Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Makes a Great NASCAR Driver?

Probably every fan of any driver has a different template as to what it takes to be a great driver in NASCAR.  Does it take a racing pedigree?  Does it take a famous father?  Does it just take a boat load of money?

Many drivers followed in their father’s footsteps to become racers.  Many guys, such as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and others have been around race cars since they could crawl.  Climbing into a race car one day and going for the checkered flag was as natural for them as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were for most of the rest of us when we were kids.  When I was a kid, I was fortunate enough to live in a place, where besides the hated hours I spent inside a school classroom, I had the opportunity to walk in the woods, ride my bicycle, and my friends and I would play endless hours of football, baseball, or shoot hoops out on the driveway.  Video games were still in their infancy, and quite frankly, boring to most of us.

On Saturday afternoons, we would gather in the living room and watch college teams play their various sports.  We always looked forward to ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and once in a while, we saw snippets of NASCAR races from places like Darlington, Daytona, North Wilkesboro, or Riverside.  I was born in 1963, so those of you who are old enough remember what NASCAR coverage was like back in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s.  Quite frankly, there wasn’t a lot of it, even here in South Carolina.

I read the newspapers when I was a kid, and always looked forward to reading the sports page on Monday mornings to see who had won yesterdays race.  Many times, NASCAR events were covered on the evening news as well, but to me, NASCAR was a world away, a world that seemed like a great place, but one which I had never actually experienced.

Probably, most kids in North America grew up in similar environments back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.  I grew up in a distinctly middle class family, and my father went to work every morning, and my mom stayed at home and took care of the house, and, of course, the kids.  Many of my friends had mothers who worked full time, but that was probably the exception, rather than the rule in rural South Carolina in those days, especially for a white middle class kid like me.

As usual, I digress.  Many kids throughout the South, and indeed, all over the continent, grew up with a garage that did not contain the family car.  No, this garage housed a race car.  In some instances, this race car provided a target to throw money at with little in the way of return, at least financially.  Yet some homes had a garage with a race car sitting inside of it that generated the income which put the food on the table, and kept the lights on inside the house.

Such was the case in the humble Earnhardt home in Kannapolis, North Carolina back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Like many Piedmont area cities back then, the local cotton mill was king.  Virtually everyone in neighborhoods in many of these southern cities worked at the local mill.  Ralph Earnhardt worked in the mill, just like all his neighbors, but went racing nights and weekends.  Ralph got so good at racing that he eventually gave up his day job to race his cars and build cars for other racers full time.

Ralph had a son named Dale, and of course the rest is history.  But Dale was a race car driver’s kid, and many of his father’s races were run in places like Columbia, South Carolina, or Myrtle Beach, and his father not only drove the race cars, he had to haul them back and forth to the race tracks.  Dale went to as many races as he could, but obviously couldn’t go to all of them.  Ralph would arrive home in the wee hours many mornings while Dale was asleep.  Dale would rise early, while his parents and his brothers and sisters were still sleeping, and go out to the shop, just to look at the race car.  If the car was banged up, or covered with mud, he knew his dad probably hadn’t had a good night.  If the car was relatively clean, he knew his father had probably won last night’s race.

Many of today’s drivers could tell you similar stories.  Dale Earnhardt sacrificed marriages to race.  Will Dale Earnhardt ever be named father of the year by most of his kids?  Probably not, but that was Dale Earnhardt’s passion:  Racing.

When Dale Earnhardt finally made it to the big time, which of course means NASCAR, in 1979, he was broke, basically homeless.  A couple of years later, after winning Rookie of the Year in 1979 and winning his first Winston Cup Championship in 1980, he was rich beyond his wildest dreams.  Dale Earnhardt went on to win six more championships, and a total of 76 races, amassing fortunes that no one could spend in a lifetime or two.

It sounds like a cliche, but drivers who succeed in this sport are driven.  It’s not always how much talent you have, it’s how you use it.  It’s never so much what you’ve been given, but how you use it, and how much fire in the belly motivates you to get there.

Anybody can drive a car fast.  Heck, even I can do it.  But it’s what motivates you to get to the point that you can clothe yourself, feed your family, and keep a roof over your head that really matters.

Right now, I’m not doing so good in that arena, but I’ve got heroes like Dale Earnhardt to study and hopefully, I can follow his example.

I’m hungry, just like Dale Earnhardt was at one time.  I want to succeed.  I don’t want to simply survive, I want to win!  I think I now know exactly how if feels to be a wannabe NASCAR driver.  Losing is not an option.  I’m here to Win!

Your thoughts and opinions are always appreciated here.  If I don’t respond, don’t worry, I do read them all.  I read them and think about them too, as an added bonus!

As always, thank you for all of your support!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

NASCAR To Bring Back Spoilers to Sprint Cup?

One of the most intriguing stories that I’ve seen over the last few days is the possibility that NASCAR will remove the infamous wings from Sprint Cup cars as soon as this year.  Possibly, the spoilers could be back, but it is unknown whether this will only be for certain races or if the sanctioning body will remove the wings altogether in the future.

Personally, I find this news to be encouraging, and I believe that most of the drivers and teams would much rather deal with spoilers than wings on the rear of their race cars.  In the preseason promotion at Daytona International Speedway televised by SPEED TV yesterday, several drivers, when asked, seemed to be whole heartedly in favor of the return to spoilers.  Some of the drivers questioned included Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Many, if not most of the Cup teams have had a difficult time getting a handle on setting up the handling for the winged cars since their introduction at the beginning of the 2008 season.  Personally, I’ve felt that the wings have been a hindrance to NASCAR’s never ending quest for safety, not only for the drivers, but also the fans.

We all remember the scary rides that Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman took at Talladega last year.  In Newman’s case, his car did not hit the catch fence, but had his car flipped upside down closer to the wall, it would have been easy for his car to have landed high up on the fence.  In Carl Edward’s case, his car did disintegrate when it hit the fence, and though the fence kept most of the car out of the crowd, at least one fan was badly injured by pieces of flying sheet metal.

Cars landing in the fence are nothing new at Talladega or Daytona.  One has to wonder, however, if the wing, which provides such tremendous down force on a car moving in a forward direction, does not also provide a tremendous amount of lift when the car is going backwards?  Keeping the cars out of the grandstands has to be NASCAR’s primary concern at any track, and it seems to me that the wing is clearly counterproductive to that goal.

The word being circulated by those in the know about NASCAR’s consideration of bringing back the spoilers has been centered mostly on the competitive advantages rather than possible safety gains.  Which ever way you look at it, bringing back the spoiler will be in NASCAR’s best interests to provide a better product for its fans in 2010 and beyond.

Besides, I’ve always thought those wings look rather silly, and as petty as that opinion sounds, it’s also part of what has to be the ultimate goal for NASCAR, which is of course producing happy fans who feel they’ve gotten their moneys worth.  To me, the COT, as it was known, was ungainly compared to the pre COT car, which I consider a thing of beauty, if not a true work of art.  I own several die cast models of pre COT cars, but I’ve not really been motivated to spend money on any COT replicas, mostly because they just don’t have the eye appeal that many of their ancestors had.  Putting a spoiler back on the new car will make it look better, at least in my opinion.  Spending money on merchandise is a tradition for NASCAR loyalists, and has helped the sport explode in popularity over the last fifteen or twenty years.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Few Random Thoughts About the 2010 NASCAR Season

After the 2009 season, what do you think of your favorite driver?  If he happened to be Jimmie Johnson, you probably couldn’t hope for a better season for 2010, except to wonder if JJ can keep the streak up for a fifth season.  If you happen to be a Jeff Gordon fan, what do you think about his chances of one upping his teammate and winning the fifth championship he’s been trying to win since 2001?

What about Mark Martin, the man who’s come so close but never been able to seal the deal?  What about Kyle Busch, the man who starts so strong, but finishes out of the running?

What about Dale Earnhardt Jr, the man who keeps falling short of the media’s expectations?  Will this be the year that Junior wins some races and seriously contends for that first Sprint Cup championship?

What do you think about the state of NASCAR in general?  Has Jimmie Johnson’s four consecutive championships turned fans off from the sport?  Has NASCAR become too predictable?  Can Brian France, Mike Helton and company find ways to put more posteriors in seats in 2010?  Can the TV networks recover from ratings losses experienced in 2009?  What do you think?  After all, your opinion is every bit, if not more valid than mine.  I’d love to hear from you!

I’m having mixed feelings about what has been probably been the hottest off season topic in NASCAR, and that, of course, is the addition of the feisty lady of IRL into NASCAR’s ranks, namely in Nationwide and ARCA for 2010.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about Danica Patrick.

Personally, I like Danica Patrick.  Of course, I’m a relatively healthy male in my mid 40’s, who appreciates not only a nice looking lady, but even more a woman who has the intestinal fortitude to drive some of the toughest rides around.  I think that Danica will be good for NASCAR, and personally, I’m hoping she sticks around for the long run.  I’d love to see Danica Patrick in Cup, eventually, because whether or not she succeeds as a stock car driver, she will have an impact on the sport.  Danica will keep the media and the fans buzzing, and that’s not a bad thing.  I’m hoping that Danica will take some of the heat off the never ending media blitz that seems to constantly surround her Nationwide team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.  I believe that Dale Jr. might be able to concentrate on his own job as a driver more if someone else was getting all the interviews for a change.

In this never ending experiment called television broadcasting of NASCAR events, what big changes, if any, will we see in 2010?  We already know of one big change at ESPN, with Dr. Jerry Punch being replaced as the play by play man in the booth by Ralph Sheheen, and for me, that’s a very positive move.  Jerry Punch’s abilities to develop stories and interviews in the garage and on pit road are legendary, and I feel that Jerry Punch will be much better utilized in that role than he has been in the booth.  Ralph, Dale Jarrett, and Andy Petree will be a strong team that will hopefully be able to convey the magic that is a NASCAR race to the viewers.

More than anything else, I hope 2010 is a safe year, not only for the drivers, but also the crews, the officials, and especially the fans.  Race weekends can be and should be celebrations, and I hope all of you who are reading this will attend at least one racing event this season, or at least have an opportunity to do so.  Going to a racing event weekend does not mean that fans have to get falling down drunk though.  Unfortunately, that is one of the stereotypes that often make the highlight reel on racing weekends, and I know you all know what I’m talking about.  A fan at Infineon jumps a fence and asks Matt Kenseth for an autograph under a red flag condition on the track.  A fan is escorted out of Talladega for throwing beer cans over the fence.  You get my drift.   Have fun, folks, but don’t do anything that’s going to embarrass your grandchildren when they’re watching ESPN 50 years from now!

The 2010 season is nearly upon us, and personally, I can’t wait!  I say that every year, but I’m really needing that dose of high octane, heart pounding moment when the engines fire up, and the cars go around the track.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Reality In the Year 2010

Reality obviously means a lot of different things to different people.  For some, reality means TV shows that show people competing against each other on a far away island, or trying to convince a panel of judges that they can sing or perform some other stage act.  Reality might also mean a serious health problem, lack of money to pay the rent or mortgage, or losing a job you thought would last a lifetime.

Reality in NASCAR can be just as difficult to define as it is in anyone’s normal, everyday life.  NASCAR drivers are measured by an infinite number of yard sticks, but most agree that the number of wins or championships a driver has achieved is usually concrete evidence of a driver’s ability, and his standing in the sport.

Reality also means that many drivers who have never won a major championship or many races in the sport’s elite series have also had a huge impact on the sport.  Take Mark Martin, for instance.  Mark has yet to win a Sprint Cup championship, but is one of the few members of the so called ‘old school’ class of drivers to whom many other drivers are compared.  Mark generally behaves as a gentleman both on and off the track, and that simply cannot be said about some other drivers, young or old. 

Take Morgan Shepherd.  Can you name a race that the man has won in NASCAR?  I can’t either.  Morgan, however, has made his mark in the world, and in life by helping people less fortunate than him.  If you want to know what a true living angel is, look no farther than Morgan Shepherd.

Kyle Petty has won a few Cup races, but Kyle will long be remembered for his efforts to help children at Victory Junction Gang Camp far longer than his driving ability will be remembered.   Kyle says he was inspired by his son, Adam, who died tragically at New Hampshire in 2000, but truth be told, I think Kyle has always had it in his heart, and to me, he’s one of NASCAR’s greatest people, ever.  Kyle has truly given back, not only to the sport he loves, but to people that could have never experienced such joy and fun, were it not for his kindness and generosity.  If NASCAR gave out an award for person of the decade, I would nominate Kyle Petty.

In other sports, I just heard today that two NBA players who play for the Washington Wizards drew guns on each other in the locker room on Christmas Eve, either before, during, or after a game.  We’re talking teammates here.  Such seems to be the culture of the National Basketball Association.  Can you imagine Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon squaring off with pistols in the garage at your favorite NASCAR venue?  Merry Christmas, NBA.  I have not watched an NBA game in well over a decade, and don’t plan to for several decades in the future.  The NBA just exemplifies why I think NASCAR is the greatest sport in the world.  NASCAR is about family and loyalty.  Normal, everyday family members don’t draw guns on each other over a gambling debt, or for any other reason for that matter.  If NASCAR is like “Leave it to Beaver,” and the NBA is like “The Sopranos,”  I’ll take the happy family any day.  Am I old fashioned?  Why, yes I am, and pretty proud of it. 

There’s enough drama in life and on CNN and MSNBC without having to hear about pistol standoffs on ESPN.  Through my own super secret methods of readership demographics analysis, I’ve determined that most of you would consider me an to be an old guy anyway.  I don’t mind.  Everyone has that older uncle or friend of the family that nobody likes to talk about!  If that’s my niche in your life, then so be it!

2010 not only is a new year, but also a new decade.  NASCAR will go on, and just next month the show will get cranked up again at Daytona.  It feels so good to say ‘next month’ and not ‘next year.’  I, like most loyal NASCAR fans sometimes start to get bored near the end of the season when it looks inevitable who will win the Cup.  For four years in a row, Jimmie Johnson has been NASCAR’s champion, and he has deserved it.  But it does get old after a while, unless you’re a huge JJ fan.  Should Jimmie Johnson win the whole shebang in 2010, I’ll give him and the 48 team kudos yet again, because it will be again well deserved.

Personally, I hope we see a dark horse, a long shot, in other words suddenly shoot to the top of the charts in Sprint Cup.  It’s not that I don’t wish a record breaking (again) 5th consecutive championship, because Jimmie and crew are pretty likable guys, it’s just because I think it’s time for NASCAR nation to get excited again.  For whatever reasons, Jimmie just doesn’t create the excitement that 4 consecutive championships deserve.  NASCAR is a fan driven sport, and if the fans aren’t excited, then the sport needs something different.  It’s just that simple.  NASCAR needs some new heroes, and I doubt that Jimmie Johnson could slay a dragon or catch a bullet with his teeth and fit that description for most fans.  Jimmie Johnson is a genuinely nice guy who just doesn’t attract a ton of attention.

On another note, but one that is pertinent to the subject of reality, don’t look to your sports heroes or to so called reality TV for a dose of what the media calls ‘reality.’  Reality is everywhere.  You don’t have to travel far to get a big heaping dose of it, actually.  I haven’t written much here lately, in part because I’ve been spending a lot of time in a hospital, trying to help care for an ailing family member.  Many of you who read this know how this is, and for those of you who don’t, unfortunately you probably will one day.

A local sports talk show host has a son who has been in and out of hospitals and treatment centers for much of the last couple of years.  As I understand it, the boy is only in his teens, and never has really had a chance to have a life, because he’s been hit so hard by a disease neither he nor his father had ever heard of, until it hit this boy.  Recently on the host’s show, he remarked that he didn’t think much of reality TV shows.  His comment was along the lines of this:  “If you want reality, go spend some time in a hospital.”

I was struck by that comment, and now I indeed know it’s true.  I’ve spent a lot of hours this past week seeing what happens even in a small town hospital.  Battles between life and death are literally being waged not only daily, but hourly.  That, my friends, is reality.

By all means, please, please support your favorite NASCAR drivers and other sports heroes, whether they be football, baseball, or even, yes, the NBA.  Do your part in supporting your teams.  Support your favorite athletes or teams with all you heart, but remember to do one other thing, if not for me, then for yourself.

Support those who have helped you be who you are, whether it be family, friends, a mentor, a pastor, or whomever. 

Help them when you can, because sooner or later, everyone will need some help.

That’s reality, my friends.