Old Can Be Good … Really Good

In the past decade, I’ve developed quite a taste for the novels of Sinclair Lewis, who was the first American to win a Nobel Prize in literature. One of my favorite Lewis novels is Dodsworth (1929), which is about a successful industrialist who sells his automobile company and leaves with his wife for an extended European vacation. Lewis was more celebrated for Main Street, Babbitt and Elmer Gantry, the last of which I read when I was in high school.

In the 1920s, it was possible for successful industries to be individually owned. Other than that, times don’t seem much different.

Lewis (1885-1951) wrote about the “roaring ‘20s” mostly, and one of the reasons I developed an addiction to his fiction was that it reminds me of post-Reagan America. He was an insightful satirist, famous for novels about successful, if sometimes disillusioned, businessmen. Contrary to what many might think, the protagonists in Lewis’ fiction are mostly sympathetic and likable in their ways.

Sam Dodsworth is a simple man who doesn’t care for the social whirl. He feels out of place in Europe, but his wife, Fran, revels in it. They grow apart. Fran, motivated by her vanity and fear of lost youth, wants to become a permanent expatriate. She “falls in with a crowd of frivolous socialites,” and Sam, who becomes bored with inactivity, feels her slipping away.

It’s probably been three years or more since I read Dodsworth, but I watched the movie, directed by William Wyler in 1936, Tuesday night. I highly recommend it. Walter Huston was a perfect choice to play Sam, and Ruth Chatterton was exceptional as Fran. Mary Astor plays Edith Cortwright, who becomes Sam’s love interest after he and Fran are estranged.

“Dodsworth,” which earned Wyler the first of 12 nominations for Best Director (he won three Oscars), is close to perfect.

I love old movies. I’ve watched Turner Classic Movies (TCM) almost as much as ballgames and news shows recently. There’s a craftsmanship in old movies that modern ones lack. No one filmed a movie with greater care than John Ford, and no one put one together better than Sir David Lean. What was the greatest movie of all time? Many say “Citizen Kane.” Others suggest it was “Casablanca.” My choice is Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” I’ve watched all three within the past month.

Great novels do not always make great movies. Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities was a train wreck, one so disastrous that I fear it detracts from the image of the novel. On the other hand, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (old version with Broderick Crawford as Willy Stark), and, yes, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind were brilliantly adapted to the screen.

I’m reading Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, though I never saw the popular miniseries that sprang from it. I’m going to be on the lookout for it.

Hard to Chart the Progress

TheAudacityofDopecoverImageConfound me. Some days I just get lost.

In my iPhone, I’ve got a whole list of things to do. Oh, I checked off a few items. The thing is, I’m sort of a morning person. It seems as if, every day, I get a lot done before noon, then the day just starts accelerating. It seems like it takes eight hours to get to noon, and then 30 minutes and it’s 3:30. This morning I spent a good bit of the morning visiting my mother, and when I got back home, the clock was already spinning at breakneck speed.

It’s turned into something of a music day. I haven’t written any songs, but I’ve just played a lot of them. I’m sort of trying to get myself up to speed because I’m going on the road at the end of next week. Strictly, they’re book signings, but I plan to take my guitar along and perform a few songs from The Audacity of Dope. The song lyrics in the book provide illumination into what makes Riley Mansfield, the main character, tick.

This is a warm-up itself. As soon as I get this daily blog done, I’m going to dive into the 10th chapter of Crazy by Natural Causes, which will be my third novel. My second. The Intangibles, will be out sometime this year. If I get another chapter written today or tonight, the day will have been a success.

I’ve got to get some business cards printed. I’ve got to get some press kits put together for next week. (I’ll be at Binding Time, Martinsville, Va., on March 7, 3-5 p.m., and at Barnhill’s in Winston-Salem, N.C., on March 8, 6-7:30 p.m.) I’ve, yes, still got to get my taxes done. Today I ordered a reader for my iPhone so that folks can buy my books and T-shirts by credit card. A man gets so tied up in busy work that he can’t get any creative work done.

Minor-league baseball has been on TV. I’m vaguely aware of the St. Louis Cardinals hammering unmercifully the New York Mets, but, lo and behold, I just looked up and darned if the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Angels (I hasten to add “of Anaheim”) aren’t playing now.

Yesterday I ran some errands, paid some bills (whew, did I) and read a good bit of The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough, which Mom recommended a good time ago and picked up for me at the local hospice’s secondhand store. I’m enjoying it. I’ve always wanted to visit Australia, which is what Mom noted when she recommended the book. I’ve never even seen the miniseries. I can see that happening once I get through reading it.

It’s good “writing reading.” Reading some authors helps me write. Larry McMurtry is probably my top seed. I love John Steinbeck, but he intimidates me a tad. If I dive into The Grapes of Wrath, I think, well, jeez, he gets more into a paragraph than I get into a page. So profound is my love for Steinbeck that it digs at my self-confidence. I steer clear of Steinbeck when I’m engrossed in a novel of my own. I’m not worthy. If I read McMurtry, I think, well, I’m not worthy, but I’m not bad.

(While on the subject, do yourself a favor and read McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne. A movie called “Loving Molly” was made of it, but it’s a mess.)

 

A Song for Me

I doubt anyone but yours truly is going to sing my latest song, "Scuppernongs & Muscadines." (John Clark photo)
I doubt anyone but yours truly is going to sing my latest song, “Scuppernongs & Muscadines.” (John Clark photo)

My latest song is a strange one.

It started out happy. When I wrote the refrain, I was in a great mood.

Scuppernongs and muscadines / Bubble gum three for a dime / Brown gravy over rice / Orange Crush over ice / That’s the way my world used to be

There it sat for a while. Then, when I wrote the verses, I wasn’t in such a great mood. They were dark. Now what I hope listeners will see is irony. The song makes sense to me, but I’m not exactly objective.

My daddy used to say / You gotta be a man / You gotta pull your weight / You gotta work the land / But every time I tried and failed / He turned away from me / I finally became a man / Too late for him to see

 He liked a slug of Sprite / To chase his Rebel Yell / When he slept it off / It was time to give me hell / People say that deep down / He was always proud of me / But secondhand was not a plan / To set my demons free

 Now that I am old myself / He doesn’t seem so bad / You’d think sometimes clever rhymes / Were the only ones we had / I wouldn’t have named him Jimmy / But I never had a son / I’ve lost my soul in different roles / And had my share of fun

When I start trying to publish and sell my songs, this one isn’t going to be at the top of the list. Instead of writing it for the world, I wrote it for myself. I’d put it on an album I cut (not that one is forthcoming), but I doubt it’s going to jump right out at an established star.

Therein, of course, lies the rub.

Free as a Breeze

I'll be doing a little more of this soon.
I’ll be doing a little more of this soon.

Life’s back to normal. I had a dentist’s appointment this morning. I took my car to the garage to get everything checked out, replace the worn parts, stuff like that. I’ve got a stack of bills, a hamper of laundry, income taxes to finish.

Just like everybody else.

In a sense, basketball season ended in that the Presbyterian Blue Hose played their last home game Saturday night. I really enjoy the local scene. The same people from town are there every game. I enjoy bumping into someone I know and chatting about the game, not to mention football recruiting, baseball prospects and the inevitable gossip around town. After spending 20 years on the road as much as off it, I’m gradually becoming a full-fledged Clintonian again.

I really thought this process would drive me crazy. I’m past that now. I think I’m content to write my books and songs and gradually try to reach the point where I’m making a living with them. I just chip away at it every day. I know it’s going to take time. I’m just working hard and trusting in a future I’ll have to form for myself.

Baseball will begin soon. Hope springs eternal. Last year I was pessimistic about the Boston Red Sox, my team for almost as long as I can remember, and it proved right. This year I know they’ll be better. I just don’t know how much. Since I live far from the madness of Boston, I think I’m a little more patient than those who are closer to the action. I’ll be watching the Red Sox on NESN like I always do. Even if the team disappoints, there’ll be the soothing presence of Don Orsillo on the play-by-play and Jerry Remy offering his often humorous insight. Baseball announcers can be like family.

I’ll be on the road soon to promote my novel, The Audacity of Dope. That’s going to give me a chance to travel, though I doubt I’ll be boarding any planes any time soon. In the next few weeks, I’ll be in Martinsville, Va. (March 7, Binding Time, 3-5 p.m.), Winston-Salem, N.C. (March 8, Barnhill’s, 6-7:30 p.m.) and Charlotte, N.C. (March 16, Poor Richard’s Book Shoppe, 5-7 p.m.), and there are more after that.

Pretty soon, the editing process of the second novel, The Intangibles, will undoubtedly begin. The third novel, Crazy by Natural Causes, is about a third of the way through the first draft.

I’ve got to find time to work on some songs. I haven’t even memorized one, “Scuppernongs and Muscadines,” that I wrote a couple months ago.

One aspect of The Audacity of Dope that is unique is that the main character, Riley Mansfield, is a musician. I wrote his songs. The lyrics are in the text. When I have a book signing, I talk about the book, read from it and pick up my guitar and play a few of its tunes.

Would you like to see my act? Get me a contact – a phone number, an email address, a web site – and I’ll pass it along to my valued associate, Rowe Copeland, who’s booking me into places to sell the book. She’s my “book concierge,” a profession I didn’t know existed until she and I had a meeting at a Starbuck’s. I can play music in a coffeehouse and talk about the book on the side, or, talk about the novel in a bookstore and play a few songs on the side. I’ll do my best to entertain you.

On my own, I’m a little reticent about promotion. Selling myself embarrasses me. I want people to book me, or put me on a radio show, or hire me to write, because I’m good, not because I bug them to death. I need someone to bug them to death for me. I don’t have a bit of problem selling myself when I’m up on a stage or sitting behind a table, but it works better to have someone else who believes in my ability and wants the world to know, also.

Hell, I don’t know yet whether I can pull this off or not. If not, I’ll figure something else out. For now, it’s fun to try.

The Best Daytona 500 in a Whole Year

The dynamic duo of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus strikes again in the Daytona 500. (John Clark photo)
The dynamic duo of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus strikes again in the Daytona 500. (John Clark photo)

What I mainly am is frustrated.

Here it is, several hours after the Great American Race, and I’ve tried to think through what I saw on TV, and it still just ties me in knots.

I left the house and rode around, listening to SiriusXM’s postrace coverage, and I felt sympathy for Brad Gillie, who was anchoring the show from the Texas Motor Speedway media center while Claire B. Lang reported from Daytona Beach.

Gillie was trying to put a happy face on the Daytona 500 in the face of a passel of callers who were mostly displeased. Actually, I was amused at sort of an odd alternation of opinions. While I was listening, most everyone who either was there or watching on TV was raising hell, and the truckers who listened to the race on MRN were raising hell at all the callers who were raising hell.

That’s by and large, I think, because the truckers didn’t see it.

I’m an admirer of the skill MRN’s team puts into the broadcasts, but it’s a house organ. It’s the same way that the Atlanta Braves broadcast team puts a happy face on what the Braves do. The job is to sell tickets and promote the sport. MRN could broadcast the Little Bighorn and make it look like Custer won in a romp. An old saying of mine is, “Those lengths on radio are railroad cars.”

I heard a replay of the final moments, which went something like this:

“Earnhardt looks high, he looks low, Junior makes a charge! But Jimmie Johnson is going to hold on to win the 55th Daytona 500!”

I can’t say what Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s eyes were doing, but I didn’t see much of a run in what his car could do to catch Jimmie Johnson off the fourth turn of the final lap. In a race like this one, MRN had a huge edge over Fox because the Fox spin doctors were hampered by viewers who could see it.

Last week, I tweeted that I had seldom seen any race that wasn’t interesting. This one was, too. Every time the cars change, the racing changes at Daytona and Talladega in ways that are unexpected. Unfortunately, the unexpected this time was the preponderance not of pack but single-file racing. Not only could hardly anyone pass, but the pickings were so slim that hardly anyone tried. The tipoff that Johnson was going to win was the fact that he was able to advance the bottom line during the penultimate green-flag sequence. That was interesting. Maybe it would have been different and better had more of the plate-racing gurus – Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, et al. – been around to inject some boldness in the outcome.

I really expected the racing to be better in the 500 than the Sprint Unlimited, but the reverse ended up being true. It was as if what the drivers learned was that getting out of line was futile. It played into Danica Patrick’s hands because she was meticulous and careful, but even she got shuffled back several positions at the end.

All is not lost, though. I think the new Gen6 car will be a lot like its predecessor at Phoenix, New Hampshire, Pocono, Dover, the short tracks and the road courses. The car was designed with intermediate tracks in mind, and I think it’s too early to pass judgment until Las Vegas in two weeks. If the racing improves at those tracks, the balance will be positive because nearly 40 percent of the races are on those tracks. The new cars look cooler, but that will not be enough if the racing, on average, doesn’t get better.

All this week NASCAR officials will be in damage control, getting irritable at any suggestion that the Daytona 500 was a bad race, then they’ll prove it was by changing the rules package for the first Talladega race.

I’m damned glad I won’t have to put up with it.

The NASCAR line will be typically superfluous: At the end of the day, everything is a work in progress, and it is what it is. Oh, by the way, aren’t the emperor’s new clothes lovely? And the attendance, which we won’t report, is, oh, “way up.”

Me? I’m taking a break. I’ll try to interest you folks with other topics for the next little while.

Just Enough

When Carl Edward's Ford ripped into the Talladega catch fence in 2009, it led to changes. Apparently more are needed. (John Clark photo)
When Carl Edward’s Ford ripped into the Talladega catch fence in 2009, it led to changes. Apparently more are needed. (John Clark photo)

It’s Daytona 500 morning, and I don’t feel like writing about racing.

I still love NASCAR. I’m going to watch on TV, and undoubtedly I’ll leave a stream of tweets and posts that will be alternately comic and informational. (Let me borrow a cliché: That’s the way I roll.)

I’m going to resist the temptation to wring my hands over “what could have happened” on Saturday at the end of Daytona International Speedway’s Nationwide Series race, which, oddly, was named after a medical condition. Twenty-eight, or 33, people, depending on what you read and how someone else defined “injured,” were hurt in that awful conflagration.

“Someone could have been killed!” No one was, and that’s really what matters. A week ago Monday, my mother and two nephews walked away (from the hospital, that is) after an awful crash in front of her house. A man who wasn’t paying attention slammed into their old Toyota, which was stopped to turn left into my mother’s yard. If someone had been killed, that fellow, who just made a costly mistake, would likely be going to jail. No one was killed, so he just had to go to his insurance agent. The world revolves around what actually happens, not what could have happened. I’m glad Mom, Jake and Vince are recovering, and I’m grateful the poor man didn’t get arrested, too.

I couldn’t help but remember Talladega Superspeedway in 2009, where eight fans were injured in a last-lap crash in which debris from Carl Edwards’ car “flew” into the stands. Two memories stand out.

On the morning of the race, I walked from the infield to the start-finish line, which, unlike most other tracks, is a quarter mile or so from the press box. As I paced along at the front of the stands, I looked up at the catch fence and thought, that thing looks mighty old and weathered.

It held. It did its job. The impact of Edwards’ car shredded the fence, but the car didn’t make it to the grandstands. On Saturday, Kyle Larson’s car shredded the fence at Daytona International Speedway, a similar track. If the fence’s job is defined as preventing horror (or, at least, death) while only sacrificing itself, it held again. In the aftermath of the 1999 incident, the catch fences at most tracks were strengthened. Now my guess is that they will be strengthened again. Saturday’s scary incident will lead to more studying, rethinking, redesigning and improving.

One fan, whose brother was injured seriously, called it “like a war zone,” and he apparently provided the phrase that was repeated over and over in spoken and written word.

The second distinct memory is from one of the injured fans at Talladega. A colleague, Rick Minter, and I walked down to the scene of the accident, where we encountered a man holding a large yellow spring from Edwards’ car that had hit him in the arm. He had the welts to prove it. His arm looked like a thunder cloud, though red was mixed with the steel blue.

The man asked me if I thought Edwards would sign the spring. I asked him if he would sit in that location in the future, and he said defiantly that he would. His words were, “Hey, that’s part OF it.”

When we returned to the press box, a statement was being distributed stating that no parts from Edwards’ car were found in the grandstands.

Technically, that was true. I saw one man rolling one of Edwards’ tires up the steps and out. I had seen the yellow spring. All the parts left the grandstand, a few probably headed to E-Bay.

No one ever decides to be a race driver without understanding, if not fully confronting, the reality that it’s a risky way to make a living. The fans are different. It’s tempting to say they didn’t sign up for it, but based on the small print on the tickets, in one sense, they did. In their case, the risk is much smaller but so, too, is the reward.

The difference between headlines and national news, and a horrible event that could question the entire future of the sport, is what happened, not what could have happened.

Saturday’s incident was a stern warning that more work needs to be done. Here’s hoping the next advance is more than “just enough.”

Maybe I’ll double up today and write another blog after the race. Here’s hoping it’s on a more appealing subject.

Never Trust ‘The Brand’

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

Once upon a time, a kid could trust his priest. An athlete could trust his coach. A kid could look up to the guy who won the Tour de France every year. He could believe the inspirational story of the All-America linebacker, the record-breaking slugger and the player they called Charley Hustle.

I guess it’s always been this way to a certain extent. After all, the kid saying, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” dates back to 1919.

Out of all the awful realities of 21st-century life, is there a worse one than the fact that parents now teach their kids to trust no one? Trust is a necessary ingredient in a happy life. The young Michael Jackson once sang that “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch of girls.”

Oh, wait. How’d that turn out?

In some ways, it’s a consequence of the Rise of Images. Once upon a time, Joe DiMaggio was just a guy who played baseball, albeit admired widely for a natural grace. Johnny Unitas was the simplest of heroes. Babe Ruth was a lovable galoot with a wandering eye and a taste for beer. It’s popular now to say that these heroes were protected by the sportswriters of their day, but I don’t buy it. I think the image of these athletes was basically accurate. All had flaws that their fans accepted. They didn’t make megabucks, at least when compared to the excessive salaries of today, and they weren’t as separated from their fans as much as the landed gentry of today.

They didn’t get above their raising. They didn’t tower above their fan bases. They were human beings, not brands. Now they’re like the products in infomercials. They never live up to “the brand,” and for the most part, it’s because it’s contrived and invented.

It’s a brand. It’s created not by the athlete’s (or celebrity’s) actual character but by publicists and marketers who raise the standards far beyond that which is reasonable or even human. There’s so much pressure to be a phony that most succumb.

Unfortunately, most people forgive sins but not hypocrisy. They don’t like being played for a fool by Lance Armstrong, or Jim and Tammy Bakker, or John Edwards.

Dale Earnhardt had many flaws. He was mean. He was ruthless. He could be rude. No one ever worked harder to hide a heart of gold. He had a contrarian bent and took amusement in talking to no one at precisely the time everyone wanted to talk to him. Yet his fans loved him because they saw themselves in him. A guy who worked at the cotton mill admired Earnhardt for the same reason he sang along with Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” Earnhardt often figuratively sang that song with his actions.

Like him or not – and not long before his tragic end, he had as many detractors as fans – Earnhardt was the real deal. Wealth and power changed his life but not his soul. He didn’t sell it for wealth and power. He became one of NASCAR’s great figures because he was, in fact, great. When he died, the legend grew and now, 12 years later, it still towers over the sport he loved and which, in turn, loved him back.

Sometimes people ask if I knew Earnhardt, and I say yes, and they ask, “What was he really like?” and there’s not much I can tell them that they don’t already know.

Nowadays, we see more of our heroes than ever and know them less. When a glimpse of reality escapes, it’s a shock to the system.

Appreciate the greats for what they do. Don’t assume that just because they can hit a curve ball or jump out of the gym, they are just as great playing human beings.

Everyone needs a hero, though, and my advice is look for him (or her) closer to home. Look up to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your preacher, your coach, or maybe the classmate who takes you under his wing and shows you the ropes.

Trust someone you really know, not the one whose image comes from a Nike commercial.

Smoke-free Racing? Yeah, Right …

I obviously suffer from skewed judgment. Things that strike others as perfectly reasonable strike me as ridiculous. I don’t know why. I’d like to think that I think things through, but there’s no great body of evidence to that effect.

For instance, I heard recently that Charlotte Motor Speedway will be smoke-free this year. How can that be? Has there been some great advance in green technology so that 43 race cars emit no exhaust fumes? Are they all equipped with catalytic converters or whatever those are called now? If I sit in the CMS grandstands this May, will I smell no exhaust, no rubber, no grease?

Oh. It’s cigarette smoke. This seems, to me, a rather tiny element of the toxicity in the race-track air. I suppose it would be annoying before the race starts to nearby patrons, but once it starts, and 43 cars are whipping around, I doubt a lit cigarette would even be noticeable.

I’m not suggesting that smoking be allowed at all sporting events. But automobile races? Some fans love the smell of exhaust and rubber as much as Robert Duvall’s character loved the smell of “napalm in the morning” in “Apocalypse Now.”

I doubt I’ll be in the grandstands at all this year, and if I am, I won’t be smoking, but banning smoke at a race track makes no more sense than banning butter from cineplex popcorn.

Besides that, 20 years on the NASCAR beat left me with the unmistakable impression that many race fans smoke. Are they going to spend five hours without a cigarette? I’m not sure, but I would think the race-car smoke in the air would cause a smoker to want to light up in the worst way, so much so that he might defy the rules, and if not, stay home and watch on TV. There’s a lot of that – staying home — going around already.

This may come as a shock, but I’ve heard that some race fans drink beer. Some people who don’t otherwise smoke have been known to do so when they are drinking.

Good luck with that, Charlotte. Meanwhile, I’ll await an onslaught from the ranks of the politically correct.

I can’t help but imagine a scene in which a huge wreck occurs off turn four. A car erupts in flames while pinned against the wall. As the safety trucks arrive and fire extinguishers are activated, a lone fan peers through the cloud and screams, “Hey! Hey! That guy three rows behind me is smoking a cigarette! Security! Security!”

A smoke-free section? Good idea. An entire smoke-free grandstand? Fine. Other than that, it seems to me that you buy your ticket and you take your chances.

What’s next? Only non-alcoholic beer? A Nicorette ban? Mandated mufflers? No burnouts?

Life’s the Same, Only Different

I might be doing a little more of this in 2013.
I might be doing a little more of this in 2013.

In Daytona Beach, Fla., Danica Patrick is starting NASCAR’s biggest race out front. She is –gasp! – “seeing” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer hang out with P Diddy but not each other. As a practical matter, and in comparison with the past, newspapers are dead, or at least on life support. NASCAR officials publicly decry and, I suspect, privately chortle.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting in my living room wondering if Carnival Cruise Lines has permanently altered the meaning of the phrase “carnival atmosphere.”

It’s not really that bad. For 20 years, I arrived home from NASCAR for the holidays and, for a short while, enjoyed something of a life familiar to others. After a few weeks, I’d develop some wanderlust born out of the habits of a transient lifestyle. I’d just take off somewhere. Since Jan. 4, I’ve realized that vast mobility is but a memory, and, lo and behold, I’ve adjusted to it. This morning I paid some bills. On Monday, I’m going to the dentist. A year ago, I was probably wondering if I needed to have my head examined.

If there was ever anything I enjoyed more than writing about NASCAR, it was writing fiction. I’m doing lots of that. I’ve got one novel, The Audacity of Dope, on the market; another, The Intangibles, on the way; and a third, Crazy by Natural Causes, in progress.

Instead of covering Friday night’s Truck Series race – if this was last year, I’d force myself to write out Camping World Truck Series – I’m going to play music at a local Mexican restaurant. I’ll probably be able to catch a replay later (the racing, not the singing). On Saturday, after the Nationwide race, I’m going to see The Citadel play Presbyterian College in men’s basketball. I’m reading a book on songwriting. On Monday and Tuesday, NASCAR held short-track races at Daytona International Speedway, which, until this year, seemed like quite the oxymoron. On Monday here in Clinton, my mother and two nephews were in a spectacular crash that worried me more than anything in Daytona Beach. My mother’s fine, but the boys remain sore physically and shell-shocked mentally and emotionally.

It’s different, not worse. I can’t say I’m not looking forward to going on the road, but the road is going to end at book stores, not speedways. I can’t wait for the opportunity to talk to readers about my book instead of fans about stock car racing. My apprehension is over whether or not I can manage to make a living with my writing, not who’s going to win the Daytona 500 and the Sprint Cup championship.

Thank goodness the racing has actually begun, or else I’d be reading stories online concerned with the possibility that Danica might grow bangs like Michelle Obama. Somewhere I read that the Las Vegas odds rank her chances of winning the 500 at 18-1. That’s a bad bet in my estimation. If you’re a bettor – and I’m not – I wouldn’t touch her for less than 50-1, bangs or not.

I wasn’t there for Media Day, but I did see “Casablanca” on TCM. I didn’t get to see Danica win the pole, but I saw PC upset Coastal Carolina. I’m not there for the Duel that is really dual, but I’m working on my income taxes. I didn’t catch Haddock Night at Alfie’s, but a high-school teammate and I ate hot wings at the House of Pizza. I can’t see the Atlantic Ocean from the condo, but the house in Clinton hasn’t been burglarized.

It’s not the same, but it’s not bad, and I think I’m getting used to it.

What’s It Going to Take?

Danica Patrick can only do so much. (John Clark photo)
Danica Patrick can only do so much. (John Clark photo)

A new NASCAR season dawns. High hopes abound. Dramatic changes have occurred. Four days before the Daytona 500, though, the chief question is: Will the needle move?

The development of a new car, the ballyhooed Gen6, is just the latest attempt by NASCAR to stem a long, slow slide in the public consciousness. The Lords of Daytona have been behaving as if they were running for office for half a decade, and this is unfamiliar territory for a sport that has always been a benevolent (at best) dictatorship. They have changed their positions more times than Mitt Romney and reversed field more often than Gale Sayers. They have tried to attract new fans. They have tried to energize the base. They have cleaned house, brought consultants in and turned them out, focused on studies and studied on focuses.

The frustration is understandable. To paraphrase Mel Tillis, they keep looking for tomorrow and finding yesterday. This is literally true in regard to the car gradually implemented in 2007 and abruptly discarded in 2012. The Car of Tomorrow, a laughable description in hindsight, was generic because, according to NASCAR officials, brand identity didn’t matter anymore. The fans could tell the manufacturers by their decals. The Chevy, Dodge, Ford and Toyota fans were supposedly irrelevant. NASCAR was out to promote its drivers, not its cars.

The NASCAR of a decade ago was awash in delusions of grandeur.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

The COT. The Chase. Free passes. Wave-arounds. Double-file restarts. Green/white/checkered. Nothing moved the needle. Well, actually, the needle did move. It moved the wrong way. Still the Lords ask, “What’s it going to take?”

The boom of 2003 became the bust of 2012. For the longest time, NASCAR officials offered up mostly excuses and rationalizations. It was the economy. It was the price of gasoline, the gouging of hotels. A decade ago, NASCAR officials claimed they had 75 million fans, even though less than half of them watched – whether by television, radio or fannies in seats – the sport’s biggest race.

They’re still trying to move that needle in the opposite direction.

On Sunday, new cars, cars that look a little like the ones on the highways (or in the case of the Chevy SS, the highways of the next autumn) will take the Daytona 500 green flag. Barring the unexpected, a woman, Danica Patrick, will take it first. The new way the lineups are constituted wasn’t new 10 years ago. With the current paucity of extra cars actually attempting to make those lineups, the change is really inconsequential.

It can’t be said that NASCAR has done nothing. It’s more appropriate to conclude that NASCAR panicked. Its leaders used to think they could market sand dunes to desert nomads. A major obstacle in righting the ship was NASCAR’s inability to admit that any of its policies were wrong.

It took a while, but they got that message, and it’s cost everyone gobs of money.

The latest changes represent a New Deal, New Frontier, Great Society and Reagan Revolution all rolled into one.

Patrick, the Pixie on the Pole, could boost attendance and TV ratings on Sunday. If it doesn’t, God help them. As big as the Daytona 500 is, it’s only the first chapter of a season-long epic. Patrick’s impact will be lessened if she descends into competitive irrelevance after the Sprint Cup Series leaves the cool breezes of Daytona Beach behind. That’s a distinct possibility and, quite possibly, a likelihood. Nothing in her background suggests she can hoist the sport on her shoulders, Jackie Robinson like, and change it forever.

At best, she is no more than a talisman of what lies ahead. It’s going to require patience and time to restore stock car racing to its former majesty.