I was ten-years-old wearing a Chevy t-shirt and Dale Earnhardt hat, laughing at my uncle who was a Rusty Wallace fan as the black number-three car nudged the number-two Miller car out of the way and speeded toward the checkered flag at a racetrack that could have been any number of places: Maybe North Wilkesboro, maybe Bristol, maybe even Martinsville. The track wasn’t important, what mattered was that for the next week, I would have bragging rights at my local elementary school and with my family in the Appalachian coalfields.
Twenty-five years ago, NASCAR was the most popular televised sport in the mountains of my little West Virginia town. Every good o’le boy who darkened the doors of Jim’s Store (a locally-owned convenience store that stood in the gap before the wave of Dollar General Stores showed up) would be wearing a cut up t-shirt with their favorite driver’s car number and manufacturer printed onto the front.
Back in those days, I would plan my entire weekend around “the race” and just about every other mountain redneck in Tennessee, Kentucky, Carolina, and the two Virginias would too — we’d often watch the “Busch Race” the previous day just in anticipation for what was coming.
Looking back, we were obsessive — far more than any NFL fan or NCAA viewer. The products we purchased, the clothes we wore, even the cars we drove identified us with a brightly colored 200 mph billboard driven by men with bold personalities.
Fast-forward a handful of decades and I can’t tell you when the last time was that I watched a NASCAR race and I definitely couldn’t tell you “where they’re racing this weekend” nor who is in the points chase. I’ve tried, but even places like Bristol, Talladega and Daytona don’t even interest me anymore and for the longest time I really couldn’t put my finger on why this is. What happened to make the sport I once worshipped to mean so little to me in such a relatively short period of time?
Interestingly, I am not alone in my story — there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people who share my same exact story. Somewhere along the way, NASCAR just ceased being watchable for most people in the Southland and in the mountains of Appalachia.
Today, you’ll be hard pressed to find a good o’le boy anywhere in your town sporting a t-shirt of his favorite racecar driver and even harder pressed to find someone who hasn’t missed watching all the races this year.
For me, the story of my departure from NASCAR can be traced back somewhere to the early 2000s when I stopped being as diehard of a fan and over the next few years the interval between the time I last saw a race continued to increase until I stopped watching it altogether.
A few years ago, I was hired by a close friend into what I would have considered my dream job as a kid, tasked with doing PR for an up and coming NASCAR team. Though the driver I directly worked for was incredibly humble and an all around wonderful human being, what I discovered in my new position is that the average popular driver seen on television nowadays isn’t even remotely akin to folks like Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Fireball Roberts, or Cale Yarborough. Instead of seeing men with nerves of steel who stood larger than life and brought with them the persona of a true southern gritty man, what I discovered was that somewhere over the past generation, the sport had been hijacked by the sons of millionaires who would sit in the air-conditioned haulers while their crews and engineers labored over their cars. The straw for me was hearing two obviously spoiled kids who are still regulars on the NASCAR circuit argue with each other over which flavor of water tasted better — Dasani or Aquafina?
And it was upon hearing this discussion between two Xfinity Series stars that I first realized why NASCAR was no longer idolized among my people, the rednecks of Mingo County, West Virginia — the sport no longer represents them.
Who cares if the sons of two CEOs bumped into each other and destroyed a half-million dollar racecar — rather than watching a knock-down drag out brawl in the pits (which if we’re going to be real, that’s what the fan base lived for back in the 80s and 90s), we instead must endure a spoiled rich kid throw a temper tantrum, tossing his helmet and gloves around before entering an ambulance and being whisked away to an infield care center.
The days of watching Earnhardt drive around Daytona in a wrecked racecar literally held together by black taped, or watching the Allisons duke it out in a muddy infield are long gone and with them went the real fans of NASCAR.
To put it simply, NASCAR, in my opinion, quit being something real people care about when its drivers ceased being real people. Today, NASCAR oversees every tweet, every interview and every breath breathed by its imagined stars. There’s too much corporate money involved and in our obsessive politically correct day there’s no one willing to let southern boys be southern boys.
Instead, we have well-hewed and polished drivers who have gone through public relations school and taught how to speak in the same accent their local news anchor uses so as to be marketable.
As tracks all across the country are pulling up seats in order to make the emptiness not appear as bad as it actually is, the organization of NASCAR finds itself struggling to figure out why it’s no longer relevant. The answer, however, is quite simple, there’s nothing relatable to the sport any more for those of us who were once the diehard fans.
Which is great news for places like Wythe Raceway in Southwest Virginia, and a hundred other Saturday night tracks — these places offer a weekly glimpse of what NASCAR used to be: Good ole boys driving fast cars for no other reason than for the glory and excitement that accompanies it! While NASCAR is struggling, Saturday night half-miles all across the nation have never been doing better. Real, rough and exciting racing isn’t losing its fanbase, only NASCAR.
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