NASCAR – Roots vs Reality?

January16/ 2000

 Big News out of NASCAR’s World HQ … No More “Cup Races” at The Rock.  That means NASCAR’s highest profile series Nextel Cup (former Winston Cup) will not return to Rockingham NC.  Is this THE END of “stockcar racing” ??? … Is NASCAR “forgetting it’s roots” ?? … Are “the loyal fans” getting screwed” ?? … No … No … No!  Sports pundits who should know better and goof ball fans who never “know better” may be in a tizzy … but BobLee, as always, reveals the path thru this latest “oh me, oh my” dilemma.

   Capsuling this latest sports “Say it ain’t so” … NASCAR has announced that henceforth it’s premier series, Nextel Cup, will not have an annual race at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham NC.  The Nextel Cup race schedule is being revamped and a Rockingham date and a Darlington SC date are being given to Texas and Phoenix.  

   Before sports do-gooders launch into their oh-so-predictable piss & moan & whine about “it’s all about $$$ … “they” don’t care about the loyal fans … corporate fat cats are screwing the little guy … yadda yadda yadda.” … let’s show some love for Fort Wayne, IN; Syracuse NY; Decatur IL; Canton OH.  How come you say?  Surely you all remember the Pistons, Nationals, Staleys, and Bulldogs.  The first two were NBA cities … Decatur and Canton were NFL cities.  Let’s throw in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and New York’s Polo Grounds while we are at it.

   If you oppose moving race dates to more centrally located metro areas to expose the sports to new audiences in more modern facilities … then you still curse Walter O’Malley, Horace Stoneham and George Halas. They did exactly the same thing 40+ years ago.  Somehow the NFL, MLBA, and the NBA survived … nay … survived and prospered.

Yes … NASCAR’s roots were in the local dirt tracks across the rural South and its first “gladiators” were bootleggers who drove Thunder Road during the week and the local ¼ mile ovals on Saturday night.  Yes … many of King Richard Petty’s 200 victories were at these small town events.  Darlington and Rockingham were among the first of the “big tracks” (one mile and longer) to be built as the sports did indeed outgrow its roots in the 60s.

At the time these tracks were built in the 50s-60s the audience was still largely small town lower middle class “hot rodders” who idolized Petty, The Allisons, David Pearson, Ned Jarrett, Cale Yarborough, “Fireball” Roberts, Junior Johnson, and their pedal to the metal co-competitors.  The fact that “stock cars” looked like “regular Chevys, Ford, Pontiacs, Mercurys” (unless you looked under the hood) made it an easily identifiable sports to follow and vicariously emulate.

The audiences grew as the sport is so easy to enjoy on the most base level … Go Fast – Turn Left – Make A Lot Of Noise – First To Cross The Finish Line Wins.  Newer bigger tracks went up on the outskirts of developing Metro areas … Charlotte, Atlanta, Dover (Philly), Las Vegas and, of course, Daytona.

As the original “big names” aged out they were replaced with a new breed of swashbuckling High Speed Heroes of The High Bank … Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott, Darryl Waltrip, Ervin, Martin, Rudd, and, of course, Dick Trickle.  Still identified with “the South” NASCAR began its full fledged “western migration” in the early 90s.

   As audiences grew and TV found “auto racing” an easy sports to watch and crowds of 150,000 became the norm … one constant remained … The Calendar.  The NASCAR racing season begins in early February and ends in November … allowing just two months to recharge, retool, and repaint new sponsor logos on every visible surface.

   Sure, you can build state-of-the-art tracks in Texas, California, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Chicago, St Louis, etc but what about available weekends to have NASCAR’s premier racing circuit and its most marketable name drivers visit your new facility.

   In the “modern era” the most infamous move was Bruton Smith buying the old track in North Wilkesboro in the mid 90s FOR ITS RACE DATE.  Bruton bought the bricks, mortar, and asphalt but what he really wanted was an available weekend for his fancy new SuperSpeedway outside Fort Worth, Texas.

   OK … you need a quick primer in NASCAR’s power players … Bill France and Bruton Smith … that’s it.  France’s International Motorsports Corp (IMC) and Bruton’s Speedway Motorsports Inc (SMI) simply dominate the sports owning between them the majority of the track venues … certainly all the prime facilities.  Since France also owns NASCAR, the governing body of the sport, he has a “bit” of an advantage over Bruton Smith.  France and Smith do not “get along”.  Don’t invite them to the same party if there are breakables involved.

   A racetrack is similar to a hotel … seats = rooms … empty ones do not generate revenue and every day that seat or room sits empty is a concern to the owner of the facility.

   France and Smith have been suing, counter suing, and counter counter suing each other for the past 6-8 years over race dates.  What just happened at Rockingham was set in motion 8-10 years ago and was inevitable. That farmer that lives across from The Rock and parked cars at $25/per on his front yard for years knew it was coming.  The Rockingham United Methodist Church that operated the concession stand in the 2nd turn knew it too.  

   But BobLee, what about all those diehard race fans in “the Carolinas”?  Give me a break!  They still have two annual races in Charlotte, two in Atlanta, two in Bristol, two in Daytona, two in Martinsville (for now), two in Richmond.  The Rock seated 75,000 … Charlotte can accommodate 200,000.  The Rock has not sold out for several years due to antiquated facilities and beyond impossible accessibility. PLUS … every shotgun shack and double wide in America has “satellite” or cable now so every week’s Big Race is seen on TV.

What about the future of The Rock?  There will still be racin’ at The Rock.  NASCAR operates various “minor league race circuits” similar to major league baseball so the facility will remain viable along with the adjacent drag strip.  Maybe that old farmer rents his yard parking for $10 instead of $25.

   Its ironic that as NASCAR takes another growth leap from backwater tracks … its heroes are changing yet again.  Kenseth, Busch, Harvik, Johnson, Newman, Kahne, and “Dale Junior” are replacing Rusty, Dale, Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, Martin, etc. Time marches on and you either march along with it or wave as it passes you by.


Swagger’s Stumper

Which one of “Jerry’s Friends” was 

(1) eaten by dinosaurs and (2) interrogated Sharon Stone?


   One last incredible analogy … Green Bay = Bristol TN.  Just as it makes no sense on the surface for The Packers to be in small market Green Bay … Bristol Motor Speedway is in no danger of losing either of its races.  BMS is a state-of-the-art 140,000 seat oval in Northeast Tennessee that has not had an empty seat in years … “a ticket for Bristol” is arguably one of the toughest tickets in all of sports.  I’ve had the privilege of seeing six “races at Bristol” … without a doubt THE most exciting races on the NASCAR schedule.  

If you EVER get an opportunity to “go to Bristol for a race” DO IT … even if you are a puckered butt bigot and have nightmares about the fellow in the seat next to you turning to you and saying “you sure do have a purty mouth”.

Swagger has been to well over 20 NASCAR events over the past 8 years.  Yes, that gap-toothed redneck stereotype is certainly there … along with Fortune 500 Fat Cats … several members of your country club … bunches of pretty little gals in tight jeans … and maybe even that doctor that stuck his hands in your gut when your appendix burst.  Ergo … about the same crowd you sat with at Kenan, Carter-Finley, and Ericcson/BOA Stadium.

Rockingham will survive NASCAR’s departure … NOW, if the Richmond County High School footballers join the NFL and move to Raleigh … THAT will be a county-wide tragedy.

Jerry Reed was Cletus “The Snowman” Snow who along with dog “Fred” drove the 18-wheeler loaded with bootleg Coors while “Bandit” ran interference against Sheriff Buford T. Justice.

Swaggers safely returned from our Shenandoah Shangri-La Weekend.  All ready to begin our “second 20”.  Visited Washington & Lee University … cool little school.

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