The Red Devils, Introduced

DSCF1309

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Clinton, S.C., Thursday, August 21, 2014, 7:53 p.m.
I went out to meet the Red Devils tonight. I didn’t really meet them. What few to whom I spoke, I already knew. The Red Devils were introduced to me and several thousand others, so meetings would have made the affair last considerably longer.
The radio announcer, booster club president, and public-address announcer did all the speaking. The coaches mainly stood in the wings. One side of the gym was packed with fans, the other, athletes, as all those autumn teams, the cheerleaders, and the band take up quite a bit of space. I was pleasantly surprised when the parking lot was full, though it wasn’t quite as pleasant walking in from the back spaces.
I enjoy trying to be a fan, but after all those years sitting in press boxes and taking notes, I can’t ever quite pull it off. I was typing into my iPhone the whole time, observing athletes, and I was struck by how easy they were to separate.
The middle school kids were unused to the attention, all exchanging glances and otherwise gazing at the gym floor. The tennis players walked carefully, feet gliding low to the ground. The girls’ cross country team looked as if it had just run in off a five-mile trot. They appeared exhausted. The boys walked out to midcourt, too, but they were notable for their long strides. The volleyball teams seemed almost as self-conscious as the middle school kids.
Wilder StadiumThen, godlike, appeared the football players, looking like or at least trying to appear like stallions. Even the junior varsity carried themselves with swagger. They all jogged out to midcourt, looking as if they were returning from a pass pattern. The varsity, of course, got the big intro. The Voice of the Red Devils had an item of interest for each of them. It made me think of my playing days, back when the team was composed of cave men: “Monte Dutton! He’s not very good, but everyone says he real smart!”
None of the varsity players jogged. They walked out, purposefully, insouciant and aloof, blossoming into manhood and convinced they’re already there. I could tell the starters by the way they walked.
I’ll be away when they begin their season Friday night. I wish I could go. It’s comforting and rare to watch the team for which I played, and my brother, and my father. By extension, it’s why the Red Devils are the town’s team and not merely the school’s.
I drew from my own experiences in parts of my novel, The Intangibles, which is about the South, the Sixties, civil rights, bigotry, and, of course, high school football.

What’s the Rest of the Story?

This was Darlington's "board" ... in 1956. Old times there are not forgotten.
This was Darlington’s “board” … in 1956. Old times there are not forgotten.

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Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, August 20, 2014, 8:36 p.m.

As it rains in Bristol, Tennessee, and the Red Sox lead the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California and Greater Orange County by a 3-1 margin at Fenway Park, it occurs to me that perhaps I should blog.

I’ve been concentrating on my fiction, and, since I’ve recently been charged with the heinous crime of writing for no reason, I’ve resolved to start writing when I have one.

Right up to this moment, that is.

Yours truly
Yours truly

I’m sort of waiting for the punch line in these NASCAR schedule changes. Reports from the types of sources that don’t normally wander out on limbs suggest that Darlington Raceway is going to get Labor Day Weekend, which I think is wonderful, but I don’t understand why it’s happening.

If it’s happening. Any time NASCAR leaks helium, a trial balloon rises.

Theoretically, Darlington moves back near its ancestral home, Labor Day, Atlanta vacates it for an early-season date, and Bristol moves ahead from March to April. This may be just the start of some massive game of dominoes, but, at least from reports that I’m not reporting because I no longer report, it’s a three-way deal in which Atlanta ships Labor Day to Darlington, which ships its date to Bristol, which ships its date to Atlanta.

I don’t see how this deal could happen without Atlanta getting a player to be named later. Otherwise, why the need to screw Atlanta? Where’s the tasty morsel for Speedway Motorsports? Where’s that second race for Las Vegas? Or Vegas getting the finale in some sort of trade with Homestead? I don’t see that happening, but the round of trade talks makes no sense without some other move.

Darlington, a bit more recently. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Darlington, a bit more recently. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

As a South Carolinian who reveres Darlington Raceway more than any other (and even many speedways), Darlington has seemed as if it didn’t have a homeland since it had its spring race lopped from the schedule, its premier event moved around nomadically, and Labor Day invaded first by Californians and then by Georgians. Darlington was just getting comfortable on Mother’s Day weekend when Dorothy clicked her heels and claimed it for Kansas.

The way I think isn’t the way NASCAR thinks. To me, Darlington and Labor Day weekend go together like beer and pizza, politics and corruption, Yogi Berra and Larry McReynolds, but NASCAR officials saw it as a premium event unfit for the humble Pee Dee Region of the Palmetto State. It was “Hurray for Hollywood! (okay, Fontana), but that wound up being a B movie, and then, oh, NASCAR heard Atlanta calling and came back to her for one fine day (on several years).

One of the reasons that Darlington has wandered around the schedule like Moses and the Children of Israel is that it’s the Track Too Tough to Kill, and the feisty Hittites (actually Peedeeites) keep taking whatever it is – locusts, snakes, mad mothers – NASCAR dishes out.

Bristol wants to heat up its spring race by a month. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Bristol wants to heat up its spring race by a month. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

If all this happens, I expect NASCAR officials to announce they did it for Truth, Justice, the American Way, the Alamo, and a goodly assortment of other John Wayne movies.

When they say that, based on decades of observations, they will be conning our asses.

There’s got to be something else.

I’m trying to get good at fiction. NASCAR probably thinks I’m good at it now. Give my novels, The Intangibles and The Audacity of Dope, a read. Read my short fiction at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com.

 

Michigan by the Minutes

Jeff Gordon: Last Hurrah or Second Wind? (HHP/Harold Hinson photo for Chevrolet)
Jeff Gordon: Last Hurrah or Second Wind? (HHP/Harold Hinson photo for Chevrolet)

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This is Mid-Ohio. Now I know about it. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
This is Mid-Ohio. Now I know about it. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Clinton, South Carolina, Sunday, August 17, 2014, 12:52 p.m.

I was almost completely separate from NASCAR on Saturday. I talked a bit about it while signing books in Virginia and watching baseball in North Carolina. On the way between the two, I was talking on the phone with my pal Rick Minter and said, “Oh, I should tune in the Truck race.”

“It’s already over,” he said. “Johnny Sauter won.”

Proof positive that Chris Buescher won. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Proof positive that Chris Buescher won. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

At this moment, I don’t even know who won the Nationwide race. In fact, I don’t know where it was. Hang on. Chris Buescher at Mid-Ohio.

Since I’m both watching the Sprint Cup race and trying to find my way back into “the loop,” a place populated with people referred to as “they” (you know what they say …), I think I’ll write this race as it goes along, which has been a fairly popular approach in the past.

1:22 p.m.

The term “competition caution” is inappropriate. “Precautionary caution” is redundant. Come to think of it, “competition caution” is, too.

I don’t know what I’d call it.

1:49 p.m.

It looks like the high speeds are making it more “wrecky” than “racy.”

2:25 p.m.

NASCAR fans should study the oceans because many races are about “ebb and flow.” Also, “to and fro.”

Oh, my. I’m blogging by tweet, bringing up the obvious question: What am I tweeting? Obvious answer: Not much.

Okay, I admit it. This was the flyover at the first Michigan race. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Okay, I admit it. This was the flyover at the first Michigan race. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

3:00 p.m.

I miss the Michigan press box, the best in NASCAR. The folks there were among my favorites.

Or were two years ago. I’m sure more has changed than I would know. At this point, I could recall some stories from when track president Roger Curtis was a Busch Series PR man, but no good could come from that.

3:09 p.m.

As of this moment, the “Nobody Wins” blog, about the Canandaigua tragedy and Tony Stewart, has reached just shy of 40,000 people. “Where He, and We, Always Wanted Him to Be,” about Dale Earnhardt Jr., has been clicked on 665 times.

I wrote the former blog a week ago. It’s been worth about 160 new Twitter followers. It’s almost as visible as every single tweet by the important guys.

Joey Logano was also bidding for a third victory in 2014. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Joey Logano was also bidding for a third victory in 2014. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

3:18 p.m.

Every driver races as hard as he (or she) possibly can for every single lap, but now there are sixty to go, and I expect some of them, defying all odds and the limits of human potential, will reach way down and find a little more.

Just a hunch.

3:55 p.m.

Pure Michigan had a race / E-I-E-I-O / And in that race there was debris / E-I-E-I-O / Debris, debris here / Debris, debris there / Here debris, there debris / Everywhere debris, debris…

4:11 p.m.

Some years back, over supper (he would call it dinner), Nate Ryan and I had a debate over his contention that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the best driver out there and mine that Jeff Gordon still had it.

At the time, we were both wrong, and now we’re both right.

Thanks for reading my modest efforts. If you’re so inclined, give my writing blog (well, mostly) a look at wellpilgrim.wordpress.com. It’s both good and good for you.

Another Week in Crazy World

Had enough fireworks for one week? (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Had enough fireworks for one week? (Getty Images for NASCAR)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, August 14, 2014, 9:47 a.m.

I don’t care whether or not Johnny Manziel starts for the Cleveland Browns. I don’t care whether or not I get the SEC Network. I don’t care whether or not the Republicans sue Obama.

This week I’ve got too much else on my plate. Food is an obvious weakness of mine.

Things have been happening that couldn’t. Three words: worst possible scenarios.

A young Sprint Car racer got out and walked across a track in upstate New York. A car driven by an old Sprint Cup racer hit and killed him. Twitter exploded.

The funniest man on earth killed himself. His last act wasn’t funny, only ironic. I like irony as much as the next guy, but not so pure and uncut. Twitter exploded.

Suburban St. Louis took us back to the sixties. Tear gas. Rioting. Rubber bullets. Reporters arrested for charging their cell phones and “trespassing.” At McDonald’s. Twitter exploded.

What's next? Arm the Air Titans? (Getty Images for NASCAR)
What’s next? Arm the Air Titans? (Getty Images for NASCAR)

At the head of what passes for contemporary reliability, Twitter explodes. Twitter will explode over anything. It’s as volatile in its way as real bombs. News used to be the dog. Twitter used to wag the tail. Now Twitter wags the dog.

It all is so … parallel. Everyone is complicit. For instance, I’m on Twitter. And Facebook, where there are more characters but even less sense.

But I don’t Snapchat! Damn it! That’s where I draw the line!

In regard to Tony Stewart and the late Kevin Ward Jr., the media have divided into warring camps. On one side are those who actually know a lot about automobile racing. They feel as if those on the other side are hysterical. Those on the other side feel as if the racing regulars are reactionary. On one side is a forest; on the other, trees. No middle ground. Little in the way of thought. Raw, unbridled emotion. Virtual mobs storm virtual barricades. In Ferguson, Missouri, the mobs and barricades are real. We know because social media tells us.

It’s tempting to follow the advice of John Prine:

Blow up your TV / Throw away the paper / Go out to the country / Build you a home / Plant a little garden / Eat a lot of peaches / Go out and find Jesus / On your own.

Ultimately, though, blissful ignorance isn’t the answer. Ignorance we got. Occasionally, we just have to recharge it.

We’ve got millions of people who consider Stewart evil and Ward a martyred saint. Millions are just as likely to turn it around. How many think it was just a senseless tragedy that was bound to happen sometime and finally did? Thousands? Tragedies are unified in that most of them involve mistakes.

While Robin Williams’ loss is mourned in principle, the growing section of America that has compassion for nothing naturally has none for him.

The police in Missouri, in order to prove that their behavior was reasonable in regard to a dead youth, go all paramilitary on the throngs of people taking issue. Ah, that’ll show ‘em.

I’m not sure what this is, but it’s not the Age of Reason.

By the way, these are just Twitter explosions here in the good old U.S. of A. The entire world is just as crazy. It could be that, as soon as all the tear gas clears, we’ll discover something important happened somewhere.

Lauren Bacall died. It’s been overlooked. It was too normal. She was eighty-nine.

Meanwhile, I bought some peaches on the side of the road. They’re delicious.

The best aspect of this blog is that the readers who get angry will only prove my points.

Enjoy life. Try to remember simple things. Read a book, not just a social network. Coincidentally, I’ve written several.

In general, there aren't enough Ferris wheels in the distance. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
In general, there aren’t enough Ferris wheels in the distance. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Nobody Wins

This was Tony Stewart on Friday, before the gates of hell opened. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
This was Tony Stewart on Friday, before the gates of hell opened. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Sunday, August 10, 2014, 11:47 a.m.

Tragedies are frequently a result of a comedy of errors, not that there’s anything funny about them. They are long, improbable games of dice, in which “snake eyes” land again and again. A kid breaks up with his girlfriend and starts drinking. He gets in a fight. Maybe he gets arrested. Maybe he kills someone. Maybe someone kills him. Or he kills himself driving not only drunk but recklessly. One bad break piles on top of the other, and lives are ruined.

People are responsible for their actions, but it doesn’t mean we should have no sympathy.

Many years ago now, Tony Stewart and I spent quite a bit of time together. I was writing a book, Rebel with a Cause: A Season with NASCAR Star Tony Stewart. Lots of those memories have been flooding back today. I read a few sections of my own book for the first time in at least five years. Stewart taught me an important lesson back in those years: never allow myself to get too close to my subjects. He taught me to be friendly but not a friend and to observe but not participate. It muddies up the water too much. It makes the calls too tough.

The book was about the 2000 season. The most poignant memory was of Kenny Irwin Jr.’s fatal crash during practice in New Hampshire. A few seconds before the tragedy, I was talking to Stewart in the hauler. The crash, apparently the result of a stuck throttle, happened on the first lap of practice. Stewart was strapping himself into his car.

Stewart and Irwin had been bitter rivals in sprint cars. They’d clashed on the track at Martinsville the previous autumn. When Irwin died, all the history between the two flooded into Stewart’s psyche. He caught a ride home and sent his plane to Indiana to cater to the needs of the Irwin family.

“Through nine years of rivalry, though, there’s been a mutual admiration, a respect, for each other and what each could do in a race car,” Stewart said. “Of all the years I’ve raced, I think I can honestly say, sitting here and thinking about it all day, of all the people I’ve ever raced with, Kenny was the hardest and toughest racer I’ve ever had to race on a daily or weekly basis.

“Kenny’s part of the reason I got here, because he pushed me to make myself better every week. There are not a lot of guys who worked any harder than Kenny to get where he got in his racing career.”

Stewart signing autographs at Daytona in 2012. (John Clark photo)
Stewart signing autographs at Daytona in 2012. (John Clark photo)

Now this. Fourteen years later. Another death, and in this one, Stewart’s involvement was more than emotional.

Racing at Canandaigua Motorsports Park on the night before the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, an angry young driver named Kevin Ward climbed out of his wrecked sprint car and trotted down to confront Stewart, whose car, under caution, hit Ward and killed him. Immediately, Twitter roared to wrathful life. People who had never heard of Canandaigua, let alone seen the incident, called Stewart a murderer, alleged he had done it intentionally, and called for his imprisonment. One website quoted an eyewitness as saying the impact caused Ward to fly “fifty yards” – fifty yards! – through the air.

No one knows what really happened. I’ve watched Youtube. It was dark. Ward was wearing a black uniform. My suspicion is that, when Stewart sped up, it was a reflex action. All of a sudden, his eyes caught the approach of someone running toward him, and he just tried to get away. Gunned it. Ward was too close. The right-rear tire caught him. Maybe he slipped.

If there’s anything I’m sure of, it’s that Stewart is distraught. I saw him that way after Irwin’s death. I saw it when Stewart’s Pontiac inadvertently hit and injured crewman Mike Lingerfelt at Daytona in 2000. The day Lingerfelt was released from the hospital, Stewart visited him at his Marietta, South Carolina, home.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Lingerfelt told me for my book. “Things like that make me want to get back out there.”

Media Tour, 2009. (Monte Dutton)
Media Tour, 2009. (Monte Dutton)

Every one of Stewart’s significant virtues can also be a vice. He has a great heart and a formidable temper. He loves the simpler times of his racing youth, so much so that they lead him back to his roots and expose him to danger and uncertainty.

Stewart and I have had our differences. It’s hard to imagine him getting along all the time with anyone. He never took my criticisms personally, probably because he knew I wasn’t out to get him and, maybe, just maybe, put some thought into what I wrote. As mad as I have sometimes been at Stewart, and as much of a pain in the ass as he could be, I was always thankful to be writing about a sport with him in it. He’s one of the best, but he is the most interesting.

This incident will change irrevocably Stewart’s life in ways that are impossible to foresee. This will take its toll on him. It might be his ruination. Guilt will torment him. Everything will change. This incident ended another man’s life.

One of those virtues that can be vices is that, if there is one characteristic of Stewart that most don’t understand, it is that he is prone to care too much, not too little.

The race is on TV. I don’t give a damn about it.

Customized Entry to the Chase

At the Glen, it's Marcos the Magnificent. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
At the Glen, it’s Marcos the Magnificent. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Saturday, August 9, 2014, 2:26 p.m.

Watkins Glen International is often a course of opportunity. Now, though, the Chase is less choosy. It’s charitable, and for Marcos Ambrose, Tony Stewart, A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, and others, the Glen is a beacon, potentially leading one of them in through a season drenched in fog.

Ambrose, 37, won there two of the past three years and, at the Sprint Cup level, nowhere else. Stewart, 43, was won more races on this road course (five) than anyone else. Stewart could win anywhere. In the most recent (2011) of his three championship seasons, Stewart went winless in the regular season, then won half of the 10 races in the Chase. As it turns out, in a year in which the Chase has grown charitable, Stewart cannot afford the same luxury because he needs to win a regular-season race.

3:33 p.m.

Switching back and forth between the Nationwide race and the PGA Championship: How many people watch golf who have never played it? How many watch NASCAR who have never driven a car?

Some would declare this an improper analogy, but when I played golf (I gave it up for a guitar), it was no closer to the game professionals play than a trip to the Family Dollar is to winning the Daytona 500.

I was much better in both golf and racing on video.

Once upon a time, Jeff Gordon dominated road courses. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Once upon a time, Jeff Gordon dominated road courses. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

4:12 p.m.

This is a tough day to watch TV. I’m enjoying both golf and racing, which is similar to switching back and forth between 24 and How I Met Your Mother. About a half hour ago, I watched Jason Day hit his tee shot across a river, wade through it, rummage around with David Feherty, intrepid TV guy, looking for it, and then save par. This was sort of like MRN’s Dave Moody running down through the grandstands to wrap duct tape around the quarterpanel of Casey Mears’ crumpled Impala.

Of course, NASCAR would never stand for it.

5:00 p.m.

In many Nationwide Series races, Kyle Busch is money in the bank. That’s Ambrose at the Glen.

There’s been talk of Ambrose going home to Australia and running V-8 SuperCars. If I had the wherewithal, I’d just let him cherry-pick road races all over the world: NASCAR, touring cars, SuperCars, riding lawn mowers, barstools, whatever.

The King called Ambrose “un-flippin’-real.” Richard Petty doesn’t use F-words often.

Thanks for reading my stuff. I’d love it if you’d give my novels (The Intangibles and The Audacity of Dope) a read, or perhaps you’d like the short stories posted at wellpilgrim.wordpress.com.

Or perhaps not.

Only Siri Let Me Down

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IMG_0220
Paladin Stadium, Furman University, Greenville, S.C.

Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, August 7, 2014, 10:50 a.m.

As much as it pains me to write, Siri hasn’t been paying attention. On Monday, the nice little woman in my iPhone directed me to where a high school used to be. It wasn’t much of a problem. The “new” school was just around the corner and up the hill.

On Wednesday, she led me to a football stadium that might have been used in the movie Leatherheads. Then she took me to a high school that could have been in It’s a Wonderful Life. To find this “new school” – four years old, quite a bit more so than the iPone – I had to stop at a convenience store, where I successfully deciphered the directions of the owner who happened to be standing outside.

Heah is wheh you go. Go out right heah, when you get to de stop sign, tuhn left, awkee, den you drive ovuh de breedge, and you tuhn right at de chuhch, you rilly cahnt mees eet.

I took this photo before a high-school football game in Abbeville, S.C., last year.
I took this photo before a high-school football game in Abbeville, S.C., last year.

Once there, I walked through a set of double doors to find a band practicing instead of, oh, a team lifting weights. The football coach had told me there was a white Silverado outside. The band director, as it turns out, also has a white Silverado, though, to his credit, the coach does have a club cab.

From there, I had an enjoyable visit, and in the event that I ever go back there, well, I’ll know where it is.

When I finished talking about returnees on offense and defense, and how boys have to learn how to win, and if they do, this could be a really good year, if not too many of them get injured, and gosh knows, you can’t have too much depth, I hit the road again and pondered whether I should (a.) go back home, (b.) see a movie, or (c.) drop by my alma mater and see how the football team is looking, just for fun, and it came down to my hands (on the wheel) being forced to make a quick decision at the White Horse Road exit.

Furman, in black, against Samford in 2013.
Furman, in black, against Samford in 2013.

I drove out to Furman, and I’m glad I did.

As it turned out, I arrived at an opportune time. A group of linemen were walking from Timmons Arena to Paladin Stadium, and when I asked where Coach Fowler was, several answered, almost in unison, that he was in the weight room.

Next I had to figure out where that was. I didn’t ask Siri.

Bruce Fowler is the Paladins’ head football coach. Understandably missing from his resume is the incidence of being a friend of mine for well over thirty years. Coaches don’t have much free time right now, but I guess I managed to hit it just right because he showed me around the new football complex, we laughed at stories we both knew too well already, asked each other when was the last time we’d seen so-and-so, important stuff like that, and then Bruce went to a meeting and I killed an hour eating chicken wings before the Greenville Drive game.

My second visit of the week to Fluor Field.
My second visit of the week to Fluor Field.

The Drive, which has mainly driven slowly this year, completed a three-game sweep of the Augusta GreenJackets with a 5-3 victory that got slightly nervous in the top of the ninth. The Greenville starter, who entered the evening with a record of 2-10 and an earned run average of 6.43, hurled six shutout innings, and the Drive closed to within nineteen games of .500.

I even bought a cap at half price, thanks to the kind of sale teams have when season’s end is drawing near.

Alex, the kid sitting in front of me, had a great time but was flagging a bit near the end.
Alex, the kid sitting in front of me, had a great time but was flagging a bit near the end.

The parent club, meanwhile, endured a rain delay, meaning that I could listen to the Red Sox and Cardinals fade in and out on KMOX, St. Louis, all the way home and see the last three innings on TV. The Red Sox won, two to one, and I was so keyed up, I stayed up to watch the Dodgers hold off the Halos in Anaheim. My eyes were closed, and I was almost asleep, when Vin Scully described the final out.

By then, I’d forgotten all about Siri.

My novels, The Intangibles and The Audacity of Dope, are available online in several places, including http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_8/188-8704687-6522444?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=monte%20dutton&sprefix=Monte+Du%2Cstripbooks%2C248, where Kindle editions are available, as well.

Where He, and We, Always Wanted Him to Be

Dale Earnhardt Jr., leading Kyle Larson here, won both races at Pocono this summer. (HHP/Rusty Jarrett photo for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., leading Kyle Larson here, won both races at Pocono this summer. (HHP/Rusty Jarrett photo for Chevy Racing)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, August 4, 2014, 10:45 a.m.

Today I awakened thinking of Dale Earnhardt Jr. What a surprise, huh? He just won his third race of the season and swept the summer’s two races at Pocono. Each week’s results bring with them inevitable overreactions. Just as Indianapolis left in its wake a feeling that destiny favored a Jeff Gordon championship, Pocono left a warm, comfy mist in the air that seems to favor Earnhardt. With Gordon, it was for old times’ sake. With Junior, it’s about fulfilling his destiny.

They don’t tack that “Jr.” on the end for nothing.

If Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte are going to win a Sprint Cup title, this is definitely the year. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
If Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte are going to win a Sprint Cup title, this is definitely the year. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Money can’t buy love, the pop singers tell us, and mist can’t win championships. Earnhardt and his crew chief know it takes tangibles. Intangibles are more revealing in hindsight. Steve Letarte, who is leaving at year’s end to bring analysis to television, was doing what crew chiefs do afterwards: (1.) celebrate, (2.) enjoy briefly, and (3.) downplay.

“If you think this win gives you an advantage … at Chicago (Chase opener), you’re sadly mistaken. … The garage is full of great competitors, and the Chase is going to be different than we have ever seen. No one knows how it’s going to be. We all have our predictions. We’ll see who is right,” Letarte cautioned.

The driver was a bit more sanguine. He said it’s “natural” that he’s won at least three races for only the third time in his career.

“Winning is hard to do,” he said. “These races are so, so hard to win.”

That alone stopped few presses. What garnered a bit of notice was his contention that this year is a rational progression from last.

“It just seems logical,” he said. “After last year, I thought, well, the only thing we’re not doing is winning. We’re doing everything else – running second, running well every week – so this year, we have been winning.”

It seems impossible that Gordon turned forty-three today. How’s this? Earnhardt Jr. will be forty in the fall. Forty! Time seems to stand still while, in fact, it is racing past. Didn’t he used to be Huck Finn? (Or was that Bill Elliott?) There’s a reason the kids don’t flock to him as they once did. He’s not one. The “kids” are now forty, too.

They still dream of Junior winning a championship. They also dream of being kids again. Somehow the two are intertwined.

Letarte, though, has a laptop. Several, no doubt. His perform more specialized tasks than managing Twitter. They never manage dreams.

“I dream of the Red Sox winning the World Series,” Letarte, who hails from Maine, said. “I dream of the Patriots winning the Super Bowl. I don’t dream of winning the championship.

“Hope is not a strategy. It doesn’t get you there. Dreaming is not a strategy. It doesn’t get you there. … Hard work is a strategy, and that’s what we try to do.”

Win one for the Mister!

Two Pocono burnouts this year for Junior. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Two Pocono burnouts this year for Junior. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Earnhardt seems to have put aside the impetuosity of youth, but, like the fans who felt like they grew up with him, he’s still got the twinkles in his eyes. After the race, he identified his “simple joys” as “Amy (partner), Redskins (football team), my family, drinking a cold beer.” The day before the race, he and his team enjoyed … paintball. He is a boyish adult who recalls with wistful pleasure carefree yesterdays.

One reason he has more fans than anyone else is that they relate to him, which isn’t as easy to do in this Age of Affluence. The fans aren’t bothered that he is rich because he doesn’t act like it.

Describing himself at an earlier age, Earnhardt said, “I was not as concerned about helping them and being their friend as I was about them being my friend, so I think I’m better at being a friend these days.”

Who does not gaze at himself (or herself) in the mirror and occasionally concede the same?

The Chase may bring with it disappointment. He may be sidetracked for a time next year by the transition to a new crew chief, Greg Ives. Right now, everything is perfect, but perfection is fleeting.

Earnhardt’s got a great shot at a title, perhaps as great as anyone else’s.

“It’s been our goal for four years to be disappointed with a top-10 (finish),” Letarte said, and at the moment, it’s both where they are and the right place to be.

My novels, The Intangibles and The Audacity of Dope, are available at www.neverlandpublishing.com, www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com and in a selection of private bookstores.

A Calm and Patient Man

The reason I wrote about Matt Kenseth is I decided to sketch him while the Truck race was on.
The reason I wrote about Matt Kenseth is I decided to sketch him while the Truck race was on.

Gotta go...to an indie bookstore!

Clinton, S.C., Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 6:28 p.m.

Here at home, there are certain things one misses. Watch TV, he can do. Go through emails. Catch the Twitter high points, and read some links. What one misses are the winks and nods.

Matt Kenseth winks and nods better than anyone in NASCAR. If teammate Kyle Busch is Penn, Kenseth is Teller. He speaks but not to excess. His expressions often communicate as much as his words. His words, though, are important. He’s the guy who sits around listening to everyone else shooting the breeze, then makes one comment that leaves them laughing. He’s even more economical in a race car. No one is better at getting the best out of his car. If he’s fastest, he wins. If he’s 10th fastest, he finishes fifth.

Kenseth, the 2003 Winston Cup champion, is likely going to make the Chase for what has been, ever since, the Sprint Cup. He can guarantee it with a victory, but he’s a lot more secure than those among his peers who can only guarantee it with a victory. Marcos Ambrose has a lot riding on Watkins Glen, the only track where he has won. Tony Stewart must win somewhere; Kasey Kahne, too; and Kyle Larson, the rookie starting at Pocono Raceway on the pole; and Greg Biffle and many others, and, even though a record sixteen are going to be allowed in the Chase, this format, like any that is reasonable, will result in absences that are glaring.

Lots of drivers plead ignorance when asked about controversial issues. So does Kenseth. The difference between him and others is that people believe him. He might actually ignore items that don’t concern him. Lots of racers are gossipy. Kenseth could run a security firm.

It’s hard to imagine him panicking. He still needs a victory. He won a career-best seven in 2013 and thirteen in the past three seasons. He is forty-two. One always hears Stewart cited as forty-three, and it’s widely known that Jeff Gordon reaches that age on Monday.

It’s as if Kenseth doesn’t have an age. He has a state, Wisconsin. He has a football team, the Green Bay Packers. He has a lovely wife, Katie, and kids.

Here's what Kenseth really looks like (Getty Images for NASCAR).
Here’s what Kenseth really looks like (Getty Images for NASCAR).

When asked not too long ago if he felt an extra sense of urgency, Kenseth sounded as if he didn’t know what urgency was. He does. He just hasn’t allowed himself to experience it.

“I think the biggest sense of urgency is that we know as an organization (Joe Gibbs Racing) we need to be running better,” he said. “We’re not running as good as we did last year as a group. We’re not leading as many laps, sitting on as many poles, winning as many races. … We need to get that better.”

Naturally, being Matt Kenseth, he doesn’t have any concern about the new Chase format. This is a guy who comes to work and does his job. He has no need for a lunch box, but it wouldn’t look out of place.

“If we could win every week, we would,” he said. “Just to have ‘a sense of urgency’ about it doesn’t really do any good. We’re already working as hard as we can. … [We] keep trying to get our cars faster, keep trying to get in position to win, and if you can put yourself in that spot enough times, sooner or later, you’ll get one.”

Kenseth is uncommon in sport and an anomaly in this one. He is calm in general, and, in a car, at speed, even calmer. Among his peers, he is calmest.

“One of the keys to the sport, I’ve always thought, is to try to control the peaks and valleys,” he said. “When things are going great, try not to be too high, and when things are going bad, try not to be too low. You’ve got to keep it somewhere in the center.”

Rudyard Kipling began a famous poem, “If,” by writing, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you …”

Wonder if Matt Kenseth’s dad knew that poem?

Resistance Is Futile

Gotta go...to an indie bookstore!

This shot of Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading the pack is from the season's previous visit to Pocono  Raceway this year. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
This shot of Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading the pack is from the season’s previous visit to Pocono
Raceway this year. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Clinton, S.C., Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, 2:22 p.m.

Everything is beautiful in its own way*, and most examples in NASCAR require similar allowances for changing fashions and alternative viewpoints. Some like a starry summer’s night, others a snow-covered winter’s day. A few even like Ray Stevens’ rendition of “Ahab the Arab.” I am fond of calling NASCAR “The Streak.”

An element of the fan base is always going to be displeased that stock cars aren’t stock enough. For what it’s worth, the current cars don’t just look more like passenger cars than the discredited COT. They also look more like “real cars” than the models just before the Car of Tarnation. The fronts of the cars of a decade ago looked like they’d be handy for scraping up snow.

The yearning for stock cars being stock probably dates back to the roll cage, or taped-over headlights. The end of “stock” in stock car probably occurred when Plymouth Roadrunners became Superbirds – yes, I’m aware there had to be production versions — and before that, mechanics like Smokey Yunick and Harry Hyde hastened the process. It’s sort of how music fans decry country “going pop.” The very same charges were once leveled at Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline.

Back in the nineties, fans complained about manufacturers turning four-door passenger cars into two-door race cars. My common reply was, “Sir (or ma’am), race cars have no doors.” They don’t. Even “back in the day,” they were welded shut.

Among the reasons why stock car racing became a misnomer were Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Bobby Myers, Jimmy Pardue, Friday Hassler, Tiny Lund, and many others who gave their lives driving race cars that were, by today’s standards, death traps.

Besides, fans, NASCAR may pay lip service to caring about all “the stakeholders” and “partners” – hey, how about “customers” and “sponsors”? – but NASCAR is going to do what its mad scientists decree, and it’s a matter of either going along or getting out, which is another tradition that dates back to the sport’s hardscrabble roots.

Tony Stewart, when he drove No. 20, racing Dale Earnhardt Jr., when he drove No. 8, in 2007 (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tony Stewart, when he drove No. 20, racing Dale Earnhardt Jr., when he drove No. 8, in 2007 (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Oh, the things I had foisted upon me. I remember the graphics package that claimed the Car of Tomorrow – a phrase NASCAR first coined, then suppressed – was by no means generic. Three quarters of the templates allegedly fit production models. I was standing in the R&D center, looking at my publicity materials and four cars – a Ford, a Chevy, a Toyota and a Dodge – that looked just alike. I squatted down. I stood on my tiptoes. I walked all the way around them. Examine a dozen eggs. They’re less alike.

Maybe three quarters of the decals fit production cars.

Condition yourself. Never accept NASCAR dogma without skepticism. If you cultivate that mindset, it’s still possible to enjoy the races.

The next test is the “new, improved Chase,” branded in much the same fashion as laundry detergents. It’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be exciting. There’s an excellent chance the best driver isn’t going to win. NASCAR wants us to think the Chase is great because “it’s like the NFL playoffs,” when, actually, it’s more like a World Cup, where a team can move ahead by going 1-1-1 in its first three matches.

Germany won the World Cup and deserved it. NASCAR might get a deserving champion, but I’ve done some math and it’s not the way to bet. Of course, once it’s over, everyone will get angry and take deep umbrage at anyone who would impugn the achievements of the new Sprint Cup champion. This hullabaloo, this storm of outrage, will prove beyond the shadow of a doubt the critics are right.

I just hope NASCAR issues the same message this year at Homestead that its imagineers did in 2004. “This is the closest points race in the history of the current system.” Also, it was the only points race in the history of that system, the Chase, which was then in its very first year.

When men were men and pit crews were mechanics.
When men were men and pit crews were mechanics.

A few days ago, I watched online a half-hour show of the 1968 Southern 500. It’s the best race I’ve seen this year. Is that because the show was just highlights? I don’t know. What with today’s preoccupation with social media, scanner feeds, laptop analysis, commercials and the difficulty of hearing a single human voice that isn’t himself or herself a “stakeholder,” I doubt many people watch more than thirty minutes of racing now.

When a NASCAR operative says “stakeholder,” he (or she) imagines a dapper corporate president, or a prosperous team owner. I imagine someone getting ready to impale the sport.

Nothing matters. The Emperor gets his clothes free and never wears the same pair of britches twice.

Stop worrying. Love the bomb.

* Everything Is Beautiful” was a Ray Stevens hit, as were “Ahab the Arab” and “The Streak.”