NASCAR sold its soul.
NASCAR succeeded in the periphery of the mainstream. Its first live race on broadcast television ended with three men – two of them brothers – brawling like rednecks next to mangled cars in Daytona, Florida.
For the next two decades, NASCAR built itself up organically and through sheer force of will. At the forefront of this Southern revolution was Dale Earnhardt, with his famous moustache and Man in Black routine that instantly resonated with a whole lot of folks.
Always a popular sport, NASCAR rode Earnhardt to the forefront of the sporting culture. Everything revolved around him.
The brilliance of Dale was his unique ability to sell out like crazy while not selling out at all. When a band lends its song to a commercial, the fans whine. When Dale lent his voice to a product, the fans bought.
Dale Earnhardt was a marketing tour de force, up there with the greatest in terms of athlete pitchmen, alongside Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Dale Earnhardt moved product.
It felt different when the 2001 Daytona 500 came around, as many tributes to Dale this week have mentioned. Dodge was returning to the sport. Fox was televising its first NASCAR race as part of a new multi-billion dollar deal. The era of TNN races – that would be The Nashville Network – and courtesy coverage from the sports departments at major newspapers were over.
But even as the green flag dropped that day, no one knew how big NASCAR had become. More specifically, no one on Madison Avenue fully grasped the sport’s influence.
I watched every lap of that Daytona 500 with my college roommate as we nursed massive hangovers. When the race concluded, I watched one replay of the fatal last-lap crash, turned the television off and took a much-needed nap. I had no idea what I had just seen.
Unlike others, I did not believe Earnhardt to be indestructible. The crash simply did not look that bad. It seemed standard operating procedure for Dale. As I am averse to instant post-game coverage, I planned to catch up on the post-race antics that night on SportsCenter. I distinctly remembering laughing to myself before fall asleep – imagining a smirking Dale shrugging his shoulders and doing his “aw, shucks” routine about wrecking the field so his son and car could win.
Then I woke up. Then I found out Dale Earnhardt had died. Then I called my Dad, and we shared mutual feelings of stunned sadness. Then I realized NASCAR was about to change forever.
The outpouring of affection for Dale in the week after his crash alerted the country to what was going on with NASCAR. To me, that is Dale’s overwhelming legacy – it provided the proof to all the anecdotes about the growing influence of NASCAR.
His death led the national news – NASCAR had skipped from the back of the sports section to the front of the newspaper itself.
For the next several years, Dale’s death appeared to be the catalyst for a NASCAR boom – with NASCAR moms being courted by politicians and every major corporation lining up to get its logo on the hood of a winning car.
Alas, all the attention was too much for NASCAR and the sport in the past few years has crumbled under the enormous weight.
NASCAR is not the NFL or the NBA, nor was it ever constructed as such. It thrived because people like Dale Earnhardt would spin out Terry Labonte and bask in the boos of 100,000 people on a steamy Saturday night in Bristol, Tennessee with a smirk on his face.
It thrived because the drivers kept their dirt-track mentality and focused on winning races, not collecting points. It thrived because fans could relate. It thrived because sponsors were necessary and those sponsors were seen as doing the drivers a favor. It thrived because trips to Darlington and Talladega and Richmond were shared traditions, handed down from father to son.
In the past decade, NASCAR has peeled away all that was good about the sport.
They race in Chicago and California. They do not race in North Wilkesboro. The Southern 500 no longer anchors Labor Day Weekend. The season ends in Miami. The drivers do tours of New York City to drum up interest.
Would Dale Earnhardt even recognize the sport of today? Would he want to?
There is now so much money involved that super teams have emerged, with armies of talented engineers that dial up cars maxed to their precisionist potential.
The cars, alas, are too good. The old mantras have been eliminated from the sport. The doorhandle to doorhandle, the bump and run’s, the rubbin’ is racin’ – all pushed to the side in lieu of single-file racing and courtesy passes.
The Chase for the Cup, another shameless money grab, has rendered the sport a joke – instituting a playoff system for a sport that did not need a playoff system. They have further bastardized that for this season, painfully manufacturing it so the final race will mean something. To who? I have no idea, since fans have almost universally rejected the Chase since its arrival and the sport slides further and further into irrelevance every fall. At least IndyCar finally wised up and will end its season before football, like I had suggested last summer.
I wrote about the fact that NASCAR is dying before but the sight on Saturday night at Daytona was almost too much for this, admittedly former, fan to stomach.
The former Busch Clash, now the Sprint Unlimited, unfolded on the new Fox Sports 1. The seats at Daytona were empty.
It fostered a truly bizarre telecast where the announcers were treating the event like a big deal while the sparsely-filled bleachers made it seem more like an ARCA race.
February in the NASCAR world has turned into its own Groundhog’s Day. The sport’s leaders promise better racing. They promise more passing, more wrecks and more excitement. They unveil a new overhaul, either to the cars or the points system or both, and guarantee that this is the year NASCAR will re-capture your imagination.
It didn’t happen last year. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. It won’t happen this year either.
Sadly, it can all be traced to the years following Dale’s death, when the sport became too big, too popular and too mainstream for its own good. Eventually, those fans of Dale found something else to do as they were pushed away by the nauseating commercialism, overwhelming greed and clean-cut drivers who were all too willing to toe the company line.
Once you sell your soul, you never get it back.
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