I Hate This Is Happening!

"Yeah, right. Been there, done that. You call that football, son?"
“Yeah, right. Been there, done that. You call that football, son?”

Clinton, S.C., Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 11:49 a.m.

One common experience of advancing age is that one finds himself talking about all sorts of things that others don’t understand. It is intensified because they weren’t yet born when these things happened. Mysteriously, it doesn’t seem as if anyone pays attention to history anymore.

This is just the latest in my continuing series about how the ever-expanding wealth of information paradoxically seems to make the world progressively dumber.

Someone says that LeBron James is “arguably” the greatest basketball player who ever lives. It turns into a LeBron vs. Michael Jordan argument.

“How about Bill Russell? Or Wilt Chamberlain? Or Oscar Robertson?” I ask.

“Well, we never saw them play.” They might as well add “Pops” to the end.

It’s no excuse. The first sports book I ever read was about Mel Ott. He had a rivalry with Chuck Klein, another slugger. They’re both in the Hall of Fame. I know very few people who have heard of them. I never saw them play, but I know that Ott, a left-handed batter, raised his right foot before he swung, just like the famous Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh.

If I told this story, oh, practically anywhere, the reply might be, “Oh?” (I couldn’t resist.)

Part of it, of course, is my fault. I haven’t come to grips with the simple mathematics of being in my 50s. I saw Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, John Unitas, Dick Butkus, Bobby Orr, Rod Laver, Arnold Palmer and Jerry West play. I saw A.J. Foyt, Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, Jackie Stewart and David Pearson race. I saw Willie Shoemaker ride and Secretariat gallop, though not at the same time. I saw Muhammad Ali box.

I only saw newsreels of “The Galloping Ghost” (Red Grange). I remember Jim Brown and Gale Sayers.

The years got away from me. Unitas is as relevant to the kids of today as Grange was to me. The elapsed time is about the same.

But I knew about Grange. I read about “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” which was played during my first year on earth. I knew a home run by Bobby Thomson was “The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff” even though I was born seven years too late. I knew Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games and Cy Young won 511.

Two weeks ago, I watched a ballgame with someone who had never heard of Howard Cosell.

I wonder sometimes if all knowledge about sports today is derived from video games. A kid’s favorite player is as likely to come from “Madden ’13” as the Super Bowl.

What prompted this topic was the fact that a remake of “Brian’s Song” showed up on TV. I had never seen the remake, though the original, a TV movie starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, was a national sensation when I was 13. The remake, starring Sean Maher and Mekhi Phifer, isn’t bad, but it’s the same as most remakes. “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” starring Gary Cooper, was remade as “Mr. Deeds” with Adam Sandler.

That’s about the same as comparing a sonnet to a limerick. Or a sonata to a ditty.

I know, of course, that I’m not objective. Part of my view is that I have greater perspective, but part of it is also that I’m turning into a grumpy old man, ready to pounce on any topic with one of those wearisome clichés like “back in my day!” and dreading the first time he actually hears “keep off my grass!” come out of his mouth.

I still want to be cool, but it’s getting harder and harder to pull off.

Here’s How I Reason with Social Media Season

It's a texting, twittering, multi-tasking world, as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. obviously knows. (John Clark photo)
It’s a texting, twittering, multi-tasking world, as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. obviously knows. (John Clark photo)

Clinton, S.C., Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 9:32 a.m.

I’ve really always been a creature of habit. I had a grandmother who gave me a set of general rules and gently drilled them into me.

“Why, Zona, is this your grandson? What a sweet little boy.”

At which my point, my grandmother would look down and ask, “What must you say?”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

She taught me to save the best for last. Even now, I always do the day’s most boring duties first and save what I most enjoy for last. If the last thing on the list is the one you most want to complete, the odds are greater you will get to it.

When I covered NASCAR, race weekends were assembly lines. I’d do the “busy work” first and save the fun – in my case, that was usually a column – for last.

I take it to an extreme level sometimes. When I eat chicken wings, I always eat the split-bone pieces first and drumsticks last.

Since most of my days begin and end right here nowadays, the habits are really kicking in. My mornings are almost identical. I get up, turn on the TV, put some coffee on, take the morning meds, watch TV while perusing the iPhone and sipping coffee, fix breakfast, have breakfast, play a little guitar and turn on the laptop. Then I check emails, see how many people visited my website yesterday … and write this blog.

The rest of the day varies – I may work on a novel, run errands, cut grass, pay bills or look for jobs – but most evenings involve watching the Boston Red Sox play. I also eat out most evenings, and when I eat alone, which is usually the case, I take a book along so that, even if I don’t get around to it elsewhere, there will be a time in every day when I read. Otherwise, my reading is inversely related to the quality of what else I might be doing. If the Red Sox trail, 6-0, for instance, I read for a while, at the same time passively monitoring TV much the same way one watches it while “tweeting.”

If the Red Sox lead, 6-0, I keep watching the game because I’m hoping they’ll really pile it on. If the Yankees are tied or losing, I’ll check on them from time to time.

Social media, by the way, has the effect of making the rest of the world seem more boring, which is odd since hunting and pecking on a tiny keyboard isn’t exactly the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

There’s an information overload that distracts. I’m not just watching the race. I’m watching the race while monitoring what other people are writing about watching the race. I tweet. I post on Facebook. I read what others post. Meanwhile, the race is going on. It’s much easier to tell what others are thinking while they’re not paying attention. It’s much harder to pay attention. The race seems more boring than it is or might seem otherwise because no one is giving it the attention that insight requires.

This may eventually end spectator sports as we know them. The whole world is watching halfway.

I try to hold up as best I can. I shut down the laptop while the race is on. Otherwise, I might be able to add several more tasks. I don’t pay attention to individual driver channels or what drivers and crewmen are saying on scanner feeds. (I used to do that constantly when I was at the track.) I just watch the race and make observations, many of them satirical in nature. I try not to miss the forest for the trees, so to speak. It’s hard to do from home. I use the Twitter feed as a means of access to items I don’t want to pursue actively.

Twitter is a great name because it is perpetually all atwitter.

There’s Racing, and Then There’s Passing

This, according to Tony Stewart, is just passing. Indy is racing. (John Clark photo)
This, according to Tony Stewart, is just passing. Indy is racing. (John Clark photo)
gg t stewart2 021712
Tony Stewart gets ready to race. (John Clark photo)

I’ve been up about three hours now. I’ve had a cup of coffee, gone through the social media feeds, checked the old email and fixed breakfast. I’ve played a few songs on the guitar and talked over the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 Powered by BigMachineRecords.com with a friend who, like me, watched it on television.

The title had more words than the race had lead changes, or at least those that occurred on the track without something on pit road causing it.

From the perspective of the journalist that I used to be, there are three kinds of race stories: (a.) great race, (b.) great story, and (c.) ones that are really difficult to write. Ryan Newman’s victory had (b.) going for it. The winner was not only a Hoosier but a graduate of a Hoosier college (Purdue University), one who dramatically ended a troublesome stretch and, wonder of wonders, doesn’t have a ride for next year. Now that’s a story that writes itself, as long as one doesn’t provide many troubling details of a race that was sort of like shooting a video of your kids playing musical chairs at kindergarten and then replaying it in fast motion at the next birthday party.

From the contemporary writer’s perspective, it had everything but a respectable Danica Patrick finish. The sport’s champion laureate, Jimmie Johnson, opened the door by suffering an imperfect pit stop. The winning driver’s owner, fourth-place finisher Tony Stewart, took time off from his busy schedule to rake the media for even suggesting that Indianapolis Motor Speedway is not the ideal NASCAR track.

Stewart hissy fits are always enjoyable. I hate I had to rely on a transcript. I’m serious here. I enjoy the spectacle of a Stewart rant. I like it when his eyes start to glow eerily. I’d hate to see what this sport would be like without Wild, Wonderful Tony Stewart in it.

“Look up ‘racing’ in the dictionary and tell me what it says,” Stewart commanded.

I wasn’t there, but, point of information: racing is (1.) a contest of speed, as in running, riding, driving, or sailing; (2.) a series of races, usually of horses or dogs, run at a set time over a regular course; (3.) any contest or competition, especially to achieve superiority; 4. urgent need, responsibility, effort, etc., as when time is short or a solution is imperative; (5.) onward movement; an onward or regular course.

“We’re racing here,” Stewart said. “That’s all I’m going to say. This is racing.”

Of course, it wasn’t all he was going to say.

“If you want to see passing, we can go out on (Interstate) 465 and pass all you want. If you can tell me that’s more exciting than what you see at IMS, the great race-car drivers have competed here. This is about racing. This is about cars being fast. It doesn’t have to be two- and three-wide racing all day long to be good racing.

“Racing is about figuring out how to take the package you’re allowed and make it better than what everybody else has and do a better job with it.

“I’ve seen races that were won by over a lap. I’ve seen 20-second leads here. For some reason, in the last 10 years, everybody is on this kick that you have to be passing all the time. It’s racing, not passing. We’re racing.

“It’s taking machines that are pretty even, package-wise, and let the drivers and teams figure out how to make the difference. I don’t understand where this big kick has come from. We need our guys’ help as much as anybody to remind people this is racing. When somebody does a great job, everybody hates that. I don’t understand that. It baffles me as a race-car driver.”

Got it. It’s racing, not passing. You want passing? Go to Talladega. Stewart made a valid point from the perspective of a driver. There’s that old cliché: I don’t know what race you were watching, but from where I was sitting, it was a great race.

This sentiment, of course, is also true. I would hope that, through the windshield of a car going at an insanely high rate of speed, given the variables and limitations, it would be exciting. I’d hate to hear of a driver falling asleep at the wheel out of boredom. The overriding perception of a race, though, is not from the windshield. It’s from the grandstands and the living rooms. The reason NASCAR is referred to routinely as a spectator sport is that it relies on spectators for prosperity.

I find myself satirizing Stewart’s remarks, but I really do have some sympathy. Stewart is right. The team that masters the conditions wins the race. The Brickyard is an important place. I don’t love Indy as much as Stewart – few love it more – but I do revere the place and find it awe-inspiring. I love watching the cars dive into the turns, but that alone gets monotonous since they do it close to 600 times (allowing for coasting cautions, of course).

I watched the race intently. I tried to pay attention to the nuances of strategy unfolding in front of my eyes.

Still, I required a strong cup of coffee shortly after the halfway point.

The Upgrade’s in the Middle, not the Top

Jimmie Johnson often dives into the turns first, as in this photo from New Hampshire. (Harold Hinson photo)
Jimmie Johnson often dives into the turns first. (Harold Hinson photo)

Clinton, S.C., Sunday, July 28, 2013, 10:17 a.m.

Jimmie Johnson, as hard as this may be to believe, hasn’t won either of the past two Sprint Cup championships. Tony Stewart in 2011 and Brad Keselowski in 2012 notwithstanding, Johnson has still won five of the past seven.

As far as today’s Samuel Deeds 400 (Crown Royal and BigMachineRecords.com are also involved) is concerned, Johnson’s only won four of the past seven. He isn’t starting on the pole, only the front row. Ryan Newman’s starting out front, but as Waylon Jennings used to sing, “It don’t matter who’s in Austin, Bob Wills is still the king.”

Johnson is the bandleader. He’s Bob Wills. Kenseth is the lead singer. He’s Tommy Duncan. The rest of the Texas Playboys are all arranged behind them.

(Less archaic equivalent: Johnson is Mick. Kenseth is Keith. Then the rest of the Stones. Sorry. I’m not conversant enough to analyze Arcade Fire.)

This season has had its usual suspects: Junior, Kyle and Kurt, Danica and Ricky, Smoke, Kez, Carl, Jeff, Happy, Clint, the Biff and others, all whistling while they work each week. So far, the only nominee for Best Actor is Johnson, and the only one up for Supporting Actor is Matt Kenseth. They’ve each won four races, but Johnson has the edge as NASCAR speeds around and around various tracks, somehow in the direction of something called a Chase. The Chase starts in September, but the entire season has been a chase … of Johnson and Kenseth.

Johnson may be up front, but Matt Kenseth isn't far behind. (John Clark photo)
Johnson may be up front, but Matt Kenseth isn’t far behind. (John Clark photo)

Those two have combined to win 42 percent, eight out of 19. It’s not like no one else matters. Nine different drivers have combined to win the other 11, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick winning twice.

But even in the year Richard Petty won 27 out of 49 (1967), 11 other drivers won races. Bobby Allison won six and Jim Paschal four. David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Dick Hutcherson won two apiece.

In terms of who has the fastest car in most races, it’s Johnson, and in terms of who has the fastest in the rest, it’s usually Kenseth. There are more waiting in the wings – more Paschals, if you will – than in 1967, but when it gets right down to it, the biggest difference in the level of competition is in the size of the Cabinet. The president and vice president are firmly in charge.

Hey, it’s Metaphor Morning! That’s three of them, mildly mixed.

Undoubtedly, someone out there is going to read this and write back to me that “back in the old days, guys like Petty used to lap the field.” That’s true. You stick free passes, wave-arounds, and the pitting and caution-flag procedures of today back in 1967, and half the field would be on the lead lap, too, and Petty wouldn’t have won 27 races, not so much because he wasn’t fast and dominant enough but because there would be a greater likelihood that “something would happen,” just as something happens to Johnson from time to time. If the rules of 2013 had been in place in 1967, which admittedly is a little like wondering how drones would have helped in Vietnam, other drivers would have been “waiting in the wings” if and when Petty experienced adversity.

Right now, there really aren’t any more prime contenders than in the past. There are a lot fewer J.D. McDuffies. There are a lot more Jim Paschals.

But it’s just right now. Things could change. Something may happen in the Chase that no one saw coming. Hmm. For some reason, Stewart comes to mind.

Meanwhile, the Brickyard Music Sounds Off Key

This photo is four years old, but I'm confident downtown Indianapolis is still visible from the balcony of the IMS media center.
This photo is four years old, but I’m confident downtown Indianapolis is still visible from the balcony of the IMS media center.

Clinton, S.C., Saturday, July 27, 2013, 3:23 p.m.

As I settle into today’s blog, I’m sort of torn. It’s already edged past mid-afternoon. I’m still basking in the enjoyment of playing music Friday night. I just got back from a morning trip to Columbia, which was interesting and promising, and now I’m back in the living room, watching Sprint Cup cars qualify for the Brickyard (oops, Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds) 400 (Powered by BigMachineRecords.com).

More than ever, “Jamlisco” (that’s a jam at El Jalisco Mexican Restaurant) matched its title. It was more jam than open mic. It was inspirational. Tribute was paid to a talented young woman who lost her life this summer in our town. Several of us took the stage to perform Emily Anna Asbill’s favorite song, “Wagon Wheel.” My friend Chuck Waldron, who was the murdered teen’s tennis coach, played her guitar. My perspective may have been skewed, but I thought the collaboration was very good. Friends of hers also played music. It was the first “Jamlisco” in more than a month, and it was the first time I played music in front of an audience since I got home from Pennsylvania almost a month ago.

As always, the night was saved by the presence of talents greater than mine. My greatest contribution was $25 for chicken tequila and beer. (It wasn’t chicken, tequila and beer. It was the dish “chicken tequila” and beer. I was into a little mischief, but not that much. My father used to say that he liked a drink to “knock the chill off.” I like a few beers before playing music to “knock the nerves off.” It works. Really. It does.)

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is ... stately.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is … stately.

Qualifying was fitting. NASCAR’s visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway is not always exciting, but it is always historic. I saw a tweet by Kris (@Speed505): “Indy is one of the coolest places on earth to attend a race and one of the worst places on earth to watch a race.”

I wish I’d thought of that. I could only “retweet.”

Qualifying at Indy is more interesting than most, but it’s still not, oh, exciting. Like the race in general, though, it is historic, or, rather, was on Saturday. It was Ryan Newman’s 50th pole. Only eight drivers in history have won more.

No one has ever won this race — Cup at the Brickyard — five times. After all, Indy has hosted the cars that carry its name since 1911 but NASCAR only since 1994. In 19 NASCAR races, two drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, have won it four times. In May, Tony Kanaan won the 97th Indianapolis 500, and in its entire history only A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears have won it four times. Now get this. The United States Grand Prix was run at Indy only eight times, and Michael Schumacher won five. The lesson, apparently, is that the fewer the races, the easier the wins.

Nothing NASCAR has done this year seems as popular as running the Camping World Truck Series on dirt at Eldora. That was Wednesday night. Nothing NASCAR has done this year seems less popular than running the Nationwide Series at “the big track” instead of IRP/ORP/LOR (that’s Indianapolis Raceway Park to O’Reilly Raceway Park to Lucas Oil Raceway if you’re keeping score). That was Saturday. The support series dove into the deep, blue sea and somehow found the devil.

It’s hard for me to comprehend how the image of Indy, or at least NASCAR at Indy, has changed. The mindset used to be (a.), okay, so maybe it’s not a great stock car track, but it is a great track; (b.) the atmosphere is unbelievable; and (c.) it’s a great test of driving ability.

Now the mindset isn’t divided into parts. It’s, basically, this sucks.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it sucks, but I think the perception was absolutely poisoned by that 2008 tire disaster. The race may have stalled in fans’ minds before that inane, embarrassing series of “lack of” competition cautions, but it crashed afterwards.

I gained a friend that year. He’s a Texas country-music singer, who was a huge NASCAR fan, and we had a mutual friend who put us in touch when the singer brought his family to the race. The whole family and I had dinner one late afternoon at a Chili’s near Plainfield.

Since then, I’ve gone to see him perform a couple of times in Texas. We’ve even swapped songs at his apartment. He hasn’t been back to Indy. In fact, I don’t think he’s been back to Texas Motor Speedway. The experience apparently turned him against the whole sport.

We still exchange information about music from time to time, though.

Dear Hearts and Gentle People

It's just another day in Clinton, S.C.
It’s just another day in Clinton, S.C.

Clinton, S.C., Friday, July 26, 2013, 11:15 a.m.

Living at home – no, check that, being at home – carries with it certain informal obligations that didn’t often arise when I spent the majority of my time on the road.

For instance, I’ve “stopped by the funeral home” three times in the last month.

For the past 20 years, I’ve spent three quarters of them leaving home on Thursday and getting back Monday night. It varied some – there were times when I left on Wednesday, others when I returned on Sundays – but what I mainly did at home was cut grass, pay bills and wash clothes. Then it was either fill up the trusty vehicle and hit the road or head for the airport. Over 20 years, the travel became commonplace. When it ended, normality seemed strange for a while.

I hadn’t had time for the simple truths of small-town life.

Louie Webb was 91 when he passed away earlier this week. I played football with his son Jimmy in high school. From the time I stopped playing football until four or five years ago, I bought my ticket from Mr. Webb every time I attended a game, which, admittedly, wasn’t that often. Our town doesn’t have an official Ticket Taker, but Mr. Webb was the man who came to mind, both at Clinton High School and Presbyterian College. I can see him now, making change, peeling off tickets, the two of us making small talk all the while.

“You doin’ OK?”

“Just fine, Mr. Webb.”

“Goooood … pull ‘em through, now, you hear?”

He was one of the familiar faces of the town. I don’t think cities have people like that. Everyone has an angle. He (or she) is trying to “move up the totem pole” by doing something that “will look good on the old resume.”

I expect Mr. Webb made a little money on the side, though I don’t know that and wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t. The main reason he was our Ticket Taker, I’m sure, was that he enjoyed it.

I went early and just passed through the line that extended down the hall and out the door of Gray Funeral Home. I’m sure many others visited later, but I saw Cally and Joy Gault – Cally is, I guess you’d say, the athletic director (and certainly football coach) emeritus of Presbyterian College – most of the coaches at Clinton High, and dozens of others I’ve known all my life. I just tried to be comforting, not sorrowful. Mr. Webb lived a long and happy life. I don’t think his death should be perceived as overly sad and said as much to his grieving survivors. He was a good man who lived a long, productive, happy life.

I bought a couple refrigerators from him. His day job, for many years, was at H.D. Payne & Co.

I never bought anything from Dale Earnhardt. Danica Patrick never taught me school. Ryan Newman wasn’t my line coach. I never worked at Tony Stewart’s grocery store. Carl Edwards didn’t go to Furman. Brad Keselowski wasn’t ever a sports editor.

We live in a society based on free enterprise, and what that means is that value is based on scarcity, not importance. I’m amused when I hear “how come that stinkin’ ballplayer makes $10 million a year and I can’t make a living as a police officer?” (Since it’s a police officer, of course, I hide my amusement.) The answer is capitalism. I’m not knocking it. I’m just stating the obvious. A ballplayer makes $10 million because very few can play ball like he does. In the eyes of God, he’s not as important as a policeman, or a teacher, or, for that matter, his coach, but God doesn’t run the New York Stock Exchange or the New York Yankees. His is an uncredited presence. Proxies vote His shares, so to speak.

It’s important, though, that we realize that, while money is one basis of value, it’s not the one that matters. A rich man is no more important than a pauper, and if you think that’s ridiculous, give the New Testament a look.

Apparently, it was someone named John Henry Newman who said virtue is its own reward, but I’d hate to take him out of context, so here’s the full quotation:

“Virtue is its own reward, and brings with it the truest and highest pleasure; but if we cultivate it only for pleasure’s sake, we are selfish, not religious, and will never gain the pleasure, because we can never have the virtue.”

Virtue is important for city folks, too, but it’s just easier to recognize down here in the minor leagues.

Do You Know the Way to San Jose? From Eldora?

Dirt tracks were once common in NASCAR. This photo is from Hillsborough, N.C.
Dirt tracks were once common in NASCAR. This photo is from Hillsborough, N.C.

Clinton, S.C., Thursday, July 25, 2013, 9:45 a.m.

As Maureen McGovern sang, “There’s got to be a morning after.”

The morning after NASCAR’s triumphant return to dirt has left me feeling whimsical. Imagine! Racing stock cars (okay, scaled-down pickup trucks) on dirt! How come nobody thought of that earlier?

At around the turn of the 1970s, NASCAR noticed that dirt was dirty, and for perhaps the next 20 years, the primary ruling body of stock car racing did its best to get stock cars off it. NASCAR couldn’t kill the dirt tracks. Some tracks that had paved in the name of progress progressively went out of business. A few dug up their pavement and went back to dirt. NASCAR couldn’t kill the dirt tracks, which developed a racing subculture all their own. All over this country exist loyal groups of fans, much smaller than the ones who watch Sprint Cup but relevant nonetheless, who think the men and women who race on pavement are, uh, pretty boys (and girls). As last night made doubly obvious, many NASCAR fans have never been to dirt tracks or paid much attention when such races were on TV, but there is a group of feisty dirt-track denizens who go to their local clay cloud every week but wouldn’t watch a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway if they lived across the street. (Charlotte has a dirt track that really is across the street, so, hypothetically, the dirt-track fans across the street wouldn’t be unhappy.)

Last night, watching this curiosity unfold on my high-definition TV, I felt nostalgic. My memory is largely photographic, and as I watched Austin Dillon put another lap on Norm Benning, it was if my mind was running Youtube and Bobby Isaac was roaring past Soapy Castles in the back-straight haze of Greenville-Pickens Speedway. The two scenes, separated by 45 years, looked remarkably alike.

As the Statler Brothers sang in “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?”: “Tex Ritter’s gone and Disney’s dead, and the screen is filled with sex!”

Disney wasn’t dead Wednesday night. It appeared to remind many on social media of “Fantasia.”

Based on my experience at dirt tracks, the racing was ungainly. Compared to sprint cars, midgets, Late Models and dirt modifieds (my favorite on dirt, by the way), Camping World Trucks might as well have had, uh, camper shells on the back. On second thought, though, the stock cars of Isaac, Petty and Bobby Allison were fairly ungainly on dirt back in 1968.

The race had relatively few lead changes, which isn’t at all to suggest that it wasn’t exciting. It affirmed one of my long-held beliefs: lead changes are an imperfect way to judge the quality of an automobile race. Some of the best NASCAR races I’ve ever seen, particularly at Bristol and Darlington, featured few lead changes. Something I once heard Bruton Smith say comes to mind: “One of the problems at lots of these tracks is that, when one car passes another, the two cars aren’t within five yards of each other.” One of the appealing aspects of Eldora was the traffic. It wasn’t just that they were close but rather that they were wiggling, squirming and bumping all over the place.

The fans love it, but will it have staying power? The fans loved it when NASCAR first raced at Indy. Now they talk about the Brickyard as if it were toxic. Many of the fans who used to disparage road courses now say, “why, that’s where the real racing is.”

A dirt track is never going to be well suited to so-called “hospitality,” which doesn’t mean “being neighborly” anymore but “place where rich folks’ asses are kissed.” Someone noted that NASCAR president Mike Helton, appearing on the Speed set to slurp up some of the credit, seldom wears yellow shirts. I replied that his shirt was white when he got there. When I go to dirt tracks – and, yes, I’m charged up to do so this Saturday night – I wear goggles because, with contact lenses in, I would otherwise feel as if tiny clay missiles were being fired at my eyeballs.

A dirt track is fun because the racing is rousing, but it’s also fun because the crowd at a weekly track resembles that of a pro-wrestling show. They’s a good bit of drankin’ what goes on. A bedraggled fellow in overalls keeps staggering around, shaking his fist at somebody every time his car roars by. It seems that, between the tornadoes of dust, lots of similar phrases reach the ears in bits and snatches.

“By God, I’ll tell you what …”

“He’ll get his ass whupped if he don’t watch it.”

“You ain’t much of a man if you pull for that (so-and-so).”

“Whatuh (heck) you mean by that, you (undesirable person)?”

Just watch. Enjoy. Do not engage. Try not to laugh too obviously. Fights sometimes occur. Bail bondsmen seldom lobby for the closing of dirt tracks.

I apologize for loving it now. I apologize for loving it when I was about six years old watching modifieds race at a Greenwood, S.C., dirt track that has now been a parking lot for approximately 45 years.

What happens next? Does NASCAR try to capitalize on the deafening buzz? Are we looking at “Wednesday Night at the Races” becoming to the future what “Friday Night Fights” was to the past?

Mark the Date Brian France Invents the Dirt Track

Clinton, S.C., Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 10:19 a.m.

NASCAR racing has many facets, but there is no greater divide than the gulf between a Wednesday-night Truck race near Rossburg, Ohio, and a Sunday-afternoon Cup race in the aptly-named Indianapolis neighborhood of “Speedway.”

Seating capacity is a subject of some debate at both venues, but recent best guesses hold that Eldora Speedway holds around 17,000 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway 260,000. In other words, Indy is five times as large as Eldora in terms of length but 15 times larger in capacity. On the other hand, Eldora will be jam-packed, and Indy sparsely populated. I expect that Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at the Brickyard will lack little other than tumbleweeds as evidence of vacancy.

Step right up! Good seats remain!

Getting back to Eldora, early in my career, I covered a lot of dirt racing. It’s been amusing to take in the musings of former colleagues who have never seen it in a setting other than this rather exaggerated one. “Look at the tires! They have grooves!” I keep seeing photos of the surface on social media, as in, “Really – and I am NOT kidding – this track is actually made of … dirt!”

The Blaneys, father and son, at Eldora (Paul Arch photo).
The Blaneys, father and son, at Eldora (Paul Arch photo).

Over the years, while covering NASCAR races, I’ve made my share of side trips to short tracks. I haven’t done it recently because, since Jim McLaurin and Rick Minter preceded me in disappearing from the circuit, I haven’t had any close friends interested in going. Some of the colleagues who sneered at a trip to the old Manzanita (near Phoenix) or 311 (near Martinsville) are now treating this jamboree of the Camping World Trucks as if it is something new, exciting and completely different.

I doubt this is going to be a really great dirt race. Too many of the racers will be amateurs. I doubt there will be a lot of passing. Indications are that it will lack the gaudy power slides common to races among cars designed with dirt in mind.

But I do enjoy dirt tracks, and I expect to enjoy this race. Even though it may not be an artistic success, it will be interesting to see what happens.

I imagine a NASCAR media guide 10 years from now:

2013: NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Brian Z. France invents dirt-track racing.

Don’t laugh. In 2004, after the first Chase, NASCAR issued a fact sheet noting that Kurt Busch’s Nextel Cup title marked the closest championship race “in the history of the current points system.”

Also, of course, the only championship race in the history of the “current” system, which had been invented (legitimately) a year earlier.

NASCAR has tacitly claimed credit for HANS Devices and SAFER Barriers, both of which were in use elsewhere before the self-proclaimed Masters of Marketing got their hands on them.

Given its past, NASCAR believes in manifest destiny. This dirt race is going to be as great a success as roughly 17,000 seats and Speed on a Wednesday night will allow. Do you think NASCAR officials are going to say, “Hmm. Well, that was fun, but one was enough.”

Ten years from now, NASCAR may run dirt-track racing, a prospect that chills me to the bone.

Then, it won’t seem so unrealistic. Some people will actually believe NASCAR invented dirt tracks.

It’s a Dirty Track, but Someone’s Got to Clean It

Ryan Newman is one of two Sprint Cup regulars racing at Eldora on Wednesday night. Dave Blaney is the other. (NASCAR/Getty Images)
Ryan Newman is one of two Sprint Cup regulars racing at Eldora on Wednesday night. Dave Blaney is the other. (NASCAR/Getty Images)

Clinton, S.C., Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 11:15 a.m.

Lost in all the hubbub surrounding the Camping World Truck Series’ visit to Eldora Speedway is this. The trucks are running bias-ply tires on the dirt.

Here’s an interesting use of the language from the weekly Goodyear release: “ … these tires have a block-style tread pattern to help evacuate the dirt, not a ‘slick’ or smooth tread.”

All right, let’s move along, dirt. Line up in an orderly fashion for the evacuation.

Many Truck Series regulars have little experience racing on dirt, but Ken Schrader, who was on Speed’s “Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain” Sunday night, thinks leaving the pavement won’t be as drastic as some think.

“When Tony (Stewart, Eldora Speedway owner) first started doing the Prelude (to the Dream), there were a lot of guys who went there that didn’t have much dirt experience, either, and they picked it up quick,” Schrader said. “These guys are so used to these vehicles, I think they’re going to adapt pretty quick.

“You can’t run them sideways like you get to watch all the good, fun dirt cars do. You’re not going to be able to run the trucks that much sideways, but I guess, if I was going to tell them one thing, if you think you’ve got a foot between you and the wall, maybe you ought to just leave two and a half.”

Schrader thinks himself a contender but doesn’t expect a victory by a “dirt-track ringer” like Scott Bloomquist.

“I think some of the guys who have experienced dirt will run pretty good, but the regulars will figure it out,” Schrader said. “We have four hours of practice Tuesday night (July 23) and an hour and a half of practice before we qualify Wednesday, so I think the regulars will be good.

“It’s just like the old days when all the road race ringers came into the Cup Series. They always ran good, but it was always one of the regulars who was sitting in victory lane.”

Schrader, now 58, has won two Sprint Cup, two Nationwide and one Camping World Truck race in a NASCAR career that began in 1984. Of course, when Schrader won in Cup, it was Winston, Nationwide was Busch and Camping World was Craftsman.

11:46 a.m.

Word arrives, from one of the world’s more exalted titles (Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Daily/Global/Journal), that NBC is in and ABC/ESPN and TNT out as NASCAR television provider, along with Fox, beginning in 2015.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …

My first thought: ‘SportsCenter’ won’t be much use …

My second thought: I’m sure all parties will retain Larry McReynolds’ services and everything will be mainly unchanged.

My third thought: You’ve never seen lamer ducks than ABC/ESPN and TNT next year.

I’m probably more inclined to trust Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Daily/Global/Journal than Bubba Joe’s Junior Nation/NASCAR Racin’ Swamp People.

Call me a snob.

12:08 p.m.

Oh, about 20 years ago, Humpy Wheeler tried something novel on a little oval behind the back straight of Charlotte Motor Speedway. He tried to simulate dirt by covering asphalt with … soap flakes.

The noble experiment failed, and CMS was without a dirt track until the stadium layout was erected across the street from the big track’s front straight in 2000.

I’ve always thought that was Wheeler’s quintessential innovation: trying to make dirt clean.

Humpy was always willing to take a chance, and the sport progressed. Now everyone plays it safe, and the sport declines.

12:14 p.m.

I just checked to see what was on Speed.

“Hooters International Swimsuit Pageant.” A sign of things to come?

Indy Week Gets a Coat of Dirt

I once saw No. 43 win on dirt, but it was Richard Petty in 1968.
I once saw No. 43 win on dirt, but it was Richard Petty in 1968.

Clinton, S.C., Monday, July 22, 2013, 10:08 a.m.

In spite of a hefty blast of promotional rocketry from the friendly folks at ESPN/ABC, NASCAR’s annual visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway seems about as appealing to many fans as colonoscopy prep.

Okay, maybe just the male fans.

Judging from the customized fiber-optic impulses that flow into my virtual world, the big race is Wednesday night at a dirt track in Ohio.

The trucks are racing at Eldora! Happy. Happy. Joy. Joy. One consequence is going to be the application of whatever the numbers are to the days when NASCAR’s best – not trucks, but the predecessor that is now grandly and gloriously Sprint Cup – raced on the dirt.

I’m happy Trucks – yes, those Camping World-promoting Trucks – are making a stop at Tony Stewart’s house of wind-blown claymation, Eldora Speedway, which is listed as Rossburg, Ohio, but is actually located in a place distant from anywhere. Stewart should use his political clout to get the nearby crossroads, undoubtedly unincorporated, changed to Buckeye Corners, or Smokestack Gulch, or Hooterville. David Poole and I went there for USAC sprints and midgets one time on a Brickyard weekend. When we stopped to ask directions, it got to the point where I felt sure I was about to hear “all right, then, you drive, oh, pert’ near a country mile, make a left on the next paved road, and …”

That little trip was a long time ago, when Earl Baltes still owned the famed speeddrome. Since then, many NASCAR reporters have ventured to “quaint Eldora” for Stewart’s annual amateur night with the late models. This, I suspect, constitutes the entire dirt-track-watching career of many writers and even a few broadcasters.

As a kid, I twice saw NASCAR’s top division race on dirt at Greenville-Pickens Speedway before the half-mile track was paved in 1970. Richard Petty won both (in 1968). I generally went to Darlington once a year – high-school football on Labor Day stole the Southern 500 after 1970 – but Greenville-Pickens, located at the Upper State Fairgrounds on U.S. 123 between Greenville and Easley (which is in Pickens County) was really my regular haunt and stomping grounds. I stomped around, often in the infield, for Grand National, Grand American, Grand National East and National Sportsman races there, most of them 200 laps/100 miles. Sometimes, if I could find a ride, I’d even watch Jeff Hawkins, Buddy Howard and Johnny Allen duel in the regular Saturday-night programs.

I still like dirt tracks, though I haven’t yet visited the one nearby this year. Who knows? Maybe this Saturday night before the Brickyard. I’d probably be willing to bet that the weekly outlaws at Laurens County Speedway will put on at least as competent a show as the pavement-prepped truckers of Eldora.

That is, unless … Scott Bloomquist wins.

Or maybe I’ll go to Greenville-Pickens. I haven’t been there in 10 years. It really depends on whether or not I can find a friend to tag along.

Meanwhile, away from the ranch – surely there’s one or two near Eldora – there’s this Sprint Cup race that is supposed to be one of the season’s highlights.

It’s funny how public opinion changed. I’m pretty sure you can place the, uh, line of demarcation at July 27, 2008, when Jimmie Johnson won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the second of four times to date. It was the day of the tire debacle, when tires popped like helium balloons and Goodyear and NASCAR officials behaved as if they were inhaling said helium.

Follow the yellow brick road.

The attendance of that race was estimated – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – at 240,000. That race was known as the Allstate 400. Last year’s race, the Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400, again won by Johnson, listed 125,000.

This year’s race is the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400. In the aftermath of Eldora, it’ll be “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” (For non-Frank Capra and Gary Cooper fans, the modern remake was simply “Mr. Deeds.”)

Nowadays, of course, abashed NASCAR doesn’t even list crowd estimates, which hasn’t stemmed the decline in attendance but has virtually eliminated winking, winking, nudging and nudging.

Say no more. (If you’ve never watched Monty Python, this is the point of the blog where you have no clue. My apology.)

I happen to like NASCAR races at Indy. Perhaps it’s just a quirk of mine. I like tracks that are difficult, with an emphasis on places where the cars run routinely close to walls. It’s why I adore Darlington. At Indy, it gets my juices flowing to watch Cup cars dive into the first (or third) turn, drift up against the wall on the short chute and then dive back into turn two (or four) to zip down the long straight.

Some places are great because it’s easy to pass. Darlington and Indy are great because it’s hard.

I even like qualifying at the Brickyard. I’d tip the band to see it done like the Indy 500, with the order determined by a four-lap average, not just one hot lap.

I’d probably hate missing Indy more if I hadn’t missed it last year. My sister passed away right before I was scheduled to leave.

What I love about the Speedway is the atmosphere. The huge museum in the infield is “can’t miss.” There are only three places where I’ve felt as if I could see ghosts: Fenway Park, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Ohio Stadium (only been there once, and not for a game, but I swear I saw Hopalong Cassidy catch a pass).

I went to Indy to write about Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, but I always thought about Bill Vukovich, A.J. Foyt and Rodger Ward.

As far as seeing the race, there won’t be much change. I’ll be forced to base my observations on what TV chooses to reveal. On the one hand, if I was there, I’d have access to real, live people. On the other hand, watching the race on TV is less distracting at home than the gossipy hum of Indy’s sprawling, glassed-in media center.

Then there’s that saving grace of the whole year.

I own guitars.