I Had to Think It Through

At Pocono in 2004. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, April 25, 2017, 10:50 a.m.

I first saw it on Twitter at roadandtrack.com. I thought it was a fake. I thought it was one of those stories where they made the website look like something reputable and then ran a head that said, “Hillary Clinton Using Slave Labor at Nigerian Brothel.” Then the writing would be so bad that I’d know it was ersatz.

By Monte Dutton

The story looked okay. The website looked like it might really be Road & Track. Other hastily thrown-together articles showed up on the timeline.

It’s real. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring at year’s end.

I’m going to be about the 100th person in my cast of Twitter followers alone to write that I was surprised but not astonished. I get asked about Earnhardt Jr.’s future almost every week on the South Carolina Network’s SportsTalk show, where I generally appear every Friday night at 7:30 EDT (EDT being the standard reference in the Palmetto State).

(Harold Hinson/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

I kept saying that it was too early to tell whether or not he had fully recovered from his concussion protocols. When he had his one decent finish to date, I said maybe it was a good sign. Like many, I watched Monday’s rained-out race in Bristol, and, when Earnhardt wrecked, I thought, Well, just another brick in the wall.

Many people will be surprised when I tell you the one word that comes to mind when three words – Dale Earnhardt Junior – flash into my head.

Earnhardt is a folksy, modestly educated North Carolina kid who learned much about fame from having a famous daddy. As amazing as it may seem, the word that occurs to me is …

… Civilized.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. masters the Talladega draft. (Harold Hinson/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

Junior is more civilized than his contemporaries. Maybe it’s because he is the son of a hard man who provided his son with examples but not lessons. The son had to learn how to think, observe, and analyze. All racers — many of whom today have lived either comfortable or sheltered lives, and, quite often, both — graduate from the School of Hard Knocks … literally. Not everyone makes the best of his degree. Junior must have concentrated on the liberal arts.

He understands how the world turns. He understands how the media work. So many people use the word “humble” with such reckless abandon. Most times an athlete says “I’m humbled,” he is nothing of the sort. Nothing about great achievement instills humility. Adversity instills humility.Complete Supply of Ink and Toner Cartridges

Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost his fierce, legendary father, which is bad enough in itself, but devastating particularly in the timing of the son’s loss. Their relationship had been complicated. Now they were both competing together, father and son, and against each other, man against man. Love had lost many of its conditions.

Phoenix. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)

In 2001, before any of what followed happened, I was struck by how happy both Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were. I was there when both raced yellow Corvettes in the Rolex 24. I was in a dinner line when The Intimidator picked up an extra set of silverware and provided one to me. That may not sound like much, but I would not have been more surprised had Earnhardt raised a sword and dubbed me Sir Monte of Dutton. He also high-fived me. People high-five me every day. Not Intimidators, though. Dale Earnhardt was very much alive, and no one thought that was going to change, and I still thought Speedweeks in Daytona was getting awfully weird.

I went to the funeral. I traveled to cold Rockingham for a collective temperament that was even colder. I was in Atlanta when Kevin Harvick won in the Great Man’s car, tastefully renumbered.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives to victory in the first of two Can-Am Duel races. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett for Chevy Racing)

More pity did I feel for Dale Earnhardt Jr. than had I for the loss of his legendary father.

Now, I feel great. I’ll miss him, but I don’t think he will miss it. He might miss it as much as I miss 10 months of flights, missed, delayed, canceled, and rerouted; rental cars, good, bad, inappropriate, and balky; traffic jams, Atlanta, LA, D-FW, and, occasionally, tracks; and those special occasions when I’d get cussed out by a man who hadn’t read the story about which he was perturbed.

Earnhardt Jr. with Jeff Gordon. (John Clark photo)

I miss it now. After four years. I missed high school football after four years, too, and it was also hell. I miss it so much now that I wrote a novel about it, and I turned its hero into the essence of what I think stock car racing needs. Barrie Jarman isn’t righteous, either to himself or God. He’s a brash kid who has an accurate estimation of how good he is, which is very.

No intention was involved, but a little, and by that, I mean, just a touch, of Junior may have seeped into my latest prose.

Like Kyle Petty, Junior wasn’t as good as his daddy. Like Kyle Petty, Junior is every bit the man, and, in both cases, it’s because the son had enough sense to follow his own dreams and take his own course. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt were vivid products of their generation. So, too, were their sons.

It’s going to take someone living and breathing, not a creation of a hero in fiction, to raise this next generation. Barrie Jarman is as close as I can get.

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).

They Both Wore Their Own Kinds of Hats

The high banks won’t be the same. (Monte Dutton photo)
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Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, January 11, 2017, 11:58 a.m.

Here’s what Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have in common, and it’s not much.

By Monte Dutton

Both, when they arrived at NASCAR’s highest level, were a sportswriter’s dream, and some of those then in the business couldn’t wait to tear them apart.

Tony arrived in 1999, more a white tornado than Ajax Cleaner.

“Ajax is the one with more ammonia!” as the ads said.

I was closer to the battlefield than most. I think we got along because we were both incurable smartasses. I was writing a book about Tony. That book would have been better if it was all I had to do, but there was this piddling matter of having to write three newspaper stories a day from the track. Some of our conversations went like this:

Tony: “That sonuvabitch. I’ll never talk to him again.”

Me: “Did you actually read what he wrote?”

T: “I don’t care what he wrote.”

I miss that Tony Stewart laugh. (John Clark photo)

M: “Well, the most objectionable thing he said was lifted with attribution from my column.”

T: “I didn’t read it.”

M: “Isn’t that a little like me saying you can’t drive a lick without ever watching you race?”

T: “I guess.” He’d smile. Get those dark eyes to stop flashing, and Tony could make fun of himself.

Somehow, I could reason with him. Maybe it was because he knew I wasn’t out to get him. Maybe he took my criticisms more constructively. I never found Stewart to be dishonest, though, as time went on, he learned grudgingly to be more honest in private than public. NASCAR never broke his spirit, but it trained him a little. A bit of a wall developed, but I doubt Tony built it. It was constructed around him. Perhaps the Mexicans paid for it.

Tony Stewart is the most interesting athlete I’ve ever written about.

When Tony once disparagingly referred to Carl Edwards as “Eddie Haskell,” he was typically gaudy and ill-considered. Carl isn’t the weasel of Leave It to Beaver. Carl is more like Theodore Cleaver, “the Beaver” himself, or older brother Wally. Carl can be a bit more of an Eagle Scout than the real world can withstand. Carl believes the good guys always win. It wouldn’t be enough to win the championship. Carl would want to ride off in the sunset.

Carl Edwards aspires to greatness by nature. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Carl never won the championship, but he still wanted to ride off in the sunset before he got too old to enjoy it.

I loved writing about both of them, but, more than that, I loved hanging out with them. I loved watching Nelson Stewart, Tony’s father, race a TQ Midget, with Tony fretting as if he were the parent and Nelson the son. I loved it when Carl showed up in the parking lot of Charlotte Motor Speedway, took my guitar and played it better than I could.

Now that I’m old, washed up and out of touch, I want Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards to have that delicious opportunity.

Last night, I played an old Hank Williams Jr. song I had almost forgotten:

You gotta say things you want to say / Go out and do things your own way / You can climb any old mountain once you’ve made up your mind.

Emphasis on old mountain. Tony belonged in the era of Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson. Carl wanted to stand up for truth, justice and the American way. Tony needed a jug of moonshine. Carl needed a cape.

(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.

(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. Note that my fourth, and best selling, novel, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, is on Kindle sale at $.99 through December 31. Links to print copies are below.

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).

One More One More Time

Peyton Manning in the twilight. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Peyton Manning in the twilight. (Monte Dutton sketch)

 

Gotta go...to an indie bookstore!

Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, January 12, 2015, 10:00 a.m.

The weekend included NFL playoff games. That means Monday is an overreaction day.

Today, close your eyes and listen to what commentators are saying about Peyton Manning. You will visualize someone who looks like Don Rickles in a uniform. You’ll imagine him doddering around the pocket, poking a cane at rampaging linemen, and tossing a bloop of desperation just as he is pummeled by three burly linemen meeting at the quarterback.

Remember the Snickers ad with Betty White?

mug Dutton Monte 2_WEBYes, Manning brought back unpleasant memories of aging Johnny Unitas, trying in vain to lead the Baltimore Colts back against the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Or Willie Mays, stumbling in the Shea Stadium outfield while closing out with the New York Mets in 1973. Or Muhammad Ali subjecting himself to a scary pummeling by Larry Holmes in 1980.

Or Brett Favre, uh, several times.

Neither was pretty, and, on Sunday, nor was Peyton.

This popular image, burned into our psyches by repeated exposure to ESPN, will make it hard for Manning to hang around.

Never mind that it was skewed. Never mind that the dying quails hoisted airward On Sunday were atypical of his performances earlier this season. He was much better in September. The question in Manning’s mind should not be whether or not he is capable of doing the job when next season rolls around. The question is whether his body can take another sixteen regular-season games and the playoffs, and if playoffs are possible, given the beating he is going to take.

Manning will be thirty-nine on March 24. It’s the age where women are said to stop counting.

The worst aspect of retirement is that the beating Manning took at the hands of his old team, the Indianapolis Colts, is likely to be the most vivid image by which he will be remembered. It hurt the reputations of Unitas, Mays, Ali, and Favre, those painful endings.

I bet Manning wishes he had a better ending, and the competitor in him will want to do something about it. He’ll want to roll the dice again. His odds will get progressively worse. They’ll seem loaded against him.

In all the years of writing about NASCAR, I saw this happen over and over. One factor is, no matter how much an athlete is making, no matter how much he has tucked away, he’ll discover that he can’t possibly make as much money on the sidelines as he does on the field, no matter how good the “chicken parm” tastes. If he can’t make the decision for himself, he’ll make it on the basis of the market, and, unfortunately, perhaps, he still has value there.

If Manning could keep himself healthy, Manning might win another Super Bowl. If Lance Armstrong could lay off the needle, he might still be racing bicycles. If my knee was stronger, I might walk more.

The Silver Fox, David Pearson, circa 1977.  (Thomas Pope)
The Silver Fox, David Pearson, circa 1977. (Thomas Pope)

I remember a golf tournament at Darlington, watching David Pearson, who had stayed too long himself, try to convince Dale Earnhardt to quit.

“You better get out of that car,” Pearson said.

“I can’t afford to,” replied Earnhardt, ridiculously.

“Good God, man, you got half the money on earth already.”

Pearson was just kidding around. Earnhardt’s face turned white. Five months later, he was dead.

One of my theories is that great athletes aren’t as different from us as we think. They have skills we can barely comprehend, but being exceptional in one area doesn’t carry over to others. Many successful people are able to suppress their insecurities and keep them at bay. Deep down, the captain of industry thinks himself lucky and feels compelled to impersonate the man the world wants him to be. The ballplayer whose lone talent is, oh, playing with a ball, feels compelled to act like he is exceptional in other walks.

For such men, life after heroism must seem like death. Hence they linger and let fate decide the issue for them, which seems harsh for those of us who haven’t stared across a vast kingdom, one the athlete owns, rules, and dominates. The man accustomed to a throne dreads the prospect of a folding chair.

Read my short fiction at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com. And buy my books at: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

But, if this is all you ever read of what I write, I still appreciate it.

The Iceman Goeth

Gotta go...to an indie bookstore!

Terry Labonte (NASCAR Photo)
Terry Labonte (NASCAR Photo)

Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, October 23, 2014, 9:50 a.m.

When I started writing about NASCAR, young drivers spoke the same way about Terry Labonte they later did about Mark Martin, though Labonte was fond of saying that he wasn’t old enough to be deemed a wizened veteran.

Labonte had gone four seasons without a victory, 1990-93, but when Rick Hendrick hired him, he was “only” thirty-seven. Restored to top-flight equipment, Labonte won three races in both 1994 and ’95, and his second Winston Cup championship in 1996.

He was the driver’s driver, the one who best understood the give and take of the high banks. He drove unto others the way they drove unto him. Terry Labonte would give another fellow room, but he’d better not take advantage of the courtesy. Labonte’s memory was strong, too.

Now, after all of these years, Labonte, who won championships twelve years apart, has decided it’s time to say when. He’s only run a few races here and there in the past few years. Last week, at Talladega Superspeedway, he decided this time would be the last time.

Labonte finished thirty-third. Started thirty-second. He always was consistent.

Terry Labonte (Monte Dutton sketch).
Terry Labonte (Monte Dutton sketch).

 

Even eleven years removed from his final and twenty-second victory, Labonte had a hard time giving it up. Fans watch the front, but drivers actually get something out of starting thirty-second and finishing thirty-third. It’s infectious, that racing.

“You know,” Labonte said beforehand, “it’s only about the third time I’ve said this is going to be my last race, but this is really going to be the last one.

“Another time I said it was my last race would have been in Texas about eight years ago, and then, last year, I told them this was going to be my last race, and then Frank (Stoddard) and I got to talking, so we decided to run one more year.”

Written by me, as usual.
Written by me, as usual.

Back in the mid-nineties, Terry Labonte greatly amused me. He has these piercing blue eyes that express more than his words. I’m not sure why the eyes that pierce are always blue. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson are others. I’ve got brown eyes. They never pierce anything.

Neither he nor his brother, 2000 Winston Cup champion Bobby, is an easy interview. Bobby rambles, and it has to be for show. I used to say that the average Bobby Labonte answer to any question is, Here’s what I think, or, perhaps, the opposite.

Terry’s comedic style is subtle and more advanced than his younger brother. He rolls those piercing eyes, opens his palms and spreads his hands, and lets the poor interviewer know, in a nice way, just how insipid his question was. Once Terry won a pole at Rockingham and conducted what I considered a masterpiece of a press conference, which, from his mindset, likely had the goal of being quoted as little as possible. Labonte was so nice, though, his voice so soft and pleasant.

Somehow the topic of NASCAR’s then-fledgling Truck Series came up, and someone asked Terry to compare and contrast the trucks with cars. He rolled the eyes, spread the hands, ended up with the eyes piercing the ceiling, and said, “Uhhhhhhh, I don’t know.”

That was it. The questioner waited for more. Fruitlessly.

Next was a reciter, who pointed out Labonte had won one pole in the previous four seasons, two in the past seven, but this was his fourth of 1996. Why was that?”

Friendly look. Kind set to the eyes. Forthright. “I haven’t been around this sport but a brief time,” he said, “but it’s been my experience that it helps a lot when you’re in good equipment.”

I had a hard time keeping a straight face and was surprised that others in the room didn’t seem to appreciate the great humorist in our midst.

He got mad at me one time. I don’t remember the circumstances. He didn’t say anything. He just got unusually, even by his standards, terse when I was among those asking questions of him. Those eyes and expressions he relied upon so strongly either betrayed him, or more likely, performed the function of letting me know I’d written or said something that pissed him off. I’m satisfied that, if I’d touched his shoulder, it would have been cold.

I just waited. I didn’t want to discuss the matter, whatever it was, with a frenzy in progress. I passed him in the garage, felt the lasers from his eyes boring into mine, and stopped. He was a bit defensive, yes, but we talked it through, and I think, in a span of just a few moments, we knew where each other stood.

Hell, I liked him even when he didn’t like me. He may still not like me. It doesn’t matter.

This isn’t timely. It was a blog I wanted to write, but I needed to think about it a while. I hope you’ll read my www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com blog from time to time. What I really hope is that you’ll buy my books. Most all of them are here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144