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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.
That’s when I really learned the sport's appeal, and it really is the formula for all sports. People didn’t go to races and spend good money for a ticket to see 500 left turns. They came to watch heroes battle villains, and over the years little changed. The guys who were young and beat the established heroes (like Waltrip and Jeff Gordon) were the ones people booed for a long time before coming around. The old school guys like Dale Earnhardt Sr., Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, etc. could do no wrong. But no matter what track they raced at, you generally had a driver you were going to like and a driver you’d like to see get put in the wall.
For about a decade, it was golden. The sport went Hollywood with all the television coverage, but the drivers were still the same down-to-earth characters they’d always been. They were fun in interviews, very relatable to fans, and trying to go to places like Indianapolis for the Brickyard 400, or a night race at Bristol were next to impossible because tickets were so hard to find.
But alas, all good things must come to an end. NASCAR got away from its roots, deciding it would be far healthier for the sport to leave traditional places like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham for newer pastures like New Hampshire. Ticket prices kept going higher and higher, while many of the factory worker-type fans had to stop going because their factories were closing and they no longer had jobs. Slowly but surely the sport moved away from its base and only one thing held the sport together: Those heroes and villains.
As a high school kid, I followed tennis pretty closely because there were names like Borg, Connors, McEnroe etc. that made you want to not only watch, but tell someone “you CANNOT be serious” whenever these was a sporting disagreement. When those names faded away, so too did my interest. Watching sports purely for the sake of sports is always a losing bet for the masses, and at some point NASCAR was going to learn the same thing.
It’s what’s happening now. The old school personalities are gone. The cantankerous charmers like Tony Stewart are too. The personalities are vanilla, the racing (other than the all-star race the other night) is boring, and more and more seats are empty. NASCAR can tinker with the rules, but the simple truth is they’re not coming back. Today’s battle is to keep the fans you have, and hope they teach their children to once again like the sport.
Regardless, my routine won’t change today. I'm the household cook, and there’s still going to be pulled pork barbecue, hot dogs, Italian sausages, and BBQ chicken to go with slaw, potato salad and deviled eggs that will make for a feast that starts mid-day today and carries over until the Caps play Vegas Monday night.
So Happy Motorhead Thanksgiving! Gentleman, start your grills! Smoke 'em if you got 'em.
And if the racing isn't that good? Well, just remember, I'm the cook.
The food WILL be :)