I think most NASCAR fans were stunned last week when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement from Cup Series racing at the conclusion of this season. In many cases, those fans might have felt a degree of relief mixed with surprise, as it appears Earnhardt will indeed leave the sport on his own terms. It was a luxury not afforded to his famous father… and too many other race car drivers.
Had Earnhardt retired last year after being sidelined, always and forever there’d have been questions as to whether he could return. But by fighting the good fight to return to the seat of the No. 88, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver offered conclusive proof he could indeed continue racing if he chose. Of course, that meant those big paychecks would have kept rolling in but Earnhardt had decided on different priorities.
Almost immediately, some internet sages began predicting that with Earnhardt out of the equation the demise of NASCAR racing was nigh. Well, let’s just say the timing of Earnhardt’s announcement was less than fortuitous with name drivers Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards having all hung up their spurs over the last couple years.
But it’s hardly a matter of a vibrant and expanding auto racing industry suddenly being knocked stunned to the ground. NASCAR was already down on the canvas, beaten and bloodied, a mere shadow of itself compared to the glory years of the 1990s and early 21st Century. Driver No. 88 retiring was just another kick to the head of an already wounded sport, even while Nero France fiddles madly away telling us all is well.
In fact, things could hardly be better!
So is this it for stock car racing? Truthfully, I doubt it. Not yet anyway. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not predicting the good old days might yet return but then this ain’t my first rodeo, cowgirls. I have to see things in the perspective of history.
1964 might have been the bloodiest year in American automobile racing. Reigning Cup champion Joe Weatherly was killed in the first race run in 1964 (which was actually the fifth race of the season) at Riverside. The sport’s biggest name in that era, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, was critically burned and injured in that year’s World 600 at Charlotte. Roberts would succumb to his injuries early that July.
1963 Cup Rookie of the Year Billy Wade was killed during a tire test at Daytona while the tire makers tried to perfect the inner-liners that have done much to make speedway racing safer (he passed in January 1965). Jimmy Pardue was also killed during a tire test at Charlotte in September 1964.
On the open-wheel side of American automobile racing, the Indy 500 became a fiery, deadly spectacle. Longtime campaigner Eddie Sachs and up-and-coming driver Dave MacDonald were both killed in an early race crash that Memorial Day weekend. The wreck blocked the front straightaway as flames and thick black smoke hung like funeral curtains over the scene. (MacDonald’s Ford-powered, Mickey Thompson-prepared entry ran gasoline rather than ethanol which was standard for open-wheel cars of the day. In an attempt to run the entire race with one or possibly no pit stops some teams had 100 gallons or more of fuel on board their race cars at the start.)
Yes, there were calls from some political types and other hand-wringers to stop the carnage and ban auto racing altogether. But that was a different time and era in the United States. Our recently martyred young president had thrown down the gauntlet to American scientists and engineers. Mankind, John F. Kennedy envisioned, would stroll across the moon before the end of the decade. The challenge was met.
In that era, bigger, faster, more of all of the above was the goal and as you blazed new paths, occasionally some pioneers would be tragically lost. To shrink back from the challenge was not the American way. Perish the lot of the snowflakes of the day because there were no “safe spaces” to harbor them.
A combination of the danger and the politics of auto manufacturers’ boycotts led several other big names with huge fan bases to retire as well. Ned Jarrett stepped aside after winning two championships. Junior Johnson never won a title but he captured a ton of races with an aggressive style that made him the favorite son of fans in the mountainous regions of the Carolinas. Fred Lorenzen, who was basically Jeff Gordon a decade or two before Jeff Gordon’s parents ever met, also announced his retirement though the “Golden Boy” would attempt (and fail) to make a comeback years later.
The loss of all those big names in NASCAR certainly hurt the sport. Back in 2001, when a disheveled Bill France Jr., who looked like he’d been sleeping under a bridge, commented on the death of Dale Earnhardt the Original, he noted that the sport had survived just fine without Fireball and it would do so again without Dale. France, it should be noted, never worked for Hallmark.
But it was off-track machinations, not the death of drivers that did, in fact, almost torpedo NASCAR racing. In the wake of all those tragedies NASCAR wished to lower speeds to increase safety. They tried to mandate that Chrysler (under the guises of Dodge and Plymouth) could only run the all-conquering Hemi engines in their full-size models, not in their intermediate-sized cars. Chrysler threw a tantrum and announced they were boycotting NASCAR racing in 1965. That meant among other things fan favorite and reigning Cup champion Richard Petty wouldn’t be racing that year.
When NASCAR finally reached a compromise with Chrysler, an embittered Ford Motor Corporation announced they wished to run SOHC 427 engines in their NASCAR entries. NASCAR said no and in 1966, Ford boycotted much of the season meaning reigning champion Ned Jarrett and fan favorite Junior Johnson would be absent for the big races. NASCAR was, in fact, in imminent peril.
In that era, USAC (which also ran the open-wheel, Indy-car style circuit) had a stock car division which competed against NASCAR. If USAC could have found a compromise that satisfied both Chrysler and Ford, and had they drawn some of the big NASCAR name drivers, USAC might have become the dominant force in American stock car racing. As it was, however, Richard Petty voiced a strong preference not to switch horses to USAC. After all, they ran most of their races in the Midwest and the King to Be didn’t like traveling that far. (Yep, what a long strange trip it’s been.)
In 1967, Ford and Chrysler were both back and spending money like they hated it on stock car racing. If a bunch of the big names and fan favorite drivers were gone, new faces and names emerged to replace them and do battle with Petty. Guys like Cale Yarborough and David Pearson became stars. And in an odd way, NASCAR fandom was very different than today. A lot of them didn’t pull for a driver as much as they cheered on a certain brand of car. Ford and Chrysler battled on Sundays to sell cars on Monday.
Of course, that was then and this is now, Rumblefish. But it was that brand loyalty that helped NASCAR through those transitional years as some big drivers left the sport and others elbowed their way into the seats they left. (And where were Chevy and Pontiac, some might ask. What the hell is a Pontiac, younger folks chime in? They made a bunch of cars with screaming chicken decals on the hood. Officially, GM sat out the factory wars of the 1960s and very early 1970s because of a corporate ban on auto racing as they tried to dodge a potential monopoly lawsuit. It took Junior Johnson to bring a Chevy Monte Carlo back to NASCAR racing in the early ’70s.)
As mentioned, Ford and Chrysler basically funded the sport in that era, But the times, they were a changing. The insurance companies were doing their damnedest to bring the muscle car era to a grinding halt. Government regulations concerning safety, emissions, and fuel economy were to refocus the efforts of the automakers. High performance seemed no longer relevant. So first Ford and then Chrysler announced they were getting out of auto racing. Let me tell you, friends and neighbors, as a young but already avid fan of the sport I recall everyone thought the party was over for good back then.
It might have been if not for the timely intervention of RJ Reynolds and the Winston Cup program. Cigarette makers were banned from TV advertising so their marketing dollars could focus on efforts like sports. Nope, they couldn’t run commercials but you’d have been hard-pressed not to see all that red and white signage with the Winston brand slogan at the track. At Winston’s insistence, the NASCAR Cup schedule was shorn of any events of less than 300 miles in length, a major upheaval and not one that was popular with fans. (The schedule went from 48 races in 1971 to just 31 in 1972 and a mere 28 in 1973.) But through that painful birthing process modern stock car racing was born.
Regaining its stride after a major infusion of Winston’s cash, NASCAR took another unexpected hit below the waterline in 1974. The Arabs had suddenly turned off the spigots that produced cheap and plentiful oil and gasoline, the lifeblood of the American economy. Angry and frustrated motorists who were forced to wait in lines for hours to pay ever rising prices for motion-lotion railed against “all that” gas being wasted in auto racing.
Those race car drivers pulled into their pits and left 12 seconds later with a full tank of gas! They didn’t sit for hours and they had no horns to blare! That ain’t working, that’s not the way you do it….
In an attempt to appease the simple-minded, Bill France Sr. announced all races in 1974 would be shorted by 10 percent. Thus, the Daytona 500 became the Daytona 450 that year. The race in Texas was cancelled because that track (not the current one in Fort Worth; this one was in College Station) was out in the middle of nowhere. With no gas sales allowed on Sunday due to the crisis, no one could have gotten there.
France also produced some extremely dubious documents that claimed to show the amount of fuel used by a chartered jet to get NFL teams to away games used more fossil fuel than all the cars involved in a stock car race. True? Probably not. But it sounded good anyway. And it helped NASCAR survive that crisis, which mercifully was relatively short-lived. The Mideast spigots were turned back on and the American economy went back to making Hawaiian noises and installing microwave ovens. (Though we remained saddled with the much-despised 55 mph speed limit for decades after the crisis.)
A similar gas shortage in 1979 had everyone back on edge but was dealt with far more efficiently. You don’t want to get me started on the validity of expending young people’s lives in battles over cheap gas. Trust me.
By the time the 1979 fuel crunch rolled around, NASCAR had a new ace in the hole. That year’s Daytona 500 was broadcast on TV flag-to-flag for the first time. (Previously, the networks had joined the race about halfway, shown highlight packages of what had gone on and then followed the conclusion of the race.) Even if a fellow’s fuel tank was dry, he didn’t need any gas to relax in the Barcalounger and watch stock car competition.
In the early 1980s, some new sports network on that increasingly available cable TV, ESPN, was looking for cheap programming to fill empty hours. NASCAR got the nod. One wonders what would have happened if the ESPN programmers had decided the World Tiddlywinks championship would have made for gripping TV and featured many colorful personalities among the sport’s competitors.
But ESPN ushered the sport into the nation’s living rooms and made NASCAR drivers household names. Under their provident care a steady line of big name drivers, guys like Petty, Pearson, and Yarborough would retire, while a new generation of drivers like Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Tim Richmond, Rusty Wallace, and of course, the Man Hisself, Dale Earnhardt Sr. took their places.
I won’t say all was sweetness and light but NASCAR racing was, in fact, a whole lot sweeter and lighter by a huge margin back “in the day.” We watched new drivers like Jeff Gordon come along heralding another changing of the guard, as well as Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, and Dale Senior’s boy Junior arrive in their turns. Call it the “circle of life.” Or preferably don’t. Damn, but do I hate that song.
2001. Some of you were there. Some of you weren’t born yet. It was a season of upheaval. ESPN got kicked to the curb and FOX took over. Animated gophers ran amuck. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed during the very first points race FOX broadcasted. Winston was seeing the writing on the wall and the transition to Phone Company Cup wasn’t far behind.
Lost in the noise and fireworks is the fact that the Winston marketing people had a pretty good pulse on NASCAR fans. They’d overridden some changes NASCAR wished to make out of concern for those fans. Nextel/Sprint took a hands off approach to the sport, allowing Brian France to run amuck hither and fro doing more damage than twelve legions of barbarians and vandals could have inflicted. Hey, who knew that “modernizing tradition,” “realignment,” and “growing the sport” as if it was some sort of tomato would have a downside?
Yep, some folks said when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died that was it for NASCAR. Nope. The first warning signs, the sight of empty seats at a Cup event, for years almost unheard of and TV ratings no longer growing so fast and eventually declining (in large part due to fans’ distaste for FOX race broadcasts) signaled serious problems ahead but the end wasn’t yet in sight.
Jeff Gordon retiring? Yep, that was going to leave a bruise but it wasn’t the end of the world. Stewart and Edwards riding off into the sunset? Adios, but we will get by. Earnhardt no longer competing? Yep, that’s certainly going to hurt the sport’s popularity. (Conversely, I predict a spike in ticket sales and TV ratings particularly towards the end of the year as fans tune in to watch Earnhardt’s mechanized swan song. But long-term, this retirement is a decided negative.)
At least the young man is leaving on his own terms. Earnhardt’s relatively healthy, very wealthy, and looking forward to the next chapters of his life.
Who will take over his mantle of Most Popular Driver? Well, a lot of folks think it will be Chase Elliott. (It’s of note that only twice in the years between 1984 and 2016 was the MPD award given to a driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt.) He certainly does seem to have talent and his dad wasn’t the most gregarious guy in the world when he entered the sport.
Some folks will never warm to the younger Elliott, simply because not only doesn’t he drive a Ford, he drives for Hendrick Motorsports in an affront to the natural order of things. Kyle Larson? Oh, he’s hot right now but as Kyle Busch found out, you can sell a lot of T-shirts when you’re winning races but the sort of fan that buys them tends to be fickle. (And in his case, NASCAR has this much in hand, the next generation bad guy a lot of folks love to hate.)
Ryan Blaney? My guess is that there’s a dwindling number of fans remaining who feel the sentimental tug watching the red and white No. 21 car out of the Wood Brothers stable. William Byron? Somehow The Partridge Family never won an Emmy. Someone still out there racing late models that’s going to set the series on fire and endear himself to millions of fans (presuming there are millions of fans left by then)? Perhaps, though I recall Bobby Hamilton once saying the best stock car racer ever was probably driving a tow truck in the Carolinas because he wasn’t good looking, well-spoken, or financially blessed enough to land a ride in modern NASCAR racing.
We shall all see, or at least those who stick around will see how it all plays out in 2017 and beyond. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving the circus cause NASCAR’s Big Top to collapse? You can’t charge a doctor with murder for pulling the plug on a patient already on life support.
I’d always thought Jim and Lesa France were smart enough to realize that Brian didn’t have what it took to run NASCAR, intellectually or temperamentally and they’d find some “make work” position to demote him to. I always held out hope that Jim France would invite Humpy Wheeler to captain the Good Ship NASCAR out of the shoals, and my guess is Wheeler could have done it up until a couple years ago.
My guess is that NASCAR will survive but we have to prepare ourselves for diminished expectations. No, Cup racing is never going to be as big a deal as it once was in the Glory Days. The next big challenge I see is when the current TV contracts come up for renewal which is still quite a few years off. I’d guess almost certainly the new contracts will be for greatly diminished sums or else stockholders in FOX and NBC will be rioting on Wall Street armed with swords and cudgels. You might have to watch the 2025 Daytona 500 on your cell phone.
There’s been a cataclysmic change over this last generation. The automobile had a good long run as America’s Sweetheart. My generation of kids all but worshipped and defined ourselves by what we drove. GTOs, Cobra Jets, SS454s, Cudas, 442s and Buick GSs. I still feel the same pangs writing those names I do when recalling the names of old high school flames having had at least one of each.
But somehow, cars have become evil throwback devices to this generation, fossil fuel-powered relics that are destroying the environment in an unsustainable fashion and ruining all they hold dear. Today, a proper car is fueled out of an electrical socket and its range, not 0-60 figures are what define a good one. How easily and effectively the car can be recycled once its useful life is over is more important to them than quarter-mile times. They’ve got Global Warming Warning stickers on the hoods of their cars, not screaming chickens. Such a generation is not going to suddenly warm to stock car racing and even if they did, they lack the attention span to follow it.
NASCAR had its chance to grab the brass ring but they got on the rollercoaster rather than the merry-go-round. Given the sport’s current state, there is assuredly no one person’s absence that can doom it.
There just isn’t a single person left out there who can save it.
There’s talk on the street; it’s there to remind you
It doesn’t really matter which side you’re on.
You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you.
They will never forget you till somebody new comes along.
Where you been lately? There’s a new kid in town.
Everybody loves him, don’t they?
And he’s holding her, and you’re still around.
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.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.