NASCAR: The Times They Are A-Changin’

NASCAR is often a laughingstock. People criticize it for the perceived lack of skill necessary to compete—after all, all you really have to do is go fast and turn left. People criticize it for the lack of diversity at the top levels of the sport—after all, no matter how much Danica Patrick-centric advertising occurs, she still has yet to win a race and very few NASCAR drivers are people of color. People criticize it for the sport’s desperate attempts to remain relevant—after all, the championship system has undergone what seems like a change every year for the past decade. People “watch it only for the wrecks.”

These are all biased opinions, of course. Any of these can be turned on their head once you look at it from a different perspective. Yes, NASCAR seems simple, but it takes an incredible amount of endurance and skill to complete 500 miles on a track with 42 other cars at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour without totaling your car. Yes, NASCAR isn’t too diverse, but how many sports even allow men and women to compete against each other at the top levels? Yes, NASCAR is struggling to remain relevant, but can you blame it for trying?

As someone born and raised in North Carolina by people born and raised in North Carolina who were themselves born and raised in North Carolina, NASCAR and I have a history. The first thing I ever wanted to be, my first ever job aspiration, was a NASCAR driver. Not just a race car driver, but a NASCAR driver. It’s true that I already have the most NASCAR-sounding name ever in Roger Dale Burton Jr. But you would be hard-pressed to find a kid who loved the sport more than me at seven or eight years old.

A large part of this is that my father also loved NASCAR, so it is hereditary. But I formed my own opinions and followed my own rules. These were not necessarily limited by imagination or practicality; my favorite driver was Jerry Nadeau, who at the time drove the Cartoon Network car. I had dozens of diecast cars that I would “race” against each other across the entire house. I even held qualifying trials for them by launching them from a starting point to an end point and using a stopwatch to time how long it took to get from Point A to Point B.

That is a beautiful car.
That is a beautiful car.

All of this is relevant because the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season recently ended with Kevin Harvick winning the championship. It was the first year under a new “Chase for the Cup” format—the Chase itself was introduced during the 2004 season which was also the first season after the sponsorship changed hands from Winston to NEXTEL. More on that later.

When my father and I were watching the end of the last race together, when whoever finished the highest out of the four remaining eligible drivers would win the championship, I commented on how a win for Harvick would be an “eighth championship” for his car. Harvick, for those of you who don’t know, replaced Dale Earnhardt, winner of seven championships, after Earnhardt’s death during the 2001 Daytona 500. What I had forgotten at the time was that before the season started, Harvick made a switch from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing. My dad corrected me and I almost felt embarrassed.

Things have changed a lot in NASCAR over the past fifteen years. The drivers I grew up with aren’t around anymore, for the most part. 1)Save for Jeff Gordon, who might be immortal. Those who are still around drive different cars than the ones I grew up watching. 2)Again, save for Jeff Gordon. Dale Jr. drives the #88 now, not the Budweiser #8. Tony Stewart drives the #14 now, not the Home Depot #20. Kevin Harvick drives the #4 now, not the #29. I’m out of touch.

The rules have also changed. I grew up with the Winston Cup Series. 3)Winston is a brand of cigarettes that sponsored the top level of NASCAR from 1972 to 2003. Due to then-new restrictions on cigarette advertising, they relinquished their sponsorship to NEXTEL. The annual All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway used to be called “The Winston.” It was always held around my birthday so for a couple of years my father and I actually went to it. This was in 2000 and 2001, I believe. Only now has the perversion inherent in an eight-year-old child excited to go to The Winston for his birthday dawned on me.

Once the sponsorship changed hands, the rules for winning the championship changed tto. I don’t think it’s coincidence. See, NASCAR was unique among sports in that no “play-off” existed. 4)Golf went through the same thing with the FedEx Cup. The championship simply went to the driver with the highest point total at the end of the season. In other words, whoever performed the best over the entire season won the championship. It was absolutely fair, as a driver who dominated the whole season wouldn’t be ruined by a wreck or two in the final races—they had earned margin for error due to their skill. But it wasn’t very exciting.

The next ten years at the top level of NASCAR would be marked by constant changes and tweaks to the system to make it more competitive and exciting, regardless of how the drivers or diehard fans felt. The first “Chase” reseeded the top ten drivers in points with ten races left, and so it went. Kurt Busch, driving the #97 Sharpie car, won that first Chase. Busch has now driven five cars in the past five years with one win in the past three years.

The bulk of the changes made on the fly to the Chase were due to the fact that Jimmie Johnson was dominating. From 2006 to 2010 Jimmie Johnson won all five championships, and NASCAR scrambled to try to “enforce” parity by tweaking rules. It has sort of worked—Tony Stewart won in 2011 with a tiebreaking win over Carl Edwards. Brad Keselowski won in 2012, Johnson won again in 2013, and the new elimination style format produced Kevin Harvick’s championship.

I was one of the many NASCAR fans who fell out during Johnson’s five-year span of domination. Before that I was pretty dedicated. I even had elaborate plans to break into the sport. I would get my start via Bandolero racing, make a name for myself there, and ride that all the way to the then-Winston Cup. I heavily underestimated the amount of money, time, effort, and connections I would need to even seriously think about that. But that’s what makes childhood dreams so fun.

NASCAR is a family-based sport perhaps like no other. Sure, you have brothers competing in other sports, but NASCAR has had a four-generation­ family. 5)That of Lee, Richard, Kyle, and Adam Petty. There’s the Earnhardts (father, son, and grandson Ralph, Dale, and Dale Jr.), the Burtons (brothers Jeff and Ward), the Elliotts (father and son Bill and Chase), the Labontes (brothers Bobby and Terry), the Allisons (brothers Donnie and Bobby and Bobby’s son Davey), and the Busches (brothers Kurt and Kyle) just to name a select few. To get started in NASCAR you either need to know somebody or be related to somebody.

As a kid, however, I cared little about any of that. I saw my idols going fast and I, like Ricky Bobby, also wanted to go fast. Chief among those idols was Jerry Nadeau, someone I can almost guarantee you have never heard of. Yeah, names like Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr. at least get some recognition outside the NASCAR sphere but Jerry Nadeau was someone I got attached to early on because he drove a car with a sponsor I loved and could relate to. Even after he switched cars to #25 and, later, #01 I still followed him. When he secured his first and only win at Atlanta in 2000 I was thrilled. I had and still have many diecast models of cars he has driven, some not even removed from their packaging.

When his career ended due to a crash during practice in 2003 I was devastated.

Since then he has yet to race in NASCAR again, though he is lucky to be alive. The crash left him with a brain injury that, according to two excellent stories from 2012 and 2013, still has him with no feeling at all in the left side of his body. In fact, if you look deep enough in the comments from that 2012 story, you’ll find me. 6)As well as a comment saying I have the makings of a journalist. That’s how much Nadeau meant to me.

That’s another part of the reason I fell out of NASCAR. When your favorite driver’s career is prematurely ended due to an unfortunate accident, it tends to dampen the spirits of an idealistic 11-year-old. I do have to credit myself, though—I didn’t arbitrarily pick another favorite driver. Whenever someone asked me, I’d say Jerry Nadeau.

I’ve kept up with NASCAR on the periphery in the meanwhile. The gimmick for this season, eliminating four drivers after every three races during the Chase, was genuinely sort of compelling even if you can absolutely make the argument that it places more and more emphasis on luck and timing rather than skill.

I’m fully aware that NASCAR isn’t for anyone. But I do appreciate the fact that both of the most famous families in the history of NASCAR (Petty and Earnhardt) are based in North Carolina and the fact that the moonshine-related history of NASCAR has deep roots in the mountains of North Carolina. Charlotte is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which I still need to visit someday.

Maybe one day I’ll finally get a chance to take a few 180 mph laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway. If so I hope the design is better than the car I made for myself in the NASCAR Racing 3 Demo circa the early 2000s.

 

Yes, my sponsor was Nintendo.
Yes, my sponsor was Nintendo.

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Save for Jeff Gordon, who might be immortal.
2. Again, save for Jeff Gordon.
3. Winston is a brand of cigarettes that sponsored the top level of NASCAR from 1972 to 2003. Due to then-new restrictions on cigarette advertising, they relinquished their sponsorship to NEXTEL.
4. Golf went through the same thing with the FedEx Cup.
5. That of Lee, Richard, Kyle, and Adam Petty.
6. As well as a comment saying I have the makings of a journalist.

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