NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: When Racing Was Everything

I reconnected with an old friend not so long ago.  She was someone I knew well a lifetime ago, and we still get together every now and again.  Our paths diverged several years back when I moved to North Carolina.  She was a diehard race fan when we spent weekends in New Hampshire watching any and all racing that was on television, discussing it thoroughly, dissecting every facet in detail.

But, she confided, the passion has faded in the last few years.  I told she was far from alone in that; a lot of fans from those days were fading into the twilight. She said she still watches the races on Sundays, usually, or at least has them on as background noise, but the days of watching every practice session and qualifying run are in the past.

So I asked her why.

Disgruntled fans will cite boring racing, boring racecars, boring racecar drivers.  Boring, boring, boring. So, I asked her if she had become bored with it all, too.

She surprised me when she said no, at least not in the way I meant.  It wasn’t a lack of good racing, she said, because despite what people are saying, the racing itself is generally good.

Rather, it’s a lack of anything different, she said.

It’s the same people winning every week, and more than that, there’s not even an illusion that anyone different might steal one from the powerhouse teams.  Even among the big teams, there are those who struggle to keep up.  I checked; eight organizations have won races this season through 32 races, and two of those have technical ties to other teams in that same group.

Remember when we used to watch the races, she asked, and there was always that one guy you believed might pull off a surprise, even if it was really a slim-to-none chance? I remember.  I loved that feeling of anything might happen.

But aren’t there more teams capable of winning now than ever? Sure, she said, but they’re all from those eight organizations.  There are fewer and fewer mid-level teams in the sport, or maybe what’s now mid-level are still huge teams like Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.  And if those are mid-tier teams, who can compete with that?

Is it any one driver winning too much?  She laughed. “Only if it’s not your guy.  My driver can never win too much, but everyone else sure can!”

That’s something fans can relate to, I tell her. The problem with drivers, she tells me, is that it’s not necessarily about talent anymore.  If you bring sponsor money, you get a ride, even if there’s a better driver out there.

Again, she’s not wrong, but that’s been the case forever.  True, she says, but it used to be that a team could go to sponsors and pitch their drivers. That doesn’t happen anymore, and it’s discouraging. There’s too much nepotism, too many good guys finishing last in the ride department.

It’s the corporate side, she continues.  They throttle the drivers they have, keep them from their fans, make them vanilla and boring.

I’ve written to that tune before; I can buy into that sentiment. But there’s more.

“I miss my driver,” she tells me.

There’s been a mass exodus of drivers in the last couple of years, with the retirement of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the forced leaving for a few others.  Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth are on shaky ground for next year, too.  A huge section of the fan base has been cut adrift.  But that has happened before, too.  And most fans stuck around, picked someone else.

Not this time, my friend tells me. We used to feel like we knew them all, like them or not. Now, I don’t feel that anymore.  Despite the social media and personal access it provides, you don’t really feel like you could hang out and have a beer with a lot of the current crop.  I still like watching the races, but I don’t pay for the scanner online anymore, because there’s nobody I really want to listen to.  Her voice is wistful.

“I miss my driver,” she tells me again, adding that she can’t bear to watch his replacement run the car instead.  “Even if I wanted to pick someone else, I don’t know who it would be.  It’s not like we see them on TV.”

I’ve been writing about that particular problem for a long time now, and her thoughts confirm what I’ve though is one of the sport’s biggest problems, maybe the biggest.

Lunch is almost over.  We laugh at some old commercials on YouTube and replay a few sentimental favorites.

“I’ll never not want to watch, but I’ll also never not want to feel the way I used to.  I don’t know if I’ll ever pick another driver.  I don’t know if I want to,” she says.

I wonder if that’s how others feel, if the also have that vague longing my friend is feeling, for a driver’s glory days, for the wild stories that made it about more than racing while at the same time, the racing was everything.

And it was, I realize, as we part.  It was everything, once upon a time.

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DoninAjax

Junior Johnson told Richard Childress to get out of his car and put Earnhardt in it. I wonder if Childress’ sponsor said they didn’t want him in the car?

Lynne Reagan

I read this and recognized myself. You could have been interviewing me- I feel the same this year without “my” driver.

Joel Schiffman

True, all that and more. It’s expensive to attend a race in person. TV doesn’t cover the race anymore, the broadcasters are all about themselves, the coverage is boring and petty. Mid-race interruptions for a story on the track’s golf course? Interviews with the camper with the most flags? Squeezing a commercial or sponsor promotion into every corner of the broadcast. If they want to sell tickets, NASCAR needs to get back to the basics.

Jer

I often have thought, Earnhardt Sr. Probably would not have made it in today’s world. Senior often said what he thought and as well as using his bumper often. Sponsors today are so PC that they have to approve of everything you say and what you do. Obviously, there was nothing PC about Senior. As for son Junior well that’s totally another story.

wildcatsfan2016

In a nutshell, yes, this particular fan feels very much like your friend does. I miss my driver and I am not even slightly interested in cheering for the replacement they put in his car. There are a few new drivers that I watch to some degree during the race but not with enough interest to make me work my weekend schedule around the races.

I disagree on the point about the racing not being boring. Personally I do find it boring. I did even before my favorite retired. The double file restarts with the potential for wrecking every time plus the stages which also provide an opportunity for mayhem due to line ’em up and see where they all wreck philosophy – well that’s not what I enjoyed about racing. I enjoyed fast cars being able to run another car down & the strategy involved to be able to win at the end. We haven’t had that since the inception of the brick on wheels and all of the “parity” which the drivers (when they aren’t afraid NASCAR will penalize them for their comments) also talk about. All the cars running the same speed does not provide exciting racing.

But whatever, I watch some of the races, at tracks that I like but I don’t watch every week and there are quite often times when I don’t even know when the race is on or what channel it is being broadcast on. Plus you have the focus on the “playoffs” to the detriment of actually hearing the race being broadcast. Nope, when it is points points points from Daytona on and after the “playoffs” start, the regular fan at home hears nothing but the same old drivel — who’s gonna make it to the next stage? If your particular driver isn’t in it, who cares? Talk about the race.

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