(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

Beside the Rising Tide: Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby

Back in the late 1960s Marvin Gaye, backed by Tammi Terrell, scored an AM radio hit with a song entitled, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby. In the same era, one of the big cola companies had a marketing campaign using the same tag line. 

Say what you will about this invitational NASCAR iRacing stuff that’s served as a substitute on Sunday afternoons the last couple months, but it was nothing like the real thing (baby.) As of right now, on Sunday, May 17 we will see Darlington Raceway play host to real live, fast, loud cars driven by flesh-and-blood drivers. They’re strapped into real live, fast, loud cars rather than into a “rig” in their basements or rumpus rooms in their underwear with a puppy or kitten in their lap. They’re not at the mercy of their rambunctious kids fooling with the remote or various cable companies that have displaced oil companies and big pharma as the bad guys in the American Vox Populia. It doesn’t get much realer than a race at Darlington. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I watched every simulator race, though I fell asleep in the middle of a couple of them. Why did I watch those simulated races? If they only served as entertainment, at least it was racing-related entertainment with most of the usual suspects. It meant inherently it was preferable to watching reruns of Live PD or binge-watching The Sopranos. 

So where have I been, you ask? (Or, at least the boss did recently.) I’ve been doing pretty much what everyone else has been doing; searching for hand sanitizer, toilet paper and processed pig parts while running through the maze that has become my local grocery store like a trained rat. I spent some time worrying that the people I love might contract COVID-19 before admitting there’s little to nothing I can do about that and placing it the Lord’s hands. I wear my damned mask (though it makes it hard to light a cigarette), keep my proper social distance, wash my hands with the fervor of Lady MacBeth (not to be confused with Beth Lunkenheimer of this site) and cursing the line mules tying things up at the local drive-thrus.

And along the way, I’ve begun feeling like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. Every day, as regular as clockwork, I get up between 8:15 and 8:30 and stare at the same four walls that seem to be closing in around me a few inches every day. 

That sim racing gave me something to look forward to and helped me keep track of what day of the week I was enduring. So why didn’t I write about that stuff? Believe it or not, there have been a few Philistines over the years (and I’ve been doing this 25 years now) who have accused me of being a wordy SOB. Over 25 years, I have figured out that when you have nothing of consequence to say, it’s best to go right on ahead and not say it… in as few words as possible. 

Yeah, Bubba Wallace lost his sponsor and Kyle Larson lost his job. Reams of words were spent discussing both topics. Perhaps in the background, Horton heard a Who hollering “Yeah, yeah, that’s right! What he said! Kick ’em while they’re up, kick ’em while they’re down…” Well, that was me.

In better news, Ryan Newman has recovered from that horrific wreck at the end of this year’s Daytona 500 to the point that whenever racing resumes, he’ll resume racing. In more surprising news, Matt Kenseth will return to Cup Series competition, filling the seat Larson squandered with his unforgivably insensitive remark. Sorry. No pity for self-inflicted wounds. 

So what did I find so lacking in sim racing? For one thing, they never got the sound right. The tires squealing and the roar of the engines didn’t sound anything like the real thing. 

I spent years in the early part of my writing career fighting the myth that stock car racing fans only attended or watched races on TV hoping to see someone get hurt in a big wreck. I think the inestimable Humpy Wheeler put it best when he settled that argument. According to Wheeler, race fans come to see drivers stick their heads in the circus lion’s mouth. They don’t want to see the lion bite off those heads.

But the inherent danger of the sport is in fact what keeps you on the edge of your seat, be it in the stands or on the couch. Over the years, I’ve seen some of the worst wrecks in racing history live and in person. What always amazed me was how quickly such a huge group of previously rowdy fans could in an instant fall so silent you could have heard a flea fart. Even those compilation videos of auto racing wrecks they used to sell on UHF TV were called And They Walked Away.

Some drivers obviously weren’t taking iRacing seriously because they knew that element of risk had been eliminated. Talk to a group of drivers who have hit the wall at over 150 mph and I think, without exception, they’d tell you all things being equal they’d prefer not to do it again. It hurts a good deal. Stock car wrecks are not healthy for children and other living things. 

What’s more, if a driver did, in fact, get involved in a severe (though simulated) wreck, he could simply hit a button and have his car repaired to good-as-new condition. How many times a driver could use that “reset” button varied from race to race… but it was always there. 

That was another flaw with the “approximation of racing” events. The rulebook was written on an Etch-A-Sketch. How many resets per driver? Did you get an extra one if the pace truck appeared to drive right through the middle of your car under caution? Single-file restarts or multi-lane restarts? What conditions warranted a caution and which did not… especially if the close of the TV time slot dedicated to the race was approaching like the headlight of a runaway locomotive? You know, the oft-discussed “Light at the End of the Tunnel”… with Casey Jones hard on the throttle.

Did you enjoy the simulated races? If so, more power to you. In another bit of ancient AM radio wisdom, the Isley Brothers advised, “It’s your thing/Do what you wanna do/ I can’t tell you/Who to sock it to.” One could argue that you could have learned everything you need to know about life listening to AM-band transistor radios from 1973-1985. 

Hopefully, some parts of the sim races will migrate over to real racing down the road. The 1 p.m. ET start times were perfect. The hour-and-a-half races might have been just a little too short, but not by much. 

On a final note, it was interesting (at least to me) that some drivers, perhaps most notably Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, didn’t fare too well in sim racing. Both drivers are somewhat polarizing but undeniably incredibly talented at their craft, at least at the wheel of race entries comprised of nuts and bolts rather than pixels. In the end, their relative lack of success alone indicates there’s a serious gap between sim racing and the real thing. Or, perhaps objects in the rearview mirror are in fact closer than they appear….

Either way, for better or worse, that experiment, as well-intended as it was, is behind us now. It’s time for the real thing baby, Sunday afternoon on FOX. At 3:30. Presumably p.m. Sigh. 

And there’s no better place for racing to return to reality than at Darlington, the realest racetrack on the circuit. What is now Cup Series racing first ran at Darlington on September 4, 1950. Contrary to stories some wags will tell you, no, I didn’t try to get a ticket to that race with a senior citizen discount.

It’s truer of many racetracks but most often noted at Darlington: drivers must race the track, not just other competitors. The Lady In Black has a bad temper. Any driver who tries getting forward with her by means of disrespect ought to expect to get slapped across the face so hard his ears will be ringing for weeks.

Oh, the Lady has had some favorites – Richard Petty, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip and Tim Richmond among them – but even the King has known her wrath. In a single weekend, Petty lost his Plymouth Superbird in practice and thoroughly destroyed his backup Road Runner in a terrifying roll-over wreck at Darlington just as ABC’s Wide World of Sports started live coverage of the race. That wreck led NASCAR to mandate the window nets that are still required in Cup cars today. 

Another topic discussed on this site during my hiatus involved naming the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. Sorry, but that’s a pointless discussion to me. Petty lays sole claim to that title. If you don’t agree, I won’t call you stupid, but I will tell you you’re wrong. Pearson and Dale Earnhardt Sr. were in his league, but were not his equal. The most underrated NASCAR driver of all time? Richmond. Again, there’s no sense debating the issue. Go ahead and debate it if you wish. You might as well claim that with the sun having risen in the east all these eons, eventually one day the odds say it will rise in the west. 

Perhaps at no other track where NASCAR competes is tire management quite as important as at Darlington. The abrasive soil of the South Carolina sandhills gets into the track’s surface and wears away expensive Goodyear racing tires like the eraser of a cheap No. 2 pencil. A driver might look like a hero running flat out at the drop of the green. But invariably, once he licks all the red off his candy, another wiser, stealthier driver will run him down like he’s dropped anchor. 

Oddly enough, NASCAR once seemed to consider Darlington a problem child track and its continued existence was very much in doubt. In that era, NASCAR’s oft-stated desire to “modernize tradition” resembled Sherman’s March to the Sea across the Deep South. North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway lost their dates. Darlington surrendered its traditional Labor Day weekend date and the Southern 500.

Instead, that coveted date in 2004 was moved to southern California (and eventually Atlanta.) Finally, in 2016 the Southern 500 and the track it belonged on all along, Darlington, were reunited on Labor Day weekend. It’s the way God and Junior Johnson intended it to be. Since then, the retro weekend at the Lady in Black has become a fan favorite. For those of you who feel about Darlington as I do, there’s good news; this year, it will host three points-paying Cup event. To the best of my somewhat suspect recollection, that hasn’t happened in a calendar year at the Cup level since Winston-Salem way back in 1963.

THOMPSON: DARLINGTON FANS TOO TOUGH TO SURRENDER

Unfortunately, awarding Darlington a third date came at the cost of Richmond, which I consider the second-best track left on the circuit. Talk about Sophie’s Choice, or at least what I surmise was the plot of Sophie’s Choice. (I tried to watch that film several times but always fell asleep, usually with a beer in one hand and a dog-eared copy of Hot Rod magazine in the other.) The hastily drawn-up spring Cup schedule also delayed the first Cup race under the lights at Martinsville, an event many fans were looking forward to.

Such are the hard choices that have to be made scheduling races right now, even while we keep our collective fingers crossed this damned virus doesn’t throw us another curveball. It’s like juggling chainsaws, I suppose, with some guy newly nicknamed “Lefty” asking for a do-over. 

In summation, “hope for the best, plan for the worst, and keep your priorities straight.” I’ve been following NASCAR racing now for 56 years. These last eight weeks have been a trial for me just as they have been for many of you. My internal clock is wired so that on Sunday afternoons I’m grabbing the remote to tune into a race. Even in my semi-retirement, I’m like one of those fire horses put out to pasture behind the station when internal combustion fire engines became the norm. But when we hear those bells ringing, we still come running full gallop out of habit, if not necessity.

That having been said, a human life, any human life, is worth way more than a return to normal amusements on a Sunday afternoon. It is my hope that NASCAR will err on the side of science and safety before trying to get things back to what we once considered “normal” by letting the media, the fans, the vendors and the rest of the clowns back into the circus. We as a sport and a community have just one chance to get this comeback right. The consequences of even a small outbreak in the aftermath of a race weekend are too dire to consider, much less discuss. Until I see Dr. Anthony Fauci waving the green flag to start a race, I will remain on edge.  

In Memoriam – This column is scheduled to debut on Tuesday, May 12. With two decades having passed, some might forget 20 years ago today NASCAR suffered a terrible tragedy. Adam Petty, Kyle Petty’s son, Richard Petty’s grandson and Lee Petty’s great-grandson was killed in a savage practice wreck at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The scion of the Petty family was scheduled to make just his second Cup start that weekend.

Petty’s death was part of a string of tragedies in NASCAR, with Kenny Irwin losing his life at the same track in the same corner in July of that year. Then, of course, Earnhardt Sr. would die in February 2001 at Daytona.

MASSIE: 19 YEARS LATER, IF WE HADN’T LOST ADAM PETTY 

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Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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6 comments

  1. Avatar

    i think i watched 15 mins of the iracing stuff. i’m not a fan of video games. just how my eyes work.

    is there a pre-race zoo show for an hour before the race? not like there’s any other sports on that fox would be covering prior to a 3:30 start time.

    be interesting to see how this race pans out. returning to track like darlington without any testing or practice. shall we start a pool on when the first caution will fly? hopefully mother nature will be feeling benevolent towards na$car and not throw a wrench into the works, even with the mid-week racing. remembering the mid-week racing will be my mental exercise.

    then i saw where they’re expanding truck and xfinity series fields to 40 cars/vehicles. is this so cuppers can get more practice? not like we’re trying to put butts in the seats!

    i wonder if, once tracks are able to have fans in the seats, if they’ll discount tickets any? with the standard 18″-20″ of seat room, they’ll have lots of open space with 6′ social distancing. hum, 6 feet on either side of me before next person. nope i won’t be risking it. i’m a high risk person so i choose my battles.

    smoking….matt, i thought your health scares cured you of that vice.

  2. Avatar

    Glad to see you are still around Matt.

    I can’t believe you could get anything out of watching the iRacing stuff. I would have bet money that it wouldn’t have interested you (and I would have lost). As I’ve said all along, more power to those who could get anything out of it but I could never lose sight of the fact it was a video game and it just didn’t do anything for me. I was no more inclined to watch it than I would watch someone play Pac-man.

    I’m really looking forward to this Sunday’s race. It’s like the Daytona 500 after the not-so-long off season. Actually, it’s almost been as long as the off season since the last race. I am also interested to see what kind of ratings they will get given the lack of competition in the sports world and the long drought of sports programming.

  3. Avatar

    I recorded North Wilkesboro & watched with the hopes that high profile drivers & the media commentariat would shame SMI into either sh!t or get off the pot by restoring the track or selling it to someone who will. Otherwise I didn’t watch any iRacing.

    Gawd, has it really been 20 years since Adam Petty & Kenny Irwin died? :(

  4. Avatar

    Welcome back Matt! Finally something humorous and interesting to read here. After watching no more than 15 minutes total of the cartoon racing, I was looking forward to seeing the much-loved Wilkesboro. After 15 minutes of Waltrip and not seeing any fans brawling in the stands, I concluded that old reruns would provide better entertainment. I’ll just wait for the somewhat “real mccoy”.

    Keep up the good work!!

  5. Avatar

    Matt,
    Welcome back. Always great to read your columns. Let’s not forget Tony Roper lost his life in a horrific crash at Texas Motor Speedway in October of 2000.

    • Avatar

      And if I remember right no mention of it was made at all on the next day’s Cup broadcast.