“Order your 20 Years of Racing Sam Bass designed Jeff Gordon die-cast.”
I clicked on the email. My jaw dropped and there might have been a bit of drool as my eyes catalogued the hood emblazoned with the DuPont rainbow I remember so well, the doors splashed with the red and blue flames that followed the inaugural years of his career and finally the rear quarter panels covered in the current red and black colors. The 1/24 No. 24 was a thing of beauty and I thought of adding it to my ever growing collection of toy cars. My hand reached for the mouse – and then it hit me. Cripes! When did the 20-year thing happen?
That’s right, I’ve been watching Jeff Gordon for 20 years. My Sundays have been defined by all things NASCAR for probably 25. And that would make me… well, no need to get personal. That got me thinking about the upcoming season and all the changes that invariably arrive with the haulers at Daytona.
Every year we dissect, discuss and determine that our sport is going down the toilet, those sitting in the offices in Daytona haven’t a clue of what they’re doing and we’re about to be subjected to another season of fixed races and bland coverage. Given the fact that Twitterdom and internet chat rooms are full of avid fans that echo these sentiments, there must some bit of truth the these ideas.
However, if you’ve read this column over the past few years, you’ll know I’m not necessarily one of the negative nellies. At this point in my decades long love affair with this sport, it’s safe to say it might indeed be the time invested in watching cars go in circles that colors my current appreciation of NASCAR, in all its imperfect glory.
The fact is I’m a sucker… and happy to be one. All those long years ago, I became enamored of small tracks full of black cars that beat on one another with complete abandon. At the beginning of the ’90s, we watched the shadetree teams give way to bigger and bigger budgets, shiny fenders and the start of drivers who spoke with less of a twang. The cars got smaller, with rounder edges and brighter paint jobs.
More microphones and cameras began to appear on pit road and in the garage. Cable TV expanded coverage to include qualifying and the occasional talk show. Change always accompanied the turn of the season, even as the parade of cars continued their high speed pursuit of bricks, grandfather clocks and other storied trophies.
By the time Y2K descended upon us, NASCAR no longer figured in the world of autosports as the rednecked child. The champions of the open-wheel world began to realize that for all their highfalutin pedigree, NASCAR was the place with sponsors and an expanding fanbase able to bring drivers salaries that now competed with other major league sports across America. We had arrived! And with the success came censorship, politically correct broadcasts and a batch of new and improved tracks.
I will admit that around 2005, I was worried about the state of our sport. Change could now be categorized as significant, and I wondered if any of it was good. I couldn’t equate what I had originally been drawn to in all its rough and tumble insanity with the polished and pressed version I was now handed each week.
But, still I remained a fan. I’m like that. Hard to thoroughly dissuade. I had trouble cheering for the champions as Tony Stewart had a knack with punching people, Kurt Busch was sharpening his nasty temperament and I think I fell asleep listening to Matt Kenseth celebrate a time or two. But really, when it came down to it all on Sunday afternoon, I still couldn’t deny my pulse pounded a bit faster with the drop of the green flag. I was still heavily invested in my sport.
Then came the reign of King Jimmie. Look, way back when Dale Earnhardt Sr. won every Cup through brute strength and sheer intimidation, half the fans of our sport hated him for it. He was ousted by some fresh-faced kid named Jeff Gordon, who suffered an equal amount of derision from the stands while he piled up win after win after win. So, to say that the pleasant and personable five-time created a pile of negativity over the past half-decade with his unending success is only to be par for the course.
Both the fans and the powers-that-be tweaked out. The points, the car, the engine, the rules… we changed everything to bring an end to the era of single-car domination. I will admit to joining in on the general unhappiness and hoped the twiddling would finally accomplish something.
Then at long last 2011 arrived. Something new hovered in the air. Change? Was that the magic? I’m chuckling as I write that. However, what else could explain a season that had me back on the edge of my seat. Side-by-side finishes, a rookie winning the biggest race of the year, a single-car team winning at all, drivers throwing punches and evading them. Bad tempers, stumbling champions, that stupid wing good and thoroughly gone.
I fell in love with NASCAR all over again. And you know what they say about love? It keeps you young.
So, 20 years or not, the fact is I’m feeling my oats. I’m looking forward to a season with new faces in different numbers, an engine running without a carburetor and a field of teams capable of surprising me with a new winner week after week. As I said, I’m in love and ready to stay this way for 20 years more.
About the author
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.
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