I’ve been a NASCAR fan for two decades, but was a casual watcher for a decade beyond that. I remember the good old days of Southern boys beating and banging on each others’ cars and occasionally each other. I also remember the bad old days of drivers dying in accidents. I’m so old that Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., retiring comes as a shock because those are the young guys, or so I thought.
NASCAR has grown up a lot in the past 30 years, moving away from its backwoods-racing, moonshining Southern roots to its sleek, international, highly technological form that it has today. Mary Katharine Ham writes about her history around NASCAR that began with covering the sport as a cub reporter in Rockingham, North Carolina and how it has changed over the years.
As NASCAR prepares to say goodbye to Dale Jr. at the end of this year, it is the acknowledged end of an era. Everyone is taking stock (no pun intended) and wondering where the sport—which has begun to struggle to find viewers and attendees lately—will go from here. Have attention spans shortened to the point where viewers won’t watch a whole 3-hour race?1 Is the end of the shade-tree mechanic car culture in the US a harbinger of the end of car racing fascination?
I have to admit that giving up a whole afternoon nearly every Sunday between February and November is more than I can do, especially when September hits and the Patriots are playing. Maybe it’s also the constant tinkering with the format of the races and the championship to allow more drivers and teams a chance to win, which sometimes leaves drivers out of the winner’s circle because of some arbitrary, technical problem. And then great drivers like Jimmy Johnson and Kyle Busch win the lion’s share despite the attempts at parity.
I remember where I was when Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died and how I felt. It was awful. But I also remember rooting for his son, who won some, but who never quite reached level of winning you’d expect from my and all the fans’ adulation. His father won 7 NASCAR championships, a feat only equalled by Richard Petty and Jimmy Johnson. But despite winning “Most Popular Driver” honors for 14 consecutive years, he’s never won a single championship at the top level of NASCAR. So why did we love him so? I have to adit, it’s partly because he carries the name and legacy of his father. It’s a story that the fans love, but undoubtedly a heavy burden.
Maybe as Dale moves on to his retirement and his new life with his new wife, NASCAR can have some closure too. I hate to see Dale, Jr. go, but maybe this separation will do them both some good and create a new future for the both of them.
- A question facing baseball and golf as well. And the average NASCAR race is nearly a half hour longer than the average baseball game. ↩