It’ll be 20 years Thursday since Dale Earnhardt, the greatest NASCAR driver of his generation, died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
No, that can’t be right.
How can it be 20 years since my greatest hero was found to be mortal? I can still remember being bummed with my mom at Daytona International Speedway the Thursday prior when Earnhardt lost the lead on the last lap of his Daytona 500 qualifying race. I can still remember racing off to my job at Baskin Robbins as FOX left the air that Sunday, my mom saying to me, “I don’t like this” as I walked out the door.
I remember the phone call from my brother at work. Fortunately, the ice cream parlor was empty.
“Dale’s dead,” my brother’s voice told me directly. That’s when I found out, but I already knew.
NASCAR changed forever that day, and it’s been changing ever since. An entire generation of drivers have come and gone since Earnhardt helped steer it to national prominence. It’s hard to say what he would think about NASCAR’s path it has been on since he left us.
NASCAR gets safety right, and a lot wrong
On one hand, the safety revolution in the sport that followed Earnhardt’s death — mandated head-and-neck-support (HANS) devices, softer walls thanks to SAFER barriers, and even an entirely new chassis built with driver safety as its chief focus — have made NASCAR racing safer than ever. No driver in NASCAR’s top three touring series has perished since Earnhardt.
But NASCAR had its time as the fastest-growing sport in America and has spent the last decade and a half shedding TV viewers and tearing down grandstands at race tracks that Earnhardt and his generation built. Television ratings for NASCAR Cup races in 2020 were nearly 60 percent lower than their peak in 2005. Daytona International Speedway, which was still selling out its 146,000 reserved seats for the Daytona 500 in 2008, renovated and reduced its grandstands to 101,500 seats a few years ago.
The reasons for NASCAR’s steady decline are many. Many Dale Earnhardt fans would point to the many changes NASCAR’s leaders enacted that had nothing to do with safety — a new championship points “playoff” structure, a shift from traditional Southern markets into new territories, a de facto race team union with increasing power, and a general homogenization of the race cars, drivers and teams.
I have been keeping up with NASCAR since I found it on TV in the late 1980s, and I would agree with most older Earnhardt fans that NASCAR — and particularly its third-generation CEO and chairman Brian France — lost sight of what made its product great and spent much of the last 20 years tinkering with new fixes that have repeatedly missed the high marks of American race fans’ expectations. It’s as if Coca-Cola kept trying to improve New Coke instead of returning to Coca-Cola Classic.
Maybe if NASCAR went back to its old model of doing things — back in the time when Dale Earnhardt still walked the earth — all the big crowds and big interest would come back.
But NASCAR isn’t the only thing that has changed over the last 20 years.
Revisiting the boom times
I have been watching a lot of old NASCAR races from the late 1980s and early 1990s on YouTube during the pandemic. It’s been a lot of fun to watch these races as an adult, and it seems like a reasonable way to revisit the NASCAR I grew up with to try to figure out what the secret sauce was.
When I was growing up, going with my mom to NASCAR races in Darlington, South Carolina, Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Atlanta and Daytona Beach, I thought of the drivers we were going to see as rock stars.
Watching those old races today, that notion checks out.
The grandstands were packed with rowdy fans who made plenty of noise for the A-list drivers at the time, guys like Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Darrell Waltrip. But folks were losing their minds for Terry Labonte, Harry Gant, Kyle Petty, Sterling Marlin, Alan Kulwicki and Geoff Bodine.
Oftentimes, you can hear the roars from the crowd over the roars of the engines and the hiss of the video tape tracking. The fans’ energy and their connection with their favorite drivers jump through the screen.
Of course, there is always optimism and excitement when something you really love is taking off and growing. But that optimism and excitement wanes when that same growth takes that something away from you.
A quarter century ago, NASCAR had national TV coverage but was still a Southern sport. It ran on Winston cigarette money and workingman bravado and still made plenty of stops at race tracks in markets no other professional sport would consider. It helped that the middle class was rolling during this time, too, that blue collar jobs were abundant and afforded those blue collar workers enough money to spend a few days at the race track.
It also helped that the drivers in the cars shared that blue collar identity with the fans cheering them on. NASCAR drivers at that point had often sacrificed everything for a shot at American racing’s highest level, usually not showing up in the Cup Series until they had spent much of their 20s and early 30s building a racing career — and a name for themselves.
For instance, Earnhardt had quit high school, toiled around the Carolina dirt tracks and burned through two marriages by the time he was NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year in 1979. A decade later, Dick Trickle had already amassed several hundred feature wins all around the Midwest when he became NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year in 1989 — at the age of 47.
And then Jeff Gordon showed up in 1993 as a hotshot 22-year-old rookie from California via Indiana. Instead of paying his dues in lesser rides, he started his Cup career in one of the best race cars on the starting grid.
Gordon won his first NASCAR championship in 1995 and followed it up with Winston Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2001. Since then, the median age of NASCAR drivers has only gotten younger, and the big money associated with the big opportunities they receive have made them a good bit more unrecognizable to the blue collar fanbase.
It’s hard for the hardworking crowd to find common ground with new NASCAR stars like Joey Logano, who started racing when most kids still had training wheels on their bikes and made it to NASCAR before he was old enough to drink.
When the 2001 season rolled around, NASCAR was ready to blast off into the stratosphere. It was the first season with FOX and NBC as its broadcast partners, the first season with an expanded schedule with new tracks in new, recognizable markets like Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas-Fort Worth, Homestead-Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
By 2005, NASCAR had stopped visiting North Wilkesboro and Rockingham altogether. Darlington had lost its Southern 500. The traditional fans were pissed. Many started finding other ways to spend their Sunday afternoons. A lot of them left NASCAR and have never returned.
I see a lot of those fans today at dirt track races, the biggest of which have a similar energy to them as NASCAR races from my childhood did. The stars are older and their comments and driving bolder than anything I have seen in NASCAR for years.
We can’t go back
I think of all of those trips to NASCAR tracks growing up and am thankful I was there to experience NASCAR as it was. In my opinion, NASCAR was the best thing going, and I was fortunate enough to uncover the secret when I did.
But I also recognize those days are gone. The next Dale Earnhardt isn’t showing up in the NASCAR field anytime soon. Neither is the next Sterling Marlin or Harry Gant or Bill Elliott. The world that created these heroes doesn’t exist anymore.
That’s not all a bad thing, either. That world so many long for had flaws we can’t overlook anymore.
A trip to Darlington in 1996 afforded the opportunity to grab free cartons of Winston cigarettes, see as many Rebel flags as American flags, and even pick up a T-shirt that said “FAG” (Fans Against Gordon) on it. By 2019, only the Rebel flags remained, though not nearly as many as there were a decade prior.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests last year — and at the urging of Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only Black driver — NASCAR finally made the call to ban the Rebel flag at races.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that the 2021 NASCAR season kicked off this week with two new race teams co-owned by Michael Jordan and Pitbull, respectively. That doesn’t happen in the shadow of the stars and bars.
There are other big changes coming online starting this year. The NASCAR schedule has been shaken up more than I can remember, as the series is set to run new races in Austin, Texas and Road America in Wisconsin, and return after many years to Nashville, Tennessee. An entirely new race car is set to debut in 2022. I hope to see the Cup Series’ first dirt race in two generations in Bristol, Tennessee, next month.
I also hope to return to Darlington this Labor Day weekend for the Southern 500. I am sure there will be “Heritage-Not Hate” protestors flying their Rebel flags high outside the speedway, but I am also sure that, as honest as they may be, they are on the wrong side of history.
Knowing what we know, I think Dale Earnhardt would agree with me.
And, as much as I believe my passion doesn’t burn as brightly for NASCAR these days, I can’t help but notice I stayed up until 1 a.m. Sunday night to watch Michael McDowell win the Daytona 500.
I don’t know if NASCAR can ever become as big as it once was. If I keep holding onto that standard, I know I’ll be forever disappointed.
Then again, the best race I have ever seen might be the next one. I better keep watching to find out.