NMPA
c/o Bridget Holloman, Exec. Secretary
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Darlington, SC 29540
Phone: (843) 395-8811

Columns
First Place

Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene

In NASCAR, you get what you, and sometimes others, pay for

Go ahead. Admit it. At least one small reason you find yourself attracted to NASCAR is because, as a race fan, you can often pretend that you are an actual, professional race car driver. Or, in some cases, a filthy-rich corporate executive who enjoys modernizing tradition, raising ticket prices and walks on the beach.

You race home from work each day, passing the occasional lost Canadian tourist, drafting behind semis, and generally paying more attention to your cell phone than the highway.

“A 505 area code? Hmmm. Now I wonder who that could be? Hey, is that another lost Canadian tourist over there?”

Trying all the while to sing along to such K-Tel classics as “Me & You & and Dog Named Boo,” “The Night Chicago Died,” or, if you really want to “get down,” “Mississippi Queen.”

You roar into your neighborhood, blast past the retired school teacher in the ’79 Dodge Aspen, slide sideways into the driveway (running over skateboards, bicycles and the occasional lost Canadian), climb from the car ... and PRETEND to knock bottles, hats and anything else (skateboards, bicycles, lost Canadians, etc.) off the roof of your car.

That’s why race fans love the sport. Not because of the “Lucky Dog” rule, freezing the field or empty promises of a green, white, checkered finish. Not because we now have the Chase For The Nextel Cup and the soon-to-be-released board game that comes with it. And not because at some point, you sincerely believe that Halle Berry will show up trackside, and then nobody will have to tell the drivers to start their engines.

OK, maybe that last one’s part of the reason, too.

Now, sadly, NASCAR wants to put a stop to that. In its ever-expanding search to “commercialize” the sport, NASCAR has asked its competitors to halt the practice of knocking beverage bottles off their cars in the winner’s circle.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Why would anyone name their dog Boo?”

You’re also thinking, “Why sit through three hours of hum-drum racing, with only the occasional 17-car pileup, when I know that as soon as the race is over, the winning driver will climb from his car, survey the six bags of groceries mysteriously placed atop its roof ... and wonder aloud if maybe he struck a lost Canadian tourist while driving through the Kroger parking lot.”

It has become a time-honored tradition, meaning at least one year, for the race winner to climb from his car and, if the products placed on the roof by savvy marketing officials aren’t paying him major dollars, sweep them off the top of the car and into the crowd. Fans love it. Crew members love it. TV adores it. There’s even talk of making it an Olympic sport.

Those who make the products, however, aren’t as thrilled. One such company is widely recognized as the “Official Sports Beverage To Be Placed On Top Of The Winner’s Car In Victory Lane And Blot Out The Sun,” and you don’t get a title that long unless you’re paying major bucks. Unfortunately, another company that makes a similar product was sold the rights to have large, 3-D glow-in-the-dark signs roughly the size of Idaho placed strategically in victory lane. Strategically meaning “In full view of anyone with a camera.”

In the business world, such a process is sometimes referred to as a conflict of interest. In NASCAR, it’s known as “the way we do business around here.”

One could argue that NASCAR seems a bit greedy by allowing such shenanigans to go on. But, of course, that would be wrong. NASCAR is simply allowing each and every American company the opportunity to jump on board this highly-popular sport. That way, everybody wins. Especially NASCAR.

Sure, victory lane celebrations might not seem as exciting from now on. But if you watch closely, you might actually be able to see the driver peeking out from behind “The Official Plastic Bottle Taller Than Mt. Everest.”

Or, at the very least, a lost Canadian tourist.

Too much Junior? You’re kidding, right?

In an attempt to share a greater portion of the spotlight with his fellow drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has announced that for the remainder of the 2004 season, he will “try like hell” to become less popular.

“It’s like ... you know, I don’t really know,” Earnhardt Jr. said when asked how he hoped to accomplish such a lofty goal. “Sometimes, I just feel like ... well, it’s sort of ... if you know what I mean.”

The announcement, televised on a special live version of the long-running CBS news program, “60 Minutes,” was briefly interrupted when Earnhardt Jr. was handed a cellular phone.

“Hello, Mr. President. How are you? Yeah, I thought that two-page photo of your plane flying over the track at Daytona was cool as hell, too. You know, if that A-Rod dude had just chilled for another coupla’ days, I think we could have landed ourselves on the cover.

“The SI jinx? Nah, I don’t believe in that stuff. And even if there’s something to it, I don’t think it’s ever affected a presidential election.

“All right, you too. Take it easy.”

Earnhardt Jr., has unwittingly become something of a cultural icon in just four short years of competing in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. His choice of clothing has sent thousands of young NASCAR fans racing back to the mall. And the nation’s hairstylists have suddenly found themselves booked solid with customers pleading for “the Junior cut!”

His recent appearance on “Larry King Live,” he said, was a clear sign of his efforts to tone down his popularity. And it’s obvious that he means it. Besides the Larry King appearance, Earnhardt Jr. has also been a guest on “Meet The Press,” and has taped separate segments for Headline News and MSNBC in which he reiterated his decision to “try to be less famous.”
Taking no chances, DEI officials have scheduled cameo appearances on “Celebrity Mole,” “American Idol” and “The Simpsons.”

Rumors that a one-half hour sitcom featuring his life away from the race track was in the works have been denied. And talks concerning a three-part Hollywood epic tentatively titled “Junior: Lord of the Ovals” have been called, “an honor, but definitely premature.”

A recent Web site article claiming Earnhardt Jr. and one well-known pop singer were secretly wed, only to have the marriage annulled the following day, has also proven to be erroneous.

In other recent racing news:

• NASCAR has unveiled a new scoring system it believes will lessen the confusion surrounding the running order of cars during a race when the caution flag comes out.

Incidents such as the one which recently occurred at Rockingham – where drivers running 1-2 pitted under green, then maintained their positions despite being caught in the pits when a caution flag halted the action – have led to claims of favoritism, cheating and “Dale  Jr. getting all the good pub” among several teams.

The new rule, to be known as the F ’n’ G rule (after car owners Felix Sabates and Chip Ganassi) will work as follows:

If the leader pits under green, crosses the start/finish line on pit road and his corporate Santa Claus is likewise “an official NASCAR sponsor,” he will remain on the lead lap. Even if his crew has to push his car back to the garage, change the engine and replace the inside of his vehicle with new tuck ’n’ roll upholstery.

If the leader pits under green, a caution comes out, and he is passed by the pace car while still on pit road, he may be scored a lap down. Unless his corporate cohort also happens to have purchased at least three 30-second advertising spots to air during the race. In such instances, the driver will retain his position on the lead lap. He may not, however, opt for the new upholstery while in the pits.

If the third-place driver inherits the lead when the first- and second-place drivers pit under green, then chooses to pit shortly afterward under the caution flag, his position will remain undetermined. If his owner or owners, for instance, publicly criticize NASCAR, said driver will be sent to the end of the longest concession-stand line.

The rules are expected to be announced during Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s weekly teleconference.

Of farewells and ferrets as the Chase beckons

Before we delve too deeply into the Chase For The Nextel Cup and all that it promises, a bit of housekeeping is in order. Lest the thrill of the Chase overshadows other weighty matters of note. Such as:

• Rusty Wallace’s “Last Call” retirement tour. I commend Rusty, not only for his honesty and willingness to speak his mind through the years but for making the decision to end his driving career while still fully capable of competing for wins as well. It’s a decision that speaks volumes. Giving up something you love, something you have dedicated your life to can be tough, regardless of one’s profession. And when you’ve been as successful as Wallace, it certainly doesn’t make the decision any easier.

But here’s what I’d like to see, whether it involves Wallace or any other drivers who one day find themselves considering retirement: If the biggest thing you hope to accomplish during your final season on the circuit is to sell tons and tons of souvenirs, then at least do something worthwhile with the proceeds. And I don’t mean using them to upgrade your own personal airline.

Drivers have often mentioned putting together these “retirement tours” as a way to give something back to the many loyal fans who have supported them throughout their respective careers. A “thank you” of sorts. And how many times have we heard drivers say of racing, “It’s not about the money”?

For once, I’d like to see someone step forward and prove it. If you’re going to offer a different die-cast collectible for every track you’ve ever visited, raced on or flew over as you begin your final season, then why not earmark the money generated from the sales of such items for a worthy charity? Or donate a healthy portion of those proceeds to a needy cause.

At the very least, reward those fans who have stood by you through thick and thin by giving the die-casts away. One of your loyal fans buys a ticket to the race, he or she should get a free “I’m-outta-here” car.

Of course, that’s not likely to happen. Instead, as drivers begin hanging up their helmets, their final year will be measured in terms of souvenir sales rather than success. The key statistics will involve inventory rather than laps led, on-site sales instead of wins. What a way to be remembered.

Sure, they deserve to be rewarded in some form or fashion for everything they have accomplished, everything they have done for the sport. But they don’t have to break sales records on the Home Shopping Network to obtain it.
         
What they deserve is our respect, the loyalty of their fans and a chance to walk away from the sport knowing they made a difference.

To expect anything else only cheapens what they have accomplished.

• While most race fans used to spending the Labor Day holiday weekend in Darlington lamented the loss of the event, folks in California didn’t seem particularly thrilled that stock car racing was back for a second time in a single season.

But then, California’s a different sort of place anyway. Not better, not worse. Just different.

Californians may be “laid back,” but occasionally there are matters of such grave concern facing them that they band together at Starbucks and speak to each other excitedly via cell phones.

They don’t talk about losing a race date. They don’t talk about gaining a race date. They concern themselves with such things as, well, ferrets.
         
Honest.
         
According to a report in the Sept. 5 edition of the LA Times, there are between 160,000 and 500,000 “illegal” ferrets currently residing in the state. Unlawfully collecting unemployment benefits, spray-painting tiny ferret gang symbols on pet-store walls and generally making life miserable for the more cultured canine and feline set.

Now, ferret owners want to “come out of the closet.” They want California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to legalize ownership of the furry little creatures. And because the governor once starred alongside a couple of the weasel-wannabes in that action-packed thriller, “Kindergarten Cop,” friends of the ferret (FOF) feel certain he will come to their aid.

Of course, in the South, the problem of “Illegal” ferrets would be dealt with accordingly.

And by that I mean ferret burgers. The official burger of the (insert your favorite driver’s name here) retirement tour.

Show Mom you really care - take her to a NASCAR race

As most race fans know, this past weekend was what is known around the series as an “off week.” In other words, no debris was thrown on the track by irate fans, Tony Stewart didn’t anger any other drivers by doing something “out of line” (such as attempting to make a pass on the race track), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. only appeared in 17 new commercials, TV shows and different reality series.

The reason it was an off week was because it was that special time of year when American race fans everywhere stop to pay tribute to the one person to whom they owe everything – their local loan officer.

Actually, it was Mother’s Day, and ever since NASCAR officials first realized they could make more money than Bill Gates if they could convince people that watching cars go around in circles all day was exciting, Mother’s Day has been declared “off limits.”

Race fans, they reasoned, would more likely be spending their time with their mothers and not at the track; convincing those fans that their moms would enjoy spending hours sitting in traffic, getting gas from eating undercooked track food and likely suffering at least a mild case of sunburn from sitting in the sun for hours on end, wasn’t an easy sell. Hence the reason there are no races on Mother’s Day.

However, after a very informal survey, it has been discovered that Mother’s Day could actually be one of the best days to hold a NASCAR Nextel Cup race. What better way to say “I love you” to your mom than with something involving your family and NASCAR?

It has been discovered that nearly 25 percent of those who threw debris on the track following the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega were mothers. Or something to that effect. So there obviously is already a strong contingent of female race fans who don’t mind entering restrooms that have been declared national disaster areas by several branches of the government. And who can toss a half-full beer can 80 feet on the run.

It has also been discovered that today’s children aren’t getting that all-important guidance from their elders, especially their mothers.

Because of this, many children are no longer growing up, joining the Navy, and getting heart-warming tattoos that say “Mom” seared into their flesh. Instead, they’re growing up, refusing to leave home, and getting tattoos that say things like “D12.”

D12, for those race fans who spend all of their time surfing e-Bay for the latest NASCAR die-cast instead of helping little Johnny with his math, is a musical group. And if little Johnny doesn’t get help with his math, he won’t be able to figure how much tax he will be charged when he tries to purchase the latest D12 CD.

And what better way to teach your children about math than by taking them to a NASCAR Nextel Cup race, Mom! Teach them to add by charting lead changes. See their little brows furrow when NASCAR “freezes” the field. See their little eyes tear up after they realize they should have used a No. 2 pencil instead of the free pen you received for purchasing your tickets 12 years in advance.

Teach them subtraction with problems such as, “We started the month with $600 in our checking account. Your no-good father spent $820 on tickets to the race. In inches, will the lump raised when I hit him over the head with the frying pan be less than, equal to or greater than the overdraft costs the bank will charge us?”

Guys, just think of the look on your wife’s face when you tell her you helped the kids pick out this year’s Mother’s Day gift, and it’s tickets to, say, the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge. Even though you knew she had been hinting around for something more personal. Like perfume. Or that new set of socket wrenches.

Chances are, it’s a look you’ve seen before. If you hurry, you can make it out the door before she finds a half-empty beer can. And hope you make it 80 feet before she cuts loose.

Where have you gone, Speedy, Crawfish and Burrhead?

Today’s average NASCAR Nextel Cup fan often spends his or her Sunday afternoon like this: 12:30 p.m. – Ingest roughly 10 pounds of red meat, potatoes, rolls and coconut cream pie. Wash it down with a 2-liter bottle of diet cola.

1 p.m. – Assume comfortable position on couch. Get up off couch and spend 15 minutes searching for the television remote. Discover assorted keys, M&M’s and pieces of popcorn under seat of couch.

1:15 p.m. – Finally find remote on top of DVD player. Assume position on couch once again.

1:16 p.m. – Turn on TV, find network carrying that day’s race.

1:17 p.m. – Get up off couch to inhale last piece of coconut cream pie.

1:19 p.m. – Return to couch, assume previous comfortable position, sit through numerous commercials.

1:21 p.m. – The green flag finally appears. Watch maybe 10 minutes and fall asleep.

It’s the aero package. It’s the tires. It’s all those 1.5-mile race tracks. Maybe it’s the extra piece of coconut cream pie.

Today’s race fans have been searching for the reason they believe racing “isn’t as exciting as it used to be.” Back in the days when men were men and differences of opinion were settled with tire irons. Of course, part of the problem today is that race teams no longer use tire irons. They use air guns instead, which shouldn’t be confused with air guitars.

Why? Well, first of all, it would look pretty silly trying to change a tire with an air guitar.

As for why it may not appear to be as exciting, the reason is simple. While today’s competitors may have all the skill, the equipment and the finances to put on a much better show, they don’t have the one crucial piece that glues fans to the television.

What they don’t have – and scientific evidence provided by the coconut cream pie industry has proven this – are really cool nicknames.

That’s right. That’s why racing today sometimes seems about as exciting as an infomercial for spray-on hair (“Even your wife and kids won’t believe it’s not real! Until they notice the dark, oily stain on the recliner!”)

There is no Silver Fox (David Pearson), no Alabama Gang (all those Allisons). No King (Richard Petty), no Jaws (Darrell Waltrip), no Chargin’ Charlie Glotzbach, no Fearless Freddy Lorenzen. There isn’t even a Fireball (Roberts), and while we do have a Junior (Earnhardt), it’s not used in quite the same way as it was (Johnson).

Sure, there was the Intimidator (Dale Earnhardt), Mr. Excitement (Jimmy Spencer) and Awesome Bill (Elliott), but this is a sport that once thrived on colorful nicknames. Some drivers couldn’t even land a ride, regardless of how talented they were behind the wheel, until they came up with a nickname that demanded the fans’ attention.

After all, what’s more impressive? Being introduced during pre-race as Thomas Brown or Cannonball? Curtis Crider or Crawfish? Harold Fagan or Frog? And then there was Burrhead (Homer Nantz) and Speedy (Alfred Thompson). Makes you want to pull over and get out of the way, doesn’t it?

Of course, not all nicknames struck fear into the hearts of fellow competitors. No doubt Slow Poke (Tom Travis) and Crash (Guy Waller) would have rather been known by something a bit more positive. But at least they weren’t known as Buttercup (Ellis Pearce). Is it any surprise that Pearce made only one start, in 1949? No doubt he couldn’t take the ribbing from the rest of the guys in the garage.

Of course, in a sport that’s been around for more than five decades, it’s not surprising that the given names of more than a few drivers fit the sport of auto racing like a glove. The parts (Axel Anderson, Clarence Hood and Wayne Jacks), and the makes (Henry Ford, John Ford, Skip Hudson, Harold Nash and Sammy Packard). Or, you could just generalize (Jack and Don Carr).

There was the pain (Bob Hurt), and what could have caused it (John Fite). Of course, what led to both of those? Earl Beer, perhaps?

There have been those with more stately names, too. George Bush, John Kennedy, a pair of Bob Kennedys as well as a Woodrow (Woodie) Wilson.

So ask yourself this – the next time you begin to doze on the couch, unable to concentrate on the action on the track, is it because the sport’s become too sanitized? Has technology ruined NASCAR? Do we really need another 1.5-mile track?

But more importantly, is there any more coconut cream pie?