The Frontstretch: What's Missing in NASCAR Isn't a Villain; It's the American Dream by Amy Henderson -- Thursday September 20, 2012

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What's Missing in NASCAR Isn't a Villain; It's the American Dream

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday September 20, 2012


NASCAR needs a villain. Those are words that have echoed around the sport over the last few years. Really, we’ve heard them since the death of Dale Earnhardt, but it seems like they’ve gotten louder in recent years. NASCAR needs a bad boy, one who will be unabashedly aggressive on the track and proud of it off the track. One who knows how to use the ol’ chrome horn once in a while, one who will knock you into next week and then blame you for it. Yes, people say, that is just what we need. Except it isn’t.

What NASCAR really needs, even more than a villain to play the spoiler, is a real, honest-to-goodness blue-collar hero.

When the racing world lost Dale Earnhardt, nobody could have truly predicted the fallout more than a decade later, but at that point in time, NASCAR was rocking on its axis and changing from a popular sport to an elite one. And somewhere along the way, the elite sport became elitist.

Even at the height of his empire, Dale Earnhardt represented everyman and did it well. A high school dropout who was destined for the then-thriving factory career if the racin’ thing didn’t work out, Earnhardt was representative of what everyone secretly hoped for—living proof that if you wanted something so badly it hurt and you were willing to start at the bottom, do anything to be a part of it and prove yourself worthy, well then, you could be anything.

Dale Earnhardt was the American Dream personified.

Dale Earnhardt wasn’t just a race car driver, he was everyman and that’s what NASCAR really needs today.

And when that high school dropout rose to the pinnacle of the sport, to be one of the best there had ever been, millions of blue-collar Americans identified with him. When he snagged the pretty girl and built the multi-million-dollar business, they cheered him on. After all, he was one of them, and he’d done it. He’d beaten the odds and made the American Dream a reality. He was who so many fans secretly wished they could be in one way or another. (Earnhardt wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of self-made heroes, once upon a time: Cale Yarborough; the Allisons; and Darrell Waltrip come to mind along with a host of others. But it’s the loss of Earnhardt that makes the lack of such personalities stand out more than anything else.)

Part of the Earnhardt mystique was his ability to remain, despite his huge and growing fortune, an average Joe. He worked his farm on his days off, slinging bales of hay and riding a horse among the cattle. Of course he was a hero; he was a racecar driver and a cowboy, something just about every American kid, male or female, wanted to be at some point.

And that type of everyday hero is absent from today’s NASCAR. There are drivers who have come from hardscrabble, middle-class backgrounds to ride to the top of the sport. Both Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson did that and did it well, using every opportunity they got to build a better one. But somehow, they have drifted away from that all-American kid image. Maybe it’s the money, maybe it’s the lifestyle. It’s certainly a stretch to imagine either one of these champions waking up at the crack of dawn Monday after a 500-miler on a sweltering Sunday afternoon and saddling up a good horse to check the fence line and make sure the cattle were okay.

Sure, Earnhardt and others of his era and ilk married the pretty girls, but those pretty girls were often still the girl next door, girls whose families were in the racing business or who grew up in the same small towns the men did. They were part of the American Dream, too, and easier to identify with than a New York model, beautiful as she may be.

In contrast to the drivers of an earlier era, drivers today sometimes seem aloof, a little spoiled, not really like you and me. Many don’t seem the type to sit down and have a beer with, though many of them probably are. They have too much to be the average Joe: too much money, too much prestige, too much time, too much above the working man. They don’t give the impression that they know where fans come from, certainly not the impression that they were ever there, even if they were.

That’s not entirely by their fault or design. As the cost of sponsorship rises, sponsors want more for their buck. They want the time on Saturday or Sunday morning that once could have been spent signing autographs and exchanging a few words with fans. Even the autograph sessions that drivers do hold anymore often seem rushed, more like an automated assembly line than a personal event, often because the driver in question is trying to accommodate as many people as possible in the short time he has been scheduled into by someone else.

But, it’s partly on the drivers too. One reason that Richard Petty became the sport’s greatest ambassador is that he understood the fans and often put them first. He would often sign autographs after a race until each fan was satisfied. Today’s drivers participate in a second race after the main event, a race to the airport in an attempt to get out of town first. It’s understandable on one level, disappointing on another. Sometimes giving an hour here or there, unannounced, would go a long way. Some drivers do that, but many too often don’t.

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to look at today’s Sprint Cup drivers and see them as just an average guy who worked his ass off, got a little lucky along the way, and made his dream come true. They don’t look like they love their job. Many are just…hard to identify with. Even the drivers for the smaller teams have fancy motor coaches, beautiful wives, and expensive clothes. They don’t seem like you and me, somehow. You’d be hard-pressed to say exactly why this is, but it is. NASCAR drivers are no longer everyday heroes; they’re too commercialized, too different from the average fan, whereas drivers like Earnhardt seemed like they were one of the people.

The truth is, we have villains in NASCAR. We have the aggressive drivers. It’s how they are perceived that has changed. They’re often seen as arrogant, entitled, and sometimes not entirely without reason. But there are aggressive drivers (though the emphasis on points and the Chase has diminished the lengths to which any of them will take that aggression) and there are those who, like Dale Earnhardt, who often take things to far.

What has changed is that none of these drivers resonate like Earnhardt, or other drivers of times long gone, did. Even Dale Earnhardt, Jr. isn’t the true blue-collar hero that his daddy was. If he ever had that image, he shed it when he joined Hendrick Motorsports, the clean-cut, big money team that is as white-collar as they come in NASCAR. The last of the blue-collar era of NASCAR are in the deep twilight of their careers and no longer a threat on the racetrack.

No, NASCAR doesn’t need a villain. NASCAR needs an everyday hero, a guy who seems no different than anyone you might meet on the street in your own neighborhood. That is the driver that is missing in the garage today; someone who people can identify with because, but for the grace of God, he could be working in the factory or on the farm next to them instead of driving that fast racecar. NASCAR needs the American Dream.

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09/21/2012 01:17 AM

Between the sponsors, the media, and political correctness, I don’t see another driver becoming what you write about.

How many stories like Trevor Bayne’s have there been?

And Kyle Busch was honest but got blasted by the media and dropped by Hendrick.

I question whether Dale Sr. could have made it in today’s world of racing. Remember, he had a very rough start and made a lot of enemies and mistakes. But in his day there was no 24 hour internet social media to pounce on every slip of the tongue. And it didn’t take a $20 million sponsor to have the best ride.

09/21/2012 01:58 AM

Thank you so much for a very truthful article…The France family will never get it, nor will the sponsers or HMS…I miss the old days…I cannot really blame alot of the racers, money does seem to ruin alot, doesn’t it?

09/21/2012 07:19 AM

Really enjoyed your article, you enumerated all the reasons I loved Dale. He may have ultimately been at ease with Fortune 500 companies etc but he never forgot his roots. It is very hard to identify with today’s drivers, and as you say, it is not entirely their fault.

09/21/2012 08:44 AM

Reader Kelly hit it right on!!

Dale Earnhard would not have made it in today’s world. American society has regressed to the point that there will never be another hero as you speak of.

09/21/2012 08:58 AM

the difference between dale and the other older drivers you mentioned, are dale was killed and the others are still alive. they all were like dale, but dale was superman. but unfortunately superman was killed on 2/18/01.

i honestly think dale sr still would not have difficulty attracting sponsorship dollars. cause in the end it’s all about selling the product and putting butts in the seats. but nascar, itself, has killed that by having an iroc series for it’s top tier series, chastised any “bad boys” that are in the sport by the secret fines for speaking out. i think that’s way fans gravitate towards brad k….he still isn’t afraid to speak his mind while wearing the penske white button down shirt. rusty did the same thing while he was with penske.

i think people don’t get behind stewart cause he’s part of the hendrick fold. kyle bush tries, but he was so brash in the beginning that it left a bad taste in folks mouths. years ago, when kyle was a rookie, when they were racing at ams, i was on pit road during friday practice and qualifying and a child walked up to him for an autograph. he told the child “i don’t do autographs”, and for over 10 yrs that sticks in my memory as one of the first impressions of him. i remember yelling at him that the fans will make him, and he shouldn’t have such an attitude for being a rookie driver.

until nascar replaces brian france and figures out that iroc style racing isn’t want we want, it will not pull out of it’s downward fall. i know what will happen at new hampshire sunday….leader will take off and everyone else will be in line not able to pass, and only passing will be done on pit road. a few cautions might be thrown, and maybe even a mystery debris caution to tighten the field up or of hms team members are lapped too early in the race.

09/21/2012 10:22 AM

What made Earnhardt so special was that he was hero and villian all in one. He was real. nas$car doesn’t want villians because the sterile sponsors don’t want villians. Kyle Bush was the bad boy that that fans loved to hate, but he’s been affectively neutered due to the sterile sponsors. nas$car has little or no control over it’s own sport. RIP Dale Sr. We really miss you.

Bill B
09/21/2012 10:25 AM

While I can’t argue with your thoughts in this article, honestly, there are so many reasons NASCAR is in the place they find themselves that you could write a book. A blue collar hero is just one of many of the reasons.

09/21/2012 10:31 AM

Yeah I dunno… I’d argue Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick are from the same mold (they’re millionaires now, but they came from humble beginnings and got where they were on talent)… But their sponsors and NASCAR have choked the humanity out of them, now they’re robots like everyone else, just slightly better trash-talking robots.

The same certainly goes for Formula 1, and F1 fans complain about it too, just not as loudly. It’s virtually impossible to make your way up through the open wheel ladder to F1 “on talent only.” F1’s been that way a lot longer than NASCAR though, because their budgets are even more massive, so they realized the driver would have to start bringing money to the table.

I continue to look to other racing series for real racers. World of Outlaws, Lucas Oil Late Models, ARCA, ASA, NASCAR Canadian Tire Series, British Touring Car, Australian V8 Supercars… Because there ARE plenty of “Dale Earnhardt” types in those series.

Unfortunately, because they aren’t clean cut enough, they’ll likely never attract the big sponsors, and likely never make it beyond those series. That’s just racing reality these days.

Also: that’s not to say a lot of rich/pay drivers AREN’T talented. A lot of them grew up racing their whole lives too—not all of them are Paul Menards or Jon Wes Townleys. You can pay your dues in the racing world, work hard and win races, you just ALSO have to have the talent to look pretty and be politically correct to make money too.

Carl D.
09/21/2012 10:39 AM

You really can’t blame Nascar for the fact that so many drivers these days have an over-sized ego and think that fame equals respect. It’s not just Nascar, or sports in general, it’s the world we live in today. The old American dream has been replaced by American entitlement. I’m not going to elaborate further; this is a Nascar column and not a political one, but it’s obvious, at least to folks my age who have the benefit of perspective, what has changed things for the worse.

old farmer
09/21/2012 12:11 PM

We have a modern-day villain: his name is Rick Hendrick.

09/21/2012 12:27 PM

Outstanding article Amy.
Carl D. You struck the nail on the head.

09/21/2012 12:50 PM

amen Carl D!!!

09/21/2012 01:06 PM

I agree 100%. The Chase is a gimmick, period. It needs to go. This acutally is a death sentence for the sport as it hugely reduces exposure of the racers, and somehow stigmatizes the other drivers as “no talents”. Its not a hard concept to figure out, yet people defend this WWF style. Brian’s father I am sure is rolling in his grave.

Tim S.
09/21/2012 01:18 PM

Stewart isn’t perfect, but he goes out and races 70+ times per year and for about 30 of those races doesn’t even care if anybody knows he’s there. Jimmie Johnson isn’t going to drive even a golf cart unless somebody’s there to take a picture of him doing it and issue a HMS press release.

Wayne T. Morgan
09/21/2012 01:39 PM

I think Tony is the modern day working man’s hero as that he races, owns race teams, owns race tracks all at grass roots level. Dale was good in a sense as he was like everybody else so to speak but never returned back to racing like Stewart does. The same mold but different.

just talking
09/21/2012 01:39 PM

With the egos and attitudes these guys have – no – there will not be a Senior again. Don’t forget, even with all his other attributes – Senior really loved the fans and showed it all the time. Most of these guys barely tolerate us.

I too agree with much of what Carl D. says, but I will not to be too cynical. Look at Google, Facebook, others – not Senior that is for sure, but still the American Dream. There are lots of people that have raised themselves up, just not to the heights Senior did.

I understand entitlement is everywhere – but there are people still working like dogs to improve their lives. (Okay off my soap box.)

09/21/2012 03:01 PM

Well Amy Good article..For years thats the biggest thing about Big E was the person underneath ..Most folks don’t have a clue what charitable he performed & thats how he wanted it..& I’ve always maintained if you look @ the video of him getting in the car at the start of the most tragic race I ever saw he kissed Theresa & the smile on his face just said I’m going to do what he loved to do (contentment) ..Todays current bunch (for the most part) will never understand..Drivers & brian just don’t seem to get that when the fans are gone (& escalating costs) it’s all over (but I’m a guy who believes the whole Nascar system will have to be rebuilt in the next 15-20yrs) Most these drivers today seem to think their above it all (elitist) (had to write a Dale piece to get a compliment eh?) Good article thx Earner

09/21/2012 05:56 PM


You nailed it.
The big differce between Dale and the drivers of his era and before and todays drivers are back when Dale started driving those guys did it for the love of the sport and hoped to make a living doing it.

Alot of todays drivers are here only for the money and would be in Indy car or someplace else if thats was where the money was.

Jacklegged Nascar "Expert" Andy-ou.
09/21/2012 08:38 PM

Me too.

09/22/2012 01:39 AM

You want to know what’s missing in Nascar?

The Future.

Nascar is hardly a blip on the radar of young adults and kids today.

And sports talk radio doesn’t even give it the time of day unless it just HAS to.

Nascar is dying a very slow death.

09/22/2012 08:42 AM

Amy, February 18, 2001 definitely changed Nascar, I was and still am a Dale Earnhardt fan. He did a lot more for Nascar than a lot of people know and some don’t want to admit. He is missed by more people than want to admit it because he made racing interesting. You either loved him or hated him, but everyone deep down respected him even if you didn’t want to admit it.
Your article really covered it all. The drivers today are under such pressure from the sponsors for their time they really don’t seem to have time for their selves let alone to spend with the fans.
Keep up the good work I really enjoyed your article and you did a great job with it.

09/22/2012 05:58 PM

Dale was my hero because he tried harder than everyone else. If he didn’t out-muscle you, he would out-think you, or just plain out-drive you.

We like to say he was born to race, but I think he was born to succeed. Dale wanted to be the best at everything he did. Racing got him the most attention, but he also revolutionized the souvineer businees, was on his way to being a powerhouse team owner, an I bet even his chicken farms were the best around.

Dales oldest friends (Rusty, Andy Petree, Jarrett, Chocolate Myers) they will tell you that Dale was about the smartest guy they knew, had more common sense than anyone.

I like to think that if Ralph Earnhardt had a hardware store instead of a race car, we may be shopping at Dale’s instead of Lowes. Had he been mayor, Dale would be president (don’t start people).

I think waiting for another Dale Earnhardt, is like waiting to win the lottery. It’d be awesome if it happened, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Jacklegged Nascar Expert aka Andy
09/22/2012 06:03 PM

Timmy has it right.


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
Earnhardt Out For Charlotte and Kansas After Talldega Concussion
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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.