A Loss of Character … and Characters

(Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

(Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

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.

Monte Dutton

Monte Dutton

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.

Jeff Gordon(HHP/Harold Hinson photo for Chevrolet)

Jeff Gordon(HHP/Harold Hinson photo for Chevrolet)

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.

Jimmie Johnson  (HHP/Alan Marler photo for Chevrolet)

Jimmie Johnson (HHP/Alan Marler photo for Chevrolet)

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.”

Tony Stewart (John Clark photo)

Tony Stewart (John Clark photo)

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.

Not as many smiles these days. (HHP/Alan Marler photo for Chevy Racing)

Not as many smiles these days. (HHP/Alan Marler photo for Chevy Racing)

“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.

(Melanie Ryon cover design)

(Melanie Ryon cover design)

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

 

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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10 Responses to A Loss of Character … and Characters

  1. Ron Fleshman says:

    You stated the very reason I only go to three tracks these days. I discovered the only driver I could even come close to interviewing was Carl Edwards and then that went away. Always lurking around was the manager or handler, and swords were carefully crafted. So I go to Martinsville where there is a chance and Bristol where there’s not. Occasionally I report from Charlotte, but not often. The racing is lousy there and I am in that media center where I have to watch on TV. I can do that at home. It’s a sad situation really.

  2. Bobi says:

    Speaking purely from a fan’s perspective, it’s been obvious for quite sometime that NASCAR stifles the media. The sport works so hard at making the drivers “marketable” that they forget that what once made the sport popular was the very antithesis of this silly ideal.

  3. Al Torney says:

    I think your article pretty well sums up the state of the sport at this time. Boring races, boring writers, boring drivers, boring interviews.

  4. Rob Copeland says:

    The reasons are slightly more complex but it’s been more than a decade since I last attended a race. But the truth for me is the same: it’s lost most of its appeal for me. I started attending races in the early 70s when drivers were approachable, accessible, and available. There was always a chance some racing dispute would be settled on the race track or back in the garage instead of some multimillionaire’s million-dollar motorcoach. It’s still racing but not the kind I fell in love with as a kid and became a part of as a man. The most exciting auto race I’ve seen on t.v. this year (of the 2-3 I’ve watched at all) was the Indianapolis 500. I suspect that will remain true for many years to come. If I still watch.

  5. salb says:

    Perfect example of what is killing the sport I used to love.

  6. Janet says:

    Monte, I understand what you are saying and why you feel the way you do. It is sad for me. I looked forward every week to read your articles about the race and all the things you said about Jeff. You were the one reporter I could count on to say nice things about him. Did you publish the book you wrote about him? Can we buy it? Thank you for all of those articles.

  7. Monte says:

    Thanks for the kind words.
    At the end of almost every blog I write, there is a link to my books on Amazon. The Gordon book is among them.
    I don’t what else I can do to make it available. It was written many years ago, but it’s still available.

  8. Matthew Blaylock says:

    I covered NASCAR and other forms of racing for about 8 years. It took a few years for my old company to get credentials to NASCAR races but it did finally happen. After covering a handful of NASCAR races I found that I liked coveing the smaller series better. The drivers were more personal and it always felt like I made a friend. I doubt I will ever cover another race again but if I do I can say where my heart lies and it is not with NASCAR.

  9. Wayne says:

    Back in the day I always looked for your columns. Weaving music, movies, quotations, and all other outside anecdotes into your NASCAR columns. Those days are gone forever.The sport has passed me by. Too controlled, too many gimmicks, etc, etc. The only driver I listen to is Brad K who is a breath of fresh air. All the others regurgitate the same old shit over and over.

  10. Monte says:

    Your experience is not uncommon, but it’s true in most sports. At a lower level, they need you. At the higher level, you need them. It’s always rewarding to cover high schools, small colleges, short tracks … the problem is making a living at it. I go out on weekends now and write about the local high school and college. I cover my college alma mater’s home games. The stories are just as good. The people are just as interesting. The market is just smaller.
    It’s so much more fun, though.

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