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Last year, the mantra that was spewing forth from Daytona was that the sport was going to embrace its past. Drivers were encouraged to show emotion and individuality, the kind of things that would bring back some of the legions of hardcore NASCAR fans that built the sport but then left when so many changes were thrust upon them over the previous few years. Unfortunately, that vision has not carried over to 2009 when it comes to the first race of the season Saturday night – a race that was one of the earliest ways that fans were brought into the sport.
With the change last year to the Official Beer of NASCAR, the Pole Award for each race was no longer sponsored by the most popular brand – sold by Anheuser-Busch. Since that change took place, NASCAR didn’t want to tie the qualification for the Budweiser Shootout to drivers winning Coors Pole awards. With that sponsorship conflict in mind, it is completely understandable that they’d change the basic qualifications to make the race. But the one piece of the process that should have been retained – no matter what – was giving any previous winner of the event a slot in the field, provided they attempted to run a race the previous year. Without this provision, several former champions – and fan favorites – were left out of this year’s lineup.
NASCAR has certainly distanced itself from its history, whether intentional or not, but one piece it should never lose is the drivers who have toiled on the tracks throughout the years. The Budweiser Shootout was the one race that took place where any previous winner — no matter how far in the past that win occurred – was allowed to run in the race. For those fans who long to see one more run at glory from Ken Schrader, it was the best chance he would have every year to win. For the perennial Most Popular Driver, Bill Elliott, it was a showcase that let his fans watch him do what he did best in the ’80s – dominate on the biggest speedways. Elliott still holds the record for a qualifying lap in a NASCAR stock car at over 212 mph at Talladega, a place where he captured six straight poles from 1985 through 1987.
But as of this year, Elliott – the 1987 winner – is gone, along with former champs Schrader, Elliott, Terry Labonte and Mark Martin. Sorry, fans; you’ll have to wait for the big race while you watch David Stremme, Reed Sorenson, Scott Speed and Paul Menard run for the Shootout win. Don’t forget, you’ll also see Joey Logano – who has not even run five races in Cup throughout his short career.
One other piece of history that is going by the wayside in 2009 is the plastic model kits that have been a mainstay for kids for years. At the beginning of December, the Revell company announced that they were getting out of the NASCAR business altogether. Their statement said that they had negotiated with NASCAR to secure reasonable licensing fees – but were unable to do so. So as of February 28, 2009, Revell will no longer create plastic car models for NASCAR drivers.
Many new fans to NASCAR were pulled into the sport through the years by making replica cars of the drivers they were watching on the tracks on Sundays. It was a way to make young fans grow their interest while having an appreciation for the details of the cars that they were watching on the track. With such a long history of partnership, it would seem that the sanctioning body would have gone out of their way to make an affordable arrangement so that both companies could have profited – so young fans could have continued developing their two passions of racing and model building. Instead, once again, it appears as though the suits in Daytona are making a money-grab decision which is going to cost them more of their fans.
Perhaps another company will come in and offer replica models. If not… well, I guess kids can always buy high-priced diecast cars that were assembled in China and at least look at some of the details that go into them.
It is a shame that the history of the sport continues to fade more and more from view – and the latest round of decisions have just sped that process along. But maybe if this year doesn’t go quite as planned, NASCAR will tweak the rules for the Shootout in 2010 and allow the previous champions to run in the race – with special paint schemes that can once again be produced as plastic models.