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Is it just me, or is there just a general malaise and “blah” feeling surrounding everything as of late?
See, I have an excuse. I live in Michigan – where hope goes to die. There is snow, slush, ice, wind and cold for half of the year, and this year is on track to be the worst winter ever. That – combined with the most embarrassing football team in the history of organized athletics, along with an unemployment rate nearing 11% in a state that is heavily dependent on the auto industry – the cause for celebrations here are often few and far between. As it is, it’s really hard to get excited about things in general this time of year; turn on the news or pick up a paper, and you have a compelling case for justifiable suicide.
But if there was one thing that would help burn through the permafrost that has been my existence for the last three months, it’s the return of America’s hottest sport to the World Center of Speed. I vividly remember anxiously awaiting to hear reports of testing during the individual manufacturer sessions when I was younger. Was the new Monte Carlo going to put up big numbers? Were the Ford teams going to dominate as they did the previous year? Was there a Pontiac team lurking in the field that nobody anticipated? Were Buick and Oldsmobile actually going to field racecars?
This offseason, all of that came to a screeching halt. No testing. No landmark sponsor deals. No big preseason shake-ups.
Instead, merger mania dominated the headlines in December and early January. Probably the biggest news in the offseason was that of Petty Enterprises going the way of Plymouth itself. Once a cornerstone of the sport – a franchise as storied as the Boston Celtics in the NBA – Petty was absorbed into Gillett Evernham Racing like so many banks and lending institutions across the country have, disappearing without a trace. Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Inc. became one with Chip Ganassi Racing, and the No. 8 car still doesn’t have a full-time driver or sponsor. Over in the Truck Series, the defending champions from 2008 don’t even exist as a team anymore. And as for fan reaction? Besides those involved with these changes, no one really seems to offer more than a shrug of the shoulders in response.
Why is this? Is it the general mood of the country? The economic crisis? The euphoria of hope and change that swept over the country on January 20th seems like ages ago already, as every night on the news we are shown a new tax cheat or banker bilking people out of billions. Am I the only one with an odd feeling that we are at a precipice, and this is the calm before the storm? Not trying to get all Sarah Connor on you, but in my 30-plus years of carbon foot printing the planet, I don’t remember a time when everyone was so damned sad. I’ve often been told by my uncle that this was what the late ’70s were like: bad music, bad TV shows and a bad economy.
Well, at least we don’t have feathered hair and perms anymore. But was racing as uninvolving then as it is now?
In 1979, the winners of the first 10 events reads like a history of the sport itself: Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker and Dale Earnhardt. In 2009? Most people just probably figure Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards or Kyle Busch are going to win the first 10 races. Besides, the first 10 don’t really count for much, do they? It’s the last 10 that we’re supposed to tune in for – or so it has become. Does qualifying really mean much anymore? With the new Bud Shootout format being more of a sponsor-driven affair (cough, test session, cough), being a pole winner just guarantees that you won’t be loading up to go home on Friday after qualifying.
Well, when times are tough and the chips are down, people often resort to the one thing that makes them feel better. No, not alcohol and prescription medication – though they can serve a purpose, too, I suppose – but rather, nostalgia. Everybody remembers fondly when things were better, and for a sports and entertainment medium like NASCAR, many are further distraught when their form of escapism is believed to have been perverted to what it is has become now.
52% of the country was all about “Change” a few months ago. When it comes to NASCAR and their core constituency, you can transpose that five and two, and you’ll have a more accurate statistical representation of the feelings of the average fan.
It was bad enough seeing wide swathes of open grandstand seating at the tracks throughout 2008. The networks tried to avoid some wide shots that would expose the attendance situation; but in 2009, it may continue to contract further. A year and a half of Car of Tomorrow racing has made most of us yearn for yesterday. But what is most disturbing about the situation is the lack of action taken to resolve it. NASCAR’s directive last year to the drivers was, “just deal with it.”
Well, that’s all fine and good; but when the drivers and teams have to “just deal with it,” so, too, do the fans – and a lot of them have enough to “just deal with” as it is, and are quickly finding other distractions. While I am confident that the sport – much like our country – will find its way out of the darkness here before long, I also hope that the turnaround is faster than expected. I am glad to have the season get back underway and am hopeful that seeing and hearing racecars at full song, flat out, belly to the ground around the high-banked turns by the beach will help resurrect some fond memories of my own.
This is why the season starts at Daytona. It’s kind of hard to have a bad race here, and each one is memorable in its own special way. This track has a habit of conjuring up some old feelings and memories like no other – as well as making new history each and every year. While many will lament that the Bud Shootout isn’t what it used to be – a dash for cash among the previous year’s pole winners and past event winners – when the green flag drops Saturday night, most of that will be forgotten amongst the buzz of racing in Daytona.
Now, that’s something to smile about.