If only it was like it used to be.
If only the racing was like it was in (fill in the year of your choice here).
If only these drivers were real racers.
If only NASCAR hadn’t changed.
Fans love to wax nostalgic about the racing back in the day, and rightfully so. There was a lot to love. The racing was better, the drivers had more personality and weren’t afraid to show it. There was little question that a season-long champion had earned it. The bump-and-run was an accepted part of the game with a win on the line. If only it could all be just like that again.
Except it can’t.
It’s not just about the racing, you see. It’s not just about drivers being more corporate and sponsors less tolerant. It’s not just that NASCAR has changed the game so much. It is about all of that, to a point. But it’s also about so much more.
It’s also about all of us.
Intertwined in all of it is what really made it great: the days we spent at the track with friends and family. Tailgating, knocking back a few, wandering the souvenir area and maybe meeting a driver or two, talking racing with complete strangers because you were packed in next to them in your seats like sardines in a can. And sometimes, if it was a hot day, the smell was similar too.
Everyone has that memory. That time when Joe left the bean dip in the hot car all day. The time camping when it rained and the tent leaked. The time you met your favorite driver. That one race you went to with that one girl and you knew then and there she was the one. That time you had on the only Jeff Gordon t-shirt in a section of Earnhardt fans.
And that, as much as the racing, maybe more, is what makes the sport so dear, so important to its fans.
It’s also why once “that time” comes to an end, it will never, ever be the same.
For this writer, no matter what I get to do in the sport, no matter which drivers I get to sit down for a chat with or what awards I earn, there will never be days like the ones I spent sitting in the stands, a fan and nothing more, with my Aunt Kathy and sometimes my cousin Meghan.
That time I accidentally gave some guy a couple rows in front of me a tomato shower. That time we carried the huge posterboard racecar through a pitch-black parking lot. That time we fit 11 people in a minivan at Charlotte. The time a friend and I set the hotel alarm on a rock station and got jarred awake by blasting gospel. That same trip when we got lost and took an accidental detour on the way back to that same hotel.
And the racing. That was something special, every time. I remember every one as exciting, thought-provoking, something special and different. Every time out, that underdog driver might win. This would be his day. Even if it never was.
And there’s the truth. It’s a bit of a cruel truth, really. It will never be like that again.
The racing could unfold for a season exactly the way it did in (fill in your favorite season of racing here) and it still wouldn’t be the same. So much of what it was has drifted away.
Nobody ever really replaces that one favorite driver, do they? Oh, you found someone else to pull for after the accident, retirement, royal screwing over, but it was never quite the same as when Petty, Pearson, Waltrip, Earnhardt, Gordon or any of a hundred others were out there every week. How long was it before you stopped looking for that car on the track? Or maybe you found yourself looking at it, only to realize someone else was driving it now, and try as you might, you just can’t quite get behind him?
It’s easy to say it’s the racing, to say it’s the rules or the cars are ugly or any of that. There’s always something easy to pin it all on.
But the truth is, even if every race played out exactly as you hope it does on the track, with an exciting finish and no interference from NASCAR, even then it would not be the same.
The friends you once spent whole weekends with at the track live far away now. Job responsibilities put a stop to the youthful indiscretions and racing road trips. You have families now and the kids have their own activities. Even that girl you fell in love with that day at the track is too tired after running the kids around to hit the track for a few days.
Do fans – do all of us – want better days for the sport we’ve loved for so long? Of course. As a journalist, I don’t root for drivers or teams, but I do root for stories, for the sport’s tapestry to grow more beautiful with every stitch that is added and that I have the privilege of putting into words for fans to read. If I get to play a role in keeping this thing for a while and sharing it with others so they want to hold it forever, I have accomplished something.
But it will never be the same as those halcyon summers of sitting in the bleachers under a sweltering sun and watching cars go by as fast as they could. Those days are gone forever, and yet those days are the one thing we are all searching for, the one thing the sport can never give back because NASCAR never held that much of the power. That came from us, our own imaginations.
There will never be a day when I don’t love watching cars go by as fast as they can. I will never not want to watch. And I will never stop hoping that those days of my youth might come back by again, right there, to grab onto for a few moments. It’s what you want, too, isn’t it?