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Today’s Drivers Don’t Hold a Candle to Old-School Toughness

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 racecar 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 racecars 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.

NEFF: SHUT UP AND DRIVE

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.

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, 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 racecar 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% 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 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 Hylton – 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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