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!


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