Home / Amy Henderson / Holding A Pretty Wheel: If We Never Pass This Way Again
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Holding A Pretty Wheel: If We Never Pass This Way Again

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.

If only…

If only…

If only.

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?

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About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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23 comments

  1. DoninAjax think about it. If the fans they want don’t exist – then they are doomed aren’t they? Because the rest of us, those who like to call themselves “old school fans” aren’t immortal.

    • We’re not being replaced. What I want to know is how many of the new fans they want have a short track they can go to to get them interested? How many fans now going to the track have Speedway shirts on like Cayuga or Oswego or Flat Rock or Mt. Clemens or Dixie or I70 or New Smyrna? How many fans have watched a driver start his career and get better and eventually earn his way to Cup because of his reputation instead of how much sponsor money he (or she) brings? The pressures on the new too young drivers sometimes drive them out due to sponsor issues and not talent. Old fans remember when the drivers ate, slept and breathed racing and got to Cup because they deserved the chance. That’s not true anymore and the drivers prove it.

      • DoninAjax thank you for agreeing with my point. No we aren’t being replaced, nor are we immortal. So the slide will continue.
        So the France family will continue to thrash around trying to find the answer. Something that will bring in the fans that will stick around like we did. Whether they will be successful remains to be seen. That said I dont think there are thousands of people sitting around saying “if Nascar would just go back to the old ways I’d be a fan.”
        Anyway good luck to them, hope they make a lot of money. I’m confident I wont be around to see if they do or not.
        One thing for sure a streaming service will increase their revenues but wont bring in any new fans.
        But thats their decision to make.

        • Maybe the problem is they don’t have to be at the track to see “Brian’s product” and what they see from the networks won’t get them to the track.

          • maybe the sad reality is that this is a sport that is being passed by by technology and cultural change.. That is increasingly less relevant to the public. When was the last time you heard a Ford vs Chevy argument?

          • So what happens when there are no more passenger vehicles to put on an oval track?
            If we ASSUME that the car manufacturers know what people want things are changing pretty rapidly. Ford only going to have the Mustang as a car next year I believe. And surely you saw the announcement by GM this morning. In addition to laying off 15% of its salaried employees – The company will also discontinue the Chevrolet Cruze, Volt and Impala cars in North America as Americans flock to larger vehicles in the form of crossovers, SUVs and pickups.

            CEO Mary Barra is seeking to reposition GM for a future defined by self-driving cars, ride-sharing networks and electric vehicles.

  2. You whiners for “GOOD OLE DAYS” slay me! Loose the dirt track mentality and enjoy the excellent product we now have. Iv been goi g since 1950, always averaged 25 or more per year over my lifetime. U were not there in the blizzards, 105 ° days and boring races won by Ned or Cale after putting field down 10+laps, or the rediculous illegal cars the Elliots whined about. Close races are always Talladega and Daytona. Think not go sit at Dover 6+ hrs when it was close to 110 and track sold out of anything to drink alcohol or otherwise, ot Gordon gift at Atlanta at 1.00 am after 14 hrs of rain.THESE ARE THE GOOD OLE DAYS! photo finishes and all!! ENJOY crowds that allow good seats to be bought, because i waited 3 yrs. To purchase my Darlington tickets which i held for 30 years until track fell from favor. U never had it so good

  3. Very nicely put Amy. Yeah, can’t relive those days. Just cherish them and be thankful for them

    Thanks again for all you work this year. Enjoy the time off meanwhile looking forward to the warmth of summer.

  4. Well written…nothing is forever, but the move away from a points champion has left me cold. While still interested, my obsession for racing has moved to places with less need to be faux avant guard. Sprint cars have always kept to a simple formula and it still works today…no contrived finishes, no drummed up excitement, just racing that usually has a runaway champion. I still go…
    Happy Thanksgiving all.

  5. FORD IS WINNING AGAIN and the SOUTHERN 500 is back on Labor Day Weekend, so I could care less about most of the constant, repetitive griping of the “traditional” fans.

    Most of the disgruntled are just aging, perennially unhappy folks who would be griping about SOMETHING regardless of what was happening. I’m no “modern” NASCAR apologist by any stretch, but things are one whale of a lot better than a lot of the hidebound “traditionalists” claim.

  6. Actually, I’m one who is glad NASCAR is not like it used to be. I’ve saved a mini fortune on race tickets, hotels, meals, and airline flights. Not to mention the ‘get even’ money my wife used to spend.

  7. If only we could go back to a season-long championship and have the starter drop the green flag and let the race play out without the gimmicks that aren’t working.

    • great idea!!!

    • think that would really change anything? Or would the dissatisfaction just move to a different topic?

      • It would be a start and then they could work on the other things that drove away the fans and might keep some new ones.

      • Old people are generally grouchy. I’m around ’em all the time. I am one.

        It’s human nature to remember the days (or DAZE) of one’s youth with “rose-colored glasses.” It was never as good as we recreate it in our mind’s eye.

        • Dont know if thats the reason but you’re right. Things weren’t all that great back then.

          • So you’re okay with the ways the “event” is manipulated all season long? You like the the way one event determines the whole season and wipes out the previous 35? If the point is to attract millenials its a lost cause. They can’t keep their faces out of their phones from the time they get up until they cross the street in front of the bus they don’t know is coming. We were spoiled watching real races play out without thinking about game 7 moments every race. The fans they want don’t exist.

  8. thats as good a description as I’ve seen. Yes the difference is within us and we cant reclaim our youth.

  9. Nascar had a good thing going and people were interested in checking out what racing was all about. When the up tick came and the popularity started to soar, Nascar was to willing to chase fans and take this blue collar sport up town.
    They turn their backs on what had been working for years, with steady growth and went all in on listening to the NEW fans. They came, they saw, they left.
    Nascar had a commerical to be your self…that might have been good advice.

  10. good read.

    but i have stopped watching most racing for all the crazy schemes and changes. i miss those days of yore. was talking with a co-worker the other day that it’s been 30 yrs since bill elliott won his championship. where have those 30 yrs gone! seems like yesterday sometimes. i know things change as they progress along, but i have to admit, if some of these newer fans saw that racing from years gone by, they might understand why we miss it.

    happy thanksgiving.