Do you remember when everything NASCAR touched turned to gold? Those halcyon summers when the sport was booming? Everything was right in its world and it was magic.
But nothing stays the same. Summer romances fade in the winter cold, and so too has our love affair with NASCAR.
It’s easy to say it’s only about the racing, but that’s not really the truth. The truth is, there have been great races, mediocre races and completely forgettable races every season since it all began. The racing is some of it, but it doesn’t quite tell the story.
That’s because it was always only one piece of the magic.
Ten thousand words and more could be written about why the racing itself had changed. It boils down to one simple thing: the cars have changed and changed drastically over the years. NASCAR is caught between a rock and hard place because street cars have changed drastically, too. Even if cars, or the bodies, were completely stock, they wouldn’t race the same as they did years ago because they’re not the same. Modern street cars are more aerodynamic, smaller, designed for utility and fuel mileage instead of beautiful lines or general badassery.
Unless they tote out cars from 1987, they aren’t going to race like 1987. And maybe, just maybe, our glasses are all a little rose-colored about that anyway.
But those summers when it all went right, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was really, really right.
And it wasn’t just because of the racing; sometimes it was even in spite of it, because “aero push” had already entered the vocabulary and Jeff Gordon was winning too much and The King was gone.
Going to the track in those days was an experience in itself. Empty seats weren’t a thing at many tracks, and that often meant people packed in tight, with their coolers and bags and all the time in the world. Tailgating started early and ended late, with full breakfasts and steak dinners, corn hole and football games with a three-hour break for the race.
Just getting to the track could be an adventure, with hours spent sitting in traffic, only to be repeated again after the race. But nobody minded those hours, the morning still full of anticipation, a honk or a wave when somebody saw another car bearing their driver’s sticker and the late afternoon bringing a satisfied kind of sunburned tired. You left at dawn and got home after dark and loved every minute.
Racing was family. You shared something with those other fans; look long enough and you’d see someone with every driver’s t-shirt or hat or sticker. You talked racing with strangers and agreed that just about anyone would be happy with a win by the likes of Ward Burton or Ken Schrader or the like.
Collectively, you believed that could maybe happen.
The souvenir rigs held their own promise. If you were lucky and didn’t mind standing in line, you might meet a driver or two and score an autograph or a quick photo. You could find just about anything with your driver’s name on it, from the standard fare to pajamas and dog collars and just about anything you could decorate your personal vehicle with. It wasn’t all the same, you had to shop to find exactly the right thing to commemorate the day. Smokers could score free samples of the wares of the sponsors and everyone else could drink a cold lemonade to wash down a pretzel the size of their head.
And the drivers — fans felt like they knew them. Thanks to sponsors using them in commercials and several weeknight television shows dedicated to racing, they were in your living room on a daily basis. Commercials with drivers in them were everywhere, and they were memorable. Octane 93 and “I’m at the wrong track” resonate to this day with fans of the time.
It was that marketing that put drivers squarely in the public eye, and, ironically, that changed everything. Sponsors realized that millions of eyes saw their charges, and they began to shut them down, opting for corporate events at the track instead of signing at their souvenir haulers, carefully crafted interviews that would have fit right in in a corporate boardroom, but not so much with the fans who loved them because they felt like the drivers were like them — blue collar and a little rough and tumble.
To be fair, it wasn’t just the drivers who changed. It used to be a rare occurrence when you went to the track and didn’t have friendly conversations with the strangers around you. Now, it’s rare that you do. People seem less friendly and more argumentative. If you like a certain driver, you’re wrong. If you don’t like someone else’s driver, you’re wrong. The camaraderie of baking in the summer sun for several hours watching the cars go around is all but gone.
Perhaps it’s a microcosm of society in general; the sense of community people once took pride and comfort in has eroded, too.
Racing is about people as much as it’s about brightly colored cars going around in circles. From the men and women who work in the garage to the fans in the stands, through the drivers, they’re connected.
Fans need to feel like they know the drivers personally again. Sponsors need to loosen the reins and put their drivers out there, in advertising and at the track on Sunday. NASCAR has put out some excellent advertisements recently, but what about using some of the smaller team drivers in their “I am NASCAR” campaign?
Racing isn’t what it was in those boom years, no doubt. But people aren’t, either, and that’s magic that may never come around again. We were all so lucky then.