Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: One Tin Soldier Rides Away…

Regretfully, gentle readers, this will likely be my last commentary column, at least for the foreseeable future. I’ve been at this NASCAR writing gig for sixteen years now and trust me, it’s tough to walk away. For all my cynicism, bitching, and occasional panic if I’d be able to find anything interesting to write after a boring race, I’ve loved every minute of it, being able to provide many of you with a few minutes of enjoyment or making you think on various issues while reading my columns. Your comments, both positive and negative have made a better writer out of me after a near hopelessly amateurish start to my so-called career.

So why is it time to pull the plug and roll on the highway? Many of you don’t know that since my days at the now defunct Racingone.com site this writing gig has been a part-time profession for me. For years, I had another part-time gig selling auto parts at a mom and pop parts house nearby. The hours rarely conflicted with writing about races except during rain-delayed Monday events, and I’d amassed enough personal days I could work around most of them. Either that or I’d work all day, scarf down a couple AM-PM hot dogs on the ride home from work, watch a tape of the race and write until all hours to get the job done.

Well some time ago, mom and pop decided that they’d rather own a second hardware store than an auto parts outlet as the chain stores – particularly NAPA – began nibbling at, then battering on our business by lowering prices to a point where we were hopeless to compete. The store shut down and I lost that income.

Over the past year I’ve tried to find a replacement job for that one, while living on what I sometimes referred to as my retirement savings and sometimes thought of as my 2013 FXSTFB (sorry, Harley-Davidson Fat Boy) fund. That meant not even considering jobs in the auto parts business that required Sunday hours or working past six in the evening weekdays. I don’t have that luxury anymore, as things are just too tight. I know I am hardly alone in struggling with the loss of job and income in the present economy, so I’m not asking for your sympathy — just your understanding. For those of you struggling with similar issues in your lives, including many former NASCAR writers, I understand your pain and wish you the best. You’re in my prayers.

In a way, I feel fortunate I am single and don’t have kids unlike so many dealing with current economic crises, because at least I only have to take care of one rapidly aging, ugly old hippie… me. Hell I even got my hair cut today for the first time since I left the planet of the 9-to-5 (OK, 7-to-6 and four hours Saturday) world.

I think I look like Beaver Cleaver but I’ve got a couple interviews this week and looking like a roadie for a Foghat reunion tour doesn’t cut it.

I feel truly blessed that so many of you have decided to ride along for the Magical Mystery Tour that has been my career, following me from site to site as I wandered like a saddle tramp. I consider so many of you friends and I will miss you terribly and sincerely. For you newer readers, don’t think for a second that I don’t appreciate you any less. Your comments both kind and unkind truly made me a better writer. If I can no longer respond to emails the way I once did when writing was a full-time gig it’s simply because the volume got to be too much (over 100 emails some days) and I had that other 50 hour a week job I needed to get on with to pay the rent and keep gas in the Harley.

I have truly enjoyed working with the Frontstretch staff over these last six years. They are an extremely talented, diverse, and hard working bunch of guys and ladies. We sweat bullets to provide all of you with varying points of view on the issues and they are all an incredibly talented bunch of writers, even if we have knocked heads from time to time. I know that they will continue to flourish in my absence and I hope you’ll keep reading their weekly missives.

I’d like to send a note of thanks to Tom Bowles, fellow writer, owner of the site, and my friend for pretty much letting me vent my spleen without censorship for six years. We’ve endured some “duck and cover” moments during my tenure in the trenches, but there’s only been a few times that my more outrageous opinions were edited out. If in the future, I land some Sundays off, I might contribute a few columns of my own because I’m like one of those retired fire horses put out to pasture. I hear those bells ringing and I still want to run with the pack, headlong and headstrong charging right into the midst of the blaze as fast as I can go, hellfire be damned.

Truth be told, I slit my own professional wrists back in February of 2001. In the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s passing I wrote a column titled “Blood On Their Hands” stating basically that NASCAR® officials were responsible for Dale’s death with their refusal to install SAFER barriers and require the HANS device for all drivers at every track — even after the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper the previous season, all of which were caused by basalar skull fractures.

I absolutely seethe when I read how NASCAR® instituted all these safety changes in the wake of Earnhardt’s death. Folks, I was there. Mike Helton once called SAFER barriers “a cure worse than the disease.” NASCAR was not going to “react for the sake of reacting” on the head restraint devices. I think everyone can now agree that the idea of racing at tracks not lined with energy absorbing walls and with drivers not wearing a HANS device would simply be barbaric, the modern day equivalent of feeding Christians to the lions. Yet when I toured Dover this year, I still saw vast stretches of walls where there were no SAFER barriers and it made me so nuts I wanted to strangle the life out of someone.

No, it’s not likely those areas are going to be run into a lot, but as Elliott Sadler’s wreck at Pocono a couple years ago proved, these drivers will find a way to run into any unprotected surface short of the concession stands in the parking lot or the Denny’s three miles away.

Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal accident on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 — and Matt McLaughlin’s public reaction to it — ultimately stymied his professional writing career. However, it also ushered in the MPM era here at Frontstretch, a six-year success story that ends (at least temporarily) today.

While we now accept SAFER barriers and the HANS devices as a fact of life (and death), back in 2001 my opinions weren’t so popular — especially since I spent most of the week working various radio outlets repeating my opinion NASCAR had killed Earnhardt by sins of omission, not commission. No less a personage than Bill France, Jr. got in contact with my bosses and demanded that not only should my column be taken down, but I should be fired.

There was a logistical problem there in that no column, mine or anyone else’s had ever gotten as many hits as that one. I didn’t lose my job, but a few months later I was told at Pocono that despite having a letter stating my credentials were confirmed, I was no longer going to get into any NASCAR® race on a press pass — which makes it hard to work a paying gig in this biz. Then I kept writing anyway for free; as it turns out the ISC, sister company of NASCAR®, bought the site and had me fired days before the start of the season.

Professionally, I guess that’s when my career died, but I kept on hanging on, even writing for free at times, just to piss those SOBs off. To the extent I have done so and for whatever minor contributions I have made to saving a driver’s life or at least limiting the extent of his injuries, I am proud.

But as they say, “pride goeth before the fall.”

There was a time this decision I made today would have devastated me. But in truth, I also feel an element of relief. Over the last few years I’ve endured more NASCAR races than I’ve enjoyed, out of a sense of habit. The racing has just become so sanitized, ordinary, and yes, _boring_, I don’t feel like I’m quitting the circus. I feel more like I’m being let out of high school detention early on a nice spring day. My heart, my love, and my lady isn’t the sea but riding my Harley on the blue highways of Chester, Berks, and Lancaster counties. If my Sundays off are going to be rare that’s how I plan to spend them, sun on my back, shadows twenty yards long, and drawing the envious stares of my fellow motorists in their air conditioned, four-wheel cages as I roll past. Someday I might get killed on my Harley (not a bike; kids ride bikes, I ride a Harley.) but I’m OK with that.

As Jimmy Buffett once wrote, “I’d rather die while I’m living, than live while I’m dead.”

I’ve been predicting the declining interest in NASCAR racing for years before it happened — as have many other more talented writers, including Monte Dutton and Mike Mulhern. I’d have loved to be around not only to chronicle that decline, but eventually what I hope will be a resurgence of the sport back into a more popular era, featuring races like I remember in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Golden Era, as I term it — but it’s not to be. If NASCAR survives and even prospers, I probably won’t be around to see it.

Again, in closing, let me say how much I appreciate all my loyal readers. If I don’t see you again in this lifetime, I hope we will meet in the next. You have been a source of joy to me more than my limited words can express. I wish you all joy, prosperity, contentment, and happiness beyond your fondest dreams. I can’t finish this column with words of my own so let me borrow some (paraphrased) words from my buddy Jerry Garcia who used to follow me all over the country…

_Ten years ago, all my dreams were riding tall,_
_Tonight I’d be thankful, Lord, for any dreams at all,_
_Some folks would be happy, just to have one dream come true,_
_But everything you gather,_
_Is just one more you can lose…_
_Come again, walking along in the mission in the rain…_

Forever Yours,


PS (And besides, Taylor Swift hates me.) ™

*Connect with Matt!*

“Contact Matt McLaughlin”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14348/

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