Since I once called the garage area of the NASCAR Cup Series “home,” working in the sport for several years as one of few women among hundreds of men, folks often ask my opinion on today’s NASCAR.
Sometimes I have no words, for some things are too sad to address. Today’s sport holds little resemblance to what I knew, where camaraderie was queen, Richard Petty was king and folks treated each other in a princely form. In those days so sweet to recall, Dale Earnhardt napped in a hammock he slung across the back of the Number 3 hauler, Richard Childress lived on a diet of Vienna sausages and soda crackers, the Elliotts’ common sense brought Detroit engineers to their knees, and Darrell Waltrip’s quick wit made him the darling of the media, though not always the darling of fans.
And back then, folks had an enormous amount of gratitude. Every single one of us was simply awed that we could make a good living by having so much fun. To put things into perspective, Earnhardt negotiated a new contract in the late eighties that gave him the astounding salary of $500,000 a year, plus a percentage of winnings. It is said that Mark Martin now makes a yearly salary of five million dollars. Of course, in my opinion, Mark, with whom I once worked and absolutely adore, deserves every penny — and more. He is always grateful.
Mark’s story speaks to the wonder of America where we can make mistakes and still rebound. As a young sensation in the ASA series, he made a bit of a fortune, then came over to spread his wings in the bigger world of NASCAR. He ended up losing everything he had — stock car teams eat money faster than a herd of goats on a grassy mountainside — and retreated back to ASA. When later he returned to NASCAR in the mid-eighties, he was cautious. Not on the race track, but at the bank. He no longer owned his own Cup team, but drove for Jack Roush.
He did own a race team in the next-to-the-top competition tier, then called the Grand National Series. He dominated every race he ran, had a well-financed sponsor and clicked off wins faster than a lap at Daytona. But one day, he up and sold his team to Roush.
“Why on earth would you do that?” I asked in astonishment. “You’re making money hand over fist.”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t sleep at night, worrying about finances. I don’t ever want to go back to where I’ve been. I lost it all one time. I can’t forget that.”
Such were the warriors of that era that they learned lessons, often the hard way. Trouble and challenges have a way of teaching best the lessons remembered longest.
But today’s sport is sadly different. No one struggles, no triumphs over true adversity (read the story of Alan Kulwicki some time) and genuine gratitude is as hard to find as an STP-sponsored No. 43 Pontiac in the garage.
Three years ago, I requested credentials from the public relations director at Talladega. In all of my professional life, I have never been treated so rudely or talked to as harshly as that woman talked to me. Someone, I might add, who had the authority she had because of pioneering women like me, who blazed the trail. A complaint to the president of the speedway, quickly brought a half-hearted apology. But the damage was done. I had personally seen the arrogant side of today’s NASCAR, and it was not a pretty sight.
I still have friends, such as Mark Martin, the Waltrips, Richard Childress and Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, whose hard work and persistence got them to the top. They haven’t forgotten that. But for the arrogant ones, I make this prediction: There’s a day of reckonin’ coming. I think I see it now.
Here are the other problems that someone needs to tell the folks in Daytona Beach since they don’t seem to remember their core fans:
2. You don’t replace Tim McGraw singing the national anthem with Mariah Carey.
3. You don’t take races away from the sport’s heartland. Places like Atlanta, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Darlington, Nashville. I’m still mad about all of ‘em, but Atlanta particularly infuriates me because it’s the Southeast’s biggest city, one of the oldest racetracks and because I believe that my friend and its president, Ed Clark, deserves better after the 35 years of sweat and love he has put into the sport.
4. You don’t take away the emotional connection that fans built with drivers like Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett. Those guys worked hard for years before they won. Now, they just plunk an unknown teenager in a car with a huge sponsor and he wins. Big deal.
5. You don’t come out aggressively on a political issue of a flag, like it or not. You might offer an exchange but ain’t nobody gonna tell a good ol’ boy from Alabama what to do when it breaches his First Amendment rights. Uh-uh.
I could go on, but it’s needless. The white flag has fallen on NASCAR’s greatest glory days and the checkered flag is about to fly.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of What Southern Women Know About Faith. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.