Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: The More Things Change in NASCAR

Author’s note: I wrote the original incarnation of this column over four years ago. I found it earlier while looking for something else and was surprised to see how little things have changed, even as racing has metamorphosed to an unbelievable degree since March 2004. Although the majority of the original content has been left intact, I’ve added many new thoughts on things, and how the more they change, the more nothing really changes at all)

It seems as if all I have to say about NASCAR these days is negative (well, OK, but give me some credit, it’s all anybody else talks about either). My opening line to most racing conversations is akin to, “Is NASCAR touched in the head?” followed by a complaint: “What do they mean they wont give a Busch Series regular a provisional just because he drove a Cup car last year?!” “Let me get this straight, it’s been policy to fine drivers for profanity on TV or radio interviews for years, unless said driver wears a red suit and has the word “Junior’ attached to his surname?!”

“The new points system is an invitation to wreck anyone in the way of a teammate in the top 10!” There’s always something new to fuss about, so when one gripe session has run its course, there’s a new complaint waiting to take over. Convenient!

(OK, the complaints are different now. So is Junior’s uniform color. Who’d have thunk THAT? Well, there IS the “the Chase stinks” part. Some things will never change! Also, in 2004 fans were just trying to process the change from Winston Cup to Nextel, and now we have Sprint Cup AND the Nationwide Series. But it’s still easy to complain, and 2008 brings a whole bevy of new complaints; the Top-35 rule, even MORE cookie-cutter tracks, the Nationwide Whacker problem, oh, and how, well, WRONG “Nationwide Whacker” sounds.)

See also
Happy Hour: Nationwide Whackers are Hurting NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series

Except, when did it become this way? The winds of change have blown through NASCAR for years. That’s what grew the sport from regional interest to national phenomenon. It just seems like those winds have had some aerodynamic help of late, and as they blow faster, they threaten to blow away the very foundations of the sport.

That’s a story in itself, best left for another time. But this shift in myself, well, it wasn’t me. It isn’t me. Someone, no doubt sick of hearing me rail, “What do they mean, scoring error?! Why don’t they just give him the lap back, then?!” suggested that I join the numerous others who say they’re simply not going to watch anymore. Except, I can’t. (And I still can’t. I don’t think I ever will.)

Because, underneath it all, I still love racing. (Although the racing itself isn’t always the draw every week, but the drivers and teams still are) Still love it with a passion that is as surprising and beautiful as the first time I heard the throaty cry of engines on race day. I love the history (maybe that’s where the hurt comes from); love the drivers, the cars, the fans, and the countless stories within it all.

I love that the Busch regular found another car to drive and drove himself into the top 10 in points. I love that one driver, once angry with a fine for cursing, paid the entire $5,000 fine in pennies; the same driver who also tried to build a bomb in a trash can as a child and who once forgot his youngest brother at a truck stop. (What was I thinking, though, singing the praises of Rusty Wallace?)

And so I’ll stop complaining for a little while and count my blessings. Why do I love racing even as it changes around me? When I really search for the reason, it’s obvious. It’s:

  • Drivers who give up their hard-earned ride so another driver can gain much-needed championship points. (Thank you Stanton Barrett. I remember this like it was yesterday)
  • Drivers who rebel by paying fines in pennies, have built bombs in moments of youthful abandon and once forgot their little brothers at truck stops. (There I go with Rusty again. Dude. Seriously.)
  • Pulling for the underdog. (And always will.)
  • Engines, fans, teams and announcers all fighting to be heard over each other’s cacophony. (Need I say more?)
  • Knowing that I wasn’t the only one crying on a February night three years ago or a July day at Loudon months before. (Was it really so long ago that we lost Dale Earnhardt and Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty and Blaise Alexander?) (Add a blessing here: Knowing that Ricky Craven‘s prophecy that some day drivers hitting solid concrete would be a thing of the past was true, and it is.)
  • Hearing the cars before you can see them and knowing what series is on the track just by the sound of the engines. (Amen.)
  • Short tracks. (Amen again.)
  • Friends who send other fans videotapes every week of a racing program that they do not get on their local cable. (It would be another year and a half before I got Speed TV. Thanks guys, for doing that. I cherish some of those old tapes.)
  • Drivers who still speak their minds, no matter who might be listening. (Thanks, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.)
  • Fans who don’t boo any driver, ever, because it could be the last thing the driver hears. (Bad karma anyway.)
  • Noting that while other fans can read my license plate, GNRACN, instantly and correctly as gone racin’, non fans just don’t get it. (I still have that plate, although its on the shelf now, since I left New Hampshire for North Carolina last year. And the non-fans still don’t get it.)
  • The look on a kid’s face just after he gets a hero’s autograph. (Some things will never change.)
  • Being invited to post-race cookouts by people you don’t even know. (I love tailgaters. And meeting strangers and leaving with a new kind of kinship.)
  • Commercials with drivers in them. If you believe them, a driver’s wardrobe consists entirely of firesuits. (They still have the same wardrobe, just in different colors.)
  • Still having the videotape of Earnhardt’s final victory. (I’ll always have it. Here’s also to never forgetting that Kenny Wallace pushed.)
  • Watching the crowd at the track on race day and seeing someone wearing something to support each and every driver in the field. (And some that are no longer in the field, too.)
  • Darlington. (The Lady in Black is still mesmerizing.)
  • The image of Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader riding into the sunset together on Sterling’s dirt bike. (That may never get old.)
  • Seeing the horror and sadness of a cold May New Hampshire day in 2000 turn into hope and laughter for children at Adam’s Victory Junction Gang Camp. (I’ll always cherish the volunteer time I’ve spent there. It makes the horror of that day fade.)
  • Watching races with my Aunt Kathy and trying to outdo ourselves on race-day snacks. We made sushi once. No, really. (But only once.)
  • Soft walls. (And still having Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Michael McDowell because of them.)
  • Kenny Wallace. (Thank you, Herm, for everything.)
  • Races decided by inches. (OK, not many of them, but there’s always Martinsville.)
  • Friends, some of whom I have never met in person, sharing stories and lives. And the occasional avocado joke. (No, I don’t like them either.)
  • The stories that course through the veins of the sport and are its lifeblood (and what a shame that so many of today’s fans don’t know them), and finally,
  • Being part of the large, sometimes raucous, sometimes downright crazy but always loyal family that is NASCAR Nation.

And so, while I may watch sometimes in dismay as the sport changes around me, and occasionally ask, “Is NASCAR touched in the head?!” I’ll keep watching. I’ll always watch, to see what’s just around the next turn, for it’s there that the true heart of racing lies. (If we didn’t love the sport, and want it to be something amazing and special for generations to come, THAT is when we’ll stop complaining. Never give up, not on something worth it.)

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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