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Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR’s Alumni Network Benefits Everyone

NASCAR did a good thing.

Giving credit where it’s due, NASCAR’s newly-launched Alumni Network checks all the boxes of something that’s long overdue. Announced in April, the program is open to former drivers, crew, owners and other industry insiders, focusing on those with 100 or more races on their resumes. The idea is simple: to allow the people who have been a part of the sport remain in touch with the sport—and each other.

The plan is to also keep them in touch with race fans.

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The program held its first gathering at Darlington Raceway this past weekend. Some veteran drivers spotted at the track included Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace along with brothers Mike and Kenny, fellow HOF member Terry Labonte, Rick Mast, Greg Biffle, Ron Hornaday, Mike Skinner and Dave Marcis. Some participants met with the media, some with drivers and teams. Labonte joined the broadcast booth for part of the race.

Future events are in the works with fan appearances on the to-do list.

This is a program with the potential to be good for everyone. It will allow fans to meet some of the drivers they didn’t have the chance to see race in person—newer fans may have never seen the group from Darlington race, but now they’ll have opportunities to put faces to the names they read in the history books, the ones their mothers or fathers or grandparents cheered for.

That’s not just a cool little thing—that’s massive.

Sports fans, by and large, become sports fans because of a personal connection. They watch with a friend or family member as a way to spend time together. Parents take the next generation to the track in hopes that the experience will be as meaningful as it is to them. And for some of those youngsters, it sticks.

Having other generations of drivers and crewmen available to meet in person can only make the connection deeper. The stories are better when told by those who lived them. And we’re all better for hearing them.

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The media, too, benefit.

Having a variety of drivers available to tell their stories makes things easier, yes, but they also give us perspective. They give new angles on old questions. Today’s NASCAR is so vastly different than even 20 years ago that understanding how the sport operated and how teams navigated it from primary sources is a valuable tool. And while it’s true that many drivers and crew are available to those who ask, the opportunity to ask questions in person is important. Faces to names is a powerful experience.

The alumni themselves are the big winners here. The reunion events provide a chance to connect with each other and share memories. It provides a network, where people who have drifted apart can find each other. Leaving the sport can be a difficult, lonely experience even for those who left on their own terms. Nobody understands an experience like someone else who was there.

The network could also open the door for the alumni’s voices to be heard in ways that could benefit them and future competitors. There’s no pension for drivers and crews and some end up without much to live on. Medical bills can add up, even for those who competed recently enough to make a lot of money. Those who competed in lower series or for smaller teams for most of their careers don’t always have the resources they need.

Hopefully, the Alumni Network can open a dialogue with NASCAR about taking care of their own. Maybe sharing their experiences can also help current competitors think about their futures.

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That’s another area that could benefit. If the alums are willing to share their experiences about how injuries sustained while racing affect them now, there might be something to learn from that, too.

Any way you slice it, NASCAR did a good thing in creating the Alumni Network. There are major opportunities for fans, but also for NASCAR and the former competitors to bring their stories to a new generation of fans so that they are not forgotten. It could provide a voice to ensure that NASCAR doesn’t forget, either. 

The past is important to remember. The chance for the participants in NASCAR’s story to connect with each other and share the story with us all is NASCAR’s best idea in years.

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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While this is positive for the sport, you can bet Nascar will make sure some things from their past don’t come back to light, such as the Tim Richmond, Jeremy Mayfield, and Brian France debacles.

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