Change. It’s something we talk about all the time when discussing NASCAR, because it is a constant. It is the nature of the sport to change; some of that change is necessary, some neither necessary nor embraced. It has to happen; technology advances, and so do the ages of the drivers and teams. A driver’s prime can’t last forever. On an individual team level, it’s a sport in which they must adapt to change or be left behind. If change is slow, it’s harder to notice; much of the change has been slow, though the big items, like the Chase format (which most people have never really warmed to) and the new car (a necessary evil), make it seem more rapid.
But sometimes something occurs that makes the changes stand out starkly. And that happened at Loudon this weekend.
Fifteen years ago, I attended my first Cup race at New Hampshire. I’d never even watched an entire auto race on television, let alone been to one in person before that day. Jeff Burton won the race and Dale Earnhardt finished second. While watching Earnhardt work his way through the field, one at a time, only to run out of laps while he worked on Burton, I understood in three hours why so many people hademade the sport a passion, a lifestyle. It was much more complex than I had expected, as much a psychological sport as a physical one. My background was in baseball and equestrian sports, but when an opportunity arose to write about motorsports several years later, I took it.
Back in Loudon this weekend (after a considerably longer drive; I grew up in New Hampshire and now live in Charlotte), I realized how very much has changed in those fifteen years.
*Then* The stands were packed. Every seat was filled, and the waiting list was so long that some fans had to wait years for Cup tickets. Even when other venues didn’t sell out, New Hampshire and Bristol never had enough tickets to satisfy the masses. 1997 was the first time New Hampshire hosted two Cup races, and both easily sold out.
*Now* Although New Hampshire boasted one of the better crowds of the year in terms of percentage of seats filled, it was far from having the wall-to-wall of race fans it once did. That’s certainly not unique to the track, and in fact, NHMS is probably one of the healthier venues in terms of attendance — somewhere between 80%-85% of the seats were occupied on Sunday. But most fans didn’t have the same experience of being packed in so tightly there was barely enough room for everybody’s seat cushions and coolers. That’s too bad; it was kind of fun that way.
*Then* There was real competition to make the field and nobody parked it early on purpose. Two rounds of qualifying with a handful of provisionals made sure the big teams made the field, but there was nothing artificial about the importance of qualifying. Starting and parking would have made a team into an instant pariah instead of the common practice it is today, a product of the new qualifying rules and Chase system.
*Now* There are too few teams in it to go the distance, so NASCAR is backed into a corner; tryinh to curb starting and parking would mean short fields for many, if not most, weeks. Not that that’s an easy answer, either, because some teams are doing it because it’s the only way they can hope to race some weeks and they do race as often as they can; that’s admirable, not abominable. The overuse of the provisional failsafe led to NASCAR making the top 35 rule and the skyrocketing cost of the sport, which NASCAR has done little to stem, keeps the independent teams from being competitive in their own right, which they once were.
*Then* Jeff Burton was a young gun, considered by most to be a future champion, and Jeff Gordon was soundly booed during driver introductions for winning too much.
*Now* Burton won that 1997 race, along with the next two summer races and the 2000 fall race at New Hampshire. (He won the first three races I ever attended, which really made him seem like a superstar in the making to me.) Driving the Roush Racing No. 99 Exide Batteries car (it was pretty badass in black and, to Burton’s dismay, hot pink) and then the Citgo machine, Burton was at the top of his game, and everyone thought it was only a matter of time before he’d be a champion. But Burton never lived up to that. He’s got wins, but never a title, and he’s no longer young. Neither is Jeff Gordon, and he’s no longer as soundly booed, either. In 1997, Gordon was already a champion, and often despised for his record and polished persona. Now, that role has largely been assumed by the man who drives for Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, who, in 1997, was a 21-year-old still just dreaming about someday racing NASCAR.
*Then* The field was a mix of young guns and veterans-and everyone had fans in the stands.
*Now* Just five drivers-Burton, Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Joe Nemechek, and Ken Schrader were in the field on Sunday and also raced in the 1997 summer race. Three of the drivers who raced that day 15 years ago are NASCAR Hall-of-Famers now, with their racing days behind them. Two of those drivers, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace, have gone on to second careers in broadcasting. Dale Earnhardt was lost too soon in 2001 in a crash at Daytona. Michael Waltrip, Kenny Wallace, and Ricky Craven have also gone on to television broadcasting, though Waltrip and Wallace still race part-time. Brett Bodine is still on track every week as NASCAR’s pace car driver. Joey Logano, who finished 14th on Sunday, had just turned seven years old.
And there’s so much more that has changed since that fateful (well, for me) day in 1997. Race fans, and maybe competitors, have lost the innocence of the halcyon years when the sport was on a seemingly endless growth surge, and so much seemed right. In one sense, at its core, the sport will never change. But on the surface, looking back, it will never be the same, either.