Clinton, S.C., Friday, July 25, 2014, 2:30 p.m.
I think a lot about the way things used to be. You’ll have that with washed-up sports writers. It’s a consequence of age. One looks back more once there’s more to see.
Back in the early nineties, most of us stayed in the same motels. The majority of tracks booked rooms for us, often because it was difficult to find rooms in places like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham if someone didn’t set some aside. Many of the motels were friendly dumps, but they were close to the tracks, and we didn’t do anything in them but sleep and drink beer. I was only vaguely aware that motel points existed, though I was aware of the benefits of frequent flying. Most of the time, we shared rooms.
Coincidentally, the first time I ever had a drink of cognac was in, of all places, North Wilkesboro.
During the first few years of the Brickyard 400, many of us stayed in one of those motels that seemed to have a new name every year. It was within walking distance of the Indianapolis racers’ hangout, Union Jack Pub, and that was before racers stopped hanging out. The motel also had a Mexican joint nearby, and Mexican joints invariably serve cheap beer in very large glasses, which made them well suited to me, Larry Woody, and Jim McLaurin, in particular. The track was easy to reach from there, which was fortunate because sometimes we might not have been inclined to arrive early on race morning.
We got invited to lots of social functions. What were media-driver golf tournaments in the nineties are now titans of industry/driver/charity golf tournaments followed by a fifty-dollars-a-plate dinner. Where it was once a sleeve of Titleists, now it’s a thousand-dollar raffle for a yacht. I played golf back then because I’d have been a fool not to. There were lots of pool parties, a few of which had even been planned. We shot skeet and drank margaritas, or, wait, maybe we shot margaritas and drank skeet. One track gave out free homemade liquor.
Oddly, I remember that clearly.
When NASCAR first came to Indy, in spite of the obligatory dump in which to sleep, we thought we were in high cotton, which I do not think is a word of racial derision in spite of the fact that it contains the word “cotton.” Redskins? An altogether different matter, but it’s apparently all right to be “Braves,” I guess, because they are brave. I’m wearing a cotton shirt, and, when cotton is high, I think there’s a potential to make more of them, most likely in Malaysia.
As usual, I digress.
For about the first ten Brickyard 400s, it never occurred to me that it was a boring race. It wasn’t like Daytona, but neither is Darlington or Richmond or Watkins Glen. I always liked watching a Jeff Gordon or a Dale Jarrett stalk another driver, and, similar to the Indy 500, I just found it exciting to watch the cars dive into turns one and three and drift out to the wall in the short chutes. Two days ago, I watched replays of the races in 1994 and 1998. I still didn’t think they were boring.
I haven’t been to Speedway, Indiana, since 2011. In 2012, my last on the beat, my sister died shortly before the race. I don’t think the racing has gotten more boring, or that it even is. What I think is that the 2008 tire debacle killed the race. People got pissed off, justifiably, and the officials of NASCAR and Goodyear acted like the Habsburg Dynasty instead of the representatives of an activity that relied on working people to succeed.
NASCAR remains in a malaise, and it’s not just the economy, or any of the other bajillion reasons cited. All of them are a part of the reason, but it just went out of style, not to me, not to you, but to the people I see around my hometown. I hear it everywhere, from the nurse taking my blood pressure to the optometrist reviewing the tiny veins and arteries wrapped around my eyes, from a friend’s son playing high school football to a onetime teammate of mine shipping a package at the post office.
“Man, I used to love NASCAR,” they say, over and over, male and female, young and old. “Now I don’t pay any attention to it.”
They never say why. It’s because they don’t know, either. Who knows how and why anything goes out of style? Certainly not NASCAR.