Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: What Being a NASCAR Fan Used to Be Like

I don’t know if it’s the passing of the years or the consuming of beers, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how different it is to be a NASCAR fan than it was decades ago when I first became interested in the sport. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, personal obligations forced me to miss most of the Nationwide race from Watkins Glen. But once I finished up doing what needed doing, I wanted to find out who had won the race – and if the carnage that marked the opening laps had continued all afternoon.

Well, all it took was a few brief key strokes and I was able to find out Marcos Ambrose had won, watched a brief video of his post-race comments, checked out the final finishing order, and reviewed a near lap-by-lap recount of the race.

Had the incidents involving “Vile Kyle” and Jeff Burton incensed me enough (they didn’t – I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused) I could have jumped on a message board and discussed the incidents with other fans not only across the country, but from around the globe (at least to the extent anyone outside the United States really gives a fig about NASCAR’s “B” series – the Toyota Invitational – this year).

While I endure a love/hate relationship with this computer – it is part of my job, but I am far from the most technically savvy individual dragging his knuckles across the face of the Earth – the fact that even I could gather all that information in a few short moments at virtually no expense is rather neat.

Still wondering why I reminisce all the time about the old days? All right, kids – pull up a seat and get ready to listen to Gramps in his loud Hawaiian shirt fill you in on how things worked for a racing fan only a few decades ago.

Back then, not only was there no Internet, there was damn little NASCAR racing on TV; only brief, tape-delayed segments. Living here in the Northeast, I was lucky if there was a single paragraph account of that Sunday’s Cup race on the final page of the sports section, listed under the odds on the horses at local tracks that day. Normally, there wasn’t – unless it was a big race, like the Southern 500 or the World 600.

So, if I couldn’t find the information, I’d call my cousin or uncle in North Carolina to get the scoop. Back then, there were no free weekend or evening minutes – you picked up the receiver of a phone mounted on the wall, used a rotary dial to place the call, and paid through the nose for it. My Uncle would clip the articles about the races from the local paper and mail them to me every few weeks, since he knew I loved racing. Actually, those articles helped me learn to read when I was five.

ABC’s Wide World of Sports occasionally did do some NASCAR coverage. Most typically they’d join a race in progress, review what had happened earlier in the event, and then intersperse the rest of the race with stuff like lumber sports and javelin throwing. As a young man, I lived for whatever racing ABC would offer me. I simply never would have believed that one day every truck, Nationwide, and Cup race would be broadcast live in its entirety. For all the faults of contemporary race broadcasts (and there are myriad) if the guys in the FOX booth finally wear your nerves thin, you can mute the audio and watch the action.

I’m not one of those guys who’s going to tell you to quit complaining about what you don’t like about today’s TV coverage… I agree with you. It’s not all that much harder to do things well rather than do them poorly, and since the cameras and satellite trucks are already there, the networks should improve their product. But don’t forget, any coverage today beats what us longtime fans used to get as little as 30 years ago.

In addition to live broadcasts of the races themselves, NASCAR fans enjoy a lot of other benefits today. There are numerous cable channels broadcasting shows related to NASCAR racing on an almost nightly basis, and I doubt it would be possible to watch them all even if you wanted to – because many of them overlap.

There are shows devoted to pre-race coverage, followed by the race itself, which is then followed by shows devoted to post-race analysis. During the week, there are numerous discussion programs that analyze the previous week’s race and preview upcoming events. Then, you can jump on the Internet and read discussions about the discussion shows and watch video clips of them.

Obviously, the only reason you are reading this right now is because of the Internet. I don’t have a journalism degree. I am not a reporter. I’m a guy with a point of view that some people enjoy who managed to find homes to keep doing this for a long while now. How long? Hell if I remember. Let’s put it this way: When I met Jayski, he was living in his folks’ place in Cape May, N.J., driving a maroon T-Bird with like two gazillion miles on it.

He was working a 9-5 job back then, and he considered his site an interesting hobby that was getting a little out of hand as far as how much time it consumed. The first time we met for a few beers down the shore, he had an Ernie Irvan sticker in the window of his Ford and I was wearing a Bill Elliott No. 94 t-shirt and Dick Trickle ball cap. Even the Charlotte Observer didn’t have their website, That’s Racin’, up yet, and Mark Martin hadn’t even retired for the first time. Yeah, kids, that was a real long time ago.

Not long after Jay and I got acquainted, he started posting links to articles on other sites “in the interest of giving readers a variety of points of views and some enjoyment” – as he still puts it today. In doing so, the inestimable Mr. J started a cottage industry, a rapid proliferation of independent NASCAR websites and folks who wrote articles to provide content for them, followed by more professionally-produced sites, many of them related to newspapers or TV channels.

Many, if not most, of those old websites have fallen by the wayside; but some have flourished, and many more are added almost daily. For some fans, they might be reaching the saturation point. One day last year when I was home with the flu, I decided I was going to read every single article posted on Jay’s link page that day. Well I sure ain’t ever going to do that again – while there’s some very good writers out there, many of them lonely pamphleteers who run small websites, there’s also some real drek.

But on a personal level, links to the website of the small racing newspaper I used to write for launched my musings onto a larger stage. During the Dot.com boom, it was almost an embarrassment of riches for a few years; but since it kept me in bikes, beer and blue jeans, I rolled with it.

There was an era of my life when I was old enough to drive but before the advent of cable TV and ESPN, when the only programming that might offer an insight on life as a NASCAR fan north of the Mason-Dixon line was MRN. I live in the Philly market and it has been my home since Springsteen was staging shows at the Main Point in front of a couple hundred fans – or back when no radio stations carried racing coverage.

The closest station that carried MRN on Sunday afternoons was in Dover, Del., and the closest place to my home that reliably got the Dover signal was an odd little spit of land in extreme southern New Jersey that the locals called “the Baja.” I never have figured out how, but legally that acreage belongs to Delaware, not New Jersey – though it is across the Delaware Bay from the First State’s mainland. The Jersey cops had no jurisdiction there, and the Delaware cops never patrolled it.

It was a fine place to run wild down the sandy trails in your four-by or on your dirt bike, or to stage keg parties that sometimes raged on for the entire weekend. While four-wheeling down there one day, I found that Delaware station on the radio by chance; and after that, most weeks a buddy and I would jump in my truck and head down to the Baja to catch the race. We’d park the truck on the beach by the water, positioning it for the best reception we could by little more than trial and error.

I’ve always had a thing for black Ford trucks with big engines, big tires and big pipes. That’s all well and good for trail riding, but in the dog days of summer a black truck heats up inside even with the windows down. My buddy and I would take turns running down to the water for a dip during commercials; a blast of the horns would let the other know that the racing had resumed.

We’d sit there baking like clams, downing beers and listening to the coverage from such exotic locales as Martinsville, North Wilkesboro and Bristol, places I dreamed of seeing one day and places I have been to since. No, AM radio wasn’t in high def, and there were days the signal faded in and out all day; but back then, if you were a hardcore fan, those were the extremes you’d go to just to catch the race.

While in college I worked, sometimes several jobs, and earned some money – the kind you didn’t report on your 1040 – by racing in the streets. For a college kid, I usually had a fair amount of cash in my pocket – a settlement from a bike wreck didn’t hurt any, though the wreck itself hurt a good deal. A young man’s dreams often turn to road trips, and back then we would use the cash to go off skiing for the weekend or crashing at a place down the Jersey shore with 40 or 50 friends stuffed in a rental property.

That was, of course, until that fateful phone call from my cousin down in North Carolina telling me he had a couple spare tickets for the 1979 Southern 500 – and asking if I was interested in driving down and going to the race. With my sophomore year of college about ready to commence, the idea of the biggest road trip of my life had instant appeal.

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That call came in around 10 on Friday morning, and by noon, a buddy and I were southbound on 195 with him unfolding an Exxon road map trying to figure out where South Carolina was – South, I reckoned. We’d hit North Carolina and go South from there, then ask for directions when we found South Carolina. No, kids, there were no Garmins back then.

We took that trip in a black ’70 SS big block four-speed El Camino. It wasn’t Barrett-Jackson bait back then, it was just transportation. Fast, loud transportation. That old Elky might not have been the greatest choice for a road trip car, but the bed held more coolers than my Buick GS or Boss 302, though in retrospect the GS did have AC. If I recall correctly, the truck had 3.42 rear gears, but they might have been 3.73s.

Either way, that big engine was screaming as we roared South with the speedometer hovering around 85, my naïve trust placed in a Fuzzbuster radar detector the size of a shoebox hanging from the passenger-side visor. The truck was “between carpets” that weekend, so the headers heated the floorpans to the point the heel of the sneaker on my right foot was melting. I put on cowboy boots instead.

The gas tank had a leak at the seam, so I couldn’t put more than 10 gallons in it without leakage; thus, gas stops were frequent. I’d put $7 in the tank while my buddy ran to find munchies. (Gas stations didn’t have convenience stores back then, they had service bays). Then it was back off down the highway – warp factor five.

As we got farther South, we received increasing attention and ever some hostile glances. First off, I was driving like an idiot while drinking beer in plain view. (Terrible idea, kids, never ever do this!) The exhaust fumes coming in through the rust on the toeboard had me a little woozy and, to be honest, those fumes weren’t the only things I was inhaling that had me a little off my game.

At gas stops, even if the Pennsylvania tag didn’t give me away, I only had to open my mouth long enough to say hi for people to note, “you’re not from around here, are ya boy?” But when the discussion turned to where we were headed and I said we were heading to the Southern 500, the tension broke. We’d talk about racing, bonding as fans with an interest in common trying to simply figure out what each other was saying.

Reflecting back, I can’t believe we completed the trip without an arrest. If they’d made us empty our pockets or looked in the glovebox, I’d probably still be working on a chain gang scything the grass along North Carolina highways to this day. Keep in mind, we were a pair of Yankee kids with long hair (mine Bruce, Born to Run length… his full Greg Allman length), wearing earrings when earrings weren’t cool, running 30 over the limit, drinking, smoking and carrying on with that cowl induction flapper wide open most of the run.

It turned out to be both a great weekend and a great race. The three of us stayed at the King’s Inn and met Elliott, a then-virtual unknown. Elliott was sponsored by King’s Inn that weekend, so his team was staying there. (Drivers didn’t have motor coaches back then). David Pearson, filling in for an injured Dale Earnhardt in the No. 2 car, won the race but our boy Bill finished second, albeit two laps behind Pearson. Pearson had been the master of Darlington – Elliott was to become one.

We partied most of the night, grabbed a few hours sleep, then headed back North to start the school year.

That trip, the first great road trip, altered my life. I became a huge fan of Darlington and Elliott, and it was the first of many impromptu road trips South to catch the races. No tickets? We’d find ’em. No place to sleep? Either we’d find a room or we’d blow up air mattresses and sleep in the bed of the El Camino there in the lot. The romance of travel, the roar of the stock cars and getting to meet other fans was the lure – and there was no cure.

Gas was cheaper back then, but travel by car was a lot more exciting. Even a trip to the shore involved a very real possibility of a flat tire, busted radiator hose or simple overheating issues in cars of that era – especially the sort I drove and the way I drove them. But if it broke, you hitchhiked to NAPA, got your part and fixed it right there. Cars today are much more reliable – flats and thrown belts are rare.

It makes for a less stressful trip, but I pity the young man who never got to take a road trip South in a car that could make groves of palmetto pines look like a picket fence catching rubber into fourth gear. Back then, you just carried tools and hoped for the best. To give you an idea, a day or two before I got back from Darlington on that first trip, the water pump on that black Chevy broke and put the fan through the radiator.

Like taking road trips, being a NASCAR fan is a lot easier in this day and age. With the advent of High-Def cable TVs, DVRs, satellite radio, the Internet and cell phones that mimic all of the above, it’s easy to stay on top of the action. As a fan, you can get glimpses behind the curtain and the latest rumors once reserved only for those in the garage. Easier is better, I suppose; that’s how I’ve always conducted my social life.

But there was a certain charm to those days when you had to work hard to be a NASCAR fan anywhere outside the Deep South and took a lot of grief in polite society for doing so. So, next time some of you newer fans take exception to something I’ve written and want to tell me if I’m going to be so negative, that I should find a new sport, I respectfully ask you to remember I was a NASCAR fan back when being a fan wasn’t cool – and back when it was a whole lot harder than it is today.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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