Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Defending My State's Honor

Or I could title this: "Stupidest sports talk callers ever." You will see why in just a moment.

This morning, I was listening to a local sports talk show. They rarely talk about Nascar on this station, but it beats listening to the local news and talk stations.

There was a caller to the morning show who was apparently traveling through the area. On the local morning show, he proclaimed that he could not live in a state such as South Carolina, because nobody in the state had ever won anything. The host of the show pointed out that Clemson University did indeed win a national championship in football in 1981, but the caller kept on with his spiel.

"You guys don't even have any Nascar guys that ever won a race! You all suck! I could never live in such a loser state."

At this point, I beg to differ. South Carolina certainly has it's faults. I've lived in the state my entire life, so I know we have our faults. Currently, we're under some sort of embargo or whatever by the NAACP because the confederate battle flag still flies on the grounds of the State House in Columbia. The flag was removed from the Capitol years ago, but that didn't satisfy the NAACP. This has been an ongoing battle in the state for years. I think a lot of people forget that the flag was originally placed at the State House by then governor Ernest F. Hollings, later to become a senator from South Carolina. Hollings was a Democrat, and generally was as liberal as any senator from New York or Massachusetts. Yet he was the guy that flew the battle flag, nearly 100 years after the Civil War.

But, I digress. Sure, Clemson University, in Clemson, SC did indeed win a national football championship in 1981, under the leadership of coach Danny Ford, who to this day still resides in Pendleton, SC. He's actually practically a neighbor of mine. I've seen Danny many times at local restaurants around the area. I've crossed paths with him at the grocery store. Danny Ford was originally from Alabama, and played football there and became an assistant coach for Alabama back when the head coach was the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant.

"I just like South Carolina," said Danny Ford. "People are nice here, and I love the lakes and the countryside here." That's good, Coach Danny. Many Clemson fans here talk about you as they would Jesus, in hushed voices, emanating total loyalty. There's still quite a few fans who wish that Danny Ford would come out of retirement and coach the Clemson Tigers to another championship.

As far as Nascar is concerned, South Carolina has a great history. Every hear about David Pearson and Cale Yarborough? Yep, they were born here and still live here to this day.

David Pearson won 105 Cup races in his career, though he rarely raced an entire season. He's second only to the "King", Richard Petty in total wins. In 1999, Richard Petty was asked who the best driver in Nascar was. Without a moment of hesitation, Richard replied "David Pearson."

Petty and Pearson battled to finish 1st and 2nd a total of 68 or so times in their careers. I grew up watching some of these classic battles. Pearson won the championship 3 times in the 1960's. If not for David Pearson, Richard Petty probably would have won 10 championships or maybe more.

David Pearson had prematurely gray hair, even back during his racing days, and was dubbed the "Silver Fox." David was a hard charger, but he knew how to finesse the car when he needed to.

I was privileged to get to meet David Pearson a couple of years ago. He still lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and he's as nice a man as you could ever meet. He's in his 70's now, and as humble a man as ever was. "I was lucky to race when I did," Pearson recalls. "I got to race with the greatest of them, and sometimes I beat them. I was lucky."

David Pearson is possibly too humble. He beat people like Petty because he was a great race driver. I doubt that Richard Petty respects any driver as much as he does David Pearson. Had he run full race schedules, who knows? We might be talking about David Pearson as being the King now.

Another South Carolina legend is Cale Yarborough. Cale was and still is a big bear of a man. He's rough. He's tough. At 70 years of age, he's never seen anyone or anything that can beat him.

Cale was born and still lives near Timmonsville, South Carolina. In his career, Cale won 83 races and 3 Cup championships. He was, until 2008, the only driver ever to win 3 championships in a row. Cale never complained when he was hurt. He went on and drove the next race anyway.

Cale was involved in what became the Awakening of a Nation to Nascar. Cale was involved in the 1979 fight with the Allison brothers on national TV at the Daytona 500, the first nationally televised race from green flag to checker flag. Everything that Nascar has today can be attributed to Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, and Donnie Allison. That was the moment that the USA became aware of Nascar.

The guy that called the station and said he'd never live in a state with a bunch of losers? Turns out he's from the great state of Rhode Island. No disrespect, but what national titles has Rhode Island won lately?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

NASCAR Could Give Kids A Reason To Go To Band Camp

Do you ever get tired of watching a NASCAR race and seeing some obscure singing artist mutilate the National Anthem? I do.

Personally, I have long enjoyed the Charlotte races when kids of the drivers and crews got to sing the National Anthem. Even though they're kids, and obviously sing the anthem imperfectly, it's still a great moment for me. I'd rather see a kid give it his all and not sound good than seeing an artist mutilate the anthem for 'artistic reasons.'

Many of our current NASCAR events take place in large markets, or at least the largest markets that NASCAR can cultivate. Rockingham is gone, and so is North Wilkesboro in favor of cities like Fort Worth, Texas, and Las Vegas, Nevada. We're still trying to hang on to Darlington here in South Carolina.

I have an idea, and so far, even I like my own idea. That's unusual, especially after I've thought about it for a while.

My idea is to have a local high school band play the National Anthem at each NASCAR event. It's more complicated than that, but in a way, it's even more simple.

Many of NASCAR's race dates are now held in major metropolitan areas. All of these areas will have many high schools.

Let each city or metropolitan area, let's just say, 3 months before the racing event, start working toward a competition among all of the high school bands in the greater area of that city or metropolitan area. At this point, I don't really care who the judges will be. Let them be the track operator, or the city council, or representatives of the race sponsor. Whomever, in other words.

The winning band of this competition will receive free passes for his or her immediate family to the track, including infield passes. In addition, the band member may choose up to 3 or 4 friends to invite to watch them perform. The track will provide tickets to these friends and their families. Heck, most tracks are having problems giving tickets away this year anyway.

Let the kids have fun at the track during the pre race hours, let them attend driver appearances, etc. Let the families go with them.

Let the kids appreciate that they will soon be performing in front of the biggest audience they may ever perform before. 45,000 people maybe. 200,000 plus at some tracks. Also, they may remember, there will be several million more people watching on TV.

For some of these kids, it could be the most memorable moment of their lives. If nothing else, it brings kids to the track that otherwise might not be there. Most kids are impressed when they attend their first NASCAR race. For people of any age, that first race is almost indescribable. The immensity of the track and facilities, the pageantry that has become and is NASCAR is almost overwhelming to anyone when they visit the track for the first time on race day.

Even if the particular band that Sunday or Saturday night isn't especially good, I as a fan will still appreciate their efforts. I'd rather see a kid trying hard to put on the greatest show of their life than see a so-so 'artist' mangle the job because they think they're being 'artistic.'

If this idea were to catch on, it could be a great honor for any high school kid to say he played at a NASCAR race. Trophies could be handed out in many cities. The obvious advantages to this are innumerable.

NASCAR could gain some new fans, and existing fans could be treated to a great rendition to the national anthem. NASCAR could become a much used name at the high schools all over the country.

Could that be a bad thing?

(This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What's The Next Big Thing in NASCAR?

Over the years, we've seen NASCAR run in cycles. The sport seems to be ever changing, but it always has been, since the beginning in 1948.

Obviously, since about 2001, we've seen many, many changes in NASCAR. Young drivers Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty were lost in 2000, and of course, in 2001, we lost Dale Earnhardt. Since Earnhardt's death, NASCAR has become safety conscious, at least more so than they were before.

Drivers are required to wear the full face crash helmet and the head and neck restraint device, better known as HANS. There is more padding in the cockpit of the cars, and more steel tubing than ever around the drivers. The car itself has changed, much to the chagrin of many of the current drivers and teams.

The tracks themselves have changed as well. The most obvious new safety device is of course the soft barriers, now installed in virtually all the corners on the oval tracks at which NASCAR races. Fences have been improved, with an obvious new round of scrutiny of the retaining fences since Carl Edwards' horrendous last lap ride at Talladega earlier this year. Had it not been for the fences, a lot of fans would have been killed, because Edwards' Ford was headed upstairs before the fence contained it.

Change, of course, is nothing new to NASCAR. If it were, we'd still be watching a bunch of guys racing around a cow pasture wearing tee shirts and blue jeans with no helmets, much as they used to do in the pre-NASCAR days. We wouldn't see restrictor plates at Talladega or Daytona. A little side note here: Restrictor plates were as much a safety measure implemented for the fans as it was the drivers. NASCAR has always lost drivers on the track from time to time over the years, and the drivers understand the risks involved. A car flying into the stands is more than NASCAR can stomach though, and thankfully so. NASCAR can ill afford to have fans killed at the track, especially when the fans are the people who provide the money that keeps the sport going.

I don't know what direction NASCAR will take in the future, but there are a few things I don't want to see.

I don't want to see a mandate from above that demands that all the cars use crate engines, or sealed engine packages. In my opinion, the cars are already too much alike. You can't really tell a Ford from a Chevrolet from a Dodge from a Toyota unless you look at the lettering on the nose of the car. Yeah, there are some subtle differences in the shape of the nose, and of course the headlight and grill decals are different, but other than that, the main difference in appearance is totally cosmetic. I miss the days when even on a wide TV shot, or sitting in the stands at the track, you could tell the difference between the makes of the cars. I think making the different brands unique would help sell more cars as well, which is primarily why the automakers are involved in racing in the first place.

Taking the engines out of the equation would mean that NASCAR would basically issue engines as they now do restrictor plates. There would no longer be a need for an engine shop or engine tuners for the most part. I think that would be a bad way to go. Would it save money? Certainly, but it would be at the cost of laying off some very highly skilled people and giving up one of the few aspects of the sport in which teams can be unique.

If NASCAR would just lay down a few general ground rules, instead of policing steering bracket bolts and lug lengths, I feel the sport would be more interesting from a fan's point of view. I really don't want to see NASCAR become a warmed over version of the now defunct IROQ series.

I'd also hate to see a continuation of the current trend that seems to require drivers to be robots instead of real human beings. The drivers are already so isolated and remote from many of the fans now. Part of this is because of the increased popularity of the sport, and it's virtually impossible for drivers to sign all the autographs that are requested at the tracks. Gone are the days when Richard Petty would hang out in a K-Mart parking lot with his fans, signing autographs until the last fan was gone. I miss those days, but I also understand that it's just impossible for today's drivers to make every single fan happy.

What I miss more than access to the drivers is the lack of personalities that seem to be the norm in the NASCAR scene these days. There are exceptions, of course. Kyle Busch is a polarizing personality, to say the least. At times, Tony Stewart is still good for a great quote or two. And then, there's always Dale Earnhardt Jr., who always seems to be so friendly, yet still manages to say what he thinks without hurting any one's feelings. Jeff Gordon and even Jimmie Johnson seem to have loosened up a little over the last few years, and though they are seldom involved in verbal controversies, they will show a little true feeling from time to time.

I guess I miss guys like Petty, back in his early days. I miss the early version of Darrell Waltrip. I miss Cale Yarborough, and especially Bobby Allison. I miss Junior Johnson. I miss Neil Bonnett and A. J. Foyt. Of course, I really, really miss Dale Earnhardt.

NASCAR will continue to change, and that's not always a bad thing. I just hope that the changes make it more fun than just a show. I want to see NASCAR put all the emphasis on racing again.

Just good, hard racing. That's all I ask for.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Jeremy Mayfield: The saga that never ends.

First of all, I don't know anything about methamphetamine. I've never used it, I've never cooked it, I've never sold it, so I just don't know that much about it.

All I know is what I read. I've read that meth makes people very aggressive, and sometimes inhumanly strong. I've seen pics of Jeremy Mayfield. I'd arm wrestle him, meth or not. I think I could probably win.

As I've said before, I just don't see a former winner in the Cup series who's been banished to oblivion, starting his own team, cultivating his own sponsors, and going racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2009 if he's got a drug abuse problem. Jeremy knew NASCAR's new policy on drug testing. I assume he did. I did. I'm not a driver, and am in no way associated with any of the teams out there. But I knew about NASCAR's new drug testing policy. I'm guessing that Jeremy did too.

Personally, I'm backing Mayfield on this, not that it will matter much. I can't believe that Jeremy would be stupid enough to embark with his own team on this journey back to full time Sprint Cup racing if he was an abuser of meth. I don't think anyone would be that stupid, knowing NASCAR's new drug testing policy. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have put all that money at risk, even if I had it.

If NASCAR is railroading Jeremy, I wouldn't be too surprised. NASCAR does not like to be second guessed, or overruled. As NASCAR has always said to drivers who were being difficult, "NASCAR doesn't need you as much as you need NASCAR."

Jeremy Mayfield's career is probably over. He's now failed two drug tests, according to NASCAR.

Jeremy, we'll miss you.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bobby Allison's Greatest Day. And He Doesn't Remember It.

I am going to quote from a book I recently checked out of the local library. The title is My Greatest Day In Nascar. It's written by Bob McCullough. The book is a series of interviews that Bob had with a lot of current Nascar drivers during the 1999 season. It's a little dated, but for drivers like Bobby Allison, it's great. Bobby hasn't driven a race in a very long time now.

I will now quote what Bobby said about his greatest day in Nascar.

"Well, my day, I have no memory of... My greatest day would have had to have been the 1988 Daytona 500, which I won for the third time at age fifty., with the best young man in racing second behind me. However, a few months later, June 19, 1988, I was injured severely at Pocono... head injury, caused a lot of memory loss. I have zero memory of Daytona 1988... even today. I know it happened, I've got a lot of written stuff and so forth, I've had a tape of the race which I haven't watched in a long time, but even the tape from way back wouldn't do anything for me in terms of helping me remember anything."

"I just accept that I have no memory... They tell me that I won the race, and I've got some written record of having won the race, I've got some pictures of me, and the race team, and the family, and Davey Allison, and victory lane."

"You know, all head injuries are quite different, but traditionally, memory loss and the loss of being able to put things together to support what should be a memory, is fairly common, I guess, with a head injury. And so, what I did early on in my recovery, I said, Okay, I hurt, and I can't remember this, and I can't do some things that I used to do, but I'll try to focus on the positive side and go from there. And that's what I've done."

As a side note, I saw the 1988 Daytona 500, at least what TV showed us at the time. I was cheering on Bobby Allison, and was happy when he won. I also remember that horrible crash at Pocono, and the aftermath. Bobby Allison was on life support for a while, and his recovery was painfully slow. When Bobby finally recovered, he revealed that he basically had lost all memory before his crash. I don't know if that's completely true or not, but I have heard that the first time Davey talked to him in the hospital, Bobby asked "Who are you?"

How sad when a dad doesn't even recognize his own son. Bobby bounced back though, mostly as a team owner. His sons Davey and Clifford died only a few years later. Those events are burned in Bobby Allison's mind forever.

Bobby Allison was a great driver, and still is a great man. My hat is forever off to Bobby Allison and the other men just like him.

Bobby Allison is one of the reasons I'm a true Nascar fan.