Clinton, South Carolina, Saturday, September 19, 2015, 12:55 a.m.
One of the reasons I didn’t enjoy covering NASCAR as much in the final few seasons I was traveling with the circus was that it became so formal. More and more, it was journalism by media conference, and it became harder and harder to have personal interactions with the drivers.
My best memories were always personal moments: a talk with Jeff Gordon between the rows of haulers in Fontana, dozens of conversations with Tony Stewart, sharing a golf cart with Jimmie Johnson at an outing near Talladega, and many other scenes when the handlers weren’t hovering nearby.
I didn’t see the end of this morning’s Camping World Truck Series race at Chicagoland. I had just finished visiting my mother and heard John Hunter Nemechek’s victory-lane interview. It made me recall the time I bumped into him and his father at a casino buffet in Las Vegas. I don’t know what year it was, but John Hunter was just a kid, no more than 10 years old or so. Joe was then in his prime as a Cup — it was probably still Winston at the time — driver, and there was some tension between us whose origin I don’t recall. Either he and I had had some minor disagreement in some interview, or maybe it was something I had written, but we sort of eyed each other warily.
Anyway, we had some little conversation that broke the ice. That was always the best way to smooth relations, and Joe introduced me to his son and we wound up eating together, and we parted, not as friends but as friendly.
The reason it’s always John Hunter, not John, Nemechek, is that the driver who won Saturday morning’s race is named after his late uncle, who was killed in a Truck race at what was then Homestead Motorsports Complex. John Nemechek’s death is the chief reason the track was reconfigured. Homestead opened as a scaled-down version of Indianapolis, flat with four distinct turns. The trouble was that a 1.5-mile version of 2.5-mile Indy resulted in transitions that proved dangerous, and those turns were rounded, and banking was increased, to correct the problems that contributed to John Nemechek’s death.
Just hearing the kid’s voice made me recall that long-ago meal at the casino buffet.
Johnson was still a Busch Series (pre-Nationwide and Xfinity) driver when we played golf together. We were getting ready to hit shots when this fellow who was about my size and considerably drunker appeared in the fairway looking for his ball.
“What y’all boys doing tomorrow evening?” the fellow asked.
“Qualifying,” said Johnson.
This did not dissuade the fellow, who was wobbling a bit as he pondered his shot back across a row of trees into the appropriate fairway.
“Wull, when ye get th’ough, come on over to them Lincoln Grandstands,” the man said. “Me and the boy’s’ll be getting druuuuunk.”
“Count on it,” I said, intending to do no such thing but not wanting to make the fellow mad.
Johnson and I were having a few beers, too, but we weren’t in this fellow’s league.
In the early years — I started writing about NASCAR full-time in 1993 — golf tournaments involving media, drivers and friends of drivers were common. The courses started getting nicer. The players started getting richer, and the media started getting excluded, and the same process started applying to interactions between media and drivers. We went from being friends of the sport to being necessary nemeses.
My stories started losing character because they had less characters in them. The same became true of the media itself. When I got asked out to dinner with a driver, my goal was impressions. I wanted to make an impression on them and gain an impression of them. It used to tick me off when my colleagues turned these social functions into “media availabilities” and then when the handlers started setting them up that way.
I’m sure some of them started saying, “look at that Dutton. He’s not even taking notes” and “let’s not invite him next year.”
The reason Stewart and I almost always got along was that the first time I met him was over spaghetti at an Italian restaurant in Dover, Delaware. Let’s just say we both appreciated the other’s sense of humor.
The conversation with Gordon was over the fact that I was writing a book about him that his “people” hadn’t approved, and I wanted him to know that and not through the filter of his “people.” Hendrick Motorsports has lots of “people.” As a general rule, they are buttoned down people.
I told him I didn’t write “official” books.
“I’ve got no desire to depict you as anyone other than the extraordinary talent and person I consider you to be,” I said, “but I guarantee if you or those around you have the right to approve every word, there will be a few of them who say this or that has to come out, and this or that will be the most interesting and entertaining part of the whole book, and the book won’t be any good, and it won’t sell, and I won’t be proud of having written it.”
Gordon said he understood, and the two of us left knowing how each other stood.
Nowadays, I just watch them on TV and read transcripts, but it doesn’t matter all that much because it would be mainly the same way if I was there and didn’t have a camera crew trailing me.
That took lots of the fun out of it from my perspective, and it’s all I can come up with when I think about the unexpected surprise that I don’t much miss being there anymore. The Chase opener will be the 99th consecutive race I haven’t attended.
It’s the kind of streak that doesn’t make it into record books.
I’m happy. I’d be happier if you’d help me make ends meet by buying these novels I write nowadays. There’s only a smattering of racing in them, but there are some good characters. Take a look. http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1