Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Better Days – The Role of Nostalgia in NASCAR

For some reason, I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately. I’m not sure why, but whatever the reason, I got to thinking about the first races I went to. I’ll admit that I was skeptical about the first one; despite my aspirations to cover major American sports, NASCAR wasn’t really on the radar then.

It was my dad and a family friend that changed that, when they had an extra ticket to a Cup race at Loudon and decided that I was the best candidate to go along. I agreed, curious to see what the hype was about – it was nearly impossible to score tickets for a New Hampshire race in the mid 1990s and I figured that maybe all those people knew something I didn’t.

They did.

I enjoyed the spectacle that is a NASCAR race day: the colorful souvenir haulers, the even more colorful race fans, the flyover (Oh, the flyover! It still gives me chills every single time.) But what really got my attention came after all that. The engines. Those engines, when they all fired together, were some kind of siren song for me.

They still are. I never get tired of that sound.

But I’ll admit I miss some of the things from those early races, for there was a simplicity then that seems to be missing now; maybe it’s that I’ve changed so much, maybe it’s because the sport has. But there’s a simplicity to sitting in the stands with someone else who loves the sport, cheering for a driver, just taking it all in, never wanting it to end.

Is that feeling gone from NASCAR today? Perhaps I can’t answer it the way the fans in the stands can, because race weekends for me are different than they were in those days. I remember watching races in the late ’90s and thinking, ‘hey this guy (fill in the underdog of your choice here) could WIN today!’ if a driver of a mid-pack car was running well or had a strong strategy. Today, that feeling just doesn’t happen. There are no illusions.

Maybe it’s because I lost my dad in 2008 and I wish daily that I could share racing with him like I used to. When I won an NMPA writing award last year, I wished more than anything I could share it with him. After all, a big part of it was his doing, his fault. (Thanks, Dad.) There are many moments at the track, when I think about that first race and wish for a moment about the simplicity of it all.

Feeling that way made me think about the role of nostalgia in today’s NASCAR. Even the sport’s sanctioning body can’t quite seem to define the place for the past. Even as they glorify “the old days” in commercials and in the Hall of Fame, they shun it in day-to-day operations, pushing the historic racetracks to the back burner, saving the best race dates for the 1.5-mile facilities.

They praise the innovation of the early years while stifling it today. It’s a confusing paradox.

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But what about the fans? How does a sense of nostalgia affect them? It’s different for everyone of course, but it’s hard to deny that there is an effect.

How many of the old-guard fans stick around hoping that someday, it will be more like the days they remember? My guess would be a fair number; I know I think that way sometimes. It’s safe to say that if you’ve been watching the sport for more than a decade, it’s easy to divide the sport into two categories: “then” and “now.”

Which is a fair assessment. Everything is different. The cars are different, the rules are different, the races are different. Drivers get older and leave the seat to the young guns – and leave a void that never quite closes among their fans when they do. We remember the racing being closer, the crowds being bigger, the broadcasts being better. And a lot of that is probably completely true.

On the other hand, how much of people’s opinion of the past is clouded by rose-colored glasses?

As much as people talk about the racing “back in the day,” you have to take it with a grain of salt. For every Daytona 500 that took three days to decide a winner, there was a race where one car took the checkers on the lead lap. Races with no cautions happened then, too (the difference being that NASCAR didn’t throw the yellow flag for every hot dog wrapper or fragment of wishful thinking).

Ned Jarrett once won at Darlington by 14 laps. While an interesting historical footnote, compelling racing that is not. A lot more people seem to remember Dale Earnhardt a lot more fondly now than when he was alive and well and wrecking their driver. So, while your mileage may vary, there is probably some romanticizing going on in some capacity.

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s safe to say it does play a role in how fans view the racing today. It’s easy to remember only the best parts when we reminisce. One of those races I went to with my dad was the infamous restrictor-plate race at Loudon. I’m not sure a worse race was ever run. And on most days, I can overlook that because it falls in seamlessly with other, better races in the recesses of my mind.

Romanticized or not, I also wonder if, for many fans, the changing of the guard in the drivers’ seat plays a vital role in how the races are viewed. Can one’s first favorite driver ever be replaced? Or, once that driver is no longer competitive or gone altogether, is the racing just a little less enticing because of who is not there?

I’m not willing to jump onto the “all the drivers today are boring vanilla pansies who wouldn’t know the chrome horn if you blew it in their ear” bandwagon, because it’s not true. But whether fans cheered for the good guy or the bad guy, the underdog or the champion, it isn’t the same once that guy isn’t there.

Carl Edwards isn’t Richard Petty, Jimmie Johnson isn’t Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch isn’t Earnhardt. And no matter how admirable today’s drivers are, something is lost from the days when you used to pull for someone else.

Perhaps this is why some of the newer fans don’t understand the nostalgia; for them, the racing has always been Fontana, Las Vegas, and Texas instead of Rockingham, Darlington and North Wilkesboro.

The drivers have always been Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart instead of David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip and Davey Allison. Newer fans have never had these things wrenched away from their racing reality. The old-school fans have. Of course there’s a rift.

On the other hand, this nostalgia is there for the taking for all fans. If the good old days were before your time, or if to you they were the only time, they can be relived through the myriad of books and video on the subject. These always leave me wishing I’d been born a couple of decades earlier.

In the end, it’s not the same. The good old days are gone for good. But the nostalgia they create is alive and well and has a double effect on today’s NASCAR. How we view the past does directly impact how we see the present.

To an extent, it’s safe to say that nostalgia does play a role in the sport’s popularity and in how fans look at different eras. Some of those comparisons are inescapable, and others are clouded by a degree of romanticism. It keeps the fans coming, but at the same time, it draws the inevitable comparisons to those halcyon summers in our minds. And to those, nothing will ever match up.

About the author

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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