What’s Vexing Vito: The Great American Race – Suppressed by the People’s Republic of NASCAR

I’m actually pretty excited this morning. Normally during the week, I’m in a bad mood until about 11:00 a.m., but today is a little different as the actual NASCAR racing season gets underway with actual racing – the Gatorade Duels at Daytona International Speedway will set the field for Sunday’s 51st running of the Daytona 500. I was thinking about taking the day off to watch them, until I realized… what’s the point?

In all honesty, the Gatorade Duels might as well be called “The Two Salty Sports Beverage Slap Fights.” There really is very little to fight over.

Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr was a “duel.” Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed had dual duels. With realistically only two transfer positions open, most of the fun and drama that was once associated with Thursday’s qualifying races has long since passed. You can blame this on the lack of passing, competitive cars, and most notably, open transfer positions. The Top-35 rule has all but effectively neutered any teams that might stand a shot to race their way in.

A driver might have a pretty strong horse in the race, but with the Top-35 rule in place coupled with the duplicitous nature of the past champion’s provisional, that steed becomes little more than a gelding. Talk about beating your head into the wall.

What is the point of scraping together enough sponsorship money to build a car in a barn like Harry Hogge, hire some guys and lease a restrictor-plate engine that costs as much as a murdered out German luxury car just to go spend two weeks in Florida only to load up and go back home again? If you want to race and compete, the only real outlet is buying a greyhound and lining up at the dog track across the street.

I mean, it probably still is pretty fun (there are worse things to do for a living than driving a racecar), but realistically, you’re better off just saving your money, doing the Richard Petty Driving Experience and getting a nice hotel and ticket for the race.

I think back at the one Daytona 500 that stands out most in my mind – the 1992 Daytona 500. I was able to go with my Dad and remember it well. It was a most memorable father/son trip to take, being 15 years old and having taken a vested interest in auto racing. It was Richard Petty’s final Daytona 500, I met Buddy Baker in the line of traffic exiting the track and we almost got smoked by Kyle Petty’s team in a minivan barreling into a party store while walking up A1A after final practice.

Looking back at that race, there were a number of cars that were able to race in on time that today would never even have a shot at making the field. Wally Dallenbach, Baker, AJ FoytDorsey Schroeder… these aren’t exactly nobodies.

The chances of any of those drivers making the race this year, even if they wanted to, are non-existent.

The Daytona 500 has been known as the Great American Race ever since Ken Squier labeled it as such 30 years ago. In its current state, there is nothing at all “American” about the qualifying process. There are the same barriers to entry, protectionism and restraints that helped propel the Great Depression to the depths of despair seen in The Grapes of Wrath.

Perhaps that is a bit extreme – I doubt the sands of Daytona Beach are going to fill in Lake Lloyd and the Superstretch, and nobody here is starving, but it files in the face of all that comes to mind when you think stock car racing. There is no other endeavor in sports that is as entrepreneurial, blue collar, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps as NASCAR is. If a driver wanted to make more money, he’d race for it. Dale Earnhardt Sr. often told of how he made his way during the lean years – taking out a loan on Friday, then racing all weekend in hopes of winning enough to pay it back the following Monday.

That’s a big gamble when your only collateral is your house and your racecar, your only means of making a living.

Those days may have existed only in the days of Plymouth Superbirds and the AeroCoupe Monte Carlo SS, and we often romanticize them and lament their passing. However, asking for more than two transfer positions to be contested for what, in recent years, had transcended the Indianapolis 500 as the premier race in North America is not too much to ask. Even Indy, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing that consumes the entire month of May, has devolved into a shadow of its former self.

How many people even show up there for Pole or Bump Day anymore?

I sincerely wish that NASCAR would take the reigns off its biggest race and kickoff event of the year. I understand rewarding teams that run the whole season, but why not reward teams that field the fastest cars and are able to overcome insurmountable odds?

With the gloom and doom surrounding the country at this time – we are reminded of it every time we turn on the news or pick up a newspaper – we all desperately need a success story and an inspirational tale to rally around. America loves a winner, but it always has a major crush on an underdog. The Daytona 500 is the perfect setting for such a story to be told, but sadly, it is unlikely to be told anytime soon under the current rules that are in place.

Even though I’m still excited about getting to go racing again today, that enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that there are some small teams who did everything right and in their power to get in, but are going to be shut out and sent home.

Their only crime is they didn’t run a whole season the year before.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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