With the many annual events in the NASCAR community, there are many opportunities to connect with the sport today, from televised pre-race shows to the awards banquet, Sprint Media Tour and the annual preview event held in Charlotte. Fans can see the new race cars, meet their favorite drivers, or see an in-depth story on just about anything. The NASCAR world is at our fingertips.
But what about ways to connect today’s fans to the sport’s storied past? There aren’t that many. Save the odd feature on the pre-race show, they aren’t given many glimpses into what the sport once was. The lone annual exception is the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, just concluded for 2013. At that event, the sport’s history is revered and glorified – as it should be. Those in attendance or watching at home can hear the stories from the people who lived them, or, if they aren’t with us anymore, the people who knew them best.
But are enough fans watching?
Sadly, it seems as though many of today’s NASCAR supporters, especially younger fans or those who came into the sport during its popularity spike, don’t take the time to learn about the sport’s past. While in itself, that’s not a problem per se, you have to wonder if these fans are missing something that will keep them from truly becoming passionate about the sport, or from passing it on to the next generation within their families the way fandom was once handed down from fathers or mothers to sons or daughters. And that _is_ a worry when it comes to the sport’s future.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was first introduced to NASCAR in the late 1990s — I did not grow up with it. But the more I watched, the more I wanted to learn, and the more I found out about where the sport had come from, the more I understood about where it was going. Of course, as I learned the more I cared about what happens to its future.
Without knowing what the sport’s pioneers did to make it what it is today, it’s hard to understand why traditions are important. It’s also hard to look at a driver’s accomplishments and realize just how special something is, how rare.
Unfortunately, there is a gap between the sport’s longtime fans and those of today.
Without understanding that the Southern 500 was once _the_ race every driver wanted to win above any other, it’s hard for new fans to understand the sorrow felt among the long-timers to see that race stripped of its date and its history, replaced in prestige by one at a track that a stock car never set a wheel on before 1993. It’s not easy to fathom why Jeff Gordon’s win total is so impressive if one doesn’t realize that the only drivers to better it are possibly the two finest ever to sit in a stock car. Many don’t understand the importance of an open-wheel division (Modifieds) to a sport called stock car racing.
It always amazes me when I hear newer fans wonder what Darrell Waltrip did in the sport, why he’s in the Hall of Fame. Waltrip was brash, outspoken, and if you asked him, the most talented driver in the sport. While he might have been exaggerating a bit, Waltrip is undoubtedly one of the finest drivers ever to sit in a stock car. And he’s not the only one fans don’t seem to grasp the importance of. Walking alone through the garage one weekend before a race, while fans were staked out around their favorites’ garage stalls hoping for an autograph, Bill Elliott went unrecognized and unnoticed by the throng. I wonder how fans can truly appreciate the talent of today’s stars without appreciating that of prior generations. How can a baseball fan appreciate the accomplishments of Hank Aaron without understanding the previous greatness of Babe Ruth?
It also saddens me to hear people talk about today’s drivers using words like “boring,” “corporate,” or “vanilla,” because in truth, many of them are so hogtied by their sponsors that they _do_ appear to the masses as boring, corporate and vanilla. But when a driver does something like gulp a giant beer in celebration or fall off a golf cart while trying to surf on the roof, a large faction of fans are put off by it, because it’s outside the box. And those stories are tame compared to some of the ones from the early days, which usually ended up with a combination of someone naked, a missing race car, and a swimming pool. Those stories are fun to hear, mostly harmless, and so far from what fans today ever get to _see._ Would one of today’s stars winding up in a swimming pool, with his clothes nowhere in sight endear him to those who call him too corporate or vanilla? Or would it just be fodder for the paparazzi and the naysayers, an excuse to call him a jerk? And yet wild nights and crazy antics were once a part of the sport.
And then, there are the race cars. There was a time when mechanics could really work on them without being backed into a matchbox by NASCAR. Mechanics and car owners reached legendary status for their ability to find an advantage. Today, some of them are reviled for that. Finding a grey (or not-so-grey) area has been a part of racing since the dawn of the sport (where the winner had his victory stripped for getting _too_ creative), and while cheating is cheating, there used to be a whole lot more grey area within the rules than there is today. If anything, that ability to get creative in different areas made the racing better.
NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is one link to the sport’s past where fans can get a hands-on look at how the sport has evolved. Within the Hall of Honor, where the 20 men to be voted as Hall of Famers are enshrined, there are videos and interactive displays where fans can learn about what those legends have done in the sport and _for_ the sport. Hearing those people, or those close to them, tell their stories during inductions sends chills up your spine. You feel different, somehow, a part of something more than just 43 cars circling a racetrack every week.
But fans don’t have to go to Charlotte to see the sport’s past. The upside of the digital age is that we have information, including video, at our fingertips. We can search online and see the drivers of the past race on dirt and asphalt, short tracks and superspeedways. We can watch heroes of the past win at Daytona or Darlington or Martinsville and then we can watch today’s top drivers take on the same stretch of pavement. That’s pretty special, and something that not a lot of other sports fans can do, as many of their storied venues are long gone. Some of NASCAR’s still remain, but even in the worst-case scenarios fans can still see the ones that don’t. For example, you can watch a race at North Wilkesboro and see why the diehards for decades lament its demise.
The sport’s history, the very blood that moves in its veins, is more accessible than ever to fans who were not around to see it happen the first time around. And those same fans should embrace it. It’s a part of a living, growing fabric. To appreciate the part we are living in, we need to understand what came before. In so many ways, they are the same. By hearing the stories and watching the races from the past, fans today will only learn to love the sport more. A connection between the past and present is essential to the health of the sport… and it can only be forged by the fans themselves.
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