The Frontstretch: Better Days: The Role of Nostalgia in NASCAR by Amy Henderson -- Thursday May 31, 2012

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Better Days: The Role of Nostalgia in NASCAR

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday May 31, 2012


For some reason, I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately. I’m not sure why, but whatever the reason, I got to thinking about the first races I went to. I’ll admit that I was skeptical about the first one; despite my aspirations to cover major American sports, NASCAR wasn’t really on the radar then. It was my dad and a family friend that changed that, when they had an extra ticket to a Cup race at Loudon and decided that I was the best candidate to go along. I agreed, curious to see what the hype was about-it was nearly impossible to score tickets for a New Hampshire race in the mid 1990’s, and I figured that maybe all those people knew something I didn’t.

They did.

I enjoyed the spectacle that is a NASCAR race day: the colorful souvenir haulers, the even more colorful race fans, the flyover (Oh, the flyover! It still gives me chills every single time.) But what really got my attention came after all that. The engines. Those engines, when they all fired together, were some kind of siren song for me.

They still are. I never get tired of that sound.

But I’ll admit I miss some of the things from those early races, for there was a simplicity then that seems to be missing now; maybe it’s that I’ve changed so much, maybe it’s because the sport has. But there’s a simplicity to sitting in the stands with someone else who loves the sport, cheering for a driver, just taking it all in, never wanting it to end.

Is that feeling gone from NASCAR today? Perhaps I can’t answer it the way the fans in the stands can, because race weekends for me are different than they were in those days. I remember watching races in the late 90’s and thinking, ‘hey this guy (fill in the underdog of your choice here) could WIN today!’ if a driver of a mid-pack car was running well or had a strong strategy. Today, that feeling just doesn’t happen. There are no illusions.

Maybe it’s because I lost my dad in 2008, and I wish daily that I could share racing with him like I used to. When I won an NMPA writing award last year, I wished more than anything I could share it with him. After all, a big part of it was his doing, his fault. (Thanks, Dad.) There are many moments at the track, when I think about that first race, and wish for a moment about the simplicity of it all.

Nostalgia has proven to be a double-edged sword for NASCAR, and for fans an element both celebrated and divisive.

Feeling that way made me think about the role of nostalgia in today’s NASCAR. Even the sport’s sanctioning body can’t quite seem to define the place for the past. Even as they glorify “the old days” in commercials and in the Hall of Fame, they shun it in day-to-day operations, pushing the historic racetracks to the back burner, saving the best race dates for the 1.5-mile facilities. They praise the innovation of the early years while stifling it today. It’s a confusing paradox.

But what about the fans? How does a sense of nostalgia affect them? It’s different for everyone of course, but it’s hard to deny that there is an effect.

How many of the old guard fans stick around hoping that someday, it will be more like the days they remember? My guess would be a fair number; I know I think that way sometimes. It’s safe to say that if you’ve been watching the sport for more than a decade, it’s easy to divide the sport into two categories: “then” and “now.”

Which is a fair assessment. Everything is different. The cars are different, the rules are different, the races are different. Drivers get older and leave the seat to the young guns-and leave a void that never quite closes among their fans when they do. We remember the racing being closer, the crowds being bigger, the broadcasts being better. And a lot of that is probably completely true.

On the other hand, how much of people’s opinion of the past is clouded by rose-colored glasses?

As much as people talk about the racing “back in the day,” you have to take it with a grain of salt. For every Daytona 500 that took three days to decide a winner, there was a race where one car took the checkers on the lead lap. Races with no cautions happened then, too (the difference being that NASCAR didn’t throw the yellow flag for every hot dog wrapper or fragment of wishful thinking.) Ned Jarrett once won at Darlington by 14 laps. While an interesting historical footnote, compelling racing that is not. A lot more people seem to remember Dale Earnhardt a lot more fondly now than when he was alive and well and wrecking their driver. So, while your mileage may vary, there is probably some romanticizing going on in some capacity.

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s safe to say it does play a role in how fans view the racing today. It’s easy to remember only the best parts when we reminisce. One of those races I went to with my dad was the infamous restrictor plate race at Loudon. I’m not sure a worse race was ever run. And on most days, I can overlook that because it falls in seamlessly with other, better races in the recesses of my mind.

Romanticized or not, I also wonder if, for many fans, the changing of the guard in the drivers’ seat plays a vital role in how the races are viewed. Can one’s first favorite driver ever be replaced? Or, once that driver is no longer competitive or gone altogether, is the racing just a little less enticing because of who is not there.

I’m not willing to jump onto the “all the drivers today are boring vanilla pansies who wouldn’t know the chrome horn if you blew it in their ear” bandwagon, because it’s not true. But whether fans cheered for the good guy or the bad guy, the underdog or the champion, it isn’t the same once that guy isn’t there.

Carl Edwards isn’t Richard Petty, Jimmie Johnson isn’t Cale Yarborough, and Kyle Busch isn’t Dale Earnhardt. And no matter how admirable today’s drivers are, something is lost from the days when you used to pull for someone else.

Perhaps this is why some of the newer fans don’t understand the nostalgia; for them, the racing has always been Fontana, Las Vegas, and Texas instead of Rockingham, Darlington, and North Wilkesboro. The drivers have always been Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Stewart instead of David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip and Davey Allison. Newer fans have never had these things wrenched away from their racing reality. The old school fans have. Of course there’s a rift.

On the other hand, this nostalgia is there for the taking for all fans. If the good old days were before your time, or if to you they were the only time, they can be relived through the myriad of books and video on the subject. These always leave me wishing I’d been born a couple of decades earlier.

In the end, it’s not the same. The good old days are gone for good. But the nostalgia they create is alive and well and has a double effect on today’s NASCAR. How we view the past does directly impact how we see the present. To an extent, it’s safe to say that nostalgia does play a role in the sport’s popularity and in how fans look at different eras. Some of those comparisons are inescapable, and others are clouded by a degree of romanticism. It keeps the fans coming, but at the same time, it draws the inevitable comparisons to those halcyon summers in our minds. And to those, nothing will ever match up.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
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Matt L
06/01/2012 12:14 PM

Beautiful column Amy! It’s been a topic I’ve been exploring myself. I had a magnetic attraction to the sport and Jeff Gordon as my favorite driver since day 1 of watching NASCAR in 2000. I’ve tried getting on other drivers bandwagons over the last 2 years – Jeff’s in his 40’s now and won’t be driving forever. I started following Trevor Bayne and Brad Keselowski, but it just didn’t feel the same. My love for the sport and my connection with my favorite driver seemed effortless, and I do miss that.

06/01/2012 12:42 PM

Good column Amy! Now for something completely different…ONLY 1 MORE HORRIBLE FOX BROADCAST FOR THE YEAR!!!!

Rob Bolling
06/01/2012 12:45 PM

Great article.

I too, like the Matt L said above, am finding it hard to have a favorite driver these days. Maybe it is a result of being in my 40s, but the rabid fanaticism is just no longer there for one driver. It is as if I find unique merit in too many of the drivers to elevate one above all the others.

On another note, you are quite right about the rose colored glasses, to a point.

While Wilkesboro is remembered so fondly by all of us in the old guard, it did not really put on races that were exciting for 375 of the 400 laps. It was the finishes, especially the “legendary” ones that everybody remembers about Wilkes.

Bodine’s lone win after the leaders wrecked out, the comebacks and great lead battles that filled the final 25 laps at many of the races are what made Wilkesboro so endearing to us. Also, there is an unmistakable nostalgia and uniqueness to the place that just screams NASCAR much like Darlington and Rockingham still do.

All of that said, the fact still remains that 90% of a Wilkesboro race was a “bide your time” and save your car freight train. It is just how you raced there. We remember it fondly because if the experience it was, not phenomenal side by side racing for 400 laps.

Times change, and so does NASCAR. If you want the old style of racing back you need to support your local short track. That is where real old-style racing is still found and consistent support will help ensure it stays that way.

06/01/2012 02:42 PM

Good column, but one that really has no answer.
Speaking for myself, and I’m directly in the racing business, it cant be the same anymore.
Back when I was young it was romantic and exciting, there was a touch of mystique about it.
Now, because the covers have been pulled back I see it for what it is: a business. Complete with what you have in any Corporation. And its not about winning races its about growing the business. Take the long view.
Wish it hadnt turned out like this, the days of my youth were much more fun, but it did and like my youth its gone forever.

06/01/2012 02:57 PM

The TV coverage we receive today takes more away from the sport then it gives. I went to my first race at Bowman Grey when I was 4 months old “Dad raced there in the 60’s”. I went to every race at the Rock, Darlington, Wilkesboro and Martinsville until the early 80’s. Truth be told must would have been boring on TV where thay only show the leader. But the pack racing was so Good. Just sorry for the folks who have to see the B/S on TV now.

06/01/2012 08:27 PM

Wow Amy, You hit a homerun with this one!
Great Writing. Rose colored glasses? Guilty as charged! But isn’t it the memories that keep us coming back? Fun Stuff…Jimi.

06/01/2012 10:08 PM

I miss being able to identify cars from across the track because they had the same paint job every week. Sometimes for a decade.

I miss being drivers who didn’t spend five minutes naming their sponsors every time you asked a question. You may have noticed that Indy drivers rarely talk about sponsors.

I miss stockcars that looked like real cars and knowing that if a brand needed better aero, they’d make a NASCAR edition street car.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.