That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (Flag) Past, One Story at a Time · Amy Henderson · Monday April 10, 2006
As quickly as things change, some things stay ever the same. Things always have a habit of coming full circle, plans of the future which actually cause a return to our roots instead. Take the Car of Tomorrow, for example: the “future” looks an awful lot like the cars of yesterday, taking the sport back to the boxier, slower models of the 1980’s. Even the wing that will replace the rear spoiler is not exactly a new concept…just look at the winged Superbirds and Daytonas from the 1970’s. Returning in the direction of something that worked is an interesting direction for NASCAR to take. Personally, I hope that the trend will continue, especially with an eye toward both racetracks and the schedule. It is likely that tracks like Rockingham, South Boston and North Wilkesboro will never again revisit their glory days, but here’s hoping that some of the proposed new tracks will look an awful lot like them.
Cars and tracks aside, there have certainly been myriad changes in the sport; with its explosion in popularity, many of them have occurred within just the last ten years. So much change begs the question…if the men who sat at the Streamline Hotel back in 1948 were all alive today, would they even recognize the sport they so painstakingly organized? Thankfully, the answer on many counts is "yes."
But wait…you say that nobody would have imagined the modern tracks that have sprung up in recent years. Except…they did. Little Martinsville Speedway has undergone changes, for sure, but still packs in the fans twice a year, as it has for nearly six decades. The Lady in Black, Darlington Raceway, had perhaps her grandest jewel taken away with the Southern 500, but still terrorizes drivers young and old every year. Big Bill France’s Daytona has been changed and upgraded since 1959, but still hosts the race of that man’s vision, the biggest stock car race of them all, the Daytona 500. Feisty little Bristol, meanwhile, has been running cars through the blender for 45 years. Dover has given up horses for horsepower, but has been a NASCAR staple since 1969, the same year Talladega opened up to its first race. Watkins Glen first hosted NASCAR in the 1950s, and has continued to do so on and off for decades afterward. No, those men would probably not have imagined the scary-fast 1.5-mile tracks that have popped up like weeds in recent years…but they would probably appreciate the quirky quasi-short tracks like Phoenix and Loudon, the reconfigured Richmond, and the Milwaukee Mile.
OK, you say, but those drivers…how they have changed! Largely due to necessity, that is true to a certain extent. They have expensive sponsors and public relations people to tell them where to be, what to say, and how to act. It’s not their fault…just the nature of the beast. But…put them in a racecar, and they are really no different than the legions of drivers who have come before. Some of the names are familiar – Petty and Earnhardt and Wood – because they have been a part of NASCAR for generations now. There has been a Waltrip racing at the Cup level for more than 30 years, one brother following another. A Labonte, too, in the exact same way, two brothers both rising to the level of Nextel Cup champion. As for the Jarretts, their NASCAR championships were won over two generations. Four generations of Pettys have graced the track: from great-grandfather Lee, one of the orneriest racers ever to take the track, down to great-grandson Adam, the big-hearted young racer whose life was cut short doing what he loved. In between were Richard and Kyle, who probably did more for driver-fan relations than anyone-Richard was known for signing autographs for hours, giving every last fan that Petty grin. The best of today’s drivers would have been competitive-and popular-in any era of the sport. Just imagine a race with all those Pettys, Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, the Alabama Gang – all of them from Red Farmer to Davey Allison, three generations of Earnhardts, Pearson, Yarborough, and Johnson (that’s Junior), mixing it up with Stewart, Gordon, Johnson (Jimmie this time), and the young Busch brothers. What a hell of a race that would be-in any era, at any track. The times change, but the passion that fuels them does not.
Finally, the demographics have broadened, but race fans and their fierce loyalty have remained a constant. Fans from the early years probably wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told them of the small city of merchandise trailers that springs up at every race nowadays. Tracks have had to curb the size of coolers, because enterprising fans a few decades ago were inventing some mighty big coolers themselves. You might see more khakis and button-down shirts in the stands these days and fewer cutoffs, but what makes a fan a fan has not changed. It’s about hearing music when the engines fire, reveling in speed and color and sound, believing passionately in a driver and his ability to win on any given Sunday. It’s about basking in the glow with friends, and about loyalty to a driver and his team. I don’t think that the basic things that make a race fan can ever change.
Racing has a wonderful, colorful, exciting past. The people and places along the way have been an integral part of NASCAR’s fabric, each adding a splash of color, a bit of texture. It is everyone’s responsibility – NASCAR’s, the owners’, the drivers’, and the fans’... especially the fans’...to make sure that that remarkable fabric is preserved, even as they continue to weave themselves into it. That’s the beauty of history.
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