Random Lugnuts: This Ain't Your Older Brother's NASCAR
What is Random Lugnuts? It's random bits of stock car racing commentary written on an irregular basis by an irregular racing fan. The name is a reference to the lugnuts that go flying off a car during a pit stop: you never know where they are going to go, what they're going to do when they get there, they can be annoying, they're often useless after a race, and every once in a while someone gets hit and they don't know exactly where it came from.
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.
October 19, 2007
There's a phrase, in thousands of variations, that implies how much change there is from generation to generation. "This ain't your daddy's NASCAR," would be stock car racing's version of the phrase. These days, I think, "this ain't your older brother's NASCAR," would be more appropriate.
Change in NASCAR is something I've touched on in various Random Lugnuts columns and other commentaries over the past year. 2007, if nothing else, has been a year of change in NASCAR, even among a series of years that has seen some of the sanction's most sweeping changes since its inception.
Just look at all the changes that have come about in the last few years in the sport, starting right at the top with the ascendence of Brian France to the top spot in 2003 and the death of Bill France Jr earlier this year. The long-running Winston Cup became the Nextel Cup, soon to be the Sprint Cup, and now the Busch Series has become the Nationwide Insurance Series. The Chase for the Nextel Cup was created, which was originally 10 drivers or those within 400 points, and now it's the top 12 drivers.
The Car of Tomorrow, which now includes the Chevrolet Impala and Dodge Avenger, is almost phased in. Ford switched to the Fusion a few years ago. Toyotas are in, and Pontiacs are out.
The silly seasons past have really shaken things up, but none so much so as the one that has seen the scion of the Earnhardt legacy poised to become Jeff Gordon's teammate. Long time Ford driver Mark Martin's move from Roush Racing to Ginn's Chevrolets (which are now DEI's) was another major change. Open wheel stars are making their way to stock cars, but none has been as controversial or made such an impact (literally, in many cases) in recent years as Columbian born seven time Formula One winner Juan Pablo Montoya. A.J. Allmendinger has also raced in the Cup Series, and Patrick Carpentier, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti look to be on their way soon.
Not only have participants from other continents come to NASCAR (South America's Montoya, Asia's Toyota, Australia's Marcos Ambrose), but NASCAR is now also racing in foreign countries. It's been so long since NASCAR went to Canada that most people forgot they were ever there, but they're back. And these aren't minor postseason exhibitions, they've raced for points (Busch points, anyway) at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez near Mexico City and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve near Montreal. CASCAR, Canada's version of NASCAR, actually became a part of NASCAR this year.
To make room for all the new faces, some familiar ones have left the sport or gone on to different roles within it. Ricky Craven is now an analyst for Yahoo! Sports. Rusty Wallace is now doing commentary for NASCAR broadcasts. Benny Parsons died. Bill Elliott has retired, sort of. Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek were forced out of their rides when Ginn's teams were brought into DEI. Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, and Michael Waltrip are all close to retirement (or should be).
Team ownership has also seen sweeping changes. The change of Michael Waltrip Racing from a part-time Busch operation to a three-car Nextel Cup team and upstart Ginn Racing's near Daytona 500 win followed by their being absorbed by DEI are just the tip of the iceberg. That's not the big story, because that's just racing teams conducting business as usual. The big news is NASCAR teams merging or being partially bought out by teams from other sports. The Gillet-Evernham and Roush Fenway collaborations are the results, and more are rumored to be in the works.
I know I'm missing a lot here. This is just off the top of my head, nowhere near a full accounting of all that's different from 5 years ago. I can't even begin to account for all the changes in the schedule and television broadcasts, or rules.
I'm somewhat nostalgic for the bygone era of NASCAR, even though I wasn't actually there to see it. But from my perspective I think that it's the present that makes the past so special, the bright lights and day-glo colors of today contrasted with the sepia-tone stories of the days when small garage teams like Melling Racing could make it big in stock cars, of moonshiners and small southern tracks where everything from Hudsons to Superbirds raced wheel-to-wheel.
Some of that change is necessary. Back when stock cars really were stock, you also had stock safety equipment that wasn't designed for racing. Now the Car of Tomorrow combined with "soft-wall" technology promises to reduce the injuries and fatalities that have periodically hurt the sport.
A lot of the change, though, is simply new people discovering how good stock car racing really is and wanting to get in on the action. The gradual attention that NASCAR has gained started a long time ago with races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, California and New York. Then came national television, introducing the Daytona 500 into any home that cared to turn on the right channel. All that buildup, combined with new technologies that connect people from around the world, has finally pushed the sport to the next level in just the last few years: NASCAR racing is now a world-class sport, attracting competition from around the globe. Although there's been a lot of change, and by change that often means some of the old people and places that have made NASCAR what it is today have been pushed aside to make room for the new, I don't think it's going to change NASCAR nearly so much as NASCAR is going to change motorsports around the world.
Sure, the good ol' boys in the sport are going to learn have to pronounce names like Jacques Villeneuve, and we've seen some races recently without a Petty in the field, but now kids in Columbia who grew up idolizing Juan Pablo Montoya are going to be learning just what a Darlington stripe is. Where NASCAR's only attention from the world racing community a decade ago was to be the butt of redneck jokes, it's now drawn a Formula One World Champion and one of Michael Schumacher's chief rivals to drive at old southern tracks like Talladega and Martinsville. Heck, Tony Stewart even got Montoya onto a dirt track, and Villeneuve raced a pickup truck!
Japan learned the name Mike Skinner over a decade ago when he won 2 of 3 of NASCAR's exhibitions there, but now Toyota fans in Japan have a whole roster of American names like Darrell Waltrip, Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett, David Reutimann, Johnny Benson, and now Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin to remember. Not to mention Todd Bodine, who earned Toyota's first major NASCAR championship.
I don't think this will be a loss of an American tradition, it's an example of yet another American tradition, like blue jeans and Hollywood movies, making their way overseas and influencing world culture. Just as the NFL is expanding into Europe without changing the shape of the football, NASCAR can become a worldwide sport without changing the fundamentals of what made NASCAR great. One day, kids from every corner of the world might have Earnhardt posters on their walls and learn about the American tradition of moonshine and turning left.
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