Authors: Monte Dutton
Copyright © 2006 by Monte Dutton
All rights reserved.
Hachette Book Group
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First eBook Edition: June 2009
To my colleagues in the racing press,
most of whom work exceedingly hard,
most of whom are honest and honorable,
and all of whom get less credit
than they deserve.
Jim Cypher, my agent, has lent more guidance and assistance
than could be reasonably expected from the call of duty.
Several colleagues—David Poole, Mike Hembree, Kenny Bruce,
Jim McLaurin, Rick Minter, and Thomas Pope spring immediately to mind—
have made suggestions that ended up improving the text and
firing my memory and creativity.
Public relations representatives Dan Zacharias of Ford
and Ray Cooper of Dodge have been particularly helpful.
Jason Pinter of Warner Books established standards
of communication and cooperation that other publishers of my work
will have trouble matching.
o matter how much their sport grows, NASCAR fans feel a bit put upon by those who do not share the passion. Mike Watt, a fan from Edmonton, Alberta, says, “If you come to one of these races and don’t have any idea what the big deal is, there’s no way I’m ever going to be able to explain it to you.”
NASCAR fans dismiss most of the rest of the mainstream sports as “stick-and-ball sports.” It’s a mild term of derision, this idea that Barry Bonds, Shaq, Peyton Manning and all the rest are occupying themselves with little boys’ sports. Racers, on the other hand, are, to their fans, the righteous icons of the Great American Love Affair with the Automobile. Surrounded by steel, fuel, and rubber, they are the last true folk heroes in the eyes of their fans, who refer to them by their first names—Dale, Tony, Jeff, Mark, Rusty, and Mikey—and place them either on a pedestal or in a Dumpster, depending on where the allegiances fall.
Rick Larouse travels to the Nextel Cup race in Las Vegas every year from his home in the Canadian province of Alberta. What keeps him coming back? “The atmosphere,” he says firmly, “and the character of the drivers. I like a man who calls it the way he sees it. I see that more in some of the veteran drivers, the ones who have been around. Some of the young drivers seem kind of plastic to me, but I’d be the first to admit that part of that’s probably the fact that I don’t know ’em as well.
“Don’t matter who you are, though. It takes guts to drive a race car. Every one of ’em’s a cut above the average Joe, if you ask me.”
It’s not a cult anymore, not even in western Canada. The average attendance at a Nextel Cup race is over 150,000. The TV ratings are second only to the National—buh-buh-buh-BUH!—Football League. The snobs can look down their noses if they want, it being a free country, but the gearheads with the “3” stickers in the back windows of their pickup trucks have earned the last laugh. The NASCAR army now regularly descends on virtually every outpost, great and small, and completely overruns it. For two weekends a year, even trendy Los Angeles cowers in the wake of the legions of fans who arrive from the heartland, wielding their beer coolers and charcoal grills as if they were weapons.
“What I love about NASCAR is the diversity,” says Mo Curry, a fan from Philipsburg, Montana. “The diversity of the people is amazing. Let me explain what I mean by that. My husband and I towed our little camper down here [Las Vegas] from home. When we got here, we backed it in right next to a big motor coach that cost $200,000 if it cost a dime.”
“America is built on wheels,” adds her husband, Bo. “You know why more and more people are getting into NASCAR? You can relate. Everybody drives a car, and everybody wishes he could get in a race car and go fast.”
Even as they rejoice, though, they feel a bit resented and underappreciated. Invariably, the major metropolitan dailies arrive on the scene with one of either two stories in mind. Either it’s “the cultural phenomenon of the NASCAR dads,” a term that happened along at least a decade after it became relevant, or “let’s hang out in the infield with all the Bubbas.” The latter is an easy story to write, stock car fans being good-humored sorts who will even laugh along when they are being ridiculed. Don’t think they don’t know what’s happening, though. They know it’s open season on Bubbas in Chicago, Frisco, and LA. They know other groups in this country are practically immune to such satirical fire. They can take a joke, though, and that’s a good thing.
“Who cares what people think? This is the biggest carnival on earth,” says Bo Curry. “Unless you attend one of these things, you’ve got no idea what you’re missing. The race is cool, but look at this midway. Look at all the souvenir trailers. You can spend all day out here, just watching the people.”
“Y’all have to write whatever you have to write. Your opinions are yours, and you write them down on a piece of paper and share it with thousands of people. I’ve been criticized enough where y’all can’t hurt me. You can’t write anything that’s going to make my day any worse. And you can’t, all of a sudden, tell me I’m smart and great and make me feel any better. I didn’t believe you when you said I sucked, and I’m not going to believe you when you say I’m great! I’m just going to keep on being me.”
addressing the media after a second-place finish at Phoenix in April 2005
“Sometimes, when Bruton opens his mouth, it sounds like he’s constipated.”
—WILLIAM C. FRANCE
NASCAR tycoon, on rival tycoon O. Bruton Smith
“I definitely think me and Michael [Waltrip] could whip their guys in a tag-team match.”
—DALE EARNHARDT JR.
in reference to rival team Richard Childress Racing, at Daytona in 2003
“If Congress didn’t pass a vote I wanted passed, I’d end up saying the first thing that came to my mind, and you can’t do that. When Saddam challenged Bush to a public debate a few weeks ago, Bush didn’t even acknowledge the challenge, because it wouldn’t accomplish anything. It was petty. It was absolutely the right thing to do by not accepting Saddam’s challenge. And that’s why I couldn’t be president, because not only would I have accepted it, I would’ve given him my calling-card number.”
surprising no one by announcing he would not be a candidate for president in 2004
“If we’re going to keep fuel-mileage racing, we might as well build solar cars and let the sun decide who wins.”
“I’m glad I don’t have to face a Randy Johnson fastball or a Warren Sapp hit when I’m releasing a pass, but I bet Tim Duncan is glad he’s not running two hundred miles per hour with forty-two other cars around him, too.”
“Wonder if they have boiled peanuts in California?”
responding to California Speedway getting the Labor Day weekend date once reserved for Darlington
n a sunny afternoon in the garage area of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, ex-champions David Pearson and Tony Stewart got to know each other.
At the time, Pearson was seventy years old, Stewart thirty-three. Pearson’s last championship occurred in 1969, when what is now Nextel Cup was referred to as Grand National and there were no races in Las Vegas.
Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, though, Stewart is a throwback to the days when dinosaurs named Pearson, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and Bobby Allison ruled the earth. Earth, at the time, mainly consisted of the South.
Pearson, who won 105 races, was leisurely strolling around with another notable resident of Spartanburg, South Carolina, former car owner and ace mechanic Walter “Bud” Moore. As luck would have it, they happened to be in front of the stall where Stewart’s number 20 Chevrolet rested, shortly after the end of a practice session and as Stewart was climbing out of his orange car.
“Do you know Tony Stewart?” I asked Pearson.
“I’ve met him,” he said. “I don’t know him. I know he can sure enough drive a race car.”
“I think you’d like him,” I said. “Hang on a minute.”
I then walked over in front of the car, where Stewart was discussing various matters of technical significance with his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli.
“David Pearson’s out there,” I said to Stewart. “Want to say hello?”
“Give me a minute,” said Stewart.
I walked back out and started talking with Moore, about whose teams I used to write, and Pearson, the hero of my youth. The topic was familiar: how much times have changed, how not all the changes have been for the best, how much all the cars are just alike, etc. It was the kind of conversation old-timers have regardless of whether they’re athletes or shoe salesmen.
Pearson looks as if he could climb right back into a stock car and run five hundred miles. He seems far more robust than a man who underwent open-heart surgery a few years back. He has the same barrel chest and broad shoulders he boasted when he was winning eleven races in eighteen tries in 1973.
After a few minutes of chitchat, though, the proud ex-champion was getting a little restless. With a small sense of urgency, I excused myself and returned to the garage stall, where Stewart had been intercepted by someone else.
“Hey, Tony,” I said, “the best stock car racer who ever lived is out there, and I don’t think I’d make him wait much longer.”
Stewart looked up. “Don’t let him get away,” he said. “I’ll be right there.”
Thirty seconds may have passed before Stewart strode out into the desert sunshine.
“Hey,” he said, shaking Pearson’s hand, “I need you to drive my car for me at Darlington. I ain’t worth a damn at that track.”
Pearson didn’t flinch. “All you got to do is drive that thing as high on the track as you can get it,” he said.
“That’s what I’m doing,” Stewart said, smiling.
“You ought to have driven it when it was hard,” replied Pearson, who won there a record ten times. “It’s easy now.”
By this time, a small army of photographers had descended, snapping what must have been hundreds of shots as another writer and I ducked out. I felt like saying, “Hey, guys, you’re welcome.”
After a reasonable period of photo ops taken while they chatted, Stewart and Pearson walked over to the Joe Gibbs Racing transporter and went inside to chat a while longer. Pearson came out with an autographed photo for his grandson, aptly named David.
Say what you want about Stewart, but he is nothing if not mindful of the past and respectful of its heroes. At any given time that he isn’t embroiled in high-level discussions on just how he’s going to manage to win the next race, a visit to Stewart’s transporter will find him talking shop with a Red Farmer or a Donnie Allison. Stewart feels at home in the company of the hardscrabble men who preceded him.
No one needs to remind Pearson of how great he was. He’s a proud man, but he’s not one to elaborate on his great works and deeds. Pearson grew up in a textile mill village, and when he rose to prominence, he knew well the feeling of being looked down upon by the society folks. I wasn’t kidding when I told Stewart he was the best stock car racer ever to strap on a helmet. That’s my opinion an d it’s unlikely to change.
“They’re going to have to change at least two right-side tires.”
calling the 2002 Budweiser Shootout
“[Crew chief] Tommy Baldwin would like to say he’s going to Disneyland, but actually, he’ll be going to Rockingham next week with the rest of us.”
—Motor Racing Network’s
after Baldwin’s driver, Ward Burton, won the 2002 Daytona 500
“Depends on the day.”
asked what it was like to drive for Jack Roush
“It’s been a whirlpool week.”
obviously meaning to say “whirlwind”
“I wonder a lot about what I would have been had my dad not been a race car driver. I’d probably have ended up in the cotton mill somewhere.”
“I can run ten miles. I don’t think driving five hundred miles is going to be a problem.”
prior to making his comeback after suffering a severe head injury in 2001
“I’ll trade ’em [Chevrolet] three rule changes for Jeff Gordon.”