Why I Ain’t Feeling So Hot Myself

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

I don’t consider myself old yet. I don’t act old. A little while ago, I took advantage of the Tuesday night specials at a local restaurant that are provided those who are over 50, and I tend to have supper there on Tuesdays because of them.

I called it supper. You can tell I’m pretty old right there.

That’s just a technicality. What am I supposed to do? Turn it down? I am out of work. I knew I was going to get old, but I didn’t ever think I was going to get laid off. It never happened before, and I had won awards! I’d written books, earned respect, lectured college students! How could I lose my job?

How could people stop reading newspapers?

The hardest part may be that my heroes are dying off. Kids don’t grow up with heroes who are their age, and as they get older, they have favorites, not heroes. They become too cynical for heroes. They know too much. For instance, David Pearson was my NASCAR hero. More than a decade after the Silver Fox ran his last race, I started going to race tracks and writing about race drivers. I got to know them. It’s hard to turn people you know into heroes. The difference between the size of them and life gets smaller.

Heroes don’t age. They’re gone before you know it. They age and it reminds us that we are, too.

It really tore me up when Johnny Unitas died. I remember it the way you remember where you were when John F. Kennedy was shot, or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, or when Richard M. Nixon resigned. I was driving from Fenway Park to Alton, N.H., where I would cover the stock car races in Loudon. I heard it on the radio and had to pull off the road. I wept.

Then again, yesterday, my eyes dampened during the movie “Hoosiers” because the character Shooter (Dennis Hopper, also now dead) made me think about my old man.

It’s happening more and more often, George Jones being the latest example. Willie Nelson turned 80 today. It saddens me a little every time I see Willie Mays, or Willie McCovey, or various other Willies. It gives me the willies.

It happens all the time. I remember how sad I was when Henry Fonda died, and that was more than 30 years ago. But I was in my 20s when Fonda passed away. Now the death of a hero hits a little closer to home. Even when death arrives on the doorstep of a figure who was little more than a blip on the radar – ex-Atlanta pitcher Rick Camp, for instance – it hurts a little. The pain is internalized. How old was Camp? Sixty? Gee whiz. That’s not much older than … I.

Yesterday I had to stop by the doctor’s office for a blood test. It was fine. Whew. I asked to use the scale. I’ve lost weight. Whew. A point comes in a man’s life when he starts fretting. He feels a lump somewhere, so he feels around on the other side just to make sure there’s a lump over there.

Whew.

The Quiet That Follows Every Storm

David Poole and I, with Robert Earl Keen singing in the background, at Texas Motor Speedway.
David Poole and I, with Robert Earl Keen performing in the background, at Texas Motor Speedway.

I guess it’s the calm after the storm. Yesterday morning I spent a lot of time writing a blog on NASCAR’s troubles, and I think, in terms of social-media attention, it’s the second most-read story I’ve ever written. Between tweets, posts and comments on this site, it engendered more responses than anything I’ve ever written … which means I’ve spent a lot of time processing all the information and replying.

Many thanks, folks, for supporting this site. Each day I try to write whatever occurs to me. Doing it daily probably means that my performance flags from time to time, but I’m trying to stay in touch even though I don’t have anyone to pay me. In the long run, I hope it keeps my name in circulation and creates other opportunities, whether they be interest in my books, interest in, oh, maybe, offering me a job, or just interest in how and what I’m doing.

Basically, I just do it because I love to write. Ever hear an athlete say he’d do it for nothing (even though he or she happens to be making millions)? Bingo.

It was an exciting weekend. I got to play music. I sold a few novels. I edited part of the next one, The Intangibles, which will be out in the fall. I cut grass. I paid bills. Nowadays paying bills is pretty exciting, but I’m making do. I’m getting along.

About all that bubbles up in my psyche this morning is a series of almost random thoughts. Yesterday was Big Issue Sunday. Today I’m a bit spent. As the late Hondo Crouch once wrote at the end of a column, I’m out of soap.

Today is Dale Earnhardt’s birthday. He would’ve been 62. It’s hard to believe his death was more than 12 years ago, but it’s also hard for me to believe that it’s been four years – over the weekend, in fact – since my sportswriting friend David Poole passed away. Or almost four since my college friend Jeff Snipes died. All three were great men whom I miss.

In Earnhardt’s case, I sort of miss exchanging profanities. That was a friendly pastime for The Intimidator. I didn’t much care for him until I discovered that he was quite similar off track to on. He didn’t respect people who didn’t stand up to him. At the point at which I got fed up and yelled right back, we didn’t get along. From that point on, Earnhardt and I were fine.

Poole and I had much in common and much over which we quibbled, but we were great friends and respected each other. David didn’t bite his tongue very often, but he did when I made him mad (and everyone made him mad at one time or another). I doubt there are many in NASCAR who never felt his wrath, but I didn’t. He never screamed at me, and on a few occasions, he actually admitted later that I had been right and he had been wrong. There isn’t much in which I take greater pride than that. The last race we covered together was at Talladega, and he made me mad. I let him know it. He nearly exploded but didn’t. Before we left the track that memorable, wreck-strewn day, we had a low-key conversation in the media parking lot. It was probably one of what David would have called a “say hey to your mama and them” conversation. I’m so happy we parted as friends.

I often wonder how Earnhardt and Poole would react to the way NASCAR is now, and sometimes I think, well, they knew when to die, but, on the other hand, things would probably be different – no, closer to the same – if they were still alive, and that would have been a good thing. As a practical, professional matter, I’m gone now, too, though I still peck away at this laptop. This blog is really the only remaining tie that binds, but I’m not unhappy about it. The sport has changed. The people who cover it have changed, and I felt fairly lonely the last couple of the years on the beat. Losing my job may have been a blessing, but it’s too soon to tell.

I expect all of you, at least those of you who have reached drinking age, feel as if you knew Earnhardt. Many of you feel as if you knew Poole, just as you probably feel you know me based on reading what I write. Some of you knew Sniper, who was every bit as great a man as the other two. When Jeff was dying, he made me ashamed because it seemed as if I was taking it harder than he, and I wasn’t dying.

Somehow this is a morning to ponder one’s mortality.

The Overlooked Consequences of Change

The campgrounds aren't what they used to be. This photo was taken on Sprint Cup race morning at Bristol in 2010.
The campgrounds aren’t what they used to be. This photo was taken on Sprint Cup race morning at Bristol in 2010.

On this rainy Sunday, I find myself unable to avoid tackling this issue because I’ve put quite a bit of thought into it. Last night, aerial shots on television revealed that the NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway was sparsely attended. It’s a recurring theme.

It must be frustrating for NASCAR officials who seem unable to move the needle on the sport’s decline no matter how hard they try. They’ve introduced a new car that looks more like the cars that populate the highways of the land. This represented not only a massive investment, both by the ruling body and the teams, but also a renunciation of the entire premise of the previous model. The Car of Tomorrow, implemented piecemeal in 2007-08, was largely generic because NASCAR wanted to eliminate variables in terms of competition and believed brand loyalty was no longer important. NASCAR wanted to stress its drivers over its cars. Inexplicably, the manufacturers at the time – Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota and Dodge – went along with it.

When the current car, the so-called Gen6, was rolled out, NASCAR officials sounded as if the COT had never existed. “We want NASCAR fans to know that brand loyalty is back,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton, leaving the obvious question hanging in the air. Where had it gone? Ignoring the fact that sameness had been an intentional matter of policy, Helton sounded as if these generic cars had just gotten out of hand and NASCAR had to step in and do something.

To their credit, they did. Unfortunately, so far, it hasn’t produced tangible results. Since NASCAR seems to be unable to use the word “mistake,” more alibis are required. Borrowing the old line from the Clinton presidency, “It’s the economy, stupid,” all is neatly rationalized. Attendance is down, so the culprit must be high gasoline prices and price gouging in accommodations. It’s a factor – never mind price gouging by NASCAR itself — but it’s far from the only reason.

In the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for 20,000-30,000 fans to show up for qualifying. Now it’s closer to 200-300. Attendance in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series is more off than the Sprint Cup races.

Here’s my observation. The chief difference in the crowds is the difference in the campgrounds. There aren’t nearly as many people lining the hills around Bristol Motor Speedway now as there were during the boom times.

Gas prices have fallen recently, but never mind that. Adjusting for inflation, gasoline was higher in the years after the 1973 Arab Embargo than it is today. A dollar a gallon in 1973 is more money than four dollars (at the moment, it’s closer to three) today. You can look it up.

What no one wants to acknowledge is that stock car racing has gone out of style. NASCAR will counter this with its alleged marketing surveys. They are flawed since, by and large, they deal with the staunch fans who remain in relatively large numbers. Surveys would be more pertinent if they dealt with the people who have left than those who stayed. NASCAR, flush with evangelical zeal, went after new fans, ignoring the fact that they were doing so at the expense of those who were already in the fold. Now it has alienated many of the most loyal fans, and many new ones have moved on to some other fad.

All that being said, NASCAR is still a powerful part of the American sporting mainstream, which wasn’t true before the 1990s. It’s just not what it once was. The deficit isn’t nearly as much in the absurdly priced hotel rooms as in the camping spots.

Watching on television isn’t nearly as good as being there, but it is considerably less expensive and more convenient. Fans who used to attend eight to 10 races each year now go to two or three. The fans who brought their tents and customized schoolbuses have been either priced out of the market or gotten old enough that wandering around half-drunk and unwashed for three or four days isn’t quite as appealing as it once was. It has occurred to them that they can grill out and drink beer in the privacy of their homes, watching gigantic high-definition TV in stereo, for a lot less cost and a lot more convenience.

Here’s what NASCAR needs more than anything else: a younger generation of hell-raisers to replace the ones who have succumbed to advancing age.

Which brings me to another observation that comes from being home – my job covering NASCAR was eliminated in January after 20 years on the beat and 16-1/2 at the Gaston Gazette – instead of at the track.

One of the advantages I’ve always considered valuable is the fact that I live in my hometown. I’m shocked that I don’t miss being at the races more, but I’m well on the way to being a Clintonian (Clinton, S.C.) again.

Most people have their perspectives skewed by changes in their lives. People who go to college tend to hang out with others who went to college. Lawyers hang with lawyers, but local businessmen and factory workers (what few are left) also hang with other people who are like them. I’ve been kind of an anomaly. I live in a town of 8,000 people, but I used to travel all over the country. Though I was never rich and famous, I dealt with people who were.

That’s why I say that NASCAR just went out of style, not with its loyal fans but to just average people. Ten years ago, I’d sit on a plane next to a fellow and mention in passing that I wrote about NASCAR for a living.

“I love NASCAR,” he’d say, and there’d be no reading on that flight. I’d be fielding questions about Junior and Jeff and Tony and Jimmie. By last year, when people found out I was affiliated with NASCAR, the typical remark would be, “You know, I used to really like it, but to tell you the truth, I don’t pay much attention to it anymore.”

I used to stop at a convenience store, and the kid behind the counter would find out I wrote about NASCAR. He’d say, “You don’t need somebody to carry your bags, do you?”

Last year that kid would say, “Oh.”

In Clinton, the change is even greater. On Friday night, I was playing music at the twice-monthly jam session at a Mexican restaurant, El Jalisco, here in town. Ten years ago, the kids here loved NASCAR. There was one woman I saw wearing a faded Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt. I asked her if she was a NASCAR fan, and she said she liked Junior but didn’t watch the races much. This was partially obvious since, at that very time, the Nationwide Series race in Richmond was going on.

That kids don’t give a damn about NASCAR anymore is as clear as the sky outside is cloudy right now. I don’t believe they care about sports in general as much. I believe their love of football is more grounded in “Madden” on a Wii than in actually watching the games.

Once I asked Brian France how he was ever going to make people who went to work each day on the subway develop the great love affair with the automobile that facilitates the love of watching automobiles race. He said the answer was computer simulation. He said the kids would play video games and that would make them love NASCAR.

Watch what you ask for. You might just get it.

On Saturday afternoon, I drove to the post office. A few blocks away, a kid wearing headphones walked across the street right in front of my truck. I had to hit the brakes to keep from hitting him. It wasn’t too close a call. I didn’t have to blow the horn. I looked at him as I drove by. I don’t think he ever knew I was there. He might as well have been a zombie. He was probably paying attention to Li’l Wayne.

Thirty years ago I had a discussion with a high school football coach who had fallen on hard times after winning a state championship a few years earlier.

“Times change,” he said, “and it’s the hardest thing in the world to keep up with it. Playing football just goes out of style, and you never see it coming. All of a sudden, playing in the band becomes fashionable, or getting a job and buying a car, and before you know it, it’s hard to get enough kids out to field a team.”

The decline isn’t irreversible. Trends rise and fall. Another factor is that NASCAR lost sight of the market for its product. The sport based its projections on how much it needed, not how much it could charge. Why did ticket prices get so high? NASCAR was trying to upscale its fans to meet its demands. It wasn’t a matter of how much the market could absorb. It was a matter of how much money NASCAR needed. The whole idea was that the sport was growing so fast that middle-class fans would be replaced by rich ones. The old fans would just have to pony up or watch on TV.

The latter part of that plan worked.

His Was a Grand Tour

I was sort of smooth as Tennessee whiskey my ownself. (John Clark photo)
I was sort of smooth as Tennessee whiskey my ownself. (John Clark photo)

George Jones was 81. He was perhaps the best example of one of those sayings credited to many: “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would’ve taken better care of myself.”

But forget all those outlandish stories, some of them apocryphal, cited by those whose chief knowledge of Jones had little to do with his music. “No Show Jones.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. The historical significance of Jones’ dysfunctions isn’t that he got arrested driving a riding mower drunk. He made his greatest music while his personal life was a mess.

As Moe Bandy sang, “Hank Williams, you wrote my life.” Jones wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last, to have what people in Nashville call the Hank Williams Death Wish.

There’s no reason to be overwhelmed with sadness over Jones’ death. He had a great run. His life story really wasn’t drinking, drugging and raising hell. It was the music. It was the voice. It was his ability to overcome the sinful impulses by making great music from them. It was similar to what I often say before performing my song “Slip Away”: “If a woman breaks your heart, look at the bright side. You’ll get a damn good song out of it.”

What a shame that many who mourn his death think “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was his only song. He didn’t even want to cut it. He didn’t think people wanted to hear a tear-jerker like that.

I’ve always loved his fast songs: “The Race Is On.” “White Lightning.” “Why Baby Why.” When I first heard of his death, I thought of the opening lines of the first song above: “I feel tears welling up cold deep inside like my heart’s sprung a big break, and a stab of loneliness sharp and painful that I may never shake …”

On Friday night, I went out to El Jalisco Mexican Restaurant for the twice-monthly gathering we call Jamlisco. Local musicians gather to play tunes. I went first and opened with “Tennessee Whiskey.” Then I played other songs by late, great artists Gram Parsons and Faron Young. I’d spent the day hurrying from one place to another. I cut the grass at my mother’s house, then went to a Presbyterian College baseball game, then raced in the house and grabbed the guitar I had been playing in the living room, the Little Martin I normally use only after carrying it on planes (none of those so far this year), and a harmonica.

When I got to El Jalisco, all I knew was that I was going to sing “Tennessee Whiskey.” I felt sort of frantic. Someone sent tequila shots to our table. Four of us made a toast and gulped it down, and I chased it with one of those gigantic beers that are reasonably priced at Mexican joints. That took care of the frantic and just seemed like a George Jones way to play music.

I went from song to song based on what came to mind. After “Tennessee Whiskey,” I sang “Blue Eyes,” then “Wine Me Up,” then “I Know One” and “Mississippi Cottonpickin’ Delta Town. I asked the crowd if it wanted more covers or one of mine. Someone requested my high-school football song, “Go Big Red,” which always goes over well in Clinton. I also sang “A Little Bit of Weed (and a Cigarette High).”

Then, while others took the stage, I ordered another of what the proprietors call “beeg beer” and told Jorge to serve me whatever he wanted. He said the pork was fresh, so I had carnitas, and they were delicious.

This all constituted a major break in my Atkins diet, but what the hell. It was for George Jones. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Two people bought copies of my novel, The Audacity of Dope. That was way cool. I’d mentioned it onstage, but it wasn’t a hard sell. I went out to the truck and fetched them, signed one to Robin and another to Cassie and swiped their cards on my iPhone.

The music was still playing when I left, but when I walked out the front door, a fairly large contingent was chatting outside and smoking. Cassie, soon to read my novel, wanted to sing, so I tried to sing a couple David Allan Coe songs with her – I doubt they were very accurate but I tried to chase my voice with my fingers (my description of playing songs by ear) even though I couldn’t really hear the guitar in the cacophony of conversation – and then played “Tennessee Whiskey” again.

Cassie has a lovely voice.

In short, I don’t think the death of George Jones really merits sorrow. I think it merits celebration, and I think it was the best way to pay homage to one of the truly great singers of our time.

If you must mourn, go buy some “Wine-Colored Roses.”

A Tale of Two Carolinas

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

Having spent 15 years working in North Carolina and living in South Carolina, I’m keenly aware of the fundamental differences in the two.

To wit:

North Carolina is a basketball state. South Carolina is a football state. If South Carolina was named for its sports preference, it would be East Georgia.

Barbecue is vastly different. There is some geographic diversity in North Carolina, east (vinegar) to west (tomato), but South Carolina has its own mustard-based flavor. Since most people prefer what their mama served them, I prefer the South Carolina brand, which is largely unknown in the rest of the country. But I like it all. Another staple of South Carolina barbecue is hash, which, strictly speaking, isn’t barbecue at all but is awfully good over rice.

In North Carolina, hush puppies accompany both barbecue and seafood. By and large, South Carolina’s hush puppies, while largely the same as up north, are served with seafood only.

As reflected in its barbecue, South Carolina is fiercely independent. North Carolina’s conservatism is less so, as witnessed by the two states’ governors. While I consider North Carolina’s Pat McCrory to be world class in terms of blow-dried emptiness, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley makes McCrory look like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Sarah Palin look like George F. Will. North Carolina has a Democratic senator. Oh, how I miss Fritz Hollings. My Congressman, Jeff Duncan, desperately wants to be the next Palin. If Duncan had his way, all the kids would be home-schooled and armed. I’ve nothing against home schooling in principle, but I do believe that educators ought to be educated.

North Carolina had Jesse Helms. South Carolina had Strom Thurmond. That’s kind of a push.

North Carolina’s flag is too similar to Texas’s. South Carolina’s flag, with its Palmetto tree and crescent moon, may be the state’s best example of good taste. I envy North Carolina its moderation, but I am a Sandlapper, not a Tarheel, and I find some resonance in what I once heard Shelby Foote say about the Civil War. I think secession was shameful, but if I had been alive, I’d have probably been as foolish as all the rest.

More North Carolinians are snobs. More South Carolinians are firebrands.

In 49 states, Carolina is in Chapel Hill and USC is in Los Angeles. Where I live, Carolina and USC are in Columbia. South Carolinians couldn’t care less what the rest of the country thinks.

My personal views have always been far off the beaten path for my native state, but don’t even think about changing my mind. That’s why I’m quintessentially South as Carolinas go.

The Empire Strikes Back

Dale Earnhardt wouldn't be laughing. He wouldn't be crying. He'd be pissed off.
Dale Earnhardt wouldn’t be laughing. He wouldn’t be crying. He’d be pissed off.

Thank goodness for baseball. NASCAR is a mess. There’s no good time to be unemployed, but at least I’m not covering this circus.

Oh, I’m as busy as an endurance juggler – selling one novel, editing another, writing a third – but tangible results are months away. At least I’m not at a race track, where the only technology lacking is implants emitting electrical shocks every time a race driver strays from the company line.

“The new car is pretty good, but there’s still some room for improvement.” Zap! “I mean, this car is the ultimate in racing excitement. It’s a greater achievement than the ancient Pyramids.”

Unlike the Pyramids, the Gen6 car wasn’t built with slave labor. There’s good money to be made in modern sharecropping.

I’ve always said I hope fans realize that when I criticize the sport, it’s because I love it, not because I hate it. The lyrics of the great songwriter, Guy Clark, come to mind: “Mistakes are only horses in disguise. Ain’t no need to ride ‘em over ‘cause I could not ride ‘em different if I tried.” It seldom bothers me if people think I’m wrong. What bothers me is if people consider me insincere. I’ve rarely written anything I didn’t mean. I’ve never written make-up stories, balancing the criticism of one week with sappy praise the next. Each week I went to the track and tried to depict what I saw. I gave up politics a long time ago.

I did that by choice, though.

A long time ago, I wrote that NASCAR’s policy might as well be described with a single sentence: “If you try something new, it better not work.” When I originally wrote it, sometime back in the 1990s, I was half-joking. Now it might as well be etched in marble and displayed on a public square.

Have you noticed how seldom this word is used? Illegal. Nothing is illegal. Everything is “unapproved.” What that means is it doesn’t matter if a part is within the rules. What matters is if it has been shown to a NASCAR official and approved. Several times, as it turns out.

“Boys, have at it.” What a joke. What empty rhetoric. Freedom doesn’t ring in NASCAR, if it ever did. At least the tyranny of William C. France was genuine. That emperor always wore his clothes. Once I asked him about the effect of proliferating night races on the weekly short tracks. He said, “Winston (now Sprint) Cup is the bell cow. Everyone else will have to follow the bell cow.”

In other words, to hell with short tracks. Fend for yourself. It was harsh, but it was honest.

Now, with Lord Vader in charge, it’s speak our minds. Be honest in toeing the company line. The doghouse is a kennel. The National Stock Car Racing Commission has a bigger backlog than the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Wouldn’t it just be simpler to set up stocks in front of the R&D Center and put Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joe Gibbs, Roger Penske and all their bright surrogates on humiliating public display?

Only NASCAR could raise money for charity this way.

If NASCAR ever swore in a witness at an appeal, the question would be, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the half truth and what we want the truth to be, so help you Brian?”

What does NASCAR think it is? The NCAA?

These days NASCAR is only as close as my Twitter feed. There I can almost bear it.

On Tuesday afternoon, I sat in a minor league ballpark and kept score. The guy sitting behind me was from Minnesota. The only time I thought about NASCAR was when I thought the Lakewood Blue Claws were from the same place the Hindenburg crashed.

Turns out that was Lakehurst.

Let the Sunshine In …

During the 20 years that I traveled all over the country writing about stock car racing, criticism of my writing declined almost year to year, though I don’t think my outlook did. I probably built an audience that consisted mostly of people who agreed with me. As outspoken (outwritten?) as I was (and am), I never got all that much harsh criticism after the early years. It could be that longevity conveyed a certain stature. Early on, people

I miss chanting "Robert Earl Keen, Robert Earl Keen, Robert Earl Keen!" (John Clark photo)
I miss chanting “Robert Earl Keen, Robert Earl Keen, Robert Earl Keen!” (John Clark photo)

might have thought I was some brash newcomer, and over the long haul, perhaps I built some respect from the readership. I used to say that if I didn’t tick off 15 percent of the readers, I was probably putting them to sleep.

Over the two-decade span, the readership changed a great deal. In the beginning, the base was mainly readers of the newspapers (Spartanburg Herald-Journal 1993-96, Gaston Gazette 1996-2012 and the weekly trade papers FasTrack and Area Auto Racing News) for which I worked. Thanks to the Internet, web sites and social media, my work became widely known.

In 1993, I would go to the track one week and find people in the garage talking about it the next week. A decade later, they would be talking about it the next day. Twitter and Facebook sped up the information deliver almost to immediacy. I’d file, and within a minute, readers would be reacting.

Now I probably have more people reading my stories than most of the time when I was actually getting paid for them. That’s small consolation, but it’s what keeps me cranking out these blogs every day. I can’t do anything about being gone, at least not yet, but I don’t want to be forgotten. Regardless of what happens from here, I’d like to maintain an audience to promote whatever it is.

I write songs. I write novels. I still want people to listen and read.

All of the above is merely prelude to a discussion of the chief area where my readers and I diverge.

Night races.

I concede that you love them. I don’t. I believe races should be run when you want them, not I. But it would also be less than honest to hide my opinion. The Chase has been around since 2004, but I still don’t like it. I’m resigned to it. It’s not going away. I just liked NASCAR better when each race counted the same. I’m old-fashioned. I’d rather have a just championship than an exciting one. I don’t lose sleep over it, but I also don’t want to misrepresent myself. I also don’t want to belabor the point. The Chase is fine. My dissent is irrelevant at this point.

Many folks assume that my opposition to night races is based on the difficulty of writing about them, but that’s not true anymore. Once upon a time, deadlines were everything. One of the more nerve-wracking times for any journalist is writing on tight deadlines. I’ve filed the only story that would make the paper many times at the moment I could be assured that a certain driver would win. I’ve filed at the white flag. I’ve filed with 10 laps to go and waited, cell phone in hand, to let a desk man (or, theoretically, woman, though I don’t think that’s ever actually been the case in my career) know the story could run “as is.” I’ve made last-second corrections by phone.

On the other hand, deadline writing is exhilarating, and I was good at it. At one time, back in the office, they held pools based on how many minutes after the green flag fell I would file. I’m proud that the “under” usually won. It’s a process of doing the best possible job in the least possible time. I used to tell my colleagues it was also a matter of “making the [human waste] stink as little as possible.”

So, truthfully, night races stimulated my competitive instincts. That part I enjoyed.

So why do I still hate night races?

I happen to like daytime sports. Perhaps this harkens back to my childhood when my family went to Clemson games that, back then, always started at 1 p.m. In college, Furman’s stadium didn’t have lights. (Naturally, or, uh, artificially, it does now.) I’m going to an afternoon baseball game today. I like the sunshine. I don’t like the pale glow of man’s illumination. It’s a minor point, though.

The big reason I dislike night races is that it takes all of the fun out of trips. Case in point: the recent race at Texas Motor Speedway.

I love Texas. I love the independent spirit of the people. I love, more than anything else, the music. For the past five years, I’ve taken a week off in the fall to play music at a festival in Gainesville, Texas, known as Pawlessfest. I have many Texas friends. When the TMS races are at night, it’s just in and out, man. Fly in. Spend all day and all night at the track. Repeat. Repeat. Fly out. A night race took away live music, dinner with friends, baseball games … it robbed me of all the other experiences related to a trip to Texas. Two weekends ago, not being there didn’t bother me at all.

I don’t see why fans are any different. I understand why the tracks love night races. Fans spend all their money at the track. That’s all they do, too. They travel. They go to the track. They go home. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Now that I’m not on the road, night races are just fine. I understand why fans like to watch night races on TV. I just don’t see why it’s so great for those who are there.

But, then again, my perspective is apparently jaded. I still like sunshine.

Head Full of Nothing

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

This hasn’t been my most productive of days.

Normally, I have a list of activities all mapped out. Pay bills, blog, wash clothes, empty trash, write, edit, practice on guitar, et al. This morning I’ve been playing guitar quite a bit – not exactly a chore – and I’ve done a jam-up job of keeping up with the social media, but this wouldn’t be the day I’d capture on YouTube as an example of my work ethic.

Maybe I lack a sense of urgency. One week ago, I was completing my income taxes on deadline day. It’s not like I’ve done nothing. I read a Rolling Stone cover story on Louis C.K. I chipped away at the book I’m reading, a novel called Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow that I unearthed at Dollar Store. I watched most of a baseball movie called “Ladies Day” starring Eddie Albert, whom I don’t think has the stuff to make it as a big-league pitcher nowadays.

The weekend turned on Sunday. Friday and Saturday were great. Then along came Sunday, when the Red Sox celebrated a seven-game winning streak by dropping a doubleheader to the Kansas City Royals. Of course, Matt Kenseth won the Sprint Cup race in Kansas. I enjoyed that. It wasn’t a rotten day, but it paled in comparison to what came before it.

My checklist is sparse. It has items that have been there for weeks. Memorize a song called “Scuppernongs & Muscadines” that I wrote, oh, months ago. Write a new song, which is conditional upon memorizing the earlier one because I have to get a song down before I can move to another. I’ve been fixated on fiction: editing the novel, The Intangibles, that will be out in November, and writing Crazy by Natural Causes, which will be out sometime in the more distant future.

Maybe I’ll finish the 17th chapter of Crazy. It’s almost done. It’s an achievable task. But maybe I won’t. I lack motivation. It’s best to write something substantial when one is in the mood. Writing fiction requires what I call “mulling time.” I have to think it through before I move on. It’s an intuitive pastime, this fiction. I have to do it when I’m ready. As of this moment, I’m not ready. That’s why I’m toiling at an inferior task, that being this blog.

I’ve got a stack of magazines that I haven’t gone through yet, the Rolling Stone mentioned above being just one. The Red Sox host the Oakland Athletics at 6:30. I’m sort of worthless right now where creative endeavor is concerned. This is the type day made for busy work. Maybe I’ll balance my bank accounts. Maybe I’ll pay a few bills. I haven’t shaved or showered yet. I’ll get myself presentable and go out to mail some letters, then have some chicken wings for supper (and hit the salad bar) in time to get back home for Don Orsillo, Jerry Remy and “Boston Red Sox Baseball on NESN.”

This is the kind of day Lew DeWitt was having when he wrote “Flowers on the Wall.”

It’s good to see you, I must go, I know I look a fright

Anyway my eyes are not accustomed to this light

And my shoes are not accustomed to this hard concrete

So I must go back to my room and make my day complete

Ah, here’s an idea. I could figure out how to play that Statler Brothers song. It’s really the only logical thing to do on this wretched day of which tomorrow I shall be ashamed.

Perhaps you’re wondering about the title of this blog, “Head Full of Nothing.” It’s from a Jerry Jeff Walker song that applies to a day like this, too. Actually, it was co-written by Bob Livingston and Rick Fowler. Bob is one of my Pawlessfest buddies.

But I think at last I am free

Holding up the downside part of me

Sun’s full of yellow

Sky’s full of blue

Been on my vacation about a full year or two

In conclusion, I wrote a blog full of nothing.

Understated and Underrated

He's got a great sense of humor and a champion's skill, but somehow Matt Kenseth is overlooked. (John Clark photo)
He’s got a great sense of humor and a champion’s skill, but somehow Matt Kenseth is overlooked. (John Clark photo)

Few race drivers have taken as many bum raps as Matt Kenseth.

Cut to a scene from “Animal House”: “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”

Because he won the last Winston Cup championship (2003)  while winning only once, he was branded Mr. Consistent – it’s a compliment in most sports — and tagged for being the chief reason NASCAR devised the Chase.

You don’t like the Chase? Well, you can blame Matt Kenseth for that!

Never mind that the year before he won the championship (2002), Kenseth won more races (5) than any other driver.

Kenseth, who has perhaps the most intelligent sense of humor in the sport, has been branded as bland by people, some of whom aren’t smart enough to appreciate his low-key brand of funny. Kenseth often requires an audience to read between his lines. Unfortunately, writers are prone to use actual lines only.

Some dubbed Kenseth disloyal for leaving Roush Fenway. He only stayed there 13 years. By the time this one’s over, he’s going to be branded smart, and he might be crowned champion again. Few veteran Kenseth watchers would be surprised.

The Green Bay Packers fan from Cambridge, Wis., is one of the best. He has been since he began competing full-time in Cup (first Winston, then Nextel, now Sprint) in 2000.

Perhaps the reason Kenseth is perpetually overlooked is that most of his career has been overshadowed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., despite the fact that he outdueled the sport’s most popular driver for what was then Raybestos Rookie of the Year, won the championship that Junior hasn’t, and at the moment has seven more career victories.

OK, Kenseth’s a tad quirky. Why else would he say this when asked how he was able to fend off Kasey Kahne in the closing laps of Sunday’s STP 400 in Kansas? “It’s funny. We had a big-time softball game last week, and we (presumably he and Kahne) were able to talk about it a little bit.”

OK. Last week, Kenseth and Kahne talked about how Kenseth would be able to hold off Kahne … three or four days later. Kahne isn’t exactly Johnny Carson himself, though apparently he and Kenseth share the inestimable gift of being able to see into the future. As a means of explaining it, Kenseth pointed out that “he (Kahne) has finished second to us a couple times.” In fact, one of the two was Sunday. The other was also this year: at Las Vegas on March 10.

As the late Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know … the rest of the story.”

“We made some small adjustments, I believe, but it was kind of like musical chairs,” Kenseth said. “You had to be out front when the music stopped, and I knew if we could be somewhere towards the front when you had the last caution and that last pit stop, we’d have a shot at it.

“Our car was reasonable in dirty air, but it wasn’t quite good enough to catch all them guys (quite possibly, Kenseth has never used the word “those”) and pass them.”

In other words, track position was key, and Kenseth had it. Mr. Consistency only led 163 of the 267 laps.

The pit-stall advantage conveyed the pole winner was crucial to the guy with the fastest car winning. If you’re keeping a scorecard at home, fans, you’ll want to know that the pole winner has won three races in a row for the first time since 1985.

There may not be much excitement in the crucial role track position plays, but there wasn’t anything unjust about it in Kansas. The right guy won.

You Can Go Home Again … Kinda

This was the home side of Paladin Stadium in 2011, the last time I saw a game there. This fall it will be vastly different, thanks to an expansion. I'm hoping to be there quite often.
This was the home side of Paladin Stadium in 2011, the last time I saw a game there. This fall it will be vastly different, thanks to an expansion. I’m hoping to be there quite often.

Do you ever come across someone and have this reaction? I think it’s you.

It’s been happening quite regularly to me lately.

On Tuesday night at the Fatz Café, it was Dan Wooten. I’m having the special. He sits down across from me in the booth and says, yes, “You know who I am?”

“I think so. Dan Wooten?”

“Yep. I haven’t seen you in 30 years, I don’t reckon.”

It’s kind of similar to being at a sporting event, or an airport, and thinking, hey, that gal looks like Claire Turner, but then you realize it’s probably not – I’m told she lives in Clinton, but I haven’t seen her in years, though I’ve seen her father several times lately at Presbyterian College baseball games – because it’s Phoenix, Ariz., or Detroit, Mich.

When it’s in your hometown, though, or where you went to college, the odds are better that it really is the person.

I did a lot of squinting Friday night at the Hilton in Greenville, where a bunch of fellow Furman grads were gathering to mingle, play golf and raise money for the football program.

“Monte, you know who I am?”

Squint.

“I think you’re Mike Sanders.”

He shakes hands and puts his left arm on my shoulder.

Whew.

Breaking news. People do change over 30 years. Hair disappears and is sometimes replaced by a different hue. As a general rule, even those who still have the original hair now have less of it. My college years were shaggy times. Some waistlines have narrowed – this probably happens more often with offensive linemen than the general population – and others have widened. Most notably, I fear, mine.

When you watch football games nowadays, it seems as if helmets pop off way too often. How can this be since players seldom wear Afros anymore?

I had a wonderful time. Even though I didn’t play football in college, most of my friends did. I’ve kept in contact with some, but some I hadn’t seen since I left Furman (as sports information director) in 1985.

Of course, we are getting older. The banquet hall consisted about 50 percent of people I knew very well and 50 percent of people I didn’t know at all. Even though I shook hands and exchanged greetings with, oh, dozens, I’m not sure I remember a single name. I think there are some business cards in a jacket pocket.

Beer may have been a factor.

This morning there was a golf tournament. I stopped playing golf when I started playing guitar, so I just drove out to the course and hobnobbed some more. After all the carts puttered away, I chatted with the Furman golf director for a while and headed home.

I’d had little sleep, so I dozed for a while in the easy chair, then fixed some lunch and settled in to alternate between a glorious baseball game in Boston and a crash-filled Truck race in Kansas City.