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Features
First Place

Al Thomy, Speedway Scene

For New NASCAR, A New Patron Saint

There is a patron saint for almost every person and occasion.

St. Jude is for the hopeless, St. Christopher for travelers, St. Thomas Aquinas for scholars, St. Francis for the outdoorsmen and women, St. Blade for throats, St. Anthony for healing, and, yes, even, St. Anthony of Padua for lost keys and other lost items. (The older we get, the more we need the saint from, er, er, Padua.)

If we had saints in NASCAR racing (no laughing, please), we could have Curtis Turner for dirt, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for asphalt, Darrell Waltrip for blessing of throats, Bill Elliott for speed, Robby Gordon for retribution, Jimmy Spencer for harvest, Terry Labonte for contemplative silence and the Wood brothers for discipleship. If you didn’t guess, I had trouble on that. Saints are scarce in NASCAR.

Which reminds me of a little limerick my pastor used recite: “To live with the saints in Heaven, must be to reign in glory, but to live with the saints on earth, well, that’s another story.”

Obviously, most of us around NASCAR don’t have that problem.

Before I run you off – you know about talking religion – or put you to sleep, or cause you to run off and confess your sins, allow me to tell you why I’m on the subject of saints today.

I thought of it the other day. I thought about Rusty Wallace announcing his retirement after the 2005 season, and Bill Elliott already in semi-retirement, and rumors about most of the others in the far side of their 40s – Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, and the aging of such as Bobby Labonte, Brett Bodine, Ward Burton and Joe Nemechek. Geoff Bodine, in his 50s, won’t be hanging around much longer and I guess Morgan Shepherd is an occasional participant. The complete Nextel cup turnover is just around the corner, not far away. The old guard is on its way out and the metamorphosis of what started as a regional sanctioning body in a Daytona hotel will be complete.
 
The only recognizable demographic left from the old NASCAR will be the France family itself. In “growing the sport,” as boy/leader Brian France continually tells us, he and the family have managed to shed every segment of the organization – fans, drivers, pioneer tracks and traditions – and like a snake, crawl into a new skin with skeptical new fans, young and younger guns recruited from mostly open-wheel racing, cookie-cutter new tracks designed more to seat fannies than to improve racing, and a Madison Avenue type public relations campaign designed to make rock stars out of one dimensional young men raised on a single focus since go-kart days.

Perhaps inadvertently, NASCAR even changed patron saints, abandoning the Pettys and Earnhardts and anointing Freddie Lorenzen, a.k.a. St. Fastback. More on that later in the column.

Young France, described as a marketing specialist, is not content with mere expansion, he dreams of the world – racing in Japan, Mexico, Canada, the Northwest and Staten Island. Of course, what he has done, is put all his chips on what TV will do in the future, and, as most sports promoters know, TV is a slave of the ratings and a real crapshoot when it comes to security. If TV dropped out today, we’d have about 15 bankrupt tracks.

In that respect, let me add that The Chase to the Championship, a fancy name, started not with a bang, but with a whimper. For starters, the TV audience for the first leg of The Chase, at New Hampshire, dropped eight per cent from last year’s non-Chase race at the same track, drawing 3.05 million homes as compared to 3.2 million in 2003. (For contrast, consider that the NFL’s top games, the nation’s No. 1 sport, attracted 13.3 and 13.5 million homes.)

There is another, far more serious problem, than TV ratings, and that is the conduct of The Chase; in other words, rules.
During the regular season, banging, clanging, spinning and touching are tolerated if not encouraged, but during The Chase, when the 10 finalists are considered untouchable, we have drivers racing around on eggshells, so to speak, and fearful of doing something that would eliminate their buddies and friends. That takes the physical element out of the sport, and, quite frankly, that’s the heart of stock car racing.

How to remedy that? There’s no way under the current system. I’ve always thought the only way to have 10 teams race for the championship is to separate them and perhaps conduct 10 50-lap trophy dashes, one before each regularly scheduled race. Having 10 racing within the 43 starters not only obscures them, but also penalizes the other 33 and makes them background props.
There are other serious problems. Who is going to sponsor a car that is always an also-ran and a non-contender during The Chase? Even though they get precious little TV exposure as it is, they’d get even less during the championship run.

As I see it, NASCAR has major problems with its so-called Chase. And I haven’t even mentioned the head-to-head competition with king football, especially in the South, scene of six of the Big Ten Chase races.

Now, back to patron saints, and why Lorenzen, 1958-65, replaced the old standbys.

Before Lorenzen left Chicago for the South and moonshine country, NASCAR drivers were a hard-drinking, hard-partying band of swashbucklers who delivered whiskey during the week and relaxed at the tracks on Sunday. They settled their feuds between the second and fourth turns and their fans, just ordinary people, brought picnic baskets, coolers and loved every minute of it.

Then Lorenzen, a blond with movie star looks, appeared on the scene. But not alone. He brought his stockbroker and business satchel with him. While others frolicked with the queens and groupies, he locked himself in his hotel room and crunched figures with his broker. I recall one scene where Linda Vaughan, the world’s longest reigning queen, chased Lorenzen around the pool at the Florence Holiday Inn. He escaped to his room and locked the door.

The good ol’ boys considered him an odd duck. But he was crazy as a fox. He was NASCAR’s first $100,000 winner, and it’s said he made millions on the stock market. (Later he told me he’d also lost millions and make them back.)

Lorenzen once asked me to get him an interview by Playboy Magazine, and I tried. My conversation with the editor went something like this:

“Is Lorenzen a swinger?”

“No.”

“Is he a stylish free-spender?”

“Nope.”

“Is he a colorful party boy?”

“Nope.”

“Is he a lady’s man?”

“Lord no.”

“Forget it, kid.”

So, you see, anybody turned down by Playboy has sainthood credentials. Anyway, as I see it, he fits right in with the stock market-wise, satchel-carrying millionaires we have in present-day NASCAR. Sorry, Dale and Richard, but as Brian France says, we’ve got to grow the sport, and when we grow the old saints have to go.