Somewhere in Those Trees, There’s Still a Forest

(Getty Images for NASCAR)

Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, January 30, 2018, 10:45 a.m.

The past 25 years – the ones that my job led me to follow NASCAR closely – have made the sport much more appealing to the mind than the heart.

This is true of all sports.

By Monte Dutton

Fans watch the races on TV with the network on the high-definition big-screen, following Timing & Scoring on the laptop and the Twitter feed on the cell. It’s possible for information overload to occur. It’s possible to watch so much that it’s impossible to see.

This is unscientific. It’s the whole point.

The decline in NASCAR’s popularity is linked to the decline of passion.

My friends who used to talk to me about nothing but NASCAR – because they knew I wrote about it for a living – now talk to me about how little they care about it anymore. They check on the races where they used to watch every lap. I notice it more now that I seldom go to the track. I didn’t stop going because I stopped loving it, though, back when my newspaper job was eliminated, the grind was getting old. A few years have passed, and my interest has perked up again. It was too big a part of my life to go away forever.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth (Getty Images for NASCAR)

One NASCAR flaw is that it monitors carefully the people who still love it, and it ought to be monitoring carefully the people who stopped.

People who had been saying it wasn’t the same since Dale Earnhardt died now have the convenient opportunity to say it won’t be the same now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has retired. It’s good that Junior will be on TV a lot in the second half of the season.

As significant as Junior has been, one man does not a sport make. The trick now is to prevent his retirement from speeding the decline. Decline is a car that can’t go any faster if racing is to survive and prosper again.

Many years ago, 1988-92, I attended the Indianapolis 500, all but one of those years as a fan, not a journalist. I noticed that Indy-car fans were more interested in technology than people, and that NASCAR fans were more interested in people than technology. In the stands at Indy, the fans were less boisterous in support of their drivers unless they were named Foyt and Andretti, and even with those legends, then fading into the twilight, it was more reverence than passion.

I loved NASCAR for a season and Indy for a week.

Carl Edwards (Jerry Markland/Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

Perhaps now that I am older, I yearn for the enthusiasm of youth. I want to find the passion in my soul again. It may well be impossible. That’s the way nostalgia is.

But I’m looking.

I dream of 200-lappers at Greenville-Pickens and 367 laps at Darlington. I recall conversations with Harry Gant. I remember an Italian dinner with Tony Stewart and the first time I met Carl Edwards. Oddly, both occurred in Dover, about five years apart. I remember playing golf near Talladega with Jimmie Johnson and the time in Michigan that Brad Keselowski showed up to watch me sing and play guitar.

I remember those human interactions much more vividly than any of those hundreds and hundreds of races that all run together.

Tony Stewart (Monte Dutton photo)

I was fortunate, of course. Most fans don’t get the opportunity to know their heroes from dozens of interviews and conversations.

People I’d see in social engagements used to find out what I did for a living, and when they’d introduce themselves, they’d say, “So, do you know Earnhardt?”

I’d say, “Well, I’m not sure many people really know him, but I see him most every week.”

People in Joanna would say they drank beer with Earnhardt “back before he was big,” when he went deer hunting in Sumter National Forest instead of elk hunting in British Columbia. Earnhardt got too big for Joanna.

Now everybody is. The clock can’t be turned back, but, somehow, somebody’d better try. One of the great losses is authenticity.

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About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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