Monday, December 28, 2009

Home Is Where It’s At

I know the title of this article is probably what many would consider to be a ‘southernism,’ which is to say that if you grew up in the south, the phrasing would make perfect sense.  If you grew up, say, in Omaha, Nebraska, or New Jersey, or Los Angeles, you might consider the title to be the words of a southern red neck that just doesn’t know any better.

And you would be right.

Long time readers of this column know that I am proud to be southerner.  For those of you who didn’t grow up in a place like Georgia, or Alabama, or North Carolina, our language can be tough to decipher.  Those of you reading this article are likely fans of NASCAR, however.  If you’ve followed NASCAR for more than the last year, you are used to southern accents that still somehow permeate the sport.  If you’ve heard Darrell Waltrip, or Larry McReynolds speak, you’ve heard southern accents.  There are even a few drivers around with real southern accents, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Elliot Sadler, Mark Martin, Bill Eliot, and a few others.  Owners, such as Rick Hendrick, Teresa Earnhardt, and others speak with a southern accent.  We rarely hear Teresa speak, but when you do, you know she’s not from Upstate New York.

I was born in the early 1960’s, 1963, to be exact.  I was born and grew up in the Carolinas, South Carolina to be specific.  These days, we don’t really have many NASCAR drivers from my home state, but we have legends who call South Carolina home.  There’s David Pearson, and Cale Yarborough,.  If you’ve never heard of them, turn in your NASCAR fan badge right now, please.

South Carolina is also home the of Darlington Speedway, which is one of the oldest tracks still gracing the  NASCAR circuit.  In the old days, they actually used to hold NASCAR sanctioned races at places like Columbia, Greenville-Pickens, Myrtle Beach, and other tracks around the Palmetto State.

NASCAR has never been an exclusively southern sport though.  Even in the early 1950’s, it was common for the NASCAR guys to run races in California, Pennsylvania, New York, and even in Canada.  The drivers were never always from the south either.  They came from practically every state in the union,   In the early days, many were veterans of World War II, and though most had had their share of excitement in the war, many tried their hand in stock car racing.  Some were successful, some were not.

Though I have read much of the history of NASCAR, I was not personally aware of the sport until I was about 9 years old.  On a Saturday afternoon, I was lying on the floor in the den, watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports.  There had been a race somewhere, and ABC covered the high lights of the race.  They showed all these souped up cars running around a race track somewhere at what seemed to me impossible speeds.  I was fascinated.  At the end of the race, the ABC crew interviewed the race winner, a guy named Petty.  He climbed out of his car, took his goggles off, and his face was stained almost black from the smoke and oil that made it somehow inside the cockpit of his race car.  This guy Petty had a huge smile, and thanked his fans for showing up and making the day special for him.  I immediately liked the guy, and just like that, another young Richard Petty fan was born.

I was a fan of Richard Petty for quite a few years, and tried to catch the high lights on local news or Wide World of Sports whenever I could.  I’d never been to a real race, but wanted to go to one really bad.  In somewhere around 1977 or so, I got my chance, and went with another family to the Greenville-Pickens Speedway, between, strangely enough, Greenville, SC, and Easley, SC.  Easley is in Pickens County, SC, so in that way, it all makes sense.

I didn’t get to see Richard Petty ‘s famous 43 that night, but I did get to see another car tearing around the track, and he was passing cars left and right, sometimes wrecking them in the attempt to pass them.  This car finished second that night, if I remember correctly.  The driver of the car was some guy named Earnhardt, and he was from Kannapolis, North Carolina.  I’d never heard of him, but I soon would hear a lot more about him.

Racing was, of course, not the only sport around where I grew up.  We had, just like any other place in the US, football, basketball, baseball, and sometimes even soccer.  I went to a lot of high school football games, basketball games, and even some baseball games.  In high school, I ran cross country.  In those days, I could run for miles.  These days, it’s a hardship to drive for miles!

But, as usual, I digress.  In those days, NASCAR wasn’t the most important part of my life.  There were girls, after all.  I loved several girls with all my heart and soul.  From afar, of course, because, they were, after all, girls!  I didn’t know how to talk to them, and to be honest, I can talk to them now, but I still don’t really know what to say.  Whether I just try to be myself or try to make women think I am a man of the world, they usually end up thinking “This guy is an idiot.”  Unfortunately, they’re all probably right.  That’s why I live with cats.

And still further, I digress.  I was born in Columbia, South Carolina at the tender age of, well, nothing.  You may have already figured that out.  I’m glad.  I spent  my first six years in the rather warm and humid climate of Columbia, and when I was six, exactly six, my family moved to Taylors, South Carolina.  Taylors is now considered a suburb of Greenville, and probably was even then.  We then moved to the house that I really grew up in, in Greenville County, SC.  It was then out in the country, but probably couldn’t be considered that now.  I watched NASCAR on TV whenever it was on, but never considered it my favorite.  Sure, I liked watching the guys named Petty, Waltrip, Yarborough, Pearson, and others win, but I only paid little attention.

In around 1979, however, that dude I’d once seen at Greenville-Pickens burst onto the scene, and turned NASCAR upside down.  Earnhardt won rookie of the year, and in 1980, he won his first Cup championship.  That had never been done before, and not even Richard Petty had done that.

To be honest with you, at first, I never really liked Dale Earnhardt.  He wrecked people.  He bumped people in order to win races.  I appreciated his aura as a blue collar driver, who grew up as many of my friends did, but which I didn’t.  My father was an engineer, and made a good salary, and I’d never lived in a mill hill home growing up like Dale Earnhardt did.  Yeah, maybe I was a little arrogant.  Maybe even a lot.

As time went by, especially in the 1980’s, I was growing up, and Dale Earnhardt was winning darn near everything.  Eventually I became an Earnhardt fan, though gingerly.  I still didn’t like his tactics, but I had to admire his drive and determination.  The man had a ton of talent, and he wasn’t afraid to add in a little grit and ruthlessness to get the job done.  Dale Earnhardt soon replaced Darrell Waltrip as the bad boy of stock car racing.

At a race in Darlington, in the mid 1980’s, I think I was introduced to the truth by a Waltrip fan sitting next to me.  Earnhardt won the race, but the guy next to me said “At least Earnhardt came up right.  He used to starve to go racing.”  It wasn’t until many years later that I came to find how true that was.

Earnhardt, of course, became a legend, perhaps before his time.  On February 18, 2001, he was taken away from us forever.  I cried that day, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  The last time I’d cried was when Davey Allison’s life was snuffed out forever in a helicopter crash at Talladega.

If you’re a NASCAR fan, these guy’s lives become an important part of our own lives.  Uniquely, NASCAR fans have probably more access to their heroes than does any fan of any other sport.  NASCAR fans, treasure the days that you have cheering your driver on to win.  Those days may by numbered, and only God can tell you for sure.

As for me, I’m glad I live in the state of South Carolina.  It’s my home.  I never want to leave here.  I’ve got Charlotte to the north of me, Atlanta to the south of me.  The south is not now or ever really the true home of NASCAR, but I’ve been blessed to live not so far from my heroes when it comes to NASCAR.

Living on hallowed ground, maybe?  Probably not.  But even the most jaded fan of  NASCAR must admit that some of the best times we’ve ever had here were at tracks like Daytona, Talladega, Darlington, Rockingham, Richmond, Bristol, and Martinsville.   Home is where it is.  In NASCAR, Home for me is in the south.

South Carolina isn’t much, but it’s home.  What could be better than to be at home?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I Wish I Could Dance Like Snoopy!

Can anything be more joyous than a puppy dancing like Snoopy?  Probably not much unless it's me.  I'm very, very happy for a lot of reasons.  First of all, I'm happy because you've been kind enough to read this column over the last year, or even years.  I can't thank you enough for that.

I'd also like to thank my good friends over at American Muscle Cars. and of course our friends at Corvette Guys.  Without those kind folks, this page might not even be here.  You guys have been wonderful to me, and I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas!

I'd like to thank Pat, my sister in law, without who's grace and wonderful help I couldn't be publishing this column today.  I'd like to than my brother Alan, who helped in so many ways as well.

I'd like to thank my sister Ellen, who has been the greatest big sister ever.  I'd like to thank my parents, who at age 85, are still an inspiration and huge influence for me in my life.  I'd like to thank Deborah, without who's friendship I could not possibly be alive today.  I also want to thank my friends Heather, Karen, Tam, Butler, Kara and yes, even you, Carol.  Thanks for all you do and for keeping me sane in in insane world.

More importantly, I'd like to thank the fans of NASCAR, the absolutely greatest sport in the world, and thank you for all you do supporting the various causes and charities that you do such great things for.  You, the fans, are what really drives this sport, and I thank you for doing that.

Thank you, dear readers, for taking the time to read here.  I hope each and every one of you has a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How Much Privacy Should NASCAR Drivers Have?

Much has been said about how difficult it is for NASCAR drivers to lead comparatively normal lives, such as living safely in their own homes, being members of or being the heads of families, being able to go to the local restaurant and having a bite to eat without being mobbed by the media or fans, or being able to go to the grocery store and buy a gallon of milk without being molested.

Let me go on record as saying that I’m certainly for drivers, crew, owners, and even music and movie stars to have the ability to do all of those things.  When you get right down to it, we’re all human beings, and we all need a little space and privacy at times.  We all need a place to feel totally safe and secure in.

Personally, the only way I get by in public is to wear a mustache, glasses, and often go unshaven and wear a baseball cap when I go out to buy a gallon of milk.  So far, that disguise seems to be working, because I am seldom mobbed, unless you consider the cats in my yard, and sometimes even in my house.  Thus far, I have been successful in escaping my throng of fans when appearing in public.   Unfortunately, the same can not be said for my ability to escape the attention of the South Carolina Highway Patrol when I’m driving a teensy bit over the speed limit, or the local tax collector when I neglect to pay taxes on my almost brand new eleven year old pickup truck.  Even the mustache didn’t work that time.  The Highway Patrol  trooper was kind enough to only give me a warning.  “Teensy” was not exaggerating.  I was going “46 and a half in a 45 zone.”  It says so on my warning ticket.  Notice to all travelers:  Speeding is a fruitless pursuit in the state of South Carolina.  Plan early and take your time when you head to Darlington next year.

But as usual, I digress.  This column is about NASCAR drivers, not me.  When any driver signs a contract to drive in any of NASCAR’s series, there should be a disclaimer:  “I,  (YOUR NAME HERE) agree to the most intensive examination of my life, family, ancestors, pets, personal automobiles, favorite movies, TV shows, Internet sites, adult beverage, food, and bathroom habits, etc., etc., that only a CIA operative or NASA astronaut could appreciate.  For the rest of my life.  Plus 50 years.”  Hmmm…  Would Jeremy Mayfield have signed that disclaimer?

Seriously, though.  I don’t mind listening to drivers lose their cool on their radio links to their crew chiefs and spotters.  How many of you have not lost your temper at least once in the course of doing your job?  I know I have.  I have probably lost my temper  two or three times already just writing this column.  Needless to say, however, it’s all part of the job when it comes to the drivers.  They are, after all, in the heat of battle, and sometimes things just slip.

When a driver agrees to give an interview, and voluntarily puts his mouth in front of a microphone and his face in front of a TV camera, that’s a little different.  The driver may not have his emotions under control, but he has to know that his actions will be seen by thousands, and most likely millions of people.  If a driver can make it all the way to the big leagues, such as is NASCAR, a driver should have plenty of experience with composing himself and controlling his emotions.  I say this with one exception, however.

Putting a microphone in the face of a driver who has just 10 seconds before crawled out of a smoking heap of ruined sheet metal, the result of an indiscretion by the guy that was his buddy last week, is simply asking for controversy.  I think that discretion should be the rule here.  Give the driver time to go back to the hauler, clean up a little, and compose his thoughts before asking for a live interview.  Heated words reported around the world might be fun for fans, but probably not too good for racing relationships.  Give the guys a chance to cool off, for goodness sake.

The drivers in NASCAR are professionals.  They didn’t get there by accident.  They got there by virtue of their God given talent.  They’re not babes in the woods, but they are human, strangely enough.

Just like you and me.

How much privacy should a NASCAR driver have?  So far as being able to live his life like a normal human being when he’s away from the race track, I am all for drivers being able to live a normal family life, or at least as much as they are able to.   Fans sometimes get carried away in their attempt to meet drivers in informal settings, and I hope that fans will understand that this type of situation is both uncomfortable for drivers and their families.  After all, how would you feel if total strangers came up to you and wanted to talk to you or ask for your autograph when you were minding your own business?  How would you feel if you were having a quiet dinner with your spouse and kids and suddenly a total stranger walked up to your table and started taking pictures of you and your kids?  I wouldn’t like it very much, and doubt if you would either.

Again, how much privacy should a  NASCAR driver have?

As much as they can get away with.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Danica Patrick's finally Ready to Jump Into the NASCAR Pool

It's not news anymore, but Indy Racing League driver Danica Patrick will soon make her first foray into NASCAR, which of course, is arguably the toughest series in which to race in the world.  If not the toughest, it certainly earns the most money.

Danica Patrick coming to NASCAR could be a great boost to the series, which has shown signs of lack of interest among it's fan base.  TV ratings have been down in 2009, as have ticket sales.  NASCAR, like most other entertainment activities in America, has been hurt by the downturn in the economy as of late.  People with less or no disposable income simply can't afford the travel costs, ticket sales, or even the subscription for cable or satellite TV that is required to watch many of the races.

A spark is needed to reignite the NASCAR fan base, and Danica Patrick could be just the ticket.  It's been a long time since a female driver has raised as much emotion and banter among racing fans.  Danica has a fiery personality, and isn't afraid to say what's on her mind for the most part.  In other words, Danica Patrick could be perfect for a sport where many fans complain that no one has the guts to speak their mind.

Danica has already generated a boost in the IRL series TV ratings, and it's a safe bet that she will do the same for NASCAR when she makes her debut in the #7 JR Motorsports owned Go Daddy Chevrolet at California in 2010.

Former Sprint Cup team crew chief  Tony Eury Jr. will be Danica's crew chief in the Nationwide series, and one has to wonder if Tony Jr. has jumped from the frying pan into the fire, since he has to know that all the racing world will be watching him as closely as they did when he was his cousin's crew chief,, that cousin being JR Motorsports team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.  I don't doubt that Tony Jr. is the man for the job, but it's likely to get pretty stressful in the spotlight he's going to be under.

Personally, I welcome Danica to NASCAR, and I hope she finds much success in its various racing series.  I don't expect her to win races right out of the gate, but I expect her to learn a lot in both the NASCAR Nationwide series and the ARCA series.

I hope that soon Danica will be contending to win races, and then winning races.  I hope to see her doing the same in the Sprint Cup series soon.

Whatever happens, Danica Patrick will be good for NASCAR.  I hope NASCAR is just as good for Danica.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Charting the Changes: NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2010

As always, there will be changes between the 2009 Sprint Cup season and the 2010 season.  Times are changing, and even the moon and the tides can't stop it.  Though there seem to be few earth shattering changes as of now, history will tell the entire story.

First of all, Jamie McMurray will indeed be the odd man out from Rousch-Fenway racing for 2010, as the company has to shrink to 4 Cup teams from it's previous 5 teams.  Jamie will be driving the #1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy for Earnhardt-Ganassi in 2010, reunited with his old boss Chip Ganassi.  Will Jamie succeed in this ride, vacated by Martin Truex Jr?  Only time will tell.  I'm wondering if the EGR program will be able to put another team in the Chase next year besides Juan Pablo Montoya.  Jamie is capable of winning races, but he's going to have all the parts complete to do so.

In the #12 Verizon Dodge will be Brad Keselowski, recent Dale Earnhardt Jr. Nationwide driver and Cup winner at Talladega in the spring race of 2009.  Brad will have Jay Guy has his crew chief, and as much as I like this young driver, I imagine he will have some automatic adversaries on the track, namely Denny Hamlin, and probably a dude named Kyle as well.

In the #56 NAPA Toyota, we will see Martin Truex Jr., coming from the #1 EGR Chevy.  Martin will be basically replacing team owner Michael Waltrip in the NAPA car, though Mikey will likely run a few races in his familiar 55 machine when he can find sponsorship, and quite frankly, when he feels like it.  Martin Truex likely will be exactly what MWR needs in 2010, which is a proven winner, hard charger, and a new guy on the block trying to impress his friends.  Truex is a great acquisition for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Bobby Labonte received a major shock in 2009 when it was announced that he would be removed from the driver's seat of the #96 Ford for 7 races in favor of rookie Eric Darnell because Darnell had a deal for those 7 races.  Old friend Slugger Labbe called up Bobby and helped get him a ride in the #71Ford, and darned if Bobby didn't start running some pretty good qualifying laps and even some good races in that Ford.  Bobby will be driving full time in 2010 in the TRG car next year, with Slugger continuing to sit on top of the pit box.  Apparently, there is some talk that the team may change to Chevy or even Dodge, so that's all up in the air right now.  It's good that Bobby landed on his feet again, so it would seem.

Eric Darnell will replace Bobby Labonte in the 96 car, if indeed that team continues to exist in 2010.  We'll see.

There are more changes to chart, and I will put those up in a later column.