All week long, I’ve been wrestling in my mind with NASCAR. So much of my life has been invested in it. In the eight seasons since my forced exile – the job I held for 16-1/2 years was eliminated – I haven’t ever stopped paying attention. What has changed is the perspective.
I went from being an insider to being an outsider. Instead of the view at the track, I switched to the view from the street. It wasn’t by choice but by circumstance.
Early on, I used to tell people that everyone seemed to want me back except anyone who could do something about it. Now it’s obvious that the sport has passed me by. At some point, this happens to most people, not just writers but drivers, mechanics, tinkers, tailors and candlestick makers.
Ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe … Don’t think twice, it’s all right.
Here on the street, I can see clearly now.
NASCAR has changed so much that those who were once its greatest fans have been unable to keep up. One of my favorite metaphors comes from Mark Harris’s 1956 novel Bang the Drum Slowly, later made into a 1973 movie that starred Robert DeNiro and Michael Moriarty. It’s narrowly a baseball novel. In spring training, players would lure fans into games of TEGWAR, which stood for “The Exciting Game Without Any Rules.” The premise was that any hand the fans played … lost. When I was in college, one of my chief ambitions was to successfully play TEGWAR, and one beer-drenched night in my apartment, I did so. It was a great accomplishment.
“OK, I’ve got three sixes.”
“And that’s good, Eric, but Dennis has a two, a four and a seven, and that’s a triple crewcut, and that beats three of a kind.”
“Why’s it called a triple crewcut?”
“I dunno. It just is.”
Lots of fans don’t know the rules any better than they do TEGWAR’s, and TEGWAR’s don’t exist. NASCAR’s do exist, but they are byzantine in nature. “Byzantine” comes from an empire and means “complicated.” Baseball’s rules are byzantine, too, but they didn’t change much until COVID-19 came along. Having an extra inning start with a man on second base sounds exactly like something NASCAR would do.
Phases and stages, circles and cycles, scenes that we’ve all seen before … (Willie Nelson).
Since 2004, NASCAR has changed drastically, and over that period, interest has gradually but consistently declined. The propaganda circulated by NASCAR is that all these changes were brilliant. One cannot fix a problem without realizing there is one. NASCAR can’t possibly go back. What people are left like them.
When NASCAR was at its height, a common observation from fans was they loved it because it wasn’t like other sports. For most of this century, it has gotten more and more like other sports.
In 2005, Clinton High School’s football team held a bonfire the night before the state championship game. I handed out various caps I had picked up at the track, and the kids loved them. If that happened now, I’d have to throw most of them in a dumpster.
Thanks, old man, but Imma pass.
I have one friend in Clinton who still loves racing. I saw him at the Touchdown Club on Thursday. On the way out, he tapped my shoulder and said, “Better watch out for Bad Brad (Keselowski)!”
People around here still associate me with NASCAR. Many of them will see me and cross Broad Street to let me know that they used to go to half a dozen races a year and now they don’t even watch on TV. I get tired of hearing it. Where I used to hear “that so-and-so wrecked that other so-and-so on purpose,” now it’s “hey, was there a race Sunday?”
It’s contagious. Most weeks I think I won’t even watch, but I wind up flipping the channel from the football game right before the green flag waves. There are exceptions. I get excited about tracks such Darlington, Martinsville, Bristol, Talladega and Daytona, but most weeks I pay more attention to my laptop than my big-screen, high-def TV.
My two racing novels, Lightning in a Bottle and Life Gets Complicated, were about a rebellious young driver, Barrie Jarman, whom I envisioned as a modern throwback to the drivers who dominated the sport when I first started writing about it. The former sold pretty well, the latter didn’t and I concluded there wasn’t a market for any more installments. It’s a shame. I wanted Barrie to mature into an all-time great, settle down, raise a family and lead the fictional FASCAR back into the hearts and minds of America.
It’s likely that Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are more interesting than the carefully crafted images I see from afar. There’s a little Barrie Jarman in Kyle Larson and Bubba Wallace. Not much, but a little.
What I yearn for is a Kyle Petty, a Sterling Marlin, an Earnhardt, an Earnhardt Jr., a Rusty Wallace and a Davey Allison. Dinosaurs walked the garage area when I started traveling the country in hot pursuit of them by means of a laptop instead of a fresh set of Goodyear Eagles.
To paraphrase the Statler Brothers, whatever happened to Harry Gant has happened to the industry.