While I’m still knocking off the last of the rust and cobwebs after a long offseason, I’m slowly but surely I’m readjusting to the old grind. Part of the job involves a great many press releases that use a whole lot of words to say very little. I have to dig through bushels of chaff to find the occasional kernel that I can somehow morph into the weekly 2,500-word column that will appeal to just enough readers to keep the lights on and the tank in the Jeep half full. Yeah, at heart I’m a half-full type of guy despite any evidence to the contrary.
The pickings have been especially slim this week. The Ford teams are off to a better-than-expected start this year and the blue oval drivers are well pleased by their successes. The Hendrick Camaro contingent is off to a slower-than-expected start which has left them concerned rather than panicked. All parties involved are pleased that Chase Elliott no longer attempts to climb into the No. 24 car at the start of every practice because William Byron was threatening to punch him right in the yap if he did it again, which would have been incredibly awkward. On the Toyota front Kyle Busch is irritated about something or another. Busch’s default emotional latitude is a petulant, sneering, self-centeredness that goes over like bacon cheeseburgers at a Bar Mitzvah. Busch seemed pleased with winning the truck event Friday competing against series regulars something that comes as easy to him as stealing change from the blind newsboy. He was somewhat less pleased after a poor run in the XFINITY Series on Saturday, pointing out the fact he hadn’t won was proof enough something was wrong with his car, his team, NASCAR, and the universe in general. Reality 101 break. Even three whole races into a 36 points race season it’s still probably just a titty-bit early to make any hard and fast predictions for the rest of the season.
Oh and they painted the walls yellow at Las Vegas because the title sponsor of Sunday’s race was Pennzoil, in what I believe was actually the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 Presented By Jiffy-Lube At Las Vegas Motor Speedway on FOX with a Special Guest Appearance by Coca Cola Outside of Gatorade Victory Lane. You know when it takes longer to recite the name of a race than some stages of that race last, something has flown over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And one would hope if Phillips decides to sponsor a race here in the future they won’t have the walls painted fecal brown.
Somewhere mid-stack, below the empty sausage sandwich wrapper but above the spilled coffee on my desk I did find a gem announcing that after an unexpected and unwelcome hiatus, the traditional Martinsville hot dog provided by Jesse Jones will make its triumphant return to the track this spring. The tradition of these bright red wieners at Martinsville is not only older than most of the drivers who will compete in the race it’s also older than some of their fathers. The first Jesse Jones hot dogs were served at Martinsville in 1947, predating the founding of NASCAR by over a year.
And that’s Jesse Jones to you newer fans. Read carefully. It has no relations to an infamous western outlaw, the whack-job with the Kool-Aid in Guatemala, the cranky car customizer on Monster Garage, Kevin Harvick’s sponsor or the driver of the No. 48 car.
It’s not just the meat tube that is important here. The traditional Martinsville hot dog comes slathered in chili, piquant mustard and topped off with a toxic level of onions served up on a steamed bun. Yep, the Breakfast of Champions. Full disclosure here. I have never consumed a single full-on Martinsville hot dog though I have the diet of a vulture. Because of a food allergy, a single hot dog with these condiments could kill me. But every time I have been to Martinsville I’ve had at least a couple hot dogs, plain for me thanks, at least partially because it is traditional and I want to respect that tradition. It also has to do with the fact every convenience store and fast food emporium within an hour of the track is horrifically busy the entire weekend of the race. Anyone who will wait two hours for a table at the local Waffle House is out of their fricking mind. Oh, and at two bucks, the Martinsville hot dog is one of the few treats you can buy at a race track, not usually hot spots of gourmet bargains, for two bucks. No need to fill out a second-mortgage application just to pay for lunch for a family of four.
Over the years, I have heard many sane people singing loudly and devoutly the praises of the Martinsville hot dog. I have in fact officiated (from a safe place outside the splatter zone) multiple contests that pitted friends seeing who could swallow ten Martinsville full-alarm hot dogs the fastest. I think at one point Elliott Sadler espoused an idea that anyone who doubts the existence of a kind and benevolent God must never have had a Martinsville hot dog.
I must have missed the memo at the time, but I’m told that Americrown, the food concession vendor of NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation (wink, wink. Two totally and separate entities that share only an address in Daytona and the division that once bought the website I worked for just to fire me a month later and then refuse to pay me), held a contest of some of the most popular at-track meals and the fans voted the Martinsville hot dog the top dog in the contest. This not only led to the return of Jesse Jones hot dogs at Martinsville, but the somewhat baffling addition of Martinsville hot dogs to the menu at Daytona a few weeks back. Can you have a Martinsville hot dog anywhere other than Martinsville? (I mean without it being really, really cold and partially coagulated) Isn’t that like having the Fourth of July All-American fireworks in Havana?
So why did the Jesse Jones hot dog, so beloved by so many, disappear from the menus at the track albeit in hindsight briefly? Well um, Smithfield foods and their subsidiary Valleydale Processed Pig Parts were the Official Something-or-Another of NASCAR, and given that NASCAR could make a few bucks off the move, they kicked Jesse Jones to the curb. I think they rather hoped that nobody would even notice, but the difference between the Jesse Jones dog and the new one was like the difference between Sadie Hawkins and Sophie Hawkins. I mean damn…I wish you stained my bun red. That source of income must have dried up, so it’s now back to the traditional hot dogs. (Hmmmm….there are possibilities here. How about every time a FOX race broadcaster uses the term “paper clip” that weekend they must immediately finish a Martinsville hot dog before speaking again.)
So why all the hullaballoo about a humble hot dog, you may ask? Well, who is really going to get all that upset over the death of a mainly ornamental semi-domesticated bird? Well when said bird is the canary in the coal mine, its sudden passing tends to cause great alarm. The fact NASCAR was willing to jettison a traditional at-track favorite snack meant that things of greater import were also left by the roadside like an abandoned homely puppy. (That was of course almost immediately picked up and given a forever home with a family that loved it. No dogs are ever actually harmed in my columns, just canaries). You know just little things, like Rockingham or North Wilkesboro. Oddly enough, these two long-term pillars of the race schedule lost all their dates to other newer tracks for not selling enough race tickets. But now that those newer tracks aren’t selling out anymore either no one is talking about shutting them down and moving those race dates back where they belong: back at the tracks that once served as annual vacation destinations for families and reunion points for former high school classmates. In their drive to “modernize traditions” (I kid you not. NASCAR’s Mike Helton routinely used that phrase without a hint of irony), NASCAR shit-canned their longtime fans in search of new, younger, more affluent fans who by and large stuck around a year or two then washed their hands entirely of the sport. You know, the sort who want to make Pokémon-Go an Olympic sport.
Surely nobody was going to stop attending a race just because Martinsville hot dogs were off the menu, right? I, in fact, have a long time reader who decided to do just that. He told me that he’d been contemplating cutting back to just one Martinsville race rather than going to both, but when the great hot dog massacre occurred he decided to stop attending either. So Doc, if your hip has healed up, the Martinsville hot dog is back!
If NASCAR offers its soul to the highest bidder, there’s no one with more chips on the table than the TV networks that present the sport. In an era of greatly downsized title sponsor dollars and “official sponsors” of NASCAR’s it’s the TV people’s dollars that keep the Good Ship Lollipop with enough Tootsie Rolls to burn heading against the tide. And of course that means that when the TV types decided they’d get better ratings starting the races later in the day rather than at the traditional one o’clock start time that meant, church, breakfast, stock car racing for so many fans on Sundays. Obviously the ratings have dropped rather significantly but I’m told that fans will eventually adjust to the later start times. And Maureen McCormick will finally get an Oscar too, eventually, I’m sure. As it turns out, even the Left Coast fans who are supposed to be the primary beneficiary of the later start times preferred the earlier start times than meant the race was over by 1 or 2 their time, giving them the rest of the day to enjoy other pursuits. Now I’m told that while the TV ratings are down for the races they’d be down even more catastrophically were it not for the later start times. It’s a wonder that somehow or another NASCAR and its fans managed to muddle along before FOX and NBC came aboard to show everyone how covering the sport was done.
Some of the jettisoning of tradition is not only irritating; it’s downright disloyal. Trust me when I say that NASCAR’s future was even more precarious back in 1971 when Ford and Mopar pulled out their factory teams than it is today. In rode Winston, writing outlandishly large checks for the era to keep the sport alive. But as Todd Rundgren once sang;” those days are through”. To the best of my knowledge, there’s not a single Cup race left on the schedule a smoker can attend. Yeah, I know some folks are really up in arms about second-hand smoke, but the way the tracks have been tearing down seats by the thousands you’d think that they could have left some remote island of seats well away from the happy, shiny people where smokers could have their own little social leper colony. Think this is a non-issue? Go do a little research as to when Bristol banned smoking at the track and when the two races stopped selling out. Hmmm. As it turns out not many people like cigarettes these days but those who do, really, really like them.
Occasionally the brakes have been applied before another tradition was ditched to the detriment of the sport and the track. Not too many years after it opened, the folks at Texas Motor Speedway decided they were going to go ahead and institute a ban on coolers being carried into the track with whatever snacks, pop, and adult beverages (except those in glass bottles) fans had traditionally lugged along with them. Set aside the cost of buying grub and suds at the track (which is not inconsiderable, trust me on that. You can get prime rib and two 16 ounce drafts at the Longhorn cheaper than you can get two burgers and a Bud at most race tracks), stock car racing is one of those few sports Americans watch that doesn’t have scheduled times out from the action. Go stand in line to get your kid a Fatso-Pop and some ostrich fries and you may miss the key pass of the entire race. So anyway, in this case, the GM at Texas had an issue. In whatever wayward backward county the track is located, a sporting venue (and my guess is they were the only one) could not allow fans to bring in beer and also sell it to folks who forgot or ran out. In fact the county was dry at the time. I’m not sure whose idea of a joke it was to locate a race track in a dry county. Isn’t that like opening a strip club in Salt Lake City?
So anyway, I think that the change was about to fly under the radar, intentionally or unintentionally, which was going to create a disaster the likes of which this sport might never have seen. Only Jayski got ahold of the story, and that particular day it got my Irish up a bit (not hard to do) and I wrote a column with a title of something along the lines of the “Great Texas Cooler Massacre” on the topic, which, not unexpectedly, the folks at the track didn’t care for. Track GM Eddie Gossage requested I call him. Once we got past all the lawsuit and defamation of character pleasantries, Mr. Gossage and I had what I’d term a polite if a bit terse conversation. We had different points of view on beer. I liked drinking it. He liked making money selling it. Because I liked drinking beer, I’d have preferred it be free or at least very cheap. He preferred I shut the hell up. Neither of us were in the mood to sing Kumbuya. Neither of us were swayed by the other’s opinion. So in closing, one thing I believe we both decided was long overdue for that chat, I suggested to Mr. Gossage that since he had the phone numbers of his season ticket holders perhaps he ought to have a chat with them on the issue. (Yes, back in the salad days tracks sold season tickets. You had to purchase tickets to a race you didn’t even want to attend like the IRL events to get seats to the Cup race. A lot of tracks had the same sort of deal back then, particularly the newer ones, but from that well no more.)
To his credit, Gossage decided to do just that. And apparently he got an earful, some of which I guess wasn’t particularly polite based on the notes I received from some TMS season ticket holders. But most of them admitted they were impressed that the track GM reached out to them and asked their opinion on the matter even if he bore bad tidings at the time. Whatever those folk said, Gossage eventually decided to forego selling beer at the track so that fans of that era could continue bringing their coolers. I just checked. You can still bring your cooler to TMS. (And buy beer and wine at the track. How’d that happen?) Just no glass. And don’t try to bring it to the suites or Victory Lane. Or the Village of Champions, whatever the hell that is. And leave your drone at home. Well the website says that you can’t bring remote control aircraft but I think they were going for drone anyway. But if droning is illegal how does Darrell Waltrip get on the track property? If you want to get up in arms about something at Texas these days ask track management why they don’t have a designated parking area for motorcycles.
To date the largest skirmish of the war between tradition-hugging fans and the fast-buck vampires that are destroying our sport has involved the Southern 500. Forget all the hullabaloo about the Daytona 500. The Southern 500 predated the first Daytona 500 by a decade. It was the first NASCAR race held on an oval of more than a mile in length. It was the longest, biggest, baddest race on the schedule. And it was held at the track in Darlington SC every Labor Day weekend. Until the powers that be decided Darlington was a nasty old dump frequented by low buck fans and the whole affair could be held far more profitably at the newer track in Fontana. That went over like New Coke. Fewer seats were sold at Fontana than had been sold back in the Sand Hills of South Carolina. NASCAR eventually beat a quiet retreat to at least the correct geographic zone moving the Southern 500 to Atlanta on or about Labor Day weekend. Finally in 2015, the Southern 500 returned to its spiritual roots at Darlington on Labor Day weekend and it has returned to its status as one of the most anticipated high-profile race weekends of the year. Race weekends incidentally that center around nostalgic throwbacks. You wouldn’t think the powers that be would have to be all that bright to sense a trend there. But the race is now held at night rather than the afternoon. We’re working it. Yeah, it’s hot in South Carolina on Labor Day weekend despite all the Prisuses that have been sold. It’s supposed to be hot on Labor Day weekend. That’s what separates the vein and tendons for breakfast drivers from the Nancy-Boys. That’s what separates the lifer fans from the faint hearted transients. You want air-conditioning?, I’m sure there’s a ping-pong tournament that weekend somewhere around Charlotte. Just remember; “Lamps must burn with wipers on” if you’re going to either.
But I’m so far off the trail, the dogs would need a map to find me. Yes, it’s just a hot dog. But it’s a little victory in a decades long battle. For the want of a hot dog, a fan was lost. For the want of a fan, a family was lost. For the want of a family a generation was lost. For the want of a generation a race date was lost. For the want of a race date, a sport was lost. Stop children, what’s that sound?, everybody look what’s going down.
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