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NASCAR Seeks Broader Audience with New Film and Netflix Show

It’s been well documented that over the last few years NASCAR’s TV ratings have been consistently trending downwards. This could loosely be traced back to when Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon retired in 2015.  Since then, a handful of the sport’s superstars have departed from full-time racing and as a result fans are following.

It now appears NASCAR is seeking help in the form of Hollywood entertainment in hopes of drawing in a greater population of race fans.

Television icon and avid NASCAR fan Kevin James is taking his comedic talents to Netflix in 2020 for the new multi-cam sitcom The Crew. The new sitcom will feature James as an old school crew chief who is resistant to the inevitable advancements of modern day technologies. When the team owner steps down and leaves his daughter in charge, these changes are implemented rapidly – and naturally, the two don’t see eye-to-eye.

The Long Island Native will not only be starring in the show, but he will be teaming up with longtime production partner Jeff Sussman to serve as a co-executive producer. NASCAR will also have a hand in crafting the show with a pair of senior executives also producing alongside James and Sussman – Senior Executive of Digital Operations, Tim Clark and Senior Executive of Entertainment Marketing, Matthew Summers.

The only other name attached to the project is sitcom writer Jeff Lowell, who has worked on hit shows such as Two and a Half Men and The Ranch. There is no word on who will be taking on the pivotal roles of the team owner and his daughter (let the Leah Remini rumors commence).

NASCAR may have hit a home run with this pitch, because the potential for success is seemingly enormous. Netflix has been the most dominant company in terms of streaming and entertainment services since 2013 and their success just keeps growing. It was reported that in the second quarter of 2019, there were 151 million subscribers worldwide using Netflix’s streaming services – that’s A LOT of eyes that will likely be tuning into The Crew. But what’s the allure?

For starters, James is a massive comedic TV icon. James broke onto the scene with the wildly successful show, The King of Queens, which aired for an astounding nine years. Sussman served as the producer for all nine seasons with James, so there is a high probability that the duo can recreate some of their chemistry and television magic with The Crew.

It also helps that James is known to be a huge fan of NASCAR who rarely misses a race. This should bring forth an authentic and passion-driven performance from the actor, in addition to his knowledge of the sport. We also have NASCAR’s ties to the show. With a pair of the sport’s senior executives playing a heavy role in the production of the Netflix comedy, this should ensure that  the sport shown in a truthful light.

Lastly, although no other casting news has been confirmed, it would not be out of the ordinary to see some of James’ friends such as Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and David Spade make a cameo on the show. The group of friends are notorious for making appearances in each other’s projects. And don’t count out driver cameos! The film Logan Lucky which premiered in 2017 showcased the (brief) acting talents of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Carl Edwards.

Between James’ and Netflix’s popularity and the infinite possibilities stemming from NASCAR’s involvement, the sky seems like the limit for The Crew. The bottom line is, if the show is done right, NASCAR could be seeing a dramatic increase in viewership over the next few years.

The Crew is slated to premiere on Netflix in 2020 with no official release date.

Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Making the jump from the small-screen to the silver screen, Michael Waltrip‘s documentary, Blink of an Eye, premiered in theaters worldwide this week. The documentary is an adaptation from Waltrip’s critically acclaimed and “New York Times Bestseller” book which examines Waltrip and the late Dale Earnhardt’s friendship.

After snapping a 462 race winless streak in the biggest race of the year, Waltrip’s triumphant euphoria comes to a screeching halt within seconds after finding out seven-time champion, team owner and his best friend, Earnhardt, passed away after getting involved a wreck on the final lap of the same event.

For those who have not read the book and do not know the story, Waltrip is able to articulate his damning range of emotions with ease. Seeing how Waltrip’s story translates from writing to the big screen should be nothing short of spectacular, especially with help from Emmy-award winning director Paul Taublieb at the helm.

With the combination of Waltrip and Taublieb’s storytelling coupled with one of the most heartbreaking stories in sports history, audiences should expect a full-on assault of their emotions in theaters. This is a drastic – and much needed – change in direction for how NASCAR had been previously portrayed by Hollywood.

Blink of an Eye should showcase NASCAR in a devastatingly serious manner. Prior to this we’ve only recently seen the sport shown in a comedic and childish light with films such as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Logan Lucky and Pixar’s Cars trilogy. You would have to turn back the clock 29 years to find the last time NASCAR was shown in a non-comedic light with Days of Thunder.

Not to say there’s anything wrong with the sport being shown in a comedic or youthful light. This is great way to bring in a new generation of viewers and comedy almost always sells (especially in the form of Will Ferrel and John C. Reilly in Talladega Nights). It’s just nice to see the sport being taken seriously instead of one big joke.

People want to watch characters (or athletes) they can relate to. Witnessing and listening to Waltrip’s story through his words offers audiences a raw and honest look into the minds and lives of these athletes and ultimately gives them something they can both sympathize and empathize with.

It will be interesting to see if Waltrip’s documentary can generate enough Oscar’s buzz to be considered a nominee for “Best Documentary” in The 92nd Academy Awards. The story is certainly there and with Taulieb directing, Blink of an Eye could be NASCAR’s broken Cinderella story for the sport.

If the documentary can indeed earn a nomination at the Academy Awards, it could have potential to draw an even broader audience from the cinema community. This could then spark a NASCAR trend in Hollywood and with that the possibilities are infinite.

The popular trend in the film industry is currently reboots and sequels. Whose to say we can’t get a Talladega Nights or Days of Thunder sequel? After all, Tom Cruise is returning for a Top Gun reboot – a film which premiered 33 years ago. So why couldn’t he return as an older and wiser Cole Trickle?

Personally, I’d love to see Waltrip’s story told in a more cinematic way, much like the story of James Hunt and Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s Rush.

What are your thoughts on NASCAR’s outreach through television and cinema? Would you like to see reboots, sequels or certain stories told through the big screen?

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: https://twitter.com/Cole_Cusumano_

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

ASHLEY ASKS……. Michael Waltrip

There are certain moments in motorsports where fans remember they were in the exact time that they occurred. One of those being the 2001 Daytona 500, the sight of Michael Waltrip’s first career victory and the death of Dale Earnhardt.

Now fans will have the chance to get a closer glimpse into the day, through a new documentary titled Blink of an Eye, which tells the tale of triumph and tragedy. In the same day that Waltrip broke his 462-race winless streak by winning the Daytona 500, his best friend and car owner lost his life in the Super Bowl of motorsports.

Waltrip, along with others connected to the events, take the time to recall not only that day, but the events leading up to and afterwards. You can view a trailer for the movie by clicking here.

Recently, Waltrip took the time to speak with POPULAR SPEED about the upcoming movie.

POPULAR SPEED: So everything came together initially with the book you wrote, so how did you come up with the idea to write that?

MICHAEL WALTRIP: It was 10 years after that tragic day that Dale passed and I was going to run the Daytona 500 that year and I was talking to a buddy of mine, who said I should write a book about the 2001 Daytona 500. I guess I’m one of those people who haven’t talked much about their problems. I was one of those kids that mom and dad would be like, ‘you’ll live, fall down and skin your knee, you’ll be alright’. I just never thought about talking about that day so much in so much detail, but my buddy said it might be therapeutic and something that I might enjoy. So we agreed to do the book and the process was really fun for me.

I met a gentleman named Ellis Henican. Ellis wrote the book with me and when it was all done, I handed it to the publisher and said, ‘Well, if anybody buys the book, I can’t help that, but I know every word in that book is said how I wanted to say it’. Ellis really let me tell the story, probably more so than most times when you have a ghost writer. It was more him showing me how to put the content into place, but it was my words. But when the book was all done, I was happy about it.

So about two or three years ago, Mitch Covington from Monster Energy, he read the book and said, ‘You have to tell this story to our sales board. This story is about overcoming adversity, and fighting through tragedy, and winning, and keeping your head up and keeping going.’ So we put together about a 40 minute speech, gave it at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas with video screens; Bon Jovi had played on the stage before so it was set-up to do a nice job for this presentation. When I was finished with the speech, there were these big hairy tattooed guys that came up to me and said, ‘Man, you made me cry. That was quite the speech’.

The owners of Monster were there and they loved it, and said that they needed to make it into a documentary. That’s sort of the process that it’s gone through, and how we got to where we are today. Just like the book, the documentary is done really well and told perfectly. I’m really proud of everybody that put it together, and everybody that had anything to do with my career that day in Daytona – they’re all in the movie. There’s not a piece missing that we can say that we couldn’t do it. I mean, Richard Petty is in it, my brother Darrell (Waltrip), Richard Childress, Mike Helton, my ex-wife Buffy. I’m proud of it and can’t wait for the world to see it.

POPULAR SPEED: So what was it like going through the process in putting the documentary together, and working with everybody to put together as you wished?

WALTRIP: Well, the content is sad and is something that makes me cry, whether I’m being interviewed for the documentary or just living my life. There’s no way that I can talk about that day and not get emotional. For me, it was nothing new or different. It was just a camera that I was telling it to, instead of a buddy or a friend. The thing that I was most proud of was listening to Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., and hearing Richard Petty, and some of my heroes that helped me even understand more about that time in my life.

About a month ago, I was on Dale Jr.’s podcast and we talked more about the 2001 Daytona 500 and the emotions and everything that happened that day than we have in 18 years. So it was certainly worth being able to have that moment with him, and that was a result of the documentary. I’m really thankful for him, who he is, and how much he was honest and you could just tell that he was living the same thing that I am living.

POPULAR SPEED: What do you hope fans take away from the movie when they get a chance to see it?

WALTRIP: I think there’s two reasons from the beginning that I wrote the book, and the goal is the same here. I wanted people to have more appreciation and more respect and admiration and honor Dale. I wanted people to understand more about Dale and how special the Intimidator was when he wasn’t at the race track. I wanted to honor Dale and then I wanted to inspire people. No matter what happens, you can overcome it.

You’re not a loser until you quit, and what is amazing to me is I had lost 462 straight NASCAR races, and when I woke up on February 18, 2001, I told my friends and family around me that they aren’t beating me today. There’s no way they’re beating me today, and that’s because that’s where Dale had me. He had me believing that I would win that race, and that’s what I went and did. To have that person believe in you, it can make a whole difference in your world, and when I took the checkered flag that afternoon, I thought it was the best day ever. Then an hour later, I learned that it might be the worst day ever in NASCAR. That range of emotion is pretty tough to handle, and that’s what life put on my plate, and that’s what I had to deal with it.

I hope that anyone that watches the movie and they haven’t won, or are trying to win, or they have tragedy in their life that they’re dealing with, I can help them. They can say, ‘Well, he did it, I can do it’.

POPULAR SPEED: You’ve spoken about your friendship with Dale Earnhardt. If there’s just one story that you can share from that time together, what would it be?

WALTRIP: There’s many just about friendship and some of the fun things that we did, whether snorkeling in the Bahamas or fishing. A funny story is that he had a big farm with a big fence around it, and I had a little farm with a big fence around it. He told me to come over and he’d give me a deer, and I could put the deer in my field. So I said that was exactly what I wanted to do, in getting a couple deer for my pasture.

So I go over to his house and this deer was in its mom’s belly and this mom got hit by a car. This farmer got out and saw this Mamma deer was dying and pregnant, and he delivered the baby. They bottle fed it, so the baby thought it was a pet. So Dale gave me that deer so it would be protected as it hadn’t been raised to be out in the wild yet. So he loads it up in the back of my truck in a little cage carrier, and I’m getting ready to drive off. He grabs me by the collar and he says, ‘If the police pull you over, you do not know where you got that deer.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He goes, ‘You can’t be driving deer around town. It’s illegal.’ I said, ‘Okay, let me get this straight. I can shoot this deer between the eyes, but I can’t give it a ride?’

We got a big laugh out of that. The deer wound up at my house and we raised it for a long time, and I eventually let it out into the wild and I’m sure the deer is wandering around the hills of North Carolina today.

POPULAR SPEED: Now going back to 2001, what was it like for you putting the deal together to drive for Dale, knowing that he had that faith in you?

WALTRIP: Whether we were on the back of a boat or hanging out at his farm, he would always say to me – I drove for him in the 80s in his Busch car, and again in the 90s I drove a couple of races for him. He always told me that I would win in Cup if I drove for him. I would always say, ‘Well damn, let’s do it. What’s the hold up?’ But circumstances never worked out. There was no ride, no sponsors – the timing wasn’t right, I guess. But he had said that for years – that if I drove for him, I would win.

Late September of 2000, I was on the farm and Buffy, my wife at the time, yelled at me and told me to call Dale as he couldn’t find something. So I called him up and he told me, ‘Get over here. I have to tell you something’. So I went to his shop and he said, ‘We’re going have a third team, NAPA is going sponsor it, and I want you to be the driver.’ I was just amazed. I’m 38-years-old, and these days a 38-year-old with a record like I had could not get a top-ride. I don’t know if I could’ve gotten a top-ride if it wasn’t for Dale.

From early September to the last corner of the last lap in the Daytona 500, it was the best time of my life. My family was doing well, I was confident, and just going to the shop and listening to Dale about how we were going to do things, and seeing all the parts and tools that I was going to have to race with.

I couldn’t wait for the Monday morning debriefs, whether I won or lost. I think Dale had the attitude that I was really good driver, but I hadn’t done a really good job at managing my career, and he was going to take that over. The Monday morning after I won was going to be great, but I was looking forward to the Monday mornings when we didn’t win just to hear his guidance.

Unfortunately, I never got to have a Monday morning meeting.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Short Tracks Belong In NASCAR – Many Say There Should Be More Of Them

Lately there has been much discussion about short tracks, namely; perhaps NASCAR’s sagging attendance and diminishing interest might be cured if it bothered to put more half-mile tracks on the schedule.

The argument is that the sanctioning body’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series is composed predominantly of superspeedways and, especially, tracks of a mile-and-one half in length.

There are three short tracks on the MENCS circuit, Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond, which means that of the xx races conducted each season only six are on short tracks.

It has become so after decades of NASCAR evolution. During the 1950s – the pioneer era – virtually every race (as many as 50 per season) was held on a short track in such far-flung places as Macon, Ga., and Ona, WVa.

But starting in 1959 things began to change. Daytona International Speedway was built and was followed in the early and late 1960s by Charlotte, Atlanta, Rockingham, Michigan, Talladega, Dover and Pocono.

The big-track phenomenon became so large it was suggested NASCAR become a “superspeedway” environment only. In other words, do away with the short tracks that existed at the time.

Bill France Jr., NASCAR’s president would have none of it.

Still the larger tracks gained a strong foothold with venue expansion in the 1980s. On board came Las Vegas, Kentucky, Kansas, Texas, Fontana, Phoenix, and Homestead – the majority of which were one and one-half miles in length.

They became known as “cookie cutter” tracks.

There were other additions not of the same mold. They were the road courses at Watkins Glen and Sonoma and the venerated two-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Still the new NASCAR landscape did not include any new short tracks. Long gone were Nashville and North Wilkesboro – one of the first tracks to become a part of the circuit – closed its doors in 1996.

Today, I believe the six short-track races are among the most anticipated of every season. One reason is rather obvious: They offer a different style of racing entertainment than we see on the larger tracks.

Raw speed is the selling point at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega, where the draft rules supreme.

None of the “cookie cutter” tracks is exactly the same. Each has nuances that provide for competition variety. But to observers that’s hard to determine. The racing looks the same and, they claim, it is predictably routine.

There are a couple things about racing on short tracks that have made them unique. Speed, for example, is not that prevalent except on the high banks at Bristol.

Instead it’s the inevitable jostling, the often-prevalent metal-to-metal contact – and the prevailing strategy that to gain position one driver has to unceremoniously shove another out of the way- that create short-track appeal.

It is a throwback to the way it used to be. And it is the reason why fans and competitors urge NASCAR never to drop its short tracks and even promote those whose weekly shows are not part of the MENCS circuit.

There are many examples of the style of racing fans enjoy at short-track events. Bristol, which just completed its first event of the season, has had more than its share.

So does Richmond, which is the site of this weekend’s MENCS event.

Richmond is perhaps the most unique speedway in NASCAR. It’s a handsome facility and is the only one three-quarters of a mile in distance.

It didn’t used to be that way. It was once a half-mile track surrounded by guardrails and wooden grandstands nestled in the Virginia State Fairgrounds.

But, like its short-track cousins, it could produce some wild competition.

A good example came in February of 1986. That year, in one of the most improbable finishes in NASCAR history, Kyle Petty won the first race of his career with the Wood Brothers.

He shouldn’t have. He was a distant fifth as the race came to its conclusion. With three laps to go, Darrell Waltrip, who had battled back from a lap down, shot past leader Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt, who by this time was establishing himself as a no-quarter driver, responded by clipping Waltrip’s right rear.

Waltrip crashed headfirst into the third turn steel guardrail – a potentially dangerous situation – that set off a chain reaction that gathered up nearly all the leading cars.

Only Petty survived and he went on to take the checkered flag.

As you might expect, there was bad blood.

“I like to win as much as the next guy,” Waltrip said, “but I’ve never tried hurt someone to do it.”

Said his team owner Junior Johnson: “It was like Dale put a gun to Darrell’s head and pulled the trigger.”

To be honest, every track has a story like that. But there are more of them – far more – that emerge from short tracks.

They should remain a part of NASCAR and I think they will.      

And then … perhaps, as many desire, there may be more of them.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Flashback Friday: Remembering Dale Earnhardt’s Last, Heroic Victory

Sunday’s Alabama 500 will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. And it will also be the 17th anniversary of his late father’s amazing final race victory, which took place at the 2.66-mile Alabama track, much to the delight of the elder Earnhardt’s massive fan base.

Even now, it still defies belief how Earnhardt won his 76th and final Cup race. Maybe his remarkable victory was proof that in a superspeedway draft at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, Earnhardt really could see the air.

The scene was Talladega Superspeedway, and the date was Oct. 15, 2000. Earnhardt had qualified his familiar and menacing black No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo in 20th place for the Winston 500, the final restrictor-plate race of the season.

As always, the Talladega grandstands were jammed full of members of the Earnhardt Nation, untold thousands who had come to see just one thing: Their hero win his 10th Talladega race. But with four laps to go, they appeared headed for bitter disappointment, as Earnhardt was buried way back in 18th place, having just bounced off of Rich Bickle’s car and seemingly trapped in a sea of race cars on all four sides of him, hemming in the black No. 3.

But suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Earnhardt charged forward, parting the field like Moses parting the Red Sea, and with Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek behind him, Earnhardt charged forward in the closing laps.

The Talladega grandstands exploded in a thunder of applause as Earnhardt methodically worked his way through the traffic.

“I don’t understand how he did that!” shouted Benny Parsons, who was doing the television commentary.

As the cars came to the white flag, RCR’s Mike Skinner had the lead on the bottom lane, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind him. But up top, it was the elder Earnhardt, with Wallace pushing him for everything he was worth and Nemechek holding sway behind them.

As they went around for the final time, Skinner’s challenge faded and the top three pulled away. Earnhardt crossed the line the winner, claiming the $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus money in addition to his race earnings.

It was a display of shock and awe perhaps never equaled in a Cup race, one that left the fans dazed and delighted in their disbelief. The noise from the grandstands was deafening as Earnhardt crossed the start-finish line. It sounded and felt like a mild earthquake.

On pit road, team owner Richard Childress was so happy that he grabbed crewman Danny Lawrence and kissed him on the cheek. “The race fans got the race they deserved today,” said Childress. “This is for the race fans.”

Childress was as stunned as anyone as the applause continued from the 170,000 race fans. “He never gave up,” Childress said of his driver.

“It was wild,” Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. “I didn’t have any thought that I have a chance of winning this race, starting where I did on that restart. Boy, as we kept working away and got on the outside of Kenny — Kenny Wallace really worked hard with us and he done a good job. I don’t think we could have got back up there without Kenny.”

It was Wallace’s push that drove Earnhardt past Skinner for the victory. “I hate to beat Mike Skinner, but I had to beat him for a million,” Earnhardt said.

“It was a chess game of getting there and staying there and it just worked out for us to be there at the right time,” Earnhardt said.

“It was just a deal where it was vintage,” said Wallace, teammate of third-place finisher Nemechek at Andy Petree Racing. “Here I am trying to win the race … he comes down in front of me and I’m thinking, ‘My God, I’ve got no choice now but to help this guy win.’”

Afterwards, there was no way anyone could have known it would be Earnhardt’s final visit to Victory Lane. Nor would anyone who witnessed it ever forget what they saw as The Intimidator worked his magic one last time.

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Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: If Kyle Busch Is A Villain, There’s Nothing Wrong With That

There has been much talk about Kyle Busch ever since his petulant behavior following his close loss in the Coca-Cola 600.

If you didn’t see what happened via television or social media (I’m betting you did) here’s a quick summary: Looking decidedly upset, or frustrated, Busch fidgeted at the microphone, mumbled “congratulations” (that’s what I thought I heard), then dropped the mike and walked away.

He acted like an unhappy child.

Naturally he was taken to task by the fans, media and some fellow competitors like Brad Keselowski. I’m pretty sure he’s not No. 1 on many folks’ hit parade.

However, I agree with Dale Earnhardt Jr. who suggested Busch remain himself and not change just to gain redemption.

I am not suggesting Busch throw temper tantrums. But if he can’t help himself because of his competitive personality, well, he can have at it.

To me, there is a good reason for this:

NASCAR needs a villain. It needs a competitor whose personality, sassy mouth, razor-thin temper or undisciplined driving style draws the ire of the fans.

They band together in their dislike for him and – this is important – follow his every move at every race. He brings attention to NASCAR that goes beyond its fans. Believe me, that is something the sanctioning body needs right now.

Villains have been part of NASCAR since it’s founding. Today some of them rank among the greatest stock car drivers in history and are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

The legendary Curtis Turner showed a car no mercy. He didn’t know much about finesse. Consequently, when it came to his rivals on the track if he could not pass them he would just as soon run over them.

That’s not a good way to attract friends but Turner did not care.

In the 1970s the undisputed villain was Darrell Waltrip. He worked at it. When he came into the sport he knew there were only two ways to gain attention: Win and be a smart aleck.

Because of his quick wit Waltrip was a media darling. But many fans thought he was just too cocky and too “mouthy.”

It’s fair to say many competitors thought the same.

In one of his many feuds Waltrip fell at odds with Cale Yarborough. The two were swept up in a multicar accident in the 1977 Southern 500 at Darlington.

Driver D.K. Ulrich, involved in the incident, asked Yarborough why he hit him.

“I didn’t hit you,” Yarborough answered. “Ol’ Jaws hit you. He knocked you into the wall. It was uncalled for.”

Waltrip was known as “Jaws” for the rest of his career.

A couple of weeks later Yarborough won at Martinsville on a hot, humid day.

Exhausted, Yarborough declared the race, at 500 laps, was too long and needed to be cut.

“I will not shorten my races,” track owner H. Clay Earles heatedly said.

Waltrip pounced. He emerged the winner a week later at North Wilkesboro, another half-mile track.

In victory lane he pronounced the presence of the “Cale Scale,” an imaginary device that measured a race’s degree of difficulty

“This race was only a one and a half or two,” Waltrip said. “I wish we had another 100 laps. I guess Cale is getting too old.”

And so it went. Waltrip continued to toss barbs and fans continued to dislike him. When he was introduced there were plenty of boos.

Dale Earnhardt was a sensation at the start of his career but soon after his overly aggressive driving style became the target of competitor and fan criticism.

Earnhardt didn’t seem to care.

He got the nickname “The Intimidator.”

 For many it was not a term of respect.

Much later the seemingly unprofessional, body-slam style of Ernie Irvan raised the ire of competitors and fans, who named him “Swervin’ Irvan.”

He even apologized for his mistakes in a drivers meeting at Talladega.

It took so long for Rusty Wallace to regain the fans’ favor after his victory in the 1989 The Winston, in which he spun Waltrip on the last lap. He wondered if all he would hear for the rest of his career was irate booing.

Do you really have to be reminded about Tony Stewart? He flunked Anger Management 101. To my knowledge he is the only driver in NASCAR history to be fined by his sponsor for misbehavior.

Kyle’s brother Kurt was known for his surliness and short temper as much as his driving skill.

There are others, of course, but here is the point: These drivers polarized fans, but at the same time, they enhanced their enjoyment of the sport if for no other reason than to see if they would get their comeuppance.

They were the subjects of much attention, week in and week out. Their outbursts, behavior or on-track shenanigans made headlines. The rivalries they established made fans argue among themselves – but at the same time it kept them riveted to all that was going on.

And you don’t have to be told how much the media delighted in it all.

Villainy aside, it must be pointed out that all of the drivers mentioned were winners and several were champions. That means that it didn’t matter how much they antagonized competitors and fans, they could back it up with accomplishments.

Kyle Busch already has achieved much. His skills are obvious and many admire him for them.But to many that doesn’t matter. He’s their man to dislike – so far.

I believe that comes from Busch being himself. He may change. That is certainly his right and perfectly acceptable.

But if he remains the Kyle Bush he is he will likely fulfill the role NASCAR desperately needs: the villain.

And there is not a thing wrong with that.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: The All-Star Race Had Humble, Simple Beginnings

The NASCAR Monster Energy All Star race will be conducted this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway and it will be the latest in a series of special, exhibition events that have taken place since 1985.

The race has provided some of the most dramatic, exciting moments in NASCAR’s history.

That’s largely because of its format. It’s changed so many times over the years it is hard to keep track. But suffice it to say that the structure of the race – including segments, pit stops, inverted starts and a 10-lap free-for-all for a finish – is designed to provide controlled mayhem.

And for the most part, it’s worked.

It wasn’t always like that, however.

The first race, called The Winston by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. – NASCAR’s prime sponsor and creator of the all-star event – was something of a simple affair.

The format was simple. The race would be held among the 12 winners from the 1984 season. That’s all. It would be 70 laps in distance with no segments, breaks or anything else, at Charlotte.

It was much like the Busch Clash that began at Daytona a few years earlier. It was a short race open to pole winners only.

In 1985, the number of victories in 1984 determined starting positions. There was no full-scale qualifying.

Therefore, 1994 champion Terry Labonte was accorded the pole position. Alongside him was Darrell Waltrip, who was in his fourth season with team owner Junior Johnson.

Waltrip immediately took the lead when the race started. However, there was a $10,000 bonus for the driver who led the 20th lap and Labonte made sure he collected the money when he passed Waltrip down the backstretch.

Pit stops, which were necessary because of the race’s length, began on lap 31 when Harry Gant, driving for Hal Needham, went down pit road.

After the cycle of stops ended, Gant held a comfortable lead over Labonte and Waltrip.

Suddenly, Waltrip became inspired.

“Junior got on the radio and asked me if I wanted the $200,000 to win or $75,000 for second place,” Waltrip said. “I decided to give it my all.”

Sure enough, Waltrip began to cut away at Gant’s lead. It was a steady process as Gant had older tires.

On the last lap Waltrip slipped by Gant in turn four to win by 0.31-second and create an anticipated dramatic finish to the first all-star race.

But then came the unexpected – and accompanying controversy.

Just as he crossed the finish line the engine in Waltrip’s Chevrolet blew in a huge plume of smoke. It was almost as if it had been timed to happen.

Immediately the conspiracy theorists began to rumble. They determined that Waltrip raced with illegal, oversized engine – something Johnson was certainly capable of providing – and then mashed the clutch at the finish line to avoid detection.

If NASCAR suspected anything there was nothing it could do about it. How does it inspect a blown engine?

For his part Waltrip, who was $200,000 richer, said only that his engine was designed for ultimate power and a short lifetime.

“Before the race the boys told me not to run it any harder than I had to,” he said. “It wasn’t going to last long.”

That didn’t halt suspicions, which continue to this day.

The Winston was deemed a success. But there were issues.

At first it was decided the event would be held at multiple tracks so all of them could share in the glory and anticipated income.

But Charlotte remained steadfast. It declared that with its marketing skills and noted penchant for creating splashy spectacles it should remain home to the all-star race. It only made sense.

But Reynolds decided the race should share the wealth. Thus it was moved to Atlanta in 1986.

Big mistake.

The number of laps was increased to 83 but there were only 10 entrants – all winners from 1985.

The race was an unadulterated snoozer. Bill Elliott led all but one lap – Dale Earnhardt got credit for leading lap 40 on pit road – and went on to win by more than two seconds.

The inaugural The Winston drew 110,000 fans at Charlotte. Only 18,500 attended at Atlanta.

There was a good reason why. The Atlanta race was held on Mother’s Day. NASCAR never raced on that day and still doesn’t.

It’s one thing to take dad to a race. It’s quite another to take mom. Take her to brunch.

The race returned to Charlotte the next year and has been held at the track ever since. There’s no longer any talk of moving it.

Over the years there have been multiple format changes and entry requirements.

They, among other things,have helped make the race better and bigger than could have been imagined in 1985.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: The Tale Of a Christmas Parade With a NASCAR Champion

It was something I could have never anticipated. I had scheduled an interview with 1980 NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt during the post season.

Earnhardt was kind enough to grant the interview but only if I left Roanoke – where I was with the Roanoke Times – and come to his home in Doolie, N.C., on the shores of Lake Norman.

“Come on down and we’ll make a party out of it,” Earnhardt said. “We’ll cook out and you can stay overnight at my house.”

Fine, I replied. I asked him if he thought he could spare enough time for an interview.

At first he was unresponsive. It was like he was searching for an answer.

After a couple of moments he replied in somewhat somber tones, “Yes we’ll find the time. You have no idea of how this championship has changed me and my life.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant. But I would find out.

I went to North Carolina, met Earnhardt at his house and almost immediately we drove to the home of the late Joe Whitlock, Earnhardt’s PR man.

Whitlock was a master of his profession. He also knew how to have a good time. When Earnhardt and I arrived at his home it was already crowded with friends and associates, among them my buddy Tom Higgins of the Charlotte Observer.

While there I wished I had brought a notebook and pencil (no digital recorders back then). I would have been able to record many hilarious anecdotes and tall tales.

Also while there, I got the shock of my life.

“Waid,” Earnhardt said, “you are going to drive me in the Concord Christmas Parade tomorrow.”

“Say what?” I stammered.

Earnhardt went on to explain that as the 1980 champion whose hometown was Kannapolis, N.C. – adjacent to Concord – he was a natural choice to be the parade’s Grand Marshal.

dale-1“Means I have come pretty far, doesn’t it?” he said.

I said I would be happy to drive the Grand Marshal’s car in the parade.

Before we went to Concord, however, Earnhardt suggested we do the interview at his house.

He was at ease. The words flowed out of him. He talked about his love of racing, nurtured by his father, NASCAR champion Ralph Earnhardt.

He talked about his hardships. He wanted to race but he married at an early age. That meant he had to work. Finding jobs was not easy for him, especially since he didn’t have a high school degree.

He took jobs from one end of North Carolina to the other. All the while he raced – in anything he could get his hands on.

He was never sure if he would be able to race for a living.

“I got my break with Rod Osterlund,” Earnhardt said of the California businessman and fledgling team owner. “He appreciated my potential. He literally took me in. That house I live in at the lake? It’s his. He gave it to me.”

Osterlund’s faith in Earnhardt was rewarded. In 1979 Earnhardt won his first race and was named Rookie of the Year.

Then, in 1980, he won the championship. It was a whirlwind of achievement and Earnhardt remains the only driver to win rookie honors and a title in successive seasons.

“It almost overwhelms you,” Earnhardt said. “I mean, this is what I’ve always wanted to do. But now I’m the champion. And that means I can’t just race for myself.

“I’ve got responsibilities to NASCAR and the other teams and drivers. I am supposed to be a leader now. I mean it really changes your life.”

I never expected such profound sentiments.

After he changed into jeans, a shirt and vest – all supplied by his new sponsor Wrangler – Earnhardt and I traveled to the parade staging area in Concord.

We met Higgins there. He was going to sit in the back seat and be the bartender. Earnhardt was partial to Jack Daniels and Sun Drop.

Earnhardt was natural and at ease. He chatted with many folks who were part of the parade, including a group of ladies from the local bank who were to ride on a float. They couldn’t take their eyes off him. They were charmed.

To negotiate the parade route was simple. It was directly on Concord’s historic Union Street and all I had to do was to drive slowly and make sure I didn’t overtake the vehicle ahead of me.

dale-3Earnhardt sat atop our Grand Prix, smiled and waved to the crowd.

Repeatedly kids would dash up to our car to shake Earnhardt’s hand or ask for an autograph. I always stopped the car.

“Dammit, Waid, don’t stop,” Earnhardt said. “You keep doing that and we’ll never get through this.”

I did as I was told.

When the parade was over he thanked me. He wanted me to come back to his house but I said I had to get back to Roanoke and my family.

And I had to organize my thoughts. I knew that if I did it properly, I could provide a great story.

My thoughts always returned to something that happened during the parade. I had stopped so that a youngster could shake Earnhardt’s hand.

The kid said: “Dale Earnhardt! Dale Earnhardt! You really got it made, don’t you?”

It took a while, but yes, he had it made.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

MILNER: A Seventh for Johnson Wouldn’t Diminish Earnhardt’s and Petty’s Legacies

With his win at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson didn’t just earn himself another grandfather clock. Taking the checkered flag last weekend assured Johnson an opportunity to race for another Sprint Cup title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If he can finish ahead of the other three challengers, he will win his seventh championship.

If the pieces come together, it will be a historic achievement. It will be Johnson’s first championship since 2013 and his first under the new Chase format. He will also become only the third NASCAR driver to win seven championships, a feat previously accomplished by Hall-of-Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

As Johnson marched toward multiple championships, he became a polarizing figure as some fans who booed his every win. Even last weekend, as he climbed from his car, you could hear a smattering of boo.

Should Johnson win at Homestead, there will be those who will be quick to declare his feat to be insufficient to place him alongside Petty and Earnhardt. While every fan is entitled to their opinion, they should not be so quick to downplay Johnson’s seventh win as if it takes away from Earnhardt and Petty’s legacies.

Usually, the word “I” doesn’t figure into my articles for Popular Speed but here, I will make an exception: I am a Dale Earnhardt, Sr. fan. With due respect to Johnson, Petty, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison and others who enter the conversation as who was the “greatest driver of all time,” my vote goes to Earnhardt.

Having said that, I respect what Johnson has done in his career and will not be disappointed if his 2016 season ends with his seventh championship. Jimmie Johnson tying Dale Earnhardt’s record will not diminish Earnhardt’s legacy any more than Richard Petty’s legacy was in 1994 with Earnhardt’s seventh championship.

Richard Petty, with 200 wins, seven championships and an equal number of Daytona 500 wins, earned “the King” a place in the upper echelon of NASCAR all-time elite drivers. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. did the same with 76 wins, seven championships and his 1998 Daytona 500 victory. Johnson, with six championships, 79 wins, and two Daytona 500 victories is already among the all-time greats. A win at Homestead for a seventh championship would raise his career achievements up, not bring down those of either Petty or Earnhardt.

If Johnson’s seventh championship were to come to pass, NASCAR would not lose anything. Instead, it would gain a historic moment not been seen in a generation and likely will not to be seen again for another.

Even if Johnson’s seventh championship doesn’t come in 2016 or ever, he is still worthy of being part of the conversation as to who is NASCAR’s greatest driver. Whether he, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. or any other driver deserves the title is up to individual opinion. Nothing that happens at Homestead will change that.

Johnson, for his part, says he is honored to be a part of that conversation. Nothing that happens at Homestead will change that, either.

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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News

Gordon Stepping Out of Retirement

Jeff Gordon is not done racing just yet.

Hendrick Motorsports made it official on Wednesday, announcing that the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion will substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr for the next two race weekends at Indianapolis and-and Pocono. Dale Jr has not been cleared by doctors to compete in the Sprint Cup Series after experiencing concussion-like symptoms, including nausea and dizziness.

Gordon is third on the all-time wins list with 93 victories. Five of those came at the Brickyard, and six came at Pocono, which are both records. His last Sprint Cup Series start came at the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami.

The announcement came last Friday that if Dale Jr. was not cleared to race, Gordon would replace him.

“Jeff is a team player,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “I know he’ll be ready, and I know Dale has incredible trust in him. It is going to be an emotional weekend at Indianapolis.”

Indianapolis will be the second consecutive week that Earnhardt has missed in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The last time Earnhardt was not able to compete due to a concussion or concussion-like symptoms was in 2012.

On Tuesday, Earnhardt went under more evaluation and explained what he’s going through on his podcast.

“The symptoms I have are dealing with balance and nausea. I put my health and quality of life as a top priority. And I’ll always do that. So I’m going to take this slow and strictly follow the advice of my doctors, and try to learn as much as I can to be smarter and wiser. It’s always been a real experience going through this kind of stuff because you learn so much through the experience. I’ve got some great doctors to learn from.”

Earnhardt does expect to get back into the car at some point, but there is no set timetable for his return to competition.

Emily Spink is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist.

EMAIL EMILY AT emily.spink@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kentucky Belongs to Generation Now

Kentucky Speedway opened with an ARCA race in 2000. Since then, NASCAR has held races in various series at the track. Greg Biffle won the inaugural Camping World Truck Series race at the track and Kevin Harvick, the first XFINITY race.

The history of the Sprint Cup series at Kentucky, meanwhile, is actually quite limited. With only six Cup races held at the Sparta track, there are but three drivers with Kentucky wins on their resume: Matt Kenseth, two-time winner Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, who became a three-time winner this past weekend. It would be safe to assume (barring any major complications) every Kentucky winner will return to compete in next year’s race.

When the Cup series returns to the 1.5-mile track in 2017, those three winners should be joined by every driver with more than one top five at Kentucky, every driver who has recorded double digits in laps led and every driver who has sat on the pole. There is probably not another track that will be able to say the same.

Kentucky may lack in longevity, but there is an opportunity for this generation of Cup drivers to make this track their own. They need not worry about living up to the standards set by Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip. Even Jeff Gordon failed  to win at Kentucky before retiring last season.

Instead, they will be the ones setting the standards and to do so, they will compete against the drivers next to them, rather than the legends they know only from studying NASCAR history.

The history of the Kentucky Speedway may pale when placed alongside Daytona, Talladega or Darlington, but if it is to be raised to sit alongside those tracks in esteem and prestige, it will be because of the exploits of those drivers we are watching on TV or at the track every week.

Right now, Brad Keselowski would be considered the man when it comes to Kentucky, the way Petty is considered “The King” of Daytona or the way Waltrip ruled Bristol. If there is a driver who knocks Keselowski off his Kentucky throne, it will be one of his current or future competitors.

Cup history in Kentucky may not be long, but it is being written before our very eyes.

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.