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.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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