Let me give you a little context, I grew up in Charlotte, NC. Just so there is no confusion, Florida may be the corporate headquarters but Charlotte is the home of NASCAR. As a kid I went to dirt track races at a little .4 mile track between Charlotte and Monroe called the Starlite Speedway with my uncle. This was a rough and rowdy crowd (the drivers and the fans) where a Saturday night race in the dust would and could turn into a fist fight on the track and in the stands at the drop of a corn dog.
I have been to NASCAR races in Charlotte, Daytona, Bristol, Rockingham, Talladega, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Martinsville, Richmond, and Darlington. I have sat in sky boxes and I have sat three rows from the track covered with bits of Goodyear tires in my hair and my teeth. I have camped out in luxury RV’s, pup tents, in the backseat of my car or in the grass with a blanket tossed over my drunk ass. I have sat out in the rain and 120 degree Labor Day weekends in Darlington. My business even sponsored a car for five years fielded by a plumber who raced at our local track. Yes, once upon a time I was a NASCAR fan, once upon a time.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced today that he was retiring after this, the 2017, season. “Junior” as he is referred to, is a third generation Stock Car driver. His grandfather Ralph was a legend at tracks like the Starlite Speedway and his father Dale Earnhardt Sr. was, well, Dale Earnhardt Sr.
I began to give up on NASCAR several years ago. I got tired of them monkeying with the schedule and the rules. I got tired of all the “corporate” identity with the tracks, races and the drivers. With all of NASCAR’s efforts to lure big corporate dollars it lost, at least in my opinion, something very important, personality. I followed and attended NASCAR races for the characters both on the track and in the stands. Over the years I have met some unforgettable people, personalities that really shined after drinking too much Budweiser with sunburned necks they wore like a badge of honor.
Yes there are still some die-hard fans but going to a race today is expensive and what was once just a southeastern attraction includes such far-flung destinations as Kansas, Texas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Chicago. Joe the carpenter, from Gainesville, Ga. can’t afford to take Mamma and Joe, Jr. to Chicago even if he wanted to go to the Windy City (hint, he doesn’t). But what Joe and every other southern Stock Car fan is asking themselves is what the hell is NASCAR doing in Chicago anyway? Simple answer, money.
I know that racing “stock” cars isn’t just a southern thing, but NASCAR was just a southern thing. In the old days, most drivers were from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, did I mention North Carolina? Today they are from California, Ohio, Kansas, Iowa, and even Washington state. When I was a kid drivers had last names like Johnson, Baker, Roberts, Thomas and Wallace today we have drivers named Allmendinger, Almirola, DiBenedetto, Keselowski and Suárez. There is nothing wrong with these “new” guys it is just different and hard to pronounce.
Maybe my problem is that all of the drivers I followed have retired and I haven’t picked a new one to follow. But I have the same problem with these new crop of drivers that I have with the new crop of professional golfers, they are all the same. The same vanilla personalities, no characters, no Rusty Wallace’s or Lee Trevino’s, no Buddy Baker’s or Fuzzy Zoeller’s. They are not going to get in a fight in the pits or throw a golf club. They are robots, keeping their emotions in check and their sponsors happy.
So to the drunk guy, roasting in the Talladega sun who stands-up 188 times yelling “EARNHARDT” every time “Junior” passes him, I am sorry. The end was inevitable. My end was inevitable as well. I have come a long way. From the eight year old kid covered in dust eating a corn dog at the Starlite Speedway to sitting in a luxury sky box at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway drinking a craft beer and eating squares of cheese on a toothpick. It has been a nice ride NASCAR, but I am retiring with “Junior”….. inside, inside, inside, clear, clear.