NASCAR’s old-school fans are still trying to digest the sport’s major race revamp announced Monday – or, more often, spitting it out like a gallon of milk gone sour.
To which I say: Get over it, my friends. The past is not coming back.
The racing playoffs aren’t going away. The Cup races at North Wilkesboro aren’t coming back. On the plus side, your favorite driver no longer has a decent chance of dying at the racetrack.
Everyone who cares about racing has a “glory days” period in mind. For some, it is the wild-and-woolly 1950s. For some, it is the hard-charging 1970s, epitomized by the famous Daytona 500 fight of 1979.
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For me, it is a year after I arrived at The Charlotte Observer, in 1995. Dale Earnhardt was the sport’s black-hat, old-guard superstar in the black No. 3. Jeff Gordon – derisively nicknamed “Wonder Boy” by Earnhardt – was its 24-year-old young gun in the rainbow-colored No. 24. The two could hardly have been more different, and their rivalry was a remarkable thing to see.
In 1995, Gordon won seven races and finished No. 1 for the season. Earnhardt won five times and finished No. 2.
In the mid-1990s, I remember allowing three hours to navigate 20 miles from my house to Charlotte Motor Speedway on a race day. Sometimes that still wasn’t enough.
But as Billy Joel once sang: “The good ole days weren’t always good / And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
3 reasons why the past is the past
Here are three reasons why racing is never going to back to whatever “glory days” you remember:
1. In the mid-1990s, there was no such thing as Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. Hardly anyone knew what HDTV was. The experience at a race track was far different – and usually far better – than what you could see on television.
Now all sports deal with the fact that the TV coverage is so good – and your big-screen TV is so precise, and your smartphone is so smart – that it’s much easier and cheaper to stay home than it is to go anywhere. Racing absolutely had to juice up its product.
Look, we’ve had the same problem in the newspaper industry. We’ve dealt with huge changes, too, and have not always dealt with them well. But we’re changing. You have to.
2. Dale Earnhardt died. His fatal last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 produced an emotional earthquake through the sport that is still being felt.
For my money, no one has ever been as good at walking the “love-him-or-hate-him” line as Earnhardt. Racing could desperately use another charismatic, roughneck talent like Earnhardt who could win championships and contrast himself vividly with everyone else out there – a Cam Newton type – to shake everything up. You want guys who are booed in pre-race introductions and then win races.
Without the gift of another superstar, though, NASCAR has to shake itself up. The bottom line is that races, for large stretches, were too boring.
The “divide each race into three segments” at least is a way to try to combat that. (I would have also shortened every Cup race by at least 100 miles apiece, but that’s another story.) This new model gives fans an incentive to not take a three-hour “NASCAR nap” at the start of the race and just wake up again for the end.
3. Safety equipment wasn’t nearly good enough “back in the day,” which meant crashes sometimes had the nasty habit of killing fans’ racing heroes. The Cup points system also rewarded consistency more than wins and often made for an anti-climactic season finale.
A last word from Dale Jr.
Let me leave the final word to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was steeped in racing’s traditions by his father and has long fought against anything he deemed too “new” in the sport. Earnhardt missed half the 2016 season because of a concussion, and when he stepped outside the car he realized more clearly what fans liked and deserved.
“As a driver,” Earnhardt said Monday, “for the longest time I didn’t like anything to be different. I didn’t want anything new. I was a traditionalist who wanted everything from the past – one of those guys that thought ‘10 years ago’ was always the better time.”
But once he stepped out of the car and watched as a fan and occasional broadcaster in late 2016, Earnhardt said he saw things differently.
Said Earnhardt: “To be outside the car and watch the races, I saw where there was a big void here and a big void there. ... Now I know why the fans want the action, the restarts – it’s exciting. I get it. ... And with these stages, I will know going into an event this is what I’m signed up to do. The phantom yellow (flags) always kind of bugged me, but this is nothing like that.
“I can get on board with this.”