The Endless Variety of Sport

Big Diamond Raceway in Pennsylvania. (Monte Dutton photo)

Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, July 20, 2017, 11:15 a.m.

A lot is going on for a Thursday. Some of that is holdover from last night, when Matt Crafton won the annual indelicacy known as the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Raceway, near Rossburg, Ohio, which isn’t very near anywhere.

I never went to Eldora for a Truck race. The late David Poole and I drove over from Indianapolis one time to watch USAC midgets race there, and while I’d like to see the NASCAR trucks race in person, given one race to see there, I’d pick almost anything else: sprints, midgets, Silver Crown, dirt mods, late models, all racing vehicles designed to be more supple on dirt.

By Monte Dutton

Still a good show, though, particularly if one enjoys madcap antics.

What do I remember? More than anything else, I remember that the track has kind of a rocky plain behind the back straight, and when the national anthem was played, a cowboy on horseback cantered back and forth, waving a large American flag. Rossburg, Ohio, isn’t Tombstone, Arizona, or Deadwood, South Dakota, or Dodge City, Kansas, but it could’ve been that night.

The place was packed that night, too, but I’m sure it has more seats now. David and I sampled the race-track food, breathed the dirt, and had a grand time. The trip was also valuable for the conversations we had on the way over and back.

Over the years, I’ve seen my fair share of dirt tracks: Cherokee, Riverside (different name now, I hear), I-85 (no more), Laurens County here in South Carolina; 311 in Madison, North Carolina; Manzanita (no more) in Phoenix; Grandview and Big Diamond in Pennsylvania; and a few others that don’t come to mind at the moment.

Complete Supply of Ink and Toner Cartridges

The Red Sox close a homestand, and they’re headed to the West Coast to take on the Angels and Mariners, and that makes this “a getaway day,” so the last of four games against the Blue Jays is this afternoon at Fenway Park.

Jacoby Ellsbury. once Carmine, is now a Bomber. (Monte Dutton photo)

On Tuesday night, rain delayed the second game, and then Hanley Ramirez waited until there was one out in the 15th inning before he decided to hit a game-winning homer, so I’m still recovering from that.

Entering this game, Boston leads Tampa Bay by three games and, more importantly, New York by four and a half. It’s always dangerous to lead the Yankees shortly after the All-Star Break, and, sure enough, the Raging Capitalists just gained access to half the White Sox. Really free enterprise also gained the Red Sox the use of Pablo Sandoval, who wound up being a luxury car with an oil leak so severe that the Sox junked it.

‘Tis a strange Red Sox team: last in the American League in home runs, first in earned-run average, fifth in runs scored, one of the better outfields I have ever seen.

If you’ve got a decent British accent, it’s The Open Championship. If you’re saddled with my South Carolinian brogue, it’s the British Open, but, whatever, it’s my favorite golf tournament.

This year it’s at Royal Birkdale, which has always been north of Liverpool, or at least since 1889, but wasn’t awarded “royal status” until 1951, and that undoubtedly signaled its entry into the “Open rotation” three years later.

I like watching golfers try to get out of ridiculous bunkers and pesky flora with names like heather and gorse.

I like it, every now and then, for the greatest golfers in the world to play occasionally like I used to.

 

 

(Steven Novak design)

Ever since I started writing fiction, fans have asked me to write a novel about stock car racing. I kept it a secret while I was working on it. Now it’s out. Lightning in a Bottle is the story of the next big thing, 18-year-old Barrie Jarman.

(Steven Novak cover design)

Stop by L&L Office Supply, 114 North Broad Street, Clinton and buy one of my novels. Buy Cowboys Come Home, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, Crazy of Natural Causes, The Intangibles, and/or a volume of my short stories, Longer Songs. They’re all signed and reasonably priced. Lightning in a Bottle will be in stock shortly.

Signed copies of Lightning in a Bottle are also available at Emma Jane’s, 105 East Main Street on the Square, Clinton.

(Jennifer Skutelsky cover design)

If you’d like me to ship you a signed copy, you can find my address and instructions here. If you want to speed the process up, send me a note and I’ll hook you up with my PayPal account.

(Cover design by Jennifer Skutelsky)
(Cover design by Jennifer Skutelsky)

Kindle versions – you don’t have to have a Kindle, just a free app for your electronic devices – of most of my books are available here. Links to print copies are below.

(Joe Font cover design)

Cowboys Come Home is my brand-new, fresh-off-the-press western, a tale of two World War II veterans of the Pacific who come back home to Texas, intent on resuming their cowboy ways.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses is a tale about a crooked politician who wants to be governor, whatever it takes, and another man trying to stop him. It’s outrageous.(Melanie Ryon cover design)

Crazy of Natural Causes is about the fall and rise of Chance Benford, a Kentucky football coach who reinvents himself. It’s original.

The Intangibles is about the South in the 1960s, complete with racial strife, bigotry, resentment, cultural exchange and, of course, high school football.

(Crystal Lynn cover photo)
(Crystal Lynn cover photo)

The Audacity of Dope is the tale of Riley Mansfield, a pot-smoking songwriter turned national hero with a taste for the former and a distaste for the latter.

Longer Songs is a collection of 11 short stories that all began in songs I wrote.

Follow me at Facebook (Monte.Dutton), Twitter (@montedutton), Google+ (MonteDuttonWriter) and/or Instagram (Tug50).

It’s a Dirty Sport, but Somebody’s Got to Watch It

Now this guy, Ned Jarrett, knew how to race on dirt. (Ford Motor Company)
Now this guy, Ned Jarrett, knew how to race on dirt. (Ford Motor Company)

Gotta go...to an indie bookstore!

Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, July 23, 2015, 9:44 a.m.

My memory is mostly photographic. If you ask about some NASCAR incident, I won’t remember it by fact but by image. I’ll have to look up the facts, but, in my mind, I’ll see a wreck, say, and I’ll know where it was because of the perspective of the image or because I see “Talladega” or “Atlanta” on the wall behind my image of cars crashing.

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

So my memory of attending NASCAR races on the then-dirt of Greenville-Pickens Speedway involves the smoky image of Richard Petty roaring into the turn in a Plymouth Road Runner, and I’ll know those races were in 1968, and I can see that lovely Petty blue blended with the swirl of the red clay dust. The track was paved in 1969, and my image of Bobby Isaac driving the K&K Insurance Dodge Charger to victory is unclouded by having to squint to see it on the back straight.

Big Diamond Raceway in Pennsylvania. (Monte Dutton photo)
Big Diamond Raceway in Pennsylvania. (Monte Dutton photo)

While I covered NASCAR, there were no dirt tracks, but I sometimes traveled nearby to watch the masters slip and slide. Jim McLaurin and Rick Minter accompanied me to 311 Speedway in Madison, North Carolina, near Martinsville, Virginia, and Len Thacher and I spent a marvelous night at Grandview Speedway in Pennsylvania. I drove alone from Pocono to Big Diamond to watch USAC Sprints, and David Poole and I drove over to Eldora to watch Midgets back before Earl Baltes sold the place to Tony Stewart. The mental snapshots of all those trips are vivid.

Bobby Isaac (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)
Bobby Isaac (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

My trips got rarer when I ran out of people who’d go with me, and now I find it amusing that a few Truck races at Eldora have turned all my colleagues who wouldn’t have gone to a dirt track with a gun on them into boosters declaring them the greatest of them all.

Back then, they wouldn’t have gone to a dirt track for Marriott Points.

I suspect many of dirt-track racing’s great media champions have never been to one that isn’t named Eldora.

It was a grand show last night, but the racing wasn’t any better than when I watched Billy Hicks win at 311 or Steve Francis capture the Shrine Race at nearby Laurens Speedway.

Curtis Turner (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)
Curtis Turner (Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

Plus, I watched it on TV. I expect many of those now hyperventilating watched it on TV, too, albeit from the refuge of the Eldora media center, where they had tighter access than I to all the glowing remarks from drivers who have less experience racing on dirt than they have watching it.

The true fan test of appreciating dirt-track racing isn’t from the living room. It’s better in person, and it’s better when most of the drivers have a clue about how to do it.

Christopher Bell's celebratory dust-out.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Christopher Bell
Christopher Bell’s celebratory dust-out. (Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Christopher Bell

I’m neither surprised nor displeased that a dirt tracker, Christopher Bell, won the Mud Summer Classic. Nor am I surprised that the Dillon brothers, Austin and Ty, did well, because the first time I saw either of Richard Childress’s grandsons race was at 311 Speedway.

One of the reasons dirt tracks fell off the NASCAR radar screen was growth. The box score lists the attendance at one of those long-ago Petty victories at 7,200, which was a packed house at Greenville-Pickens. NASCAR left the dirt tracks, though, because they were untidy and NASCAR wanted races that were tidy.

When I go to a dirt track, I wear safety glasses or goggles because I also wear contact lenses, and without protection, it feels not unlike having thousands of tiny needles fired at my eyeballs.

USAC Sprint cars at Big Diamond. (Monte Dutton photo)
USAC Sprint cars at Big Diamond. (Monte Dutton photo)

If it’s hot — and when isn’t it? — do not wear a white shirt to a dirt track. It will never be white again.

The last time Minter and I drove down to Madison, on the Saturday night before a Martinsville Sprint Cup race, the next morning I drove to the race before the sun came up, and I left it long after the sun went down. The next morning, when I drove home, I noticed people gaping at my Honda, the one I still drive, and discovered it was no longer blue but rust-colored. It had red clay caked all over it. I pulled off the highway in Salisbury and ran it through a car wash lest I feel compelled to live out of it.

It’s worth it. Dirt tracks are great, but they’re not for the casual watcher (someone wisely pointed out to me the other day that “casual fan” is as much a contradiction in terms as “tail end” or “forward bite”) or the captain of industry. They are uncouth places to “wine and dine.” Dust is a much better condiment for hot dogs than sushi.

You got your dirt-track fans right here. (Monte Dutton photo)
You got your dirt-track fans right here. (Monte Dutton photo)

Many of NASCAR’s present-day movers and shakers are out of their elements at Eldora, though they are able to tough it out in the comfort of their refuges from the dust and smoke.

The race is a nice, little diversion. It’s quaint.

A year ago, when Kyle Larson’s truck spent more time on the wall than off it — one of the TV announcers actually said he hit it 433 times, and I laughed so hard — you would have thought he’d not only done it by design but because he possessed more skill than Curtis Turner.

Me? I thought it was embarrassing.

Once upon a time, it was not unusual for NASCAR's finest to race on dirt  ... or know how. From top, Buddy Arrington, David Pearson, and Cecil Gordon.
Once upon a time, it was not unusual for NASCAR’s finest to race on dirt … or know how.

Trucks are unwieldy on dirt. Stock cars are unwieldy on road courses. It’s part of their charm, but the allure of real dirt-track racing isn’t charm. It’s control of the uncontrollable, in addition to power, boldness, courage, and skill.

I enjoyed the race, too, but if I really want to see racing that will blow my mind, I’ll go to Laurens Speedway on Saturday night.

Of course, I doubt I will. I won’t be able to find anyone to go with me. To paraphrase one of my favorite stanzas from the philosopher Tom T. Hall, they might pat your fanny and say you’re a dandy, but they still don’t like dirt tracks in Daytona Beach.

 

My new novel, Crazy of Natural Causes, has one small reference to a trip to Talladega, but mainly it’s crazy in other ways. Please take a look at it here: http://www.amazon.com/Crazy-Natural-Causes-Monte-Dutton-ebook/dp/B00YI8SWUU/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1436215069&sr=1-1&keywords=Crazy+of+Natural+Causes

Most of my previous books, some of which are about racing, are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

 

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.