Late last week, a conversation with a 60-something fan at the airport inspired me to scribe a blog imploring NASCAR to better embrace its rich Southern history. The suggestion was that the sport re-establish the Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C., on Labor Day weekend and develop an advertising campaign that plainly offers thanks to the blue-collar crowd that ushered NASCAR to the dance.
It's not much, but it'd go a very long way toward showing the good ol' boys they're neither forgotten nor left behind in NASCAR's ever-expanding empire -- even though so many of them feel just that way in an era that has forsaken traditional markets and considers questioning authority or doctoring your fenders or slapping somebody plumb dang silly "detrimental to stock car racing."
The response has been interesting, to say the least (more on that in a moment). It even elicited some requests from industry types that I share this opinion with a broader audience. I didn't even know people read blogs.
Here's an excerpt from "Embrace the past, NASCAR":
Southern folks are outwardly proud of things fundamentally Southern -- sweet tea, country music, pickup trucks, twang. Stuff like that. NASCAR is one of the things we wholly consider ours. That's why big-market expansion is turning off many so-called "traditional" fans.
The fact is expansion and transition are part of big business. You can't fault NASCAR for growing and moving toward profit. Every business does that, and inevitably there are resulting casualties. I completely understand how a guy in the rural south feels like Casualty 1A of NASCAR's expansion. No more Wilkesboro. No more Rockingham. One date at Darlington.
I'm not saying Fontana shouldn't have two dates, either. Economically it makes sense for International Speedway Corp. to hold two races in the Los Angeles market. They make more money at Fontana than they do at Darlington. So what? Give Fontana its two dates. Just not Labor Day. Labor Day in Darlington is an institution and should be cherished as such.
A direct voice of appreciation wouldn't hurt, either. Recognition makes a man feel good.
A couple years back, Coors Brewing unveiled an advertising campaign that placed chairman Pete Coors in the middle of a pillowy Coloradoan snow drift that matched impeccably his full head of hair. As I recall it, he stood easily alongside a bubbling stream filled with crisp, pure mountain water. He wore a burlap jacket with a sheep-skin collar, the kind real men wear out on the prairie.
When he spoke you could see his breath. He was direct and the message was simple: This is who we are. This is where we came from. We're damn proud of that and haven't forgotten it. Thank you for drinking our beer -- you got us here.
As a consumer positioned smack-dab in the middle of the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male category, it was one of the more effective messages I've ever seen. I'm big on the "back where I come from" pride. We aren't the big dog, but we're striving to be by focusing on our loyal consumers. And we know who we are. Drink up.
NASCAR could take a lesson.
In general sports-entertainment terms, they aren't the big dog. They're striving to be and have millions of fans as loyal as your Labrador. But a lot of the ones that got them there feel alienated.
Maybe it's time to show them some love.
I can see Mike Helton sitting on the wall at Darlington, Old Glory whipping easily in the distance, sun setting, somewhere near dusk. No frills. No fancy graphics. No fancy words. Just a man raised in the sport looking straight into the camera and delivering a message on behalf of the entire industry he governs:
Thank you. For 60 years you've been our foundation. We strive every day to take NASCAR to new plateaus, but we know where we came from and who got us here. The future is bright, but the past is cherished.
That would be cool as hell. Some folks may see it as trite, but you can't win everyone over. Most folks, I'd say, would appreciate it.
A lot of them, it seems, need to hear it.
Back to the responses for a moment. ESPN has a diverse and educated audience -- one that often pokes fun at my personal Southern accent. (One reader regularly tells me I'm the offspring of Jimmy Neutron and Aunt Bee. Funny.) I was prepared to be called a redneck or worse. A few such comments filtered in, but for the most part fans offered a collective history lesson. Several folks wrote me with their respective versions of what NASCAR used to be and what it has become.
The note I most enjoyed came from a cat named "Old Cleo up in the Mountain." Nice. Wonder if he looks like Willie Nelson. The way the guy writes, there's no question he's educated. It's one of the coolest stories I've ever read.
It's lengthy but worth the time. It's a story of perseverance and esteemed visceral fortitude in the face of substantial odds. Enjoy.
Young man, I saw your story about NASCAR history and thought it was just great. It said what I've thought for years. I wanted to share a story with you about Wendell Scott.
I greatly admired Wendell then and still do today. Remember, this was the deeply segregated South that has, thankfully, all but vanished today. At the time, Wendell had to go to the back door of any eatery and get them to sell him some food outside the back door -- Wendell was black and, therefore, was not allowed to eat inside.
He couldn't rent a motel room. He couldn't vote. He had no sponsors that I can recall. He could race cars and race cars he did. Kudos are due to Bill France for allowing Wendell to race on the NASCAR circuit. Bill could have easily found a reason to bar any black face from NASCAR in those days, but he didn't and Wendell raced!
At Bristol in the spring of 1964, three friends of mine and I -- along with two Dr Pepper metal coolers fully stocked with longneck Buds -- left from home very early that Sunday morning. We were in our seats getting tuned up for the race hours before the green dropped.
I noticed some commotion in Turn 4. A big, long '48 or '49 Packard hearse was crossing the track towing a blue-gray '62 Chevy race car. I knew it was Wendell because I'd seen this act before.
The Packard stops on pit road. Wendell and three or four younger black guys pile out of the hearse and start unhooking the race car from the hearse. The race car had street tires on it because Wendell had towed it up U.S. 58 all the way from Danville. The hearse goes behind the wall. The "pit crew" brings four racing tires from the hearse and jacks up the car.
Wendell mounts the tires on the car himself, very carefully. Wendell has to be careful with these tires because they are the only tires he has and must make them last the whole race -- and probably the next race, also. The crew fuels the car while Wendell is running around checking everything on the car.
He checks to be sure he has a full tank of fuel and even washes the windshield. So now I know that not only is Wendell the driver, he is the tire changer and crew chief, also.
"Drivers, Start Your Engines!" The pace car leads the cars around the track. The green drops. Wendell is in dead last position. The 43, the 28, the 21 they all roar around the track. All except Wendell! He drops down to the apron and motors around the track. He has to take care of those precious tires and must not get involved in any wrecks, because this is the only car that Wendell has. He has no way to get another if this one gets trashed in wreck. As I recall, the entire field has lapped Wendell by the third or fourth lap.
The race goes on. The big boys fight for the lead. The pileups cause the yellow to fly. The green returns and the big boys resume the fight for the lead. Wendell continues to motor around the apron and manages to avoid all the wrecks.
Wendell heads down pit road. I look at his pit. There is no one there. No pit crew at all. I look around for the crew. They're over by the hearse, all laid out. It looks like they have been hitting the longnecks harder -- or maybe some clear white liquid from a Mason jar -- than my friends and I have been.
Wendell pulls into his pit stall and stops. He takes his helmet off and crawls out of his car. He quickly fuels his car, checks his precious tires and washes his windshield. He crawls back in the car, puts his helmet on and roars off down pit road -- back to the apron!
So, now I know that Wendell is his own pit crew also. As I recall, this pit stop took about five to seven minutes! There were at least two more pit stops for Wendell just like this one.
I don't remember who won that day. I do remember that Wendell finished the race. I don't recall how many laps he was down to the winner but I do remember that he finished on the same set of tires he started on.
Wendell jacks up the race car. He dismounts the racing tires and remounts the street tires. He hooks the race car up to the hearse. All by himself! He manages to get his crew into the hearse and he drives across the track and back to Route 58 and the long ride back to Danville.
Let's count 'em up. Wendell was: Car owner, sponsor, driver, chief engineer, chief body man, chief motor man, crew chief, pit crew and truck driver. Wendell was everything!
Wendell truly loved race cars and car races. He was a giant and genius and a driven man. And, Wendell was a driver -- a really good driver. It is a shame that he came along half a century ago and not today. Today, Wendell would have sponsors, engineers and a real pit crew. He would have all the tires he could possibly need. And, Wendell would DRIVE! And, Wendell would WIN!!
-- Memories from the Mountain, Old Cleo
Wow. Wow. I'm honored you'd take so much time to tell me such a great story, Cleo. How rich is that? For the record, Scott finished 19th in a 36-car field that day, 78 laps down to race-winner Fred Lorenzen.
He won $275, too, a whopping $25 more than last-place driver Gene Hobby was awarded. I love stories like this one and feel a little bit smarter when I'm done reading them.
Shouldn't NASCAR consider an off-week between the regular season and the Chase? It would give everyone a chance to regroup for the playoffs and allow an extra bye week for a regular-season rainout. If Michigan was moved to the finale, it would screw things up for Richmond, Loudon and Homestead.
-- Mark, Mount Airy, Md.
By all means it should be considered, Mark. Several drivers have said for three years that they'd like an off week to regroup before the outset of the playoff run. Everyone would welcome that break, and I think the Michigan situation proved that a buffer is necessary.
It's easier said than done -- the logistics of such things can be a hassle. But it's a bit silly to have two off weekends in the first two months of the season and close with 20 straight races. By no means am I saying those early off weekends aren't appreciated, but it might be appropriate to space them better throughout the season.
Right now, NASCAR says it is comfortable with its schedule. But, as with everything else, it will review it at the end of the season.
When the Chase consisted of 10 drivers, there was a million-dollar bonus to the driver who finished 11th. With 12 teams now making up the Chase, will 13th get any bonus?
-- Jim Simpson, Tennessee
Nope. NASCAR did away with the "next-best" bonus program when its expanded the Chase field from 10 to 12 drivers, Jim.
Speaking of ...
As The Chase nears, I've been thinking about the new format. I like the idea of seeding the drivers by wins, but I HATE increasing the participants from 10 to 12. What are your thoughts? Thanks.
-- Jamie Miller, Huntingdon, Tenn.
I really liked 10, too, Jamie. There was a nice ring to Chase Top 10. Ten was elite status. I was reluctant to accept 12 for fear the Chase might become diluted. But Kurt Busch is currently 12th and, given his momentum, has as much chance to win the championship as anyone. I'm warming to the concept of 12 Chase qualifiers.
What needs to happen is incentive for winning once the Chase begins. Right now, wins in the first 26 races matter greatly, but once we get to Loudon, it's all about consistency. I say add 20 more points to the current total per Chase victory.
When you, Brandon and Junior left the stage at Graceland on Aug. 13, why did you reintroduce yourself as "Bill Johnson"? Inside joke? Delirious from the heat? Too drunk to remember your name? Hiding from a crazy ex-Memphis chick?
-- Chad, Newport, Tenn.
No lie, water just shot out my nose, Chad. Yes, inside joke. Ask Bernstein
Has Junior considered possibly getting the No. 88 from Yates Racing, now that Rudd is retiring? Wayne Gretzky took 99 because he wanted to be twice as good as Gordie Howe, who wore 9. Wouldn't it be poetic if Junior took the 88?
-- Sonny, Annapolis, Md.
Junior would love it -- 88 being his Busch Series number and all. But I think he'll end up in 81. He likes 81, and it's available.
As much as he belongs in the 8, it might be best he didn't get it. A clean break is probably best. Fact is the equity in the number lies with the driver. The No. 8 was worth so much money because Hendrick Motorsports was open to paying for it. Just not that much.
Emotionally, Earnhardt yearned to keep the 8. It's the only number he's ever run in Cup competition. It was his grandfather's number, and he took great pride in its history within his family. He always will.
But financially, it doesn't hurt him. His new number, be it 81 or otherwise, will be every bit as lucrative for him as the old one was. Maybe even more so. For Earnhardt, change means, well, extra change.
That's all my time today. Thank you for yours.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.