Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Stick and Ball Sports and Stock Car Racing

I, like many racing fans, was much more aware of baseball, football, basketball, and probably even soccer before I became a fan of racing.  I didn’t grow up in a racing family, and didn’t know anyone who went racing when I was a little kid.  Somehow, I discovered racing though.

My childhood friend was a kid named Thomas, who was the only kid who lived near my home in the rural Blue Ridge area of northern Greenville County in Upstate South Carolina.  We played all the regular sports, the aforementioned stick and ball sports, and had a pretty good time doing it.  We also rode our bikes, enjoying carving out off road trails where we could skid, slide, and maybe catch a little air from time to time.  We hiked, we went camping, and like all little boys, we went through our hatchet and BB gun phases.  There wasn’t a tree we wouldn’t chop, and there wasn’t a target that wasn’t suitable for our ‘rifles’ as we called our BB guns.  Well, maybe we wouldn’t shoot out our mother’s windows or put dimples in their cars, but pretty much everything else was fair game.

Somewhere along the line, when we weren’t out playing our own games, we would sit down in front of a TV on weekends and watch ABC’s Wide World of Sports, which was a weekly digest of all that was good in the sports world on a weekly basis.  Both Thomas and I enjoyed the NASCAR segments that highlighted the previous week’s race.  We became Petty fans, and also Pearson fans, and Yarborough fans, and maybe even Allison fans.  This was in the early 1970’s, and nobody around my neck of the woods had really ever heard of a kid named Earnhardt, or his old man.

Not all of the Upstate South Carolina area was as ignorant of the name Earnhardt though.  Ralph Earnhardt had been racing at Greenville-Pickens Speedway for years, had won some races there, and had developed a bit of a fan following even here in South Carolina, which is a tribute for a former mill worker from Kannapolis, North Carolina.  Ralph brought his kids to the track on Saturday nights, and often the kids would play with the kids of other drivers, and even the kids of the owners of the track, a family who’s name was Blackwell.  Later on, I worked for American Federal Bank in Greenville, South Carolina.  There was a guy in the mail room named Gary Blackwell.  When I knew Gary, his father was the owner of Greenville-Pickens Speedway.  He had played, as a child, with kids he knew as Danny, Randy, and Dale.  Dale was the oldest, and often lead the younger kids into trouble with their parents, it would seem.  As Dale grew older, he spent more time with his father in the pits, helping to set up the race car, learning what he could about racing.

I became a racing fan early in my childhood, I guess you could say.  There was not much coverage of the sport on TV when I was a kid, except for Wide World of Sports.  I found out that David Pearson was from nearby Spartanburg, South Carolina, and I began pulling for David.  He did not disappoint.  I still think that had David Pearson raced as many races as did Richard Petty, Pearson would be called the King, not Petty.

Over the years, I have followed all manner of sports.  I used to love baseball, but the doping era made it not as exciting as it used to be for me.  A couple of strikes also helped dim it’s charm for me.  I read in a Robert B. Parker book about how baseball was well suited to radio, or at least it used to be.  I feel like it is better suited to radio than TV.  I love to watch the sun going down, and listening to the Braves game on the radio.  Baseball, unfortunately, has lost much of it’s prestige for me though.  I don’t count the efforts of drug enhanced players to the legendary accomplishments of players like Mays, Mantle, Jackson, and others.  Baseball had it’s chance, but it blew it with me.

I love college football.  Next to stock car racing, college football is probably my favorite sport.  I live about 20 or so miles away from Clemson University, which won the national championship in football in 1981.  I graduated high school in 1981, so I was very aware of that January day in 1982 when Clemson did what was before and since considered the impossible.  Clemson’s head coach, who is originally from Alabama, and played under the legendary head coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, led the 1981 squad to the ultimate victory in 1981.  His name is Danny Ford, and he’s retired from coaching now, but only lives a few miles away from me here in Anderson County.  Coach Danny’s got a farm here, and enjoys living here.  He’s a neighbor, of sorts.  He’s regularly seen around Anderson and Pickens counties, and is a nice guy.  Just a regular guy, taking care of his farm.

The National Football League is probably the most popular, and most watched sport in the USA.  I enjoy the NFL to a certain extent, because for the last few years I’ve been playing in a fantasy league with some of my former co-workers.  It’s fun, and it keeps up the interest, but for the most part, watching guys who get paid mega bucks to play football just doesn’t do it for me as much as college football does.  I know, these are the best football players in the world in the NFL, but I get tired of all the scandals that seem to plague these guys so much.  Ever hear of Michael Vick?  Ever hear of Chad Ocho Cinco?  I get tired of some of this stuff, pretty quickly.  Posturing, flaunting their affluence, seems to be the mark of professional athletes.  Some of these guys go a little overboard though doing it. 

I loved the NBA back when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were playing for the Lakers and the Celtics, respectively.  I used to enjoy the finals when it seemed that the NBA really mattered, at least to me.  Lately, I’ve gotten tired of all the ghetto thug aspect of the NBA.  I followed the Lebron James saga with some interest, but the fact that he’s trying to build a mega team with the Miami Heat just doesn’t get me excited anymore.  I could care less about the NBA, though I might tune in sometimes during the finals.  Other than that, the NBA holds absolutely no interest for me.

I know there is a small contingent of what the rest of the world calls ‘football’, but which we here in the USA call ‘soccer’.  I hate watching 90 minutes of anything that ends up in a 0 - 0 score.  I know, I don’t really appreciate the intricacies of the game.  I don’t really get hockey either.  To me, it’s the same as soccer, except played with sticks.  But I’m just a dumb Southerner who doesn’t know any better.

My passion, at least for the last few years, has been stock car racing.  I was a huge fan before Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001.  I was a fan of Dale Jr. since about 1998.  I was a fan of Davey Allison when he died at Talladega in a helicopter accident.  I was a fan of Ron Hornaday when he came to Cup, and remembered that he had been the original driver of Dale Earnhardt’s Truck series team.  Ron went back to Trucks and has been awesome, driving for Kevin Harvick Inc. 

NASCAR salutes the military.  NASCAR fans as a whole are patriotic.  Probably fans of other sports support the USA as well, but never so much as in NASCAR.  Where else do you see men and women in uniform so publicly praised as in any NASCAR event?

I get so tired of stick and ball sports guys on the radio and TV claiming that racing is not a sport.  It’s so old.  I get tired of hearing that Dale Jr. can’t drive a race car.  On a certain sports show based out of Charlotte, NC, it was announced that a certain NBA star beat Dale Jr. on the race track.  In fact, that was not true, though the stick and ball dudes at this station crowed about how inept Dale Jr. was on the track.  The fact is, there where two races.  The first race was five laps.  Dale Jr. started a lap down.  Five laps to make up a lap and beat the leader.  Dale Jr. did it, and whooped the NBA star’s fanny.  The next race was ten laps, and they started even, though the NBA star just had to drive the car as fast as he could.  Dale Jr. had to make two four tire pit stops, and adhere to the 35 MPH pit road speed while doing so.  Dale Jr. again whooped the butt of the NBA star.  Whoever reported the idiot comment on the Charlotte radio station should have his butt fired for being a complete idiot, if nothing else.  But as always, on the day those races happened, everyone joined in the bashing of  Dale Earnhardt Jr.   Nobody checked the facts.  But you know what?  Very few in the news media checks facts anyway.  They just report, and the more sensational the story, the better.  It’s better to report lies than it is to take a few minutes and find out the truth.  It’s easy to ridicule Dale Earnhardt Jr., but it’s hard to report the fact that he’s actually a pretty darn good race car driver.

Stick and ball guys always say that NASCAR isn’t a sport because anybody can drive a car around a track.  That’s true.

But can you drive a car around that track at 180 or 205 miles per hour, for 500 miles with 42 of  your best friends, who might be annoyed with you after the move you put on someone last week at another track?  To me NASCAR is the ultimate sport.  People die playing it.  All the drivers know in the back of their minds that they could die doing what they do.  They’ve all seen it happen.  Nobody wants it to happen, but it does, sometimes.  In the NFL, what’s the worst injury?  Maybe a broken leg or arm, or a torn ACL.  Baseball?  Probably the same.  NBA?  Sprained ankle or maybe a concussion when a player’s head hit’s the floor.  Or the backboard, or the hoop.  What ever.

Stock car racing involves the very real possibility of death.  Stock car racers feel like they are never going to die doing what they love to do, but in actuality, some of them do every year.  Not athletes, eh?  Try doing something you love, knowing that you might die for it.  NASCAR doesn’t have a hold on that deal, but stock car drivers are given a bum rap by the media in this country, most of whom simply sneer down their noses at a sport that people risk their lives in.

Shame to the media that doesn’t understand how brutal death can be, even in sports.  Shame to the so called experts that don’t understand what putting one’s life on the line in the pursuit of one’s job can be like.  Sit in your air conditioned studios and tell me that racing isn’t a sport.  Get in a car and try it sometime.

Then tell me that racing isn’t a sport.  If you’ve got any wind left, tell me that racing isn’t a sport after you’ve been four inches from the wall going 200 miles per hour.  Tell me that it was easy, that you didn’t sweat at all.  Tell me that you weren’t in fear for your life.  Racing isn’t a sport, right?  Seriously, go try it out and give me your opinion after you’ve actually done something besides talk into a microphone for your money.

Postscript:  My friend Thomas died on July 24th, 2010.  This one’s for you, buddy.

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