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Twenty Years Ago Today: The Day The NASCAR Music Died

Don McLean once wrote a masterpiece of a song called “American Pie,” where it spoke of “the day the music died.”

For NASCAR fans, the day the music died was 20 years ago today, when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap wreck at the Daytona 500. Fans didn’t know how bad the wreck was at first, but I immediately noticed a fear in the voice of broadcaster Darrell Waltrip, as veteran racers know when a wreck is really bad.

A few hours later, Mike Helton stood in front of a podium and emotionally announced that No. 3 was gone.

Twenty years later I’m not sure what I find harder to believe: That he’s been gone for two decades, or that two entire generations of fans have grown up never seeing him race. As is the case with all famous people once they pass away, anecdotal memories tend to make that person larger than life, almost mythical by comparison to ordinary people.

That’s certainly been done with Earnhardt, but he was never an easy one to label. He was at times a simple man that was easy to understand, at times quite complex. He WAS an intimidator, both on and off the track, and at least during the 5 years I covered racing in the early 1980s, could be either the nicest guy you’d ever meet, or one tough customer, depending on his mood.

One guy who had a front row seat for all this was Dave Fulton, who was the Manager for Wrangler NASCAR Special Events. I met Dave through Twitter, we’re both story tellers, and over the years it seemed like our stories overlayed each other’s to the point I’m now of the opinion we were in the same place something like 117 times, yet never met. We knew the same people, watched the same events, arrived at the same conclusions. We just weren’t aware of each other.

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Happy For McDowell, But Not Happy For Racing's Priorities

Yesterday’s Daytona 500 certainly had some exciting moments, and if you’re a long-time fan of the sport, you can’t help but be happy for journeyman Michael McDowell winning the event.

But if you took a moment and compared memories of a Daytona 500 25 years ago to last night’s race, you’d probably have to ask a certain question.

Something along the lines of “what are these guys doing?”

Twenty-five years ago, you’d remember an exciting race run in bright sunshine that came down to a dramatic finish. You’d know most of the drivers in the field and the race would start at a convenient time and end at one. You’d know what was going on, and know what to expect.

Sunday, it was run in a window almost guaranteed for a rain delay, with a field of drivers many casual fans were unfamiliar with, then delayed (without any real updates) until after 9 PM, before finishing at 12:20 AM where the winner did not race back to the start-finish line on the final lap.

Not exactly similar.

I’m not a motorhead like many of my other racing friends, but after being introduced to the sport 40 years ago, I have viewed the Daytona 500 the way NASCAR wants everybody to look at it: it is the sport’s Super Bowl. Because of the sport’s Southern roots, for years we’d always go get a bucket of chicken, mashed potatoes, cole slaw and biscuits, eat lunch while they were doing the flyovers and other festivities a little after noon, then watch the race when it went green flag at 1 PM.

You’d then spend the afternoon watching familiar faces with several intriguing story lines, and because of the nature of superspeedways, there would always be a tight finish filled with emotions. Like Earnhardt finally winning the race after 20 tries. Or Ned Jarrett, urging his son Dale on from the broadcast booth to win his first.

You’d turn off the television and think “man, what a race.”

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Recent Comments
Guest — Johnny Hurst

Agree smh...

NASCAR lost me several years ago when prices skyrocketed into the stratosphere. I had attended the spring races at Bristol and Mar... Read More
Monday, 15 February 2021 10:03
Dave Scarangella

It's like NASCAR doesn't belie...

And I understand the power of television. But this wasn't the ACME Rent-To-Own 500. This was the Daytona freaking 500. You don't s... Read More
Monday, 15 February 2021 12:41

Never Give Up, Because You Never Know How The Story Will End

I have to admit, my interest in auto racing has dimmed with each passing year to the point that I rarely watch it unless it’s a major event. Even then, it’s more background noise or an option on the second or third television for something to check on when the main event is on a commercial break.

But yesterday’s race where Chase Elliott won the championship was pretty cool.

I say this for reasons that have nothing to do with racing. When Chase opened his visor on the cool-down lap and you could see the look in his eyes, it reminded me of a conversation with his father 35 years ago, and echos a story I tell all my young friends when they tell me it's too late in life for them to keep pursuing their dreams.

It was a hot August day in 1985 when I was sitting on the inside retaining wall of the pits at Martinsville Speedway, waiting for a fairly grumpy Bill Elliott to come talk to me. I was the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin, and it should be noted that Elliott had previously always been one of the nicest guys in stock car racing. The next year, in fact, he would return to being the nicest guy on the circuit, and even mentioned when I was doing an interview with him in 1986 that he was sorry how he’d been the previous year.

That’s because in 1985, Bill Elliott transitioned from genuine nice guy to the face of NASCAR for the season. He won 11 races and 11 poles. Winston sponsored the series and had developed a promotion called the Winston Million for winning three races, and Bill would go from being “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” to “Million Dollar Bill” after eventually winning the third at Darlington. But that day, Bill was testing in Martinsville, trying to get every point possible in his pursuit of the season’s championship.

It was on that day, I got to see firsthand what fame can do to you. It’s not like Bill was an unknown by any means, and before the season, he was like just about all the drivers on the circuit: Friendly, down to earth, a straight shooter.

He was not a Darrell Waltrip with a gift of gab that would go on forever, and given the choice of being in front of a camera or having an iced cold Coke in the Dawsonville pool room, would always choose the pool room. He never, however, made you feel like you were bothering him. It was one of the great appeals of the sport, and I consider myself lucky to have had the chance to cover racing back then when the people around it were so real.

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If NASCAR Can Keep Running Races Like Today's Daytona 500...

For the first time in a while, I actually enjoyed watching every lap of a NASCAR race today.

The Daytona 500 was actually that good. And it needed to be.

NASCAR has in the past few years drifted aimlessly. If you didn’t notice all the empty seats when you occasionally tuned into a race, you definitely noticed the lack of drama or excitement. While it’s true some of that has been caused by bigger names in the sport having retired recently, there was more to it than that.

NASCAR just didn’t put on a very good show the last couple of years. The racing was boring, the prices to attend was too high for its core audience and NASCAR didn’t seem to care. It was becoming like the 50th franchise of a once-tremendous restaurant. The name brought back great memories of the past, but current events seemed a little like people going through the motions.

Add to the fact that it’s not rocket science to figure out what makes for an entertaining show on a race track, and it became all the more frustrating. Older fans stopped paying attention, younger fans weren’t engaging in the first place and there became a growing problem. Great races generally need only three things: close racing in the early stages so someone won’t change the channel or take a nap, some sort of big wreck in the middle that becomes a huge video highlight (as in “hey, did you see that wreck Sunday?”) and then 5 or six cars racing to a photo finish on the last lap.

That’s it. That’s the list. Everything else is gravy.

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Happy Motorhead Thanksgiving, Everybody!

The calendar doesn’t specifically recognize it, but today is Motorhead Thanksgiving, the greatest day of the year for people who love cars and take motorsports seriously.

Even though I’m not that much into cars, for many years there was a yearly ritual in my house on this day. Get up in the morning and get the grill/smoker/whatever you cook on outdoors ready at about 11. Watch the beginning of the Indianapolis 500 for an hour. Go out and finish cooking. Come back in the house, have a meal with your family and see the finish of Indy. Nap. Watch the beginning of the World 600. Nap some more. Wake up and still be able to see the last 3 hours of the World 600 since it seems like it went on forever most years.

The holiday, however, is dying no matter how fancy the commercials shown on TV are for the races. Younger generations in general don’t seem that interested in going to any live sporting events, and the older generations that really supported racing over the years are passing away. Television has saturated the market with too much of a good thing, ticket prices have been raised beyond what demand warrants, and the product itself these days isn’t that good. Turn on any live sporting event these days and you’ll see a lot of empty seats. Turn to a race and you’ll see even more.

I was lucky enough to discover NASCAR racing at just about the time it was making the transition from good ol’ boy, gritty, redneck sport that was rarely on television, to one that was the darling of ESPN and growing faster than any other sport out there. A fight – of all things – at the Daytona 500 that involved Cale Yarborough and brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison (above) seemed to capture a lot of people’s attention in the sport. So naturally when a friend said let’s go to Martinsville Speedway and see one, I was game.

Much like Daytona, we weren’t 5 minutes out of the car before we saw a fight…although this was between fans in the parking lot. What were they fighting about? One said “Ford” and the other said “Chevrolet” and next thing you knew, fists were flying. Once inside in our seats, we met dozens of down-home, salt-of-the-earth people with serious opinions on why Cale Yarborough was a good guy and Darrell Waltrip (who would win the race that day) was not. They were fiercely loyal, and they all cheered, booed, threw chicken bones down at the fence at the base of the racetrack and just appeared to have a heck of a time.

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When No One Wants To Sponsor The Defending Champion...

I have been slowly watching NASCAR die over the last few years, but today served notice as to just how bad things have gotten. Furniture Row Racing – the team that with driver Martin Truex Jr. won the championship in the highest-level series in the sport last year – will shut its doors at the end of the year.

The story here isn’t just a team shutting down. Truex, his crew chief and most of those employed will end up with other teams and probably be just fine next year. No, the story is WHY they are shutting down, and how the lifeblood of the sport is in serious jeopardy.

I’m not your typical racing fan. I’m not a car guy, was raised in Norfolk – technically in the south but because of the Navy base, we had a lot of Yankee influence – and I just didn’t see the point to 500 or more left turns on a hot summer day.

But the newspaper business introduced me to it. I worked at a place in Roanoke and our racing writer happened to be the son of my physics teacher at Lake Taylor High School. His name was Steve Waid and he not only loved the sport, he was a bit of a rock star on the circuit because of the way he covered it. I became intrigued.

A few years later, I became the sports editor of the newspaper in Martinsville. The owner was a character named Clay Earles and the PR director was one of the best on the planet named Dick Thompson. Clay, Dick and Steve all taught me the sport, introduced me to the right people and in a short period of time, I fell in love with it.

For me it had nothing to do with cars. It was the personalities of the drivers and the cult-like loyalty of the fans. Waid had gotten me a couple of tickets when I was working in Roanoke, so a friend and I headed to Martinsville to see a race live. We hadn’t even gotten out of the car for more than a minute and a couple of good ol’ boys were throwing haymakers at each other as if one had insulted the other’s mother.

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