The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Today's Drivers Don't Hold A Candle To Old School Toughness by Doug Turnbull -- Thursday June 12, 2008

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Editor’s Note: Due to personal issues detailed in Monday’s Thinkin’ Out Loud column regarding his nephew, Matt McLaughlin has taken this Thursday off. In his place, our TV critic Doug Turnbull fills in … we hope to have Matt back on Monday. Until then, keep him in your thoughts during his difficult time.

The heat radiated and the sweat poured during Sunday’s Pocono 500. Drivers, fans, crewmen, and the media alike complained about the conditions throughout the long and arduous weekend. During pit stops, not only did cars stop for fuel, tires, and adjustments but also for ice, water, sandwiches, and whatever a behind-the-wall crew person could sneak through the window in under 15 seconds.

After the race, staff in the infield care center treated drivers for dehydration and heat exhaustion. They all looked tired, drenched, and ready to slip into some fresh threads in the motorhome before hopping into the jet and heading home. Some drivers, like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., were so exhausted that they gave barely understandable interviews before shuffling away from the camera.

The latter act led to some reactions in the media and by fans after the race. In my Tuesday column, I referred to Junior’s lethargic interview and received a barrage of comments in Junior’s defense, with readers challenging me to try and drive a race car in those sweltering conditions. During Wind Tunnel on SPEED Channel Sunday night, another driver complained to Dave Despain that NASCAR needs to install better cooling systems in the Car of Tomorrow because of driver discomfort in the current model. But Despain responded in the same manner that I felt, stating that he does not think that improving the cooling system in NASCAR race cars should be a priority, because he has a little bit of trouble feeling sorry for men who get paid millions of dollars to drive them little more than a few times a week.

That statement led me to start thinking about the beginning of NASCAR and the harsh conditions then that existed for drivers and fans alike.

Recently, I have read biographies on Rex White and Curtis Turner, as well as another book by Rex on early legends in the sport. These guys had it tough, and they received a fraction of the glory and compensation that drivers now receive.

White grew up on a farm in the middle of Appalachia. He survived polio and left home at 16 to escape his rigorous chores. He learned to drive on the family tractor, where he used a piece of rope as a seatbelt, and he learned automobile mechanics by monkeying around with various parts of the family car. When he left to fulfill his dreams in Washington, D.C., he was broke — so broke that he had to bathe in streams and sleep on a park bench — all the while dreaming of a career behind the wheel.

Once White began driving in races, he spent every ounce of energy working on his cars and became a chassis expert. But within a few years of winning the 1960 Grand National championship, White was out of racing and working as forklift operator. The sport was not glorious like it is now, and White was one of many rough and tumble, work ‘til you drop figures that defined its existence.

The drivers of yesteryear only had themselves to complain about, for everyone suffered and toiled in the same manner. Drivers’ wives sat in cars outside dirt tracks with kids and sandwiches, and were covered in dirt by the end of a Saturday night showdown. While they got covered in dirt, they watched their drivers beat and bang on each others’ cars, then chase each other through the pit areas with tire irons to solve disputes.

After reading this, you are probably wondering why I go so far into the past, over 50 years, to bring up the raucous days of NASCAR’s early existence. I do not have to. Think of Dale Earnhardt, who worked his way up the racing ladder, living in poverty until he hit the big time. Earnhardt did not leave the track when he flipped his car at Daytona a decade ago. As he was stepping into the ambulance, he saw that the front wheels were straight, ran out of the back of the med bus, fired the engine, and took off. He was tough as nails.

Think NASCAR drivers of today have it rough? Ricky Rudd once taped his eyelids open in order to be to compete in the Daytona 500.

And remember Ricky Rudd? This guy made over 800 consecutive starts, won a Martinsville race in the mid-1990s under similar conditions as the recent Pocono event, and raced in the Daytona 500 after barrel-rolling his No. 15 Wrangler Ford a dozen times in the Busch Clash. His eyes were so swollen after that crash that he had to tape his eyelids open to compete in the Great American Race. This makes Dario Franchitti’s fractured ankle look like an elbow scrape.

The cars of yesteryear were no picnic to drive, either. They were just as heavy, but lacking the technology and innovation of today’s machines. Cars also used to lack power steering, which now is no longer considered a luxury. But earlier this decade, Jeff Gordon finished a Martinsville race at the tail end of the lead lap in 15th place, receiving praise for his effort simply because his car — you guessed it — lost power steering.

At a press conference at Atlanta Motor Speedway a couple of years ago, Donnie Allison and other drivers from his era had a promotion going on and held a press conference. At that conference, Allison was quoted as saying that the cars he had to race in the past were so hard to drive that he could compete in one now without a problem. That would be a sight to see. And speaking of Donnie Allison, the drivers of the past used to know how to throw a good fight when they felt it necessary. Allison, his brother Bobby, and Cale Yarborough threw the fight that pushed NASCAR into the national spotlight at the conclusion of the 1979 Daytona 500. Now that was a conflict; while I do not condone violence of any kind, if a fight is going to happen, it needs to amount to more than recent scuffles have.

The arguments of today tend to emphasize style over substance. For example, Jeff Gordon shoved Matt Kenseth after the 2006 spring Bristol race while both drivers still had their helmets on. Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya’s pitter-patter during the Watkins Glen race in 2007 is the closest we have come to a knock down, drag out fight in years, but they just exchanged a few obscenities and shoves… with their helmets on. The same story goes for Harvick vs. Joe Nemechek in 2006 at Lowe’s, and for Kyle Petty vs. Denny Hamlin’s visor at Dover in 2007.

There was a lot of press surrounding Kyle Busch’s triple duty run of races this past weekend. That schedule is hectic for today’s drivers, but does not pale in comparison to the schedules run in past years. The Cup schedule was used to tour the southeastern United States and the entire country in short amounts of time. There were 62 races on the Cup schedule in 1964; and while most drivers did not compete in every event on the schedule, there were many who came close and several that did. It was not unusual for a short track driver in those days to hold a regular job, work on his car during the night, and race four times a week. They also did not have the luxury of flying corporate jets from track to track. Instead, they drove, usually towing their race car on two wheels behind the family car. Things have certainly changed these last few years…

With all of this being said, the drivers of today should not see their abilities undermined because they struggle to handle in-race hardships. The competition in the sport has exponentially increased, and the costs have soared. Because of this, drivers not only have to be wheelmen, but they also have to be corporate darlings and make appearances throughout the week. These drivers also are on the road almost 80 percent of the weekends of the year, which can take its toll on family life and sanity.

Because of this schedule, the shelf life for drivers is shortening. Many drivers that will turn 40 in the next few years, like Jeff Gordon, say that they do not want to race much past that mark. The days of seeing drivers like Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip race into their early 50s are likely over. There will always be the exceptions, — like Morgan Shepherd, Joe Ruttman, and James Harvey Hilton — but they won’t be the rule.

The drivers of our time are heroes, and so are the mechanics who have helped advance racing technologies; but when some of them, like Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch, constantly complain about their crappy cars, let’s not forget those who shaped this sport’s past, giving them the opportunity to make racing possible. Those whiskey-pushing, tail-hauling, bench-sleeping, wrench-turning daredevils likely would put today’s drivers to shame. And it is a shame that we cannot reincarnate some of those wild souls, putting them in a head-to-head matchup with today’s stars for all the marbles. There would clearly be a draw for some television ratings there … but for now, it’s nothing more than simple wishful thinking.

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Robert Isaacs
06/12/2008 07:33 AM
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Matt, For the most part I think you are right but there are notable exceptions. Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart would have held their own with the guys of yesteryear just fine. Think about the things they do for fun and you will come to the same conclusion.

RI

Ed
06/12/2008 07:57 AM
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Great column, Matt. When I hear them complain about the heat or their car, I think about those who did their own work and hauled their own cars to the races, or even drove the car to the race. I think about the really tough guys like Jr Johnson, Curtis Turner, and, of course, the Fireball, who literally “herded” those big, heavy cars around the track, often in 90+ degree heat. Granted, they didn’t have on heavy firesuits and full face helmets, but the car and the heat more than made up for that. Those days are gone and the new guys for the most part, reflect society today. They want everything given to them easily, even a good racecar on Sunday. If they don’t get it, they complain all day like Jr and Gordon. It’s a “sign of the times.”

Vince
06/12/2008 08:47 AM
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AMEN! Todays drivers are for the most part a bunch of whinny sniffling crybabies. Shut up and drive boys or go back home to mommy.

Mike
06/12/2008 09:30 AM
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Back in the old days, the prize money wasn’t what it is today either. Sometimes the promoter disappeared with it. Other times, the purse wasn’t enough to buy the tires for the next race. It wasn’t that unusual for the winning team to get a free steak dinner at a local diner as their reward for winning a race. Driver’s would work on their own cars and had a volunteer pit crew for every race. The working conditions were hard to believe when compared to today. The lucky teams had a local garage to work out of. Some worked on their cars while they were towing them to the next race. All of this was being done in scorching heat or pouring rain. No air conditioned, multi-million dollar shops that are sterile like an operating room.

Would any of today’s drivers be behind the wheel of a race car if they had to work under the same conditions for such paltry amounts of money? I doubt it. There might be a few brave souls who would. Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon are the only two who come to mind. The rest? They’d probably be selling insurance, doing some white collar executive job, or maybe even selling their souls in some other occupations.

Christian Budd
06/12/2008 09:50 AM
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Minor Correction, only Gordon was wearing his helmet in the shoving incident…

Plus, I think that we often forget that the racers of yesteryear didn’t have nearly the non-racing committments that the current drivers do. They were focused on racing, period. A lot of the current drivers’ time is spent doing appearances, completing obligations to sponsors, and filming commercials.

Managing Editor
06/12/2008 10:39 AM
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Hey guys,

Just a note … as you might have read at the top of the article, Doug Turnbull wrote this column filling in for Matt … Matt had to take this one off due to personal issues.

Great comments all!!!

Keith
06/12/2008 11:16 AM
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To make thing even tougher on most of the drivers of the past is if they did not finish in the $ their families did not eat the next week or they had a hard time getting home after the race.

Pete in FL
06/12/2008 11:23 AM
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Just one small point. The older cars were designed to have manual steering. When the power steering goes away it is much harder to drive.

steve
06/12/2008 11:31 AM
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Nice article. I have just one comment. It is not the same thing to drive a car with a broken power steering unit and a car that does not have a power steering pump. The former has been done by some of us dinosaurs the latter should not be underestimated.

Mike In NH
06/12/2008 12:51 PM
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I used to think the same way all of you do – they get paid enough so no sympathy. But then I found that the temp inside the new car was getting to 130 degrees or more. Sorry, no amount of money justifies letting anyone work in those temperatures. It’s a health hazard – people just aren’t built for those temps, heat stroke is a serious thing – and a safety hazard, as anyone working those conditions is not going to perform well, and that will lead to accidents. The new cars are measurably hotter than the old ones, and that needs to be fixed before there are casualties.

mad-dog 20/20
06/12/2008 03:26 PM
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This topic is over-rated! Truth is people and styles evolve. Babe Ruth, John Wayne and Rocky Marciano are gone, lets deal with whose relavent not Cale Yarbo“rough” Jimmy “Dispencer” or even the “Terminator”!Last I checked the tough guys are the “pretty” Metro-sexual type .

Ed
06/12/2008 03:33 PM
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Oops! I didn’t pay attention to the author’s name. Good column Doug and we continue to think of you and your family, Matt. Cale Y. is pretty and metro-sexual? I’ll bet you wouldn’t say that to his face, and he doesn’t belong in the same sentence with the likes of Jimmy Spencer.

Rocky
06/12/2008 10:33 PM
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Which one of the old guys said they used to ride around with the windows up and the heater on in preparation for the Southern 500? Talk about getting your game face on!

Rusty Shackelford
06/13/2008 09:56 AM
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To put things in perspective: Think of the conditions that people lived in 100 plus years ago – no air conditioning, indoor plumbing, without the advances of modern medicine and nutrition. Most people today would have a hard time living in those conditions, as they have grown too accustomed to our higher standard of living. I realize it’s probably a bit of hyperbole. Still, NASCAR has evolve to a point where these drivers are highly conditioned (well, for the most part) athletes whose whole life is centered around racing. We should celebrate the fact that these racers, who put their lives on the line every week for OUR entertainment, can make a good living driving these cars. It serves no purpose to disparage them by trying to compare them to old school drivers.

Kyle
06/13/2008 01:56 PM
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did y’all ever hear the stories of Darlington back when it was still dirt? they had 110 degree July heat and Southern humidity for those races. not to mention to mosquitoes that bit everyone and everything in sight. yeah, this past Sunday was hot, but let’s not try to compare toughness — most of us have our heroes regardless of what generation they came from.

john
06/13/2008 03:29 PM
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I agree in most of your points Matt, but I disagree on the power steering issue. LOSING your power steering and running a STANDARD steering box are two completely different things. A standard steering box is stiff and strong, but as speed goes up, it gets easier to turn—when you LOSE power steering in a racecar, as I have, you’re basically fighting all the hydraulics without any help. It’s WAY WAY harder to muscle it around the turns than simply driving a Standard box.

Aaron
06/13/2008 08:57 PM
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Junior Johnson used to drive around during the week in the summer with the heat turned up full blast just to accustom himself to the heat in the racecars he drove. Mark Martin, drove a race car with a broken ankle, and worked on his own racecars until he couldn’t hold onto the tools anymore because his bleeding fingers made the tools too slippery. Show me a current day racer that would do that.