“Back in the good ol’ days…” is a phrase heard all the time in NASCAR.
Back in the good ol’ days, the racing was great and every finish was exciting.
Back in the good ol’ days, the drivers were real racers.
Back in the good ol’ days, NASCAR wouldn’t have stood for this.
Waxing nostalgic is everywhere these days, and it’s certainly understandable. The sport has changed — and changed drastically — in the last 15 years after a period where little had changed. Some of those changes were not well-received, and that’s not without good reason; some of those changes — many of them, even — were not necessary, especially at a time when the sport was quite healthy. Changing the game too much at one time makes it a different game, and that’s a thin line to walk, between keeping the new fans coming and the old ones sticking around. On some counts, NASCAR played that game all wrong.
But when exactly were the good ol’ days?
For some fans, they represent the sport’s earliest days. Compared to some other professional sports, those early days were not too long ago, and some of the people who painted them so colorfully into legend are still here to tell the tales. But those people, and those fans, are becoming fewer in numbers. Next season will mark the 70th anniversary of NASCAR’s first sanctioned event.
For others, it’s whatever era into which they entered the sport, a coming of age not of years but of experience.
Maybe somehow that’s the crux of it. It’s about a time of relative innocence, when it was about fast cars and favorite drivers going in circles so fast they might have turned into butter. As years and then decades go by, humans lose the natural optimism of youth, and it’s what in later years we miss, because we’ll never see the world through those eyes again.
It’s no different with fans’ love affair with the sport, really. Eventually it’s not just about drivers and speed anymore, but abut rules and sponsors and money or lack thereof, and then it’s much easier to become jaded. What might have been a great race 20 years ago when it was a favorite driver battling for a win or a title becomes just another turn around the track for a new generation of drivers.
There’s no doubt the sport has changed. Drivers have become less relatable as they have to live up to the demands of a corporate sponsor who expects a certain performance on and off the track. There was a time when that mattered less, but when you’re asking for millions and tens of millions, the cost is greater.
If it means painting on a plastic personality, so be it. If it means spending hours of the weekend at a corporate event instead of signing autographs, well, that’s what you have to do to have the money to be competitive.
The sponsors don’t shoulder all the blame, though. The sport was built on the shoulders of the likes of Richard Petty, who would stay after races to sign autographs until the last fan was satisfied because he recognized that fans were the ones who made it possible for him to do what he loved. If a few drivers bowed out of the post-race airport stampede and stuck around for an hour to give fans a picture or a signature, it might go a long way toward restoring the bond fans once felt with their racing heroes.
Cars are different, too. Once beautiful and iconic, the Fabulous Hudson Hornet has given way to the plain-jane Toyota Camry. Cars strayed from their stock counterpoints drastically almost from the start, but until the mid-1990s, they at least had to look like them. The racecar template had to also fit the street version with little variation.
Then that all went away as manufacturers vied for an advantage and NASCAR allowed them to build more and more different machines. And when they tried to go back to cars that more closely resembled their stock counterparts, we found that cars have evolved on the street as well. Street cars are more aerodynamic now, and even if NASCAR went back to using street templates, it wouldn’t be the same.
And, if we’re brutally honest here, we’ve all got glasses with varying degrees of rose-colored lenses. We’ve seen some great races through the years, barnburners that came down to the wire for an exciting finish. But no matter the era, we’ve seen some clunkers, too. One or two cars finishing on the lead lap isn’t compelling unless they’re door-to-door at the checkers, and there were plenty of races where they weren’t.
Was every race in the good ol’ days (whenever they were) great? No. Was our perception of them different because of a favorite driver, a now-defunct track or some other factor? Sometimes. It’s not fair to say all the races were exciting, and it’s not fair to say they’re never exciting now. In our collective conscience, though, those now fading in memory will always be the elusively alluring days we can’t recapture.
It’s pretty hard to say the drivers today aren’t real racers. They’re certainly more corporate and less accessible, and that could stand to change. But to say they don’t try just as hard to win every week (and some try every bit as hard to win a feature at an out-of-the-way short track on a Tuesday night, too) isn’t the truth. Many of not most are less relatable for sure, but the stories of earning their way to the top are still there for many of today’s stars.
And as for what NASCAR would or would not have stood for, well, that’s a mixed bag, too. It’s hard to believe that either Big Bill France or his son would have seen any need for a playoff system. Stages? That seems a bit more plausible, but who knows? Nobody.
Back in the day, the sanctioning body was less stringent than they are now about policing the sport. One prominent team once removed illegal parts from under the hood and stashed them in the trunk of the racecar during post-race inspection and either were not caught or nobody really looked all that closely because of the team name.
Sound familiar? It should, because in some respects, things haven’t changed much. Some will call cheating on a team any time it sets a tire on track and overlook what looks blatant by other teams. That’s the nature of fans.
NASCAR has a rich and wonderful history, and hopefully it will be told down the generations of fans. But when were the good ol’ days? Whenever fans found themselves lost in the pure innocence of watching fast cars and scheming drivers. Whenever they were enchanted by it all.
There’s no time frame, no special year. The only thing certain is that nothing will ever live up to those halcyon days when there was nothing but racing.