun of the sport. We knew the monikers they slapped on it, and we stood in defense of what we loved as a result. You wouldn't let a bully pick on a family member, and we weren't about to let some bagel-stuffing yahoo from "up north" or "out west" sully the names of the hard-working people that made NASCAR so great.
When you attacked NASCAR, you attacked us, and we defended our honor and our sport for so many years. We loved our racin'.
But the times, oh how they change. At some point in the not-so-distant past, a disconnect emerged between the sport of stock car racing and the fanbase which loved it so much. To an outsider, it was a fascinating dichotomy to behold. The rest of the country, restless and full of spite, continued to lambaste us for our love of watching men make left turns all day.
And we fired back with our own salvos, demonstrating our loyalty to what was supposed to be ours. At the same time, the executives running our sport grew envious of the same people that made fun of it for all those years. They began to covet the major markets, and the mainstream credibility that the other sports leagues enjoyed.
It was never about the money, really; fiscal concerns are greater now in the sport after the national expansion than they were 20 years ago, when any Mom 'n' Pop organization could field a team from week to week. The executives simply wanted respect from all circles, nothing more. Then wanted to find acceptance in the midst of their detractors.
And thus it was, so many dark years ago, that our sport up and died on us. We watched our favorite tracks get pushed aside for glamorous new cookie-cutters, many of which sat half-empty on race day. We watched the heritage of our sport get stripped, layer by layer, until NASCAR was as homogenized as the other sports leagues.
And while we watched the owners and their "modern" drivers rub shoulders with the Hollywood Elite, we pined for the sport to remember the fans that had loved them first, yearning for the day when our family would return home where it belonged. Like any city which has suffered the loss of a sports franchise, the pain leads to anger, and the anger leads to bitterness.
Today, the love that once drove us to the point of frenzied devotion has turned into a painful, longing apathy for something that can never truly be ours again.
And it is painful, make no mistake about it. The pain has kept a lot of people away from even the "home tracks" of NASCAR. Places like Darlington, Charlotte and Atlanta are having the same troubles selling tickets that track owners are having out in Chicago and California.
Once NASCAR forsook its heritage and began to shack up with Corporate America, there was never any hope of getting the sport we loved back. It may one day shrink back into its regional base, but the days of Earnhardt, Waltrip, Petty, Allison, Pearson and Weatherly are gone forever. Those days are memories that only collect more dust, and sit haggardly in the minds of old school fans who resisted watching the old school die.
Times change. But for the feelings of loneliness and abandonment, it never changes fast enough.