It comes up in conversation every so often. Not a lot because no one seems to care much anymore.
But sometimes, when folks are running out of conversation after a long dinner, someone will wonder, kinda whimsically, “What happened to NASCAR?”
People like to ask me because I was blessed to be there when its meteoric rise began, and I saw it in the heady days of its most glorious best.
A story I tell, once in a blue moon, is how I was sent by the sports marketing firm for which I worked to an Indy car race at Michigan International Speedway. It was 1986. Dale Earnhardt was on his way to his first of six championships with Richard Childress, and race fans were still talking about the blistering that the Elliott brothers from Dawsonville had put on the big monied teams the previous year.
On the stock car circuit, we were eating Beanie Weenies from cans and sitting on old Goodyear tires, telling stories.
But in the Indy world, it was literally champagne and roses.
I walked into Michigan’s driver paddock area and saw huge motor coaches (uptown for stock car guys was a van) that had awnings. Under the tents were white linen clothed tables laden with silver candle holders, china and linen. At one motor coach, a chef, wearing a tall white hat, was preparing a meal while another server was pouring wine into crystal goblets.
For a moment, I was stunned. Back in the NASCAR garage, it was dirt, sweat, hard work and good ol’ guys just trying to pay the bills by doing what they loved. It took a few minutes to absorb the scene. Finally, I spread my arms open wide, grinned and proclaimed to my friends, “Now, these are my people.”
It garnered a big laugh. The joke, however, would be on me. That would become my people and nothing could be further from the truth of my people than those people.
Goodness, I hate to tell this story because of a guy named Russell Wilkerson. He’s one of the good ol’ guys left in the sport who works media for Talladega Superspeedway. Russell was trained by one of the sport’s best PR guys ever – Bill Kiser at Darlington. Bill loved the sports writers by giving us a big smile, a hug for me and a slap on the back for the guys. We all lit up with joy when we saw Bill or told stories about him. Russell learned from the best. Russell, if he could’ve, would’ve stopped this experience from happening.
One Sunday afternoon, I was driving past Talladega, a track I loved, on I-20 when it occurred to me to stop and visit. Like Southerners do. I know a back way into the back stretch that entails taking an old road and winding through a group of small buildings. I pulled up and stepped out for a moment to relive some of the happiest days of my life.
Within two minutes, a four-wheel drive extended cab, glistening red truck came tearing up, spitting gravel and dust all which a way. He slid to a stop next to my car. On the side of the truck was the Talladega Superspeedway logo. A big guy tumbled out of the truck.
“Ma’am, you can’t be here. This is private property. You’re gonna have to leave.”
I smiled, a glisten of tears in my eyes from all the delight that I recalled. “I used to work in the sport. I have a lot of happy memories here that I wanted to visit again.”
“I understand, but you’ve got to leave NOW.”
With a nod and a thank you, I climbed back into the car and drove away.
Of course, I don’t know this for sure but that kind of inhospitality could’ve been what happened to NASCAR.
At least part of the reason.