The Frontstretch: Voices From the Heartland : What Does ‘Back In the Day' Mean To You? by Jeff Meyer -- Wednesday March 12, 2008

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Recently, a colleague who is relatively new to the NASCAR media frenzy, not to mention a foreigner (but we don't hold that against him!), posed a very interesting question in our Frontstretch Forum that really made me think.

That question was essentially; “What made NASCAR so great ‘back in the day'? What did I miss?”

At first, I thought, that's easy! But the more I thought about it, I really had to sit down and actually think! What HAS NASCAR meant or been to me these last 30 years? I say 30 years because, while like any other kid growing up in the early to mid 70s, I knew who Richard Petty was, but never really took notice until another icon was bursting upon the scene.

Of course, there are many out there that have been following NASCAR a lot longer than I, and naturally, will have a vastly different answer than mine. That in itself is one of the things that make this sport great – the vast age difference of the fan base and the many stories that those that are older have to tell.

At any rate, when the question was posted, I expected a long and drawn out thread would ensue. I was greatly surprised however that there were as few responses as there were. After all, we are all fast on the draw to complain about the ‘sorry state the sport is in today' and ‘how much better it was back in the day'.

After much thought, I started typing. As I typed, more and more came to my mind and started to spill out, perhaps resembling a ramble. What follows is my actual answer, as I posted it. I realize that it may not be as polished as a normal article, or may not be what you would expect from a member of the media but it is from the heart. After all, it was many of the things that I mention that led to me writing for in the first place.

What made NASCAR so great back in the day?

While Richard Petty certainly wrote several chapters of NASCAR history; it was Dale Earnhardt Sr. who took the sport to a new level for many fans.

One of the biggest things that made NASCAR better “back in the day”, say, over the last 30 yrs, is ONE MAN.

Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

Sr. became, through his marketing savvy and with his notorious driving style, bigger than NASCAR itself, DURING THAT TIME.

NASCAR, while it is the marketing juggernaut as we know it now, had to play catch up with Dale, Sr. NASCAR has always said that ‘no one driver is bigger than the whole’. I don’t believe that was true during Dale’s reign. Richard Petty, started it, Dale, Sr. perfected it.

NASCAR played catch up to Dale, Sr. They had too. In the golden age of marketing (aka the fleecing of the stupid people), Dale was first. NASCAR rode on his coattails to where they are now. Oh, make no mistake about, NASCAR was a quick learner and, as you see now, has perfected the game.

The biggest things that happened to NASCAR in the last 30 yrs are this (and in chronological order):

1979; the Yarborough/Allison fight at the end of the first wire to wire broadcast of the Daytona 500
1980s/90s; The rise of Dale, Sr.
90s; The rise of Jeff Gordon, the wonder kid, to challenge Dale’s dominance.
2001: The death of Dale, Sr.

On that fateful day (and in the immediate future following) in 01, NASCAR rose to the highest pinnacle it will ever reach. His death already captured the “casual fan”. Brian France did nothing.

A “casual fan” (CF) by definition, is one that ‘knew’ of NASCAR, but never followed it. The CF reacted to the death of Dale, Sr. Plain and simple.

It is the same as if Tiger Woods were to suddenly die. People would follow golf for awhile because it is the popular thing to do and Woods was such an icon. Or Michael Jordon with basketball, same thing. Brett Favre, NFL, take your pick.

Dale, Sr. was the ONE man whom NASCAR had little to no control over. He had become bigger than life itself, even if he had not intended it to be that way, or should I say, to that level. Given his stature, and the fact that he was respected by the “old, old guard”, aka Richard Petty et al, combined, when push came to shove, NASCAR in its “marketing growing pains”. They dared not cross him too much. Like it or not, if Dale, Sr. at some point had said, “Guys, let’s not race until NASCAR does this (or that)”, I believe 9 out of 10 drivers wouldn’t have raced on any given Sunday.

Granted, his powers were waning as the 90s drew to a close, but only because NASCAR was catching up to his level of marketing. His death put NASCAR over the top, during which it enjoyed about 3 yrs of exponential popularity.

Dale’s demise is old news now. We (as fans and the general populace) have grown used to it. Just like we’ve grown used to 9/11 and there is not the total outrage that there was on that day or immediately following. And that brings me to another belief that I have held for along time, and one which happens to be shared by Bill Elliott (even though I said it before his book came out!). And that is this: It could have any 5 other drivers that died on that February day and we would just now be getting SAFER walls at all the tracks—THE ONLY REASON IT WAS MANDATED AS FAST AS IT WAS IS BECAUSE DALE EARNHARDT DIED!!!!!! Anyone else and we still might have some ISC tracks without them.

My wife often said that I was the most callous or hard hearted person she ever met, and that is true to a certain degree. Simply put, you cannot go getting all torn up over ever little evil thing that happens in this world or you will drive yourself insane. It’s not that I don’t care, or am trying to be negative, but the reality of life is, unless the evil touches your own life in some immediate way, it DOES NOT DIRECTLY AFFECT YOU OR ALTER YOUR DAILY LIFE! There are 4 things that I can remember seeing on the TV in my life that brought (and still does) me to tears, and one of them is fictional!

The episode of MASH where they kill off Henry Blake
The Oklahoma City Bombing
The Death of Dale, Sr.

Dale, Sr., whether you liked him or not, was that BIG!!!!

As I said earlier, those thoughts may not be the usual style or humor that many are accustomed to reading in this column, but it really does reflect the way that I have perceived NASCAR for all these years. It doesn't make me right, and it doesn't make me wrong. It makes me…well, ME!

We all have different perceptions. What is yours? Whatever it is, I ask that you please share it with us. Who knows, maybe it will make my colleague a better writer! (Not that he's bad now! I'm just trying to help a brother out!)

Stay off the wall, (but get on your soapbox!)

Jeff Meyer

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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©2000 - 2008 Jeff Meyer and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Janet Holland
03/13/2008 06:04 AM

Back In the Day means when drivers were men who acted like men! They took care of their own on-track problems after the races. The way it should be done!
Also, Back in the Day meant Rockingham, Darlington and other wild tracks where racing was racing, not driving around the tracks in a line, afraid to make a move because of aero or the wrong tires!!!

03/13/2008 08:34 AM

I Think that Janet Holland said it well. Now days the cookie cutter drivers are all pansies catering to the corporate bunch. In the old days the drivers had “disagreements” with other drivers, crew,and writers. Those days are gone forever.

03/13/2008 09:15 AM

I really don’t think Sr. epitomizes what “back-in-the-days” really means. I think that the Sr. thing is more present time than the past!

Back-in-the-days to me means the shirt sleeve drivers, the true “stock” cars, the less sophisticated drivers, the settle it on the track attitude, the ability to manhandle a car around the track, the short tracks, the dirt tracks, the emotions showed by the drivers (yes folks, the drivers used to be able to show emotions at the track, how about that?).

Today, and all things change and must change, is the sport is now to “corporate”, from money hungry NA$CAR on down! Heck, new drivers take screen tests now because their biggest goal is to be able to make commercials! It is now a sport of popularity, not of driving skills!

Hey, Sr. was good, and good for the sport, but the Petty’s, the Junior Johnson’s, The Allison’s, the Waltrip’s, as in Darrell (yes, he was good and was good for the sport) make no mistake about that one, the Yarbrough’s, man the great list goes on! So lets not overate Sr. when we talk about the good old days!

Sr. took advantage of what was established already! Give him credit for that, but he did not make the sport! It was alive and well before he arrived on the scene!

Marty C
03/13/2008 09:46 AM

I pretty much have to agree with what Douglas said, but want to add that “Back in the Day” the race cars looked like what you bought at your neighborhood showroom. Each brand had it’s own look. You didn’t have to look for a decal to tell what it was suppose to be. I’m not just talking about the COT. It was getting harder to tell the different brands apart in the later years of the “old” car, especially if you couldn’t see the grill.

03/13/2008 10:45 AM

“Back in the Day” to me means iron men driving iron cars and they had testicals of steel. They said what was on their minds, they didn’t coddle to sponsors or the Frances, and if they thought something was wrong, they reacted whether it was verbally by calling another driver a dirty S.O.B. or going out behind the garage and have a bare knuckle brawl. They drove cars that were purchased off the showroom floor and fixed up to go racing. They drove on dirt and asphalt, sometimes in the same car and during the same week. They had no power steering, they had no fireproof suits, they had no coolers to keep them cool and yet they went out week after week risking life and limb for a pittance.

Nowadays, it’s pretty boys who all look, sound, and drive alike for the most part on tracks, with a couple of exceptions, that all look the same in cars that all look the same. The days of the driver who called a spade a spade are pretty much over with. You have the few exceptions like Stewart, Robby Gordon, and to a lesser degree Kyle Busch. It’s gotten to be like the old paper strip across the toilet seat in a hotel that says “Sanitized for your protection”.

03/13/2008 11:36 AM

I think Mike summed it up well. It was cars which looked like the cars we drove. It was drivers, who knew what a piston was,actually turned wrenches and got their hands dirty. It was cars that didn’t need constant tweeking and could race side by side for lap after lap. There was no “aero push” and drivers could pass with power, not by “taking the air off.” The drivers were not wet behind the ears teenagers, but men who were allowed to race competitively past age 30. They had to work their way into the sport, not be taken in and paid exobitant amounts at age 20. The sponsors didn’t choose the driver, and it didn’t matter if his English wasn’t perfect or if he spoke with a southern accent or any other accent. It was country music on Labor Day at Darlington, not rock, and some Hollywood actor didn’t wave the green flag. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

03/13/2008 12:45 PM

Douglas…I agree whole heartedly….the NOT…(nascar of today) sorry, couldn’t help it. is boring no need to watch the show except for the last ten laps …cause thats when they race!!! rest of the time they stay in single file afaid to pass cause they might bend a fender OR EVEN WORSE OFFEND ANOTHER DRIVER!!!!!!

03/13/2008 02:13 PM

Hey Mike!!

Actually “back-in-the-days” they did not bother to even go behind the garages, they just jumped out of their cars and started flailing away!

It is so important to the image of the “sport”, they still show the tapes of these to get people excited about racing! Racing as it used to be anyway! Real drivers, real emotions!

Bad thing is, they don’t have any “recent” footage, well not much anyway! Everything is “sanitized” these days as you say!

Wasn’t the Harvick/Montoya bout great?

And picking up on your “sanitized” comment and reference, maybe when the cars all line up on the pre-race grid they all have an oversized banner across the hood “This car & driver has been sanitized for your protection”!!

Wouldn’t that be a hoot??

Another Cheryl
03/13/2008 03:08 PM

Jeez, another homage to Earnhardt… No one driver in the history of the sport makes or breaks the sport!

What made racing great in the late 80/90s to me was the great side by side battles we had at most of the tracks. Not every race was a classic, but more were competitive every lap than these days.

03/13/2008 06:04 PM


Your right Dale did not make or break the sport, But he made a HUGE impact in it.

Many people forget he was also the voice of the drivers. He would go to Nascar with driver concerns and issues that needed work. After his death the drivers lost their voice. Jeff Gordon had said he didn’t want to step up and be that person. Jeff Burton started to. To my knowledge the drivers still do not have that one person that goes to bat for the drivers. Dale was respected by Nascar enough they would listen to the drivers concerns. That is gone. Maybe the CoT would produce better racing if there was more constructive drivers opinions heard.

Because of his death the drivers are safer then the ever were.

Many fans were lost when he died. The older drivers are retiring or switching car makes so drivers people have followed for years either died, retired, or switch car makes.

Many good things about racing died with him. I was not his fan, but I sure can tell how much Nascar has gone downhill since he died and wonder how much better racing would be if he was here.

Nascar is trying to reach young fans but they to get turned off by all the BS.

Witch Hunter
03/13/2008 07:43 PM

It’s funny to me how “old school” NASCAR love how ruff and confrontational the drivers were yet the poster-boy for redkkknecks ‘ deemed the “intimidator” never kicked any a$$ and couldn’t even intimidate someone as non imposing as Jeff Gordon the so called sissy of NASCAR. This community SUCKS!

03/14/2008 01:20 AM

I like your idea of the “sanitized” banner on each car Douglas.


Contact Jeff Meyer

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