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 Frontstretch in the first place.
What made NASCAR so great back in the day?
One of the biggest things that made NASCAR better “back in the day,” say, over the last 30 years, is ONE MAN.
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 a while 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 nine 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 three years 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 a long 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 five 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 four 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!)