What Do I Know?

Fred Lorenzen was my first NASCAR hero. (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)
Fred Lorenzen was my first NASCAR hero. (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, January 30, 2015, 10:52 a.m.

Five men – Bill Elliott, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott, Joe Weatherly, and Rex White – are being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

At some point in my life, back before I wrote about NASCAR for a living, when I was a fan and didn’t know too much, two of them were favorite drivers of mine. The first was Lorenzen. Fearless Freddie. The Elmhurst Express. The prettiest stock car I ever saw was the one Lorenzen drove at Bristol, started on the pole and finished twentieth, when I was seven years old, on July 25, 1965. Ned Jarrett won the Volunteer 500 that day.

Only for one year, 1969, was Petty blue on a Ford.
Only for one year, 1969, was Petty blue on a Ford.

That Ford Galaxie wasn’t just white. It was sparkling, pearly white, with sky-blue interior and wheels. Two cars stood out to me that Sunday afternoon. One was Lorenzen’s Holman-Moody Ford. The other was Richard Petty’s Plymouth. From that day to this, Petty blue has seemed to me the perfect color of a race car. I never liked it when STP added its garish orange (in photos, it’s made to look red, but in person, it was as orange as orange can be) because it broke up the perfection of Petty blue. At times, the Number 43 had a simple inscription over its rear fenders: “Plymouth by Petty.” That I thought was cool.

My greatest racing hero was David Pearson. He became my hero when he replaced Lorenzen, who retired in 1967 for several years and never won again after he returned. Lorenzen had been Number 28, but Pearson replaced him in Number 17. Lorenzen had never won a championship and never tried. He competed only in the big races and yet still won 26 out of a career total of only 158, meaning that he won 16.5 percent of them. Dale Earnhardt’s career winning percent was 11.2.

By the way, my two early heroes were born eight days apart in December 1934.

I never met Lorenzen. One of my favorite memories was the two hours I spent talking with him on the phone in 1997. Offhand, the only other interview to which I can compare it is the afternoon I spent penned into a motel room with Bob Feller in 1981 during a fierce thunderstorm.

Perhaps, as I got older, experiences like those excited me less.

Lorenzen told me he regretted the abortive retirement. He admitted that Fireball Roberts’ death, in 1964, threw him for a loop, but, he said, retiring in his prime (age 33) was the greatest of his life’s regrets. I wish I had that story now. A copy of the magazine could be in a box or cabinet somewhere.

Maybe one day the kid on the left will be what the man on the right was. (John Clark photo)
Maybe one day the kid on the left will be what the man on the right was. (John Clark photo)

In 1981, slightly more than three years before he won the first of 44 Cup races, Bill Elliott became my third favorite driver, succeeding Lorenzen and Pearson. I was covering the Southern 500 at Darlington, and I found myself rooting for Elliott for one reason. He was, and still is, the only driver who reminded me of Pearson as I watched him lap my favorite track. Elliott, like Pearson, was “natural-born smooth.”

He wasn’t that off the track. Unlike Lorenzen and Pearson, I got to know Elliott, and while I liked him, and got along with him, I found him one of the more moody men I’d ever known. I learned to read him in the same manner that later came in handy with Tony Stewart. When Elliott had “his ass on his shoulders,” a term common to my upbringing, I let him be. When in a good mood, he was one of my favorites, and he was one of the few who would just sidle up alongside me at times to volunteer some information I might find useful.

Wendell Scott (ISC Images & Archives, via Getty Images)
Wendell Scott (ISC Images & Archives, via Getty Images)

Wendell Scott I watched in that first race at Bristol – he finished seventh, albeit 21 laps off the pace, and I remember him spending a good deal of the day driving around the apron of the turns (Bristol was only lightly banked in those days) – and many times over the years at Greenville-Pickens and Darlington.

What Scott could have done, no one will ever know. He was the most independent of independents, and the color of his skin was one big reason, but lots of drivers were underfunded back then, and the same questions must be considered when evaluating the careers of Big John Sears, Elmo Langley, Soapy Castles, Jabe Thomas, J.D. McDuffie, Cecil Gordon, and many others.

Once I had Kodak Instamatic photos of me posing with many drivers – Bobby Allison, Petty, Pete Hamilton, Buddy Baker, Tiny Lund, and others – in the Greenville-Pickens pits. I hope the photo of me –wearing a black sweatshirt that I had turned into a homemade football jersey with painted cutouts from iron-on knee patches — posing with Scott is in a shoe box somewhere at my mother’s house. I wish I’d kept it when I saw it about twenty years ago. It’ll probably turn up after I’m dead.

I’ve often thought that the common impression of Scott was wrong. When I watched him race, I don’t remember hearing him booed. In fact, it seemed that the attitude of the fans was one of respectful condescension. They liked and respected Scott. Had he been a frontrunner, a more serious threat to the white racers, it might have turned ugly, but I never saw any ugliness. When I had my picture taken with Scott, I had to stand in line. At about the age of twelve, my perception of Wendell Scott was that he was a very nice man.

All I remember about Joe Weatherly was his death. His fatal crash, at Riverside, occurred during the first year I have any memories at all of stock car racing. I know he was considered quite the prankster. I know he once said that the difference between oval racers and road racers was that the former drank whisky and chased women, and the latter drank wine and chased each other. He and Curtis Turner were best friends, and had one not been killed in a racing crash and the other in a plane crash, they’d have probably drunk each other to death long before now. They were racers once or twice a week but daredevils full-time.

Lorenzen’s last victory was at 33. Weatherly died at 41, Roberts at 35.

It meant a lot to get to know Rex White over the past 20 years. (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)
It meant a lot to get to know Rex White over the past 20 years. (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

Finally, there’s Rex White, whom I got to know after Rick Minter introduced us at Atlanta Motor Speedway. White won the championship when I was two. The last of his 28 victories occurred at age 32 (him) and four (me). He raced six times in 1964, Chevrolet mainly left NASCAR, and White took to driving trucks for a living.

One of the reasons I liked Atlanta was that Minter’s farm was nearby, and another was that Rex was always there. They don’t come any better than those two. Typically, every visit to Atlanta Motor Speedway included a five-minute chat about old times with Rex. I never saw him race, but he is remembered for a gold No. 4 Chevy, and I always liked gold cars: Dick Hutcherson’s No. 29, the top of Pearson’s No. 17 Holman-Moody Fords, James Hylton in No. 48 during the 1960s, and Bobby Allison in the late 1980s with Miller High Life and No. 22.

While my memories are comparatively sparse, I’ve had some interaction with four of the five honorees, and I wouldn’t trade it for a high-dollar motor coach in the infield.

If you think of it, read my short fiction at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, and give my books some consideration here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

 

Far from the Madding Tour

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These guys can't win, but they do the best they can. (Monte Dutton)
These guys can’t win, but they do the best they can. (Monte Dutton)

Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, January 27, 2015, 9:32 a.m.

With many of my erstwhile NASCAR colleagues holed up in Charlotte getting quotes, I’ve got a slightly higher dose of that old “Here in Topeka” feeling.

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

It comes from an old Loretta Lynn song, “One’s on the Way,” which is about a woman sitting home pregnant, and, while that is something I have never done, the phrase pops into my mind during times such as these.

But here in Topeka / The screen door’s a-bangin’ / The coffee’s boilin’ over and the wash needs a-hangin’ / One wants a cookie and one wants a changin’ and / One’s on the way

Life in Charlotte is more predictable than life in Topeka. Journalists from far and wide – though I’m not sure which cities are wide away (or which journalists are wide awake) – have converged on Charlotte, under the auspices of the speedway there, to hear everyone in NASCAR declare he has a chance, whether it’s the pole, the race, the Chase, the Cup, the Xfinity, the Trucks, or the Powerball.

While I miss the hustle and bustle, a little, I rationalize in the knowledge that most of what is uttered is utterly predictable, as utterances tend to be.

Last night I wrote about a basketball game that wound being as predicted, too. The High Point University Panthers invaded Clinton’s Presbyterian College and came away with a 63-54 victory over the Blue Hose. The Panthers are 16-5. The Blue Hose are 7-15. Presbyterian plays with most everyone but just has the darndest time beating them. I’ve been comparing these games to the movie Groundhog Day.

Gregg Nibert has won 398 games at PC. He and I have known each other for a little over thirty years. He has moved with the program into Division I, where the going is understandably tough. Presbyterian opened the season with Duke. Predictably, it did not go well. It’s easy to tell Nibert has a competitive fire because, occasionally, if you look closely, you can see him sizzle. This season is tough. They’re young. They’re talented. They have learned to compete, but not to win.

They are so close and yet so far.

“I’m so proud of our guys,” Nibert said. “I just want to make sure we can compete defensively. We could beat them. We just couldn’t make shots. Their seniors and juniors made shots, and we didn’t make some shots. We’ve got to make them. We had some pretty good looks.”

Nibert’s counterpart, Scott Cherry, offered little dissent.

“That’s pretty accurate, as far as the game goes,” he said, not that I knew what else was going besides the game. “We have a veteran team of guys who play the majority of the minutes, who have played significantly both in out-of-conference and league, where they know it’s a battle every single night.

“If you look at PC, they’re just a really young basketball team. They’ve got talent, but they’re really young, and it’s going to take some experience, and maybe some lumps, before they really, truly understand how to close out games and learn how to win them.”

Lumps. The Blue Hose have those.

“The main difference between the two teams was experience,” added Cherry, whose team has it.

The reason I was writing about the game, and not sitting in the corner of the stands on the opposite side, yelling “Walk!” or “Traveling!” at regular intervals along with virtually everyone sitting around me, was that a longtime compadre during the NASCAR Twenty Years War allowed me to write about the game for his paper. Greer Smith works at the High Point Enterprise, and it was the source of mine. I offered because I was going to be at the game, whether cheering or writing, and probably enjoying a box of popcorn either way.

When I was younger, writing on deadline was the bane of my existence. I used to say it was a matter of trying to make the, uh, waste stink as little as possible. I always considered myself good at it – this process of doing your best in a limited amount of time, sort of like the SAT test – but I wasn’t particularly proud of the result.

I’ve changed. I sort of miss it. Typing away, and then feverishly proofreading, and fixing, and moving things around, and then, with enough time to spare for those back at the desk, sending that sucker, leaning back in the chair, and taking a deep breath.

As we used to say on the farm, “Boys, the hay’s in the barn.”

Now that I don’t do it as much, I find it exhilarating. There’s satisfaction in being able to cope with the stress. Who knows? Maybe it keeps me sharp. Maybe I don’t get any duller.

By the way, when I sit in the stands, I occasionally have the unpopular habit of complaining about a call that went against the visitors. When I’m on press row, I don’t say anything at all, apart from snide comments to the guy sitting next to me, but when in the stands, act as a fan, I always say, but I’m not a whiz at it, and sometimes I must say, “Oops,” lest my loyalty be called into question.

On media row, there is no loyalty, only devotion.

Many thanks for reading these blogs, and I’d love for you to visit my fiction site, www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, where you can read my short fiction absolutely free, and if suitably impressed, buy some of my books here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

 

 

On Demand and Around the Clock

Snaking through the infield. (Richard Prince photo for Chevy Racing)
Snaking through the infield. (Richard Prince photo for Chevy Racing)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, January 26, 2015, 9:58 a.m.

It’s a car. At speed. Racing. In Daytona Beach, Florida, the so-called “Birthplace of Speed.”

Glory be.

What a gentle way to wade into the motor racing waters. Those with access to MAV-TV got their “slam, bam, thank you, ma’am” with the Chili Bowl earlier. The winter months provide the stray rally, the occasional motocross, the vintage auctions for those who drool over such affairs, and the NASCAR-themed filler scheduled either for right after the infomercials or just before they begin.

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

The Rolex 24, though, is marvelously unobtrusive. It goes around the clock (twice) and around the program guide. Fox a while. Fox Sports 1. Fox Sports2. One, two, three, one, two, three. A drag race is a ditty. A NASCAR race is a ballad. An endurance race is a symphony. It enriches the mind as background. It is a race to watch at one’s leisure.

Inherit the Wind on TCM? No problem. See if Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils can win his thousandth? Go ‘head. See how laughable the Pro Bowl is? Well, by then, the Rolex was long over. What that meant was I watched the Pro Bowl for thirty seconds instead of five. I watched History show me how all the founders of America were models and hunks who loved to loot the evil British, just for sport.

Way cool. (Richard Prince photo for Chevy Racing)
Way cool. (Richard Prince photo for Chevy Racing)

The Rolex, to me, is sort of like visiting a museum. I don’t follow it closely. I just wander along, admiring all the wondrous contraptions. I read my book. I write just like I am now. The Weather Channel is on. A major storm is about to engulf the Northeast. This isn’t the Northeast. The tenor of the weather announcers is similar to that of the Rolex announcers over the weekend. The Rolex 24 is much better, though. Sports prototypes were zipping around in the background. On TWC, snow trucks are rolling, getting in position for a siege against Mother Nature. I’m mildly surprised the weather commentators, dressed not unlike pit reporters, don’t have their own Snow Titan.

It’s sunshiny here. I’ve got paperwork, but, also, a guitar, and I know how to use it. Sort of. There’s a basketball game in town tonight.

I’m starting to imagine that rumble when the engines start igniting on the grid, and the cries of the urgent public address echo and clatter past, behind, and off the metal seats. It’s all so urgent, invigorating, and pulse-quickening.

I’ll be ready for that in a few weeks. The Rolex 24 was a relaxing, elegant lead-in, sort of like Judy Collins opening for Bob Dylan.

It’s just another big day here in the Upstate of South Carolina, where I’ve got the time to write the fiction you can find at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com. And the songs you can find me singing on my YouTube channel. If all that gives you the misleading impression that my words are worth a few dollars, you can find my books here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

When To Say When

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Jeff Gordon, in my observations, has never made the same mistake twice. (Monte Dutton sketch)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, January 23, 2015, 5:02 p.m.

I’ve had a day to ruminate since word arrived that Jeff Gordon was winding down his NASCAR career. On Thursday morning, I got up early and wrote a blog, and then, shortly after I posted it, realized I had written the wrong one. Oh, well. This is my website. I can get around to it whenever I want. Most of the time, thinking about it in a world where everyone else is rushing to judgment works well for me. It’s my way of resisting the temptations of contemporary life and sets me apart in a world where everyone is perpetually in a hurry.

That plus I had other stuff to do.

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

Gordon will be 44 in August. His rookie season at NASCAR’s highest level was my rookie year writing about it full-time. Still, Gordon outlasted me. Journalists generally last longer than racing drivers, which is fair because drivers make a little more money.

Then again, I was a writer before 1993, and I still write now. Out of all those years, and all the drivers, ballplayers and politicians I’ve known, Gordon is unique in one substantial way. He never makes the same mistake twice. Never. On the track. In his life. With the media. With the rich and famous. With the poor and hungry.

For instance, Gordon only sang during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field once.

If Gordon has decided that the time to hang up his helmet is drawing nigh, he is right. Most drivers let fate decide. They love it as much, to quote Merle Travis, as “a fiend his dope, a drunkard his wine,” and it also occurs to them that there is nothing else they can do that will make them as much money as climbing into that stock car every week, even to diminished results, and, so, they do it as long as there is money to pay for it.

Much of what I have seen written about Gordon since he made his announcement has glorified him, and, indeed, his career has been characterized by glory, but it makes it seem as if Gordon arrived in NASCAR as the charismatic face of it, and that is plainly less than the truth. It is oversimplified. When Gordon arrived, he wasn’t prepared for success. The rookie reporter thought writing about the rookie driver was an exercise in futility. I used to say I could conduct the media conference myself because I already knew how Gordon would answer every question. He was the first driver smothered by handlers. Ray Evernham was as protective of Gordon as Scotland Yard for the Queen of England.

During 1995, the year of his first championship, everyone arrived in Atlanta for the coronation, and word was disseminated that Gordon would talk about the race only, not the championship, which he had all but wrapped up. Jim McLaurin was adept at taking care of such media concerns, thanks to his perspicacious wit. The NASCAR writer representing The State paper of Columbia raised his hand and asked, “Jeff, I know you don’t want to talk about the championship. My question is, why won’t you talk about the championship?”

I laughed. Most everyone else in the room laughed. Gordon laughed, and then he talked about the championship.

What I appreciate about Gordon is that he evolved fully in a way that most of his contemporaries managed only partly. By the time my days at the track were ending, Gordon had become the quintessential pro. He was perfect. He had the tact necessary to say what was appropriate, but he would not lie, and most of his contemporaries have no idea how much a lie can come back to haunt a man. Even if he didn’t provide copy that would make the headline writer’s job a snap, he had a way of transmitting, by his expression, by the look in his eyes, that the questioner had something there. He saved me lots of wrong directions on my lonely way back home (paraphrasing Kris Kristofferson).

Gordon went from driving me to distraction to lighting my path in the span of less than twenty short years. He’s one of those I sorely miss as I watch from afar. His was an image he came to occupy with grace and skill, much like the cockpit of a Chevy.

Tony Stewart's adrenaline keeps right on pumping when he climbs out of the car.  (John Clark photo)
Tony Stewart’s adrenaline keeps right on pumping when he climbs out of the car. (John Clark photo)

Oh, five years or so ago, I had a conversion with Gordon in which I observed that his driving style was almost identical to Tony Stewart’s but that, while Stewart was basically the same person inside and outside his car, Gordon’s personality belied his aggressive style on the track. I said that most observers cannot separate the personality from the style. As a result, Stewart would always get himself in more trouble and generate more controversy even though, on the track, he behaved no differently.

Gordon said he was impressed that I’d noticed that, and I told him, thanks, but it seemed to me it should be as clear as a Caribbean morning to anyone who watched closely.

I wrote a book about him once. It was mainly a collection of lovely color photographs, but I wrote the text. It was also unauthorized and unlicensed, and I bumped into Gordon between transporters at what was then California Speedway. I’d heard he was miffed. Of course, it was probably his handlers who were miffed. A lot of good cop/bad cop is played in NASCAR, nowhere more than in the rehearsed orchestra that performs the Hendrick Motorsports symphonies. In any event, I wanted to clear the air.

I told Gordon that I wouldn’t write a book on anyone that was authorized, because then it would mean that image specialists would pore over every word and, by the time they’d gotten done, they would have excised every phrase that might have been considered interesting. I told him my only motive in writing the book, besides money, which athletes understand, was to paint him in a positive light, but that there would undoubtedly be passages he wouldn’t like. I also pointed out that, if Hitler had been able to control everything written about Hitler, the world might be in a lot worse shape.

"Hmm. Well, that depends," says  Jeff Gordon. (Monte Dutton)
“Hmm. Well, that depends,” says Jeff Gordon. (Monte Dutton)

Gordon said he understood, and that was the end of any rift between us, though I suspect there wasn’t really much of one from the beginning. Some of those around him had gotten the idea that someone else on earth might make a dime off him, and they were paid to minimize uncommitted royalties. As a footnote, I once had a similar conversation with Stewart, and the understanding between us was the same. In Stewart’s case, he seemed a little wounded, not that I might make money off him, but that I didn’t want to pen an “official book.” Bones Bourcier did an exemplary job with that, by the way.

As a race-car driver, Gordon is top five all-time. He hasn’t won six championships, as has the driver to whom he will always be compared, Jimmie Johnson, but Johnson has never won races at the eye-popping rate Gordon did in the nineties. For his career, Gordon is top five, but his prime was second to none.

Gordon didn’t change NASCAR with his personality. He changed it forever by proving that a young driver could climb into top-flight equipment and be successful almost right away. Before Gordon, the hot Roman candle (from the Texas Panhandle, in Jimmy Buffett’s words) had to work his way up. Ricky Rudd climbed into Bill Champion’s aging equipment. Drivers too numerous to mention took a modest step upward with Junie Donlavey. By the time a driver had a decent shot to win, he was late twenties or, more likely, early thirties.

Gordon paved the way directly, and saved lots of trouble, for those who followed him, among them Stewart, Johnson, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, the brothers Busch, and many others, and that number includes dozens who weren’t able to take advantage of the shot. His triumph signaled the graduation of NASCAR into the major league of American racing and the mainstream of American sport.

No one should be the least bit surprised that Gordon knows when to quit and how to do it.

Thanks for reading my modest efforts, and I hope you’ll check out my short stories at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, and the books of mine you can purchase here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

 

Gated Communities

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"36, x-cross, trips left, on three, ready, break!" (Monte Dutton)
“36, x-cross, trips left, on three, ready, break!” (Monte Dutton)

Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, January 22, 2015, 8:32 a.m.

I once prided myself on my ability to read Dr. Seuss to children. It’s been many years now, but I think the good (and late) doctor might’ve made a crack sportswriter had he been so inclined.

Who took the air out of the ball? / Who was the man who had the gall / To tap the ball / And scandalize / Us all?

When the photo that led to this sketch was taken, I was standing around ... tires.
When the photo that led to this sketch was taken, I was standing around … tires.

What miracles I have witnessed on my TV. I heard someone say Bill Belichick should be banned from coaching the Super Bowl. For using a ball with two too few pounds of air! Silly me. I thought the solution might be for referees to check the balls better.

As a general rule, New England Patriots fans think this is overblown and offer all sorts of defenses. These involve alleged scientific experts, diabolical arch-villains, and the theory that there were secret football fixers behind a grassy knoll. It’s true. There were football fixers behind a grassy knoll, but they were armed with parlay cards.

Obviously, I don’t get it. I’m out of touch. I don’t understand the modern game. And the modern fans.

Business is booming at the Slander Resort. (Monte Dutton)
Business is booming at the Slander Resort. (Monte Dutton)

Someone else said the National Football League should adopt the inspection procedures of NASCAR. Presumably, this involves football templates. Of course, in NASCAR, air (okay, nitrogen, really) pressure is useful for providing Goodyear officials an excuse for every single tire that has been “cut down” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Goodyear makes “recommendations,” but no one gets busted for not having enough nitrogen in the tires. On the other hand, very few footballs blow out. Now, if Tom Brady let fly a spiral in the direction of Rob Gronkowski, and it arrived in his hands flat as a flitter (a flitter, apparently, is anything that’s flat) because it had a blowout en route, then, it would be a scandal.

But not Deflategate. Please not Deflategate. Haven’t we had enough –gates in forty-plus years? My guitar needs new strings. D’Addariogate. The local forecast won’t pop up on my TV. Weatherchannelgate. My coffee had a few grounds in the bottom. Javagate. I ordered something off TV, and it didn’t keep the acid from destroying the finish of my car. Dumbassgate.

I haven’t walked through a genuine gate since we moved Mama Davis into my mother’s house, and Mama Davis died about thirty years ago, so do the math. No, that’s wrong. Races and ballgames have lots of gates, I reckon.

Mediagate!

While I don’t get it regarding this particular flimflozzle, my fiction, available at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, makes more sense than my blogs here, particularly during this stage of the American Dream. Many are the ruminations on life’s absurdity in my two novels, which are available, along with the rest of my books, here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

 

 

 

 

Perfectionists, Yes; Perfect, No

Surely Clayton Kershaw has never thrown a strike that wasn't. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Surely Clayton Kershaw has never thrown a strike that wasn’t. (Monte Dutton sketch)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, January 20, 2015, 9:52 a.m.

Things have changed. Maybe it’s for the better.

Over the weekend, a 45-7 victory by the New England Patriots over the Indianapolis Colts was “marred” by the allegation that the Patriots were surreptitiously underinflating the footballs.

They were underinflating the balls, I tell you! Hang ‘em all!

In 1977, I was a student manager of the football team at Furman University, and our punter was named Willie Freeman. (It was Bill in the program, but everyone called him Willie.) He was very peculiar about the balls that he liked to punt. Specifically, he liked them old and scuffed up. One of my more important duties was to try to sneak his special punting ball past the referee, who checked before the game and used a marker to put a little “X” on them, signaling that they were approved. Another responsibility of mine was to make sure the ball boys, who were generally coach’s sons, got the right ball in the game at the right time. The quarterbacks didn’t like old, scuffed-up balls.

Me according to me.
Me according to me.

It was tricky. The referee wouldn’t approve a ball that was too old. I’d have to look at our collection and estimate how far I could go.

The general rule in those days of antiquity was, if the ref says it’s okay, it’s okay.

Art Baker was then the head coach, and like many head coaches, he could be a suspicious sort. Many were the times I was dispatched up the bank behind the practice field to cross-examine a potential spy from Western Carolina or The Citadel. Invariably, I discovered that the possible spy was the great-uncle on the mother’s side of the left end on the second defense.

As any James Bond fan knows, counter-espionage requires tact.

Naturally, I find a certain hypocrisy in the notion that sports, even a few good ones, should not occasionally stretch the rules. I will shed this hypocrisy when I see an actual example of the kid in the commercial who turns himself into the referee, thus costing his team a basketball game. If I see it, that kid will have the courage of General Custer and will probably come out the same way.

Not literally. His popularity will perish.

I’m sorry to be crass. Sports and life are populated with very few saints and very few sinners. Most fall somewhere in between, or else linemen would never hold, cornerbacks would never interfere, pitchers would never try to “extend” the strike zone, point guards would never travel, right wings would never “ice,” recruits would never get a date, legislators would never write loopholes, and millionaires would never hire professional magicians to do their taxes.

Who am I to grouse about the Patriots? Later today I may drive forty in a thirty-five.

People are flawed, and so are most of the characters in my fiction. You can read the short stories free at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, and then, maybe, if, in the off chance you’re impressed, you’ll the books listed here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

The Most Trifling Time of the Year

Stately Charlotte Motor Speedway, seen in a fishbowl. (NASCAR via Getty Images)
Stately Charlotte Motor Speedway, seen in a fishbowl. (NASCAR via Getty Images)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, January 19, 2015, 10:30 a.m.

NASCAR takes up every month of the year except two. It starts with NBA and NHL playoffs starting to take shape and ends with the football bowls and playoffs within sight. There is no NASCAR season, only NASCAR years.

mug Dutton Monte 1_CLA sports writer, inured to years of the satirical press-box ambience, feels slightly awkward in the grandstands. A follower of NASCAR feels slightly awkward during his or her two months of virtual noise. He catches a whiff of gasoline at the local pumps and immediately thinks of how Speedweeks in Daytona Beach beckon. He awakens from a grumpy hibernation about this time of the year and grouses about how he’s tired of hearing about “stick (and/or) ball sports,” which, by the way, is a damnable phrase. It reflects a despicable attribute of humanity, which is the need of every person to find someone upon which to look down.

I never thought I’d see a time when NASCAR fans were snobs. Once upon a time, Indy-car partisans disparaged it as “taxicab racing.” Now, to hear some NASCAR fans, Indy Cars and Formula One might as well be the Soap Box Derby, which they are not. NASCAR spent fifty years reaching the mainstream of American sport, and it hadn’t been nominated for its first ESPY five minutes when some of its fans (and some of its executives) started looking down their noses at other forms of racing and “stick and ball sports.” Every flaw in sticks or balls twenty years ago is now matched by “motors and tars.”

Once upon a time, and quite without provocation, a colleague claimed I “liked to throw off on Mississippi,” which was his native state. I replied that, being a lowly South Carolinian, it ill behooved me to look down upon anyone else.

But, I asked him, with a twinkle in my eyes, “Just out of curiosity, upon whom do Mississippians look down? Haiti?”

I knew I was going to pay for that but just couldn’t resist. He fired the first shot.

Around and around. Over and over. That's what I'm missing.(HHR/Harold Hinson photo for Chevy Racing)
Around and around. Over and over. That’s what I’m missing.(HHR/Harold Hinson photo for Chevy Racing)

Which brings me to the very notion of sport. Among the many trivialities that NASCAR fans stumbled across while sailing the winter doldrums were the ESPN2 pundit Keith Olbermann’s satirical remarks on the Kurt Busch-Patricia Driscoll imbroglio, which, to be fair, is almost impossible to discuss without satire unless one is involved in the legal profession. As Adlai Stevenson said, “The human race has improved everything but the human race.”

Stevenson also said, “Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that he sometimes has to eat them.”

Olbermann isn’t a NASCAR fan. He has that right. He doesn’t consider high-performance driving a sport. He has that right, too. Everyone sets the border between what is and what isn’t for himself. Mine are rather expansive, but I see the other side and respect the view of others, even if I don’t see it the same way. My border lies back this side of chess, bands and cheerleaders, but includes golf, bowling, auto racing, and, uh, lumberjacks who are competing against each other hacking saws and rolling logs. The definition of sport is similar to the endless argument over who should be in a hall of fame. It’s a nationwide chorus of “mine is and yours isn’t.” All I ask of a hall of fame is that its members be famous. Beyond that, each voter can make the call for himself or herself. The hall ultimately is defined by what the voters proclaim it to be, and as flawed as that may be, it beats trying to set cold, lifeless requirements. Rather than argue endlessly about who should be and who shouldn’t, I prefer to go with that’s the system, and this is what it produced. Give me a vote, and I’ll stand up for my own requirements. Fortunately for the world, I’ve never been the sort who gets such honors, and I’ve never wanted to do what it takes to get one, such as, oh, I don’t know, earn respect. Once I voted for the Heisman Trophy but not for the guy who won. It’s one of those cases where I could never respect a process that included me in it.

Basketball: definitely a sport. (Monte Dutton)
Basketball: definitely a sport. (Monte Dutton)

I like stock car racing best during the part of the year when stock cars race. For two months, I can leave it mostly alone. What little I think, I write. Next month, I’ll begin thinking many things I never get the time to write.

As God intended.

Don’t be fooled by my self-deprecation. Buy my books anyway: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

 

It’s Getting Too Weird, Man

"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen ..."  (HHP photo for Chevrolet)
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen …” (HHP photo for Chevrolet)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Saturday, January 17, 2015, 10:27 a.m.

Are you distracted? I am.

This morning I thought, Well, it’s time to start thinking about what’s going to happen in NASCAR, and I realized that whether or not Kurt Busch’s estranged girlfriend is an international woman of mystery has little to do with this year’s champion. The little regards Kurt Busch.

Kurt’s a brave man, though. He certainly seems to have tempted fate by running afoul of a trained assassin. I was wondering when the Media Tour was, not whether or not Kurt could learn an English dialect and portray a passable James Bond.

NASCAR is bursting into an entirely new market. The Twilight Zone.

mug Dutton Monte 2_WEBHow can Jimmie Johnson win a seventh Sprint Cup championship? He’s got to discredit Keith Olbermann on social media.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s preoccupied with learning how to make the perfect chili. Tony Stewart’s immersed in dirt-track maintenance. If Kurt Busch fancies himself 007, then Roger Penske is Captain America, according to an excerpt from Racer magazine. Pocono Raceway’s casino – race tracks and casinos are more common than taters and gravy nowadays – is offering free gambling chips if Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t see his shadow. Not only is Cole Whitt joining Front Row Motorsports, but so is Speed Stick. The Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety is sponsoring qualifying at Atlanta Motor Speedway because, gosh knows, the Georgia Governor certainly wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to speed.

Those releases keep me in touch with the notion that very few people recognize irony. At some point this year, a lieutenant governor will appear at the track naming a favorite-son driver as the state’s spokesman to prevent teens from driving recklessly, and then that driver will go out and touch off a fourteen-car pileup. One leads to another because God has a sense of humor. In a sport where drivers seldom go to college, drivers will also be named to head a literacy effort somewhere. Race drivers have many laudable virtues. Schooling isn’t generally one of them. Ask them, and they’ll say they needed the “seat time.”

Meanwhile, the Word of the Day is pregustator, “a person whose job it is to taste food or drink before it’s served.” It might not be a bad idea to hire one before Patricia Driscoll comes over. Have her over? I wish I hadn’t even watched the video.

I can but wonder what Richard Petty thinks. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)
I can but wonder what Richard Petty thinks. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Remember Robby Gordon? He’s off in the wilds of Dakar. Well, no, he’s not. Dakar is in Senegal, which is in Africa. The rally is in South America. It’s amazing it’s not Robby Gordon paired with Ms. Driscoll.

When I realized that A.J. Foyt was eighty years old, my first thought was, By God, there’s hope for me. I just read a quote sheet from Indy car, and, not surprisingly, the one that caught my eye was from my friend Robin Miller, who was present at Milwaukee the day in 1965 when Foyt won the pole and finished second, in a field of rear-engined cars, driving a dirt roadster. “People who saw Foyt at the end of his career have no clue how talented he was,” Robin was quoted as saying, and I’m old enough to remember when Foyt was not only the greatest American driver but a force of nature. Technology keeps a man’s nature in check these days, but, be that as it may, it’s been thirty years since I’ve seen a race driver perform what the Foyts and Andrettis, the Pettys and the Pearsons and the Allisons and the Yarboroughs, did routinely. They wrestled those cars, and it was as breathtaking as Dusty Rhodes and Johnny Valentine.

If you didn’t enjoy this blog, go over to www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com and read my fiction, which is more plausible than this. Ditto my books, some of which were written before NASCAR became this weird and two of which are novels: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

 

Kids Gone Wild

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The kinds are more in control than we were. (Monte Dutton sketch)
The kinds are more in control than we were. (Monte Dutton sketch)

Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, January 14, 2015, 2:15 p.m.

To me, it seems as if my youth was the wild frontier.

Davey, Davey Crockett, king of the wild frontier!

I was thinking this morning in the aisles of a local supermarket, which is as good a place as any. Invariably, there is a man with three young’uns, packed into the fold-out basket at the back of the buggy (most call them shopping carts nowadays) like boiled peanuts in a half shell, nasty faces, grimy clothes, throwing up their hands, and yelling, “Hey!”

“Hey, little man,” I say, making a funny face.

mug Dutton Monte 1_CLIt seems that all kids are better behaved than my siblings and I at a similar age. We fought over who got to push the buggy, and then, whoever got it pretended he (or she) was Junior Johnson at Darlington.

We ruled the Community Cash!

Dee Dee, the youngest and only one of us who has since passed away, would usually be the one wide-eyed and nervous, sitting in the basket, careening around and using Sunbeam bread for a soft wall. This was years before race tracks had soft walls.

My dad didn’t do anything. He was at least half an aisle behind, laughing. I talked to my mother earlier today. She said, “I used to yell at a person in the next aisle, ‘Hey, catch that little boy when he runs by!’ I didn’t have any choice. I couldn’t catch you.”

Nowadays, if kids acted like we did, the police would show up, either to arrest us for childish and disorderly, or our parents for domestic violence.

Once, when the wife of a city policeman backed over my bicycle outside Johnson Brothers Supermarket (which was not too super a market), and then her husband declared that I was at fault, my father, with me, went over to the policeman’s house and punched him in the mouth. Nothing was done, other than that policeman and my father being sworn enemies for the next two decades.

I believe my dad routinely greeted him as Deputy Fife, and he allowed as how he’d better not catch my dad being Otis.

Sample my fiction at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, and, if you like that and you’re a reading sort, consider my books here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

 

What a Way to Run a Railroad

"It's just super to have another chance at an intimate conversation with you guys." (Sean Gardner/Getty Images photo for NASCAR)
“It’s just super to have another chance at an intimate conversation with you guys.” (Sean Gardner/Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, January 13, 2015, 12:03 p.m.

Soon, NASCAR will consist of more than lurid details of lawsuits. Soon, what you will find ascending through your social media feed will be more than the umpteenth list of “Biggest Stories of 2014,” “Ten Races to Remember,” “Who’s Poised for a Comeback in 2015?” and any other work of art that will enable its author to figure out a way to attach “#junior.”

There is a new car. It appears there will always be a new car.

mug Dutton Monte 2_WEBThings could not be better. As the concerted seat-elimination program continues, at some point soon, all the races will be sellouts again, and if that turns out to be thirty thousand, so be it, and it doesn’t matter, anyway, because NASCAR prefers to disseminate attendance by means of buoyant tweets.

“Wow. I must say, this is quite a crowd.” It’s like listing the time of an Olympic gold medalist as “extraordinary,” the silver “very fast,” and the bronze “fast.” In NASCAR, of course, the bronze would be “third quick.”

Remember, not too long ago, when it seemed as if declining demand would have the effect of greatly reducing ticket prices? That was supposedly the way capitalism worked, and, at Christmas time, ten-buck seats on the back straight, and free parking, danced in the heads of those whose incomes were fixed. They didn’t know NASCAR would fix the problem by turning free enterprise the other way. Raise the demand by reducing the seats! Has a nice ring to it, sort of like, oh, Remember the Alamo!

Henry Higgins said to Eliza Doolittle, “By George, you’ve got it!”

I want conditions to get better! It is my fondest goal that those hundreds of thousands of seats will be needed again, and they’ll all be stacked in some deserted railyard, rivets rusting and paint fading. Is there a way to use old grandstands for fracking? For building a Keystone Pipeline? For counter-terrorism? I can’t say. Maybe they traded them, even up, for canvas and vinyl, the better to make huge banners.

Alas, a great deal of melting down is probably required. It might cost NASCAR a dime.

This was my favorite race of 2014. Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning at Martinsville when Jeff Gordon, his teammate, needed it more. (Garry Eller/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)
This was my favorite race of 2014. Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning at Martinsville when Jeff Gordon, his teammate, needed it more. (Garry Eller/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

Times will never be happier than for the next month, while Casey Mears is a Chase contender, and, if everything falls just right, those kids, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick, could be right there in the hunt.

Of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Tony Stewart aren’t just going to move over. I could have included others, but then Junior wouldn’t have been first alphabetically.

Forgive my pessimism at a time of optimism. I should be more mindful of potential web hits. I should be trying to get the season off to a great start, writing stuff that will make the rich and powerful smile. Oh, guess what? I won’t even see any of them. The most rich and powerful person I know is, oh, probably, the local sheriff, and I try to see him even less than Brian France.

I must make the same adjustment everyone else does. I’ve been watching football, ice hockey, basketball, and several other sports where occasionally broadcasters criticize. The NASCAR form of criticism is the dull silence in the booth while all hell breaks out. I’m not trying to be mean. It is my honest belief that shameless boosterism is killing the sport as much as anything else.

NASCAR is no different than any other sport, only faster. It leads the way in vacuous marketing, not-so-subtle media control, and human beings who might as well be the machines they guide and the tires they roll.

To his credit, Kevin Harvick is among the last of the red-hot humans.  (Christa L. Thomas/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)
To his credit, Kevin Harvick is among the last of the red-hot humans. (Christa L. Thomas/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

The way out is with humanity. NASCAR has trained professionals. Folk heroes went the way of the buffalo, and mainly it’s a result of habitat change. There’s room for newcomers, but only those who have been brain-scrubbed, teeth-straightened, and bored with a high-powered list of talking points.

NASCAR loves Dale Earnhardt so much that it has informally decreed never shall there be another. There were Jimmie Johnsons in 1965. There were Howard Spragues on The Andy Griffith Show, but only when they started showing it in color. Where once the sport had Barney Fifes, now it has Michael Scotts. And Brian Scotts. And a Larry Mac in a pear tree.

And I might as well watch it all from home because there isn’t nearly as much to gain from being there.

Signed,

Quick-Draw and Babalooey

If my non-fiction doesn’t infuriate you enough, perhaps you can find a short story at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com that will make you apoplectic.

I’ve written two novels, but I once wrote books about NASCAR, and, to tell the truth, I’m thinking about writing another one. There’s a way, but, maybe, not a will. Here’s where you can buy my books, some of which are approaching antiquity: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1