NASCAR needs a villain. Those are words that have echoed around the sport over the last few years. Really, we’ve heard them since the death of Dale Earnhardt, but it seems like they’ve gotten louder in recent years. NASCAR needs a bad boy, one who will be unabashedly aggressive on the track and proud of it off the track. One who knows how to use the ol’ chrome horn once in a while, one who will knock you into next week and then blame you for it. Yes, people say, that is just what we need. Except it isn’t.
What NASCAR really needs, even more than a villain to play the spoiler, is a real, honest-to-goodness blue-collar hero.
When the racing world lost Dale Earnhardt, nobody could have truly predicted the fallout more than a decade later, but at that point in time, NASCAR was rocking on its axis and changing from a popular sport to an elite one. And somewhere along the way, the elite sport became elitist.
Even at the height of his empire, Dale Earnhardt represented everyman and did it well. A high school dropout who was destined for the then-thriving factory career if the racin’ thing didn’t work out, Earnhardt was representative of what everyone secretly hoped for—living proof that if you wanted something so badly it hurt and you were willing to start at the bottom, do anything to be a part of it and prove yourself worthy, well then, you could be anything.
Dale Earnhardt was the American Dream personified.
And when that high school dropout rose to the pinnacle of the sport, to be one of the best there had ever been, millions of blue-collar Americans identified with him. When he snagged the pretty girl and built the multi-million-dollar business, they cheered him on. After all, he was one of them, and he’d done it. He’d beaten the odds and made the American Dream a reality. He was who so many fans secretly wished they could be in one way or another. (Earnhardt wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of self-made heroes, once upon a time: Cale Yarborough; the Allisons; and Darrell Waltrip come to mind along with a host of others. But it’s the loss of Earnhardt that makes the lack of such personalities stand out more than anything else.)
Part of the Earnhardt mystique was his ability to remain, despite his huge and growing fortune, an average Joe. He worked his farm on his days off, slinging bales of hay and riding a horse among the cattle. Of course he was a hero; he was a racecar driver _and_ a cowboy, something just about every American kid, male or female, wanted to be at some point.
And that type of everyday hero is absent from today’s NASCAR. There are drivers who have come from hardscrabble, middle-class backgrounds to ride to the top of the sport. Both Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson did that and did it well, using every opportunity they got to build a better one. But somehow, they have drifted away from that all-American kid image. Maybe it’s the money, maybe it’s the lifestyle. It’s certainly a stretch to imagine either one of these champions waking up at the crack of dawn Monday after a 500-miler on a sweltering Sunday afternoon and saddling up a good horse to check the fence line and make sure the cattle were okay.
Sure, Earnhardt and others of his era and ilk married the pretty girls, but those pretty girls were often still the girl next door, girls whose families were in the racing business or who grew up in the same small towns the men did. They were part of the American Dream, too, and easier to identify with than a New York model, beautiful as she may be.
In contrast to the drivers of an earlier era, drivers today sometimes seem aloof, a little spoiled, not really like you and me. Many don’t seem the type to sit down and have a beer with, though many of them probably are. They have too much to be the average Joe: too much money, too much prestige, too much time, too much above the working man. They don’t give the impression that they know where fans come from, certainly not the impression that they were ever there, even if they were.
That’s not entirely by their fault or design. As the cost of sponsorship rises, sponsors want more for their buck. They want the time on Saturday or Sunday morning that once could have been spent signing autographs and exchanging a few words with fans. Even the autograph sessions that drivers do hold anymore often seem rushed, more like an automated assembly line than a personal event, often because the driver in question is trying to accommodate as many people as possible in the short time he has been scheduled into by someone else.
But, it’s partly on the drivers too. One reason that Richard Petty became the sport’s greatest ambassador is that he understood the fans and often put them first. He would often sign autographs after a race until each fan was satisfied. Today’s drivers participate in a second race after the main event, a race to the airport in an attempt to get out of town first. It’s understandable on one level, disappointing on another. Sometimes giving an hour here or there, unannounced, would go a long way. Some drivers do that, but many too often don’t.
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to look at today’s Sprint Cup drivers and see them as just an average guy who worked his ass off, got a little lucky along the way, and made his dream come true. They don’t look like they love their job. Many are just…hard to identify with. Even the drivers for the smaller teams have fancy motor coaches, beautiful wives, and expensive clothes. They don’t seem like you and me, somehow. You’d be hard-pressed to say exactly why this is, but it is. NASCAR drivers are no longer everyday heroes; they’re too commercialized, too different from the average fan, whereas drivers like Earnhardt seemed like they were one of the people.
The truth is, we have villains in NASCAR. We have the aggressive drivers. It’s how they are perceived that has changed. They’re often seen as arrogant, entitled, and sometimes not entirely without reason. But there are aggressive drivers (though the emphasis on points and the Chase has diminished the lengths to which any of them will _take_ that aggression) and there are those who, like Dale Earnhardt, who often take things to far.
What has changed is that none of these drivers resonate like Earnhardt, or other drivers of times long gone, did. Even Dale Earnhardt, Jr. isn’t the true blue-collar hero that his daddy was. If he ever had that image, he shed it when he joined Hendrick Motorsports, the clean-cut, big money team that is as white-collar as they come in NASCAR. The last of the blue-collar era of NASCAR are in the deep twilight of their careers and no longer a threat on the racetrack.
No, NASCAR doesn’t need a villain. NASCAR needs an everyday hero, a guy who seems no different than anyone you might meet on the street in your own neighborhood. That is the driver that is missing in the garage today; someone who people can identify with because, but for the grace of God, he could be working in the factory or on the farm next to them instead of driving that fast racecar. NASCAR needs the American Dream.