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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Let the Games Start

The engines have fired. The first laps have been driven in anger. Victors have celebrated… and losers have been left to lick their wounds. Yes, ladies and gents, the 2009 Cup season has officially kicked off – for better or worse.

The Cup season began on a day when the Northeast of the great United States was bathed in some remarkably warm weather, free of the ice and sub-zero temperatures that have plagued us since last November. It’s hard to imagine now, but the Magical Mystery Tour that is the NASCAR season will roll on to almost Thanksgiving, a length I find frankly ridiculous. The Cup boys will be racing through the last few storms of winter, times that will try even the toughest soul here in the Snow Belt. It will hit its stride as spring makes its long overdue return, and big V-Twin motorcycles shake off their long winter hibernation to return to their place of primacy atop the food chain on frost-heaved highways nationwide. It will drag on as spring gives way to summer, as workingmen return home from a 10-hour shift, soaking in sweat to collapse on the front porch – cold beer in hand. The Cup tour will then start defining legitimate title contenders as the first maple leaves turn yellow in autumn, before reaching its long overdue conclusion as those of us here in the Northeast start digging through the debris of summer to find misplaced ice scrapers and snow shovels. Yes, the Cup season is way too long by a factor of several months; but even so, I’ve signed on once again to cover the Magical Mystery Tour that is the 2009 season.

It’s hard to imagine the Cup season could begin in an environment so different than it did just a year ago. This nation is well and truly trapped in the depths of an economic recession that has altered the American Dream like nothing since the Great Depression. I vow here and now not to dwell too much on the economy in my columns. I know just about all of you are enduring the same things my friends and family are going through, and spending plenty of sleepless nights as a result. I know race fans turn to races for a few hours of respite from the gloom, and read these columns hoping for an occasional insight or chuckle served up amongst the usual tidal wave of cynicism and truly tortured analogies. I pledge to try to entertain you… but I do not live in a vacuum. I worry about my continued employment. I have friends – hard-working decent men and women, who are out of work or have accepted drastic pay cuts to remain employed. Some of them are fighting off foreclosure, loss of unemployment benefits and health insurance, and fears about their carefully hoarded retirement funds. If we laugh together occasionally, we’re whistling past the graveyard, yearning for better days – but fearful of worse.

What we can’t change, we must endure. I’m in your corner, gentle readers, a bit bloodied and dazed, but ready to answer the bell. In the grand scheme of things today, stock car racing pales by comparison; but this is my escape as well as it is yours. I write for Frontstretch, not the Wall Street Journal, and I am thankful for that.

The economy has hit our sport head on like a runaway freight train. Some longtime teams have fallen by the wayside. and others are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Drivers who were heroes to their fans are out of work. This is my space to vent, so let me grind my teeth in print a moment concerning “Richard Petty Motorsports” – a rag-tag, leftover bag of scraps where Richard Petty is, in fact, little more than a figurehead with no say in day-to-day operations. Let me also add my abject disgust that Kyle Petty is without a ride heading into 2009. No, Kyle never won championships like his Daddy and Granddaddy did in this sport. Instead, he accepted the fact early on that he’d live forever in the King’s Stetson-ed shadow; but in doing so, he became one of the sport’s most colorful figures, and certainly one of its most compassionate in his role as founder of the Victory Junction camps. He also offered up his son Adam Petty at the altar of speed one terrible day in New Hampshire, enduring a tragedy no parent should ever have to face. There’s no question Petty deserved to leave this sport on his terms – not on that of financiers. The fact Jeff Hammond still earns coin as the most inept TV announcer ever while Kyle doesn’t have a ride pisses me off to the point I’d like to put my fist through the wall.

In the wake of the mergers, there are a lot of new teams this year and – on the face of it – that’s a good thing. Maybe, in fact, the next Alan Kulwicki and Paul Andrews are emerging to turn our sport on their ear with their used equipment, high hopes and dreams. More likely, the new teams will be crushed under the juggernaut of the four super teams, and scrap over who is going to earn a top-20 spot in order to keep making payroll for another few weeks. I think Jeremy Mayfield is a talented driver whose lack of political correctness has cut off his career at the knees. But I wouldn’t bet a quarter against a fully restored ’70 Mustang 428 Mach One Cobra Jet that Jeremy Mayfield Motorsports is going to make it to Homestead as a title contender.

I hate that.

The 2009 Cup season also kicks off in a vastly different political climate than anything I’ve ever seen. Even with gas prices having returned to somewhat sane levels, all of a sudden the automobile is once again seen as an inherently evil device, depleting the remaining reserves of fossil fuels and promoting global warming to the detriment of polar bears, the ice cap and all living things. No, I haven’t drank the Kool-Aid. I still feel that NASCAR’s global footprint pales in comparison to other forms of entertainment that are as sacrosanct as steroid-free baseball, low-fat hot dogs, reduced-sugar apple pie and plug-in EV Chevrolets. But with our unmuffled and unapologetic V8 powered racecars, NASCAR has set itself up as the last bastion of the fossil-fuel burning, greenhouse-gas producing, unashamed, politically incorrect white-male sport on the landscape. It is a towering monolith with feet of clay, led by some folks more concerned with headlines than common sense. Into this landscape, we have the recent announcement that a Chevy Camaro with a 6.2-liter V8 will pace this year’s Great American race. Ahem. Nice use of those bailout stimulus dollars, huh, Senator Hysterical? Let’s score some cheap political points to make the evening news… absent any common sense. “Camaro?” Isn’t that Spanish for “Dead Spotted Owl”?

It’s tough to draw any conclusions from Daytona Speedweeks any more than you can gauge the health of the Hollywood movie industry from the night of the Oscars. Both are self-congratulatory exercises that even the bit players scramble to attend. We’ll get a better look at the health of sport as the Cup Series takes the long (and expensive) trek west to Fontana and Las Vegas. My guess is that NASCAR will struggle to fill the fields with competitive cars, and we’ll see some entrants cynically make the race only to retire after a few laps with “handling” and “vibration” issues to collect purse money. NASCAR will nod and wink… then go along. After all, they promised their network partners full fields, and there are economic consequences for not doing so.

More important than the car counts, of course, is the amount of butts Cup races can put in the seats, along with the amount of eyeballs that will be glued to the TV set during the race season. That is, after all, what the sponsors are paying for. Given the general lack of compelling action of last year’s Cup season paired with a sagging economy, I have my doubts about both numbers increasing to any meaningful degree.

Maybe I’m being too cynical. Maybe I’m being too negative. That’s my nature. Maybe the economy will right itself as fast as it hit the crapper last year. I sure as Hell hope so.

But this isn’t my first rodeo, cowgirl. I see this season as the most troubled in the sport since 1971, when the car makers abandoned it, and I don’t see the wisdom at NASCAR’s helm to right things anytime soon. I have serious questions as to whether it can survive until 2010, if we even make it through this season. There would be a certain perverse satisfaction for me to watch NASCAR implode under its own weight – as I have been predicting for a while now – but I still love stock car racing the way I love Harleys, classic cars and Taps played on Memorial Day. I hope if NASCAR crashes and burns, a new stock car racing organization will emerge in a purer and more basic form than Brian France’s Magical Mystery Tour.

So, let the games start. We shall see what we shall see. Dreams will be realized and hearts will be broken; in what proportion, we’ll all have to stay tuned to find out. This year at the Super Bowl, the Boss put on a halftime show that dwarfed all other efforts – not bad for a guy pushing 60. And I think words from the Book of Bruce stand prophetic for the 2009 Cup season:

Little girl down on there on the strand,
Do you remember the story of the Promised Land?
How they crossed the desert sands,
But could not enter the Chosen Land,
On the banks of the river they stand,
To face the price you pay.

So let the games start,
You better run your little wild heart apart,
You can run through all the nights and all the days,
But just across the County Line,
A stranger passing through put up a sign,
That counts the men fallen away,
To the price you pay…