Not What it Used to Be
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NASCAR isn't what it used to be because it isn't what it used to be.
I've heard a lot of comments and complaints that NASCAR has gotten away from its roots, people nostalgic for NASCAR's past wishing that what once was will become what is again.
Most of the complaints, at least the ones I've heard and read, have to do with the Car of Tomorrow, Japanese cars in the Nextel Cup, and NASCAR's move from the south into new markets.
NASCAR, according to the old stories, basically got started because moonshiners had fast cars and they wanted to see whose was fastest. It was a series for which "stock car" meant a street car. Many of the races were on dirt tracks. While there were races in California, New York and Pennsylvania, it was a primarily southern sport, with deep roots in Florida, the Carolinas and Georgia.
All that changed, gradually, over the dacades. The cars needed to be safer, leading eventually to the tube-framed race cars of today wrapped in sheet metal vaguely resembling real street cars. NASCAR wanted to appeal to a wider audience, and moved away from tracks in places like Hickory, North Carolina to Joliet, Illinois.
NASCAR got on television, and after the 1979 Daytona 500 broadcast never looked back. All that television exposure increased visibility for the sponsors on the cars, making sponsorship more valuable. Money poured into the sport, spent on bigger shops and better equipment, bringing the level of competition higher. The new money into the sport meant that NASCAR teams became major corporations, with all the major legal and management issues that come with a growing company.
The television exposure also meant that NASCAR personalities had to behave differently. While fights like the one at the end of the Daytona 500 made for good television, sponsors generally don't appreciate drivers wearing their logos while misbehaving. This is still a work in progress, as evidenced by Tony Stewart's problems of a few years back. While tempers still get the best of drivers, they learned long ago the importance of interviews and sound bites. Drivers like Michael Waltrip have become expert spokesmen in addition to top-level race car drivers, making the most of their television time to promote their sponsors.
Those sponsors have changed, as well. You no longer see Chattanooga Chew on a Cup car, and Winston's cigarettes have been gone for a few years now, replaced by cell-phone service provider Nextel.
Part of becoming a huge and still growing sport is attracting new people to the events. Toyota won its first championship in 2006, as the truck of choice for Craftsman Truck Series driver Todd Bodine, and they move to the Nextel Cup this year. NASCAR is beginning to attract racers from around the world to stock car racing.
Now the basic idea of a Cup car is changing yet again, going from something that vaguely resembles real street cars to something that vaguely resembles a tuner car from The Fast and the Furious.
So what the first sentence, "NASCAR isn't what it used to be because it isn't what it used to be," basically means is that NASCAR isn't the sport of rough tough guys in American cars doing battle on short dirt tracks in the south because it's not a bunch of moonshiners trying to prove who's got the best car anymore. It's a major sport, and along with the good comes media scrutiny, legal issues and how to balance tradition with progress. It's this last one that seems to be causing NASCAR the most trouble these days.
It's been quite a shock to many long-time fans, I think, because NASCAR is making so many changes so quickly that it can all seem overwhelming. This isn't the first time NASCAR has changed its points scale. It's not the first time NASCAR has changed what a Cup car is fundamentally. It's not the first time NASCAR has moved into new cities and attracted new personalities.
It is, however, the first time such sweeping changes have happened in such short succession. New tracks open frequently, creating a yearly struggle for precious Nextel Cup dates, often leading NASCAR away from the south and into new territory. The Nextel Cup, and the Chase for it, were new for the 2004 season and has already been tweaked for 2007, the same year a radical new car design appears in its first races shortly after the first time "Camry" appears on the front of a car in NASCAR's highest series.
There are also a lot of fresh faces around the garage these days, as the last generation of greats heads into retirement and rookies fill their seats. NASCAR has seen Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte retire, Bill Elliott go into partial retirement, while Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader also near the end of their illustrious careers. Even Jeff Gordon is beginning to look a little aged these days next to young drivers Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, and the Busch brothers, all of whom have won races and two of them championships in just the last 5 years. This year promises even more new names, as drivers from all over the world come from other forms of racing to NASCAR. Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya is the most obvious name, going straight to the Cup series, but there is also Australian V8 Supercar champion Marcos Ambrose in the Busch Series, motocross great Ricky Carmichael is trying NASCAR this year and A.J. Allmendinger will be in a Cup Toyota Camry at Daytona.
There are so many changes even I need a scorecard to keep track of what's new this year. It must be especially frustrating to fans who fell in love with the sport watching Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip chase each other around Rockingham. But in the early 70's there were probably some folks who thought NASCAR had sold out to corporate money when they renamed the Grand National series the Winston Cup, and even before that when NASCAR stopped racing Grand National cars on dirt tracks and went exclusively to paved raceways. NASCAR survived those changes, even thrived because of those changes, and only time will tell where NASCAR will be two decades from now, and just what changes people will be complaining about as the 2027 season gets underway.
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