Silver Spoons Vs. Blue Collars ... Still
"He's nothing but a little rich kid who's never had to work in his life, so he's going to learn what us working guys who had to work our way up & how it works."
Those are the now infamous words of Tony Stewart, uttered loudly after the March 24 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway. He had been angered by a very specific on-track incident – a late-race restart when he felt he had been blocked too aggressively. And he was referring to a very specific driver – the still-young 22-year-old Joey Logano, he who was once so revered as an up-and-comer that he was anointed with the nickname of "Sliced Bread."
To the untrained ear, the rant might have sounded original. A spotlight thrown onto what some believe is a growing problem in a sport sacked by a sluggish economy. But in reality, Stewart was merely writing a new stanza to a tried and true motorsports hymn, a chorus that has been sung nearly since the first time a pair of automobiles were lined up to see which was fastest.
The blue-collar boys vs. the silver spoons.
From Indianapolis to Daytona to your local Saturday night short track, those who see themselves as have-nots love to target those who are labeled as haves. Those haves believe that how they got there doesn't matter, as long they take care of business once they do.
Stewart has long worked on his own race cars. His parents, a doctor's office receptionist and a traveling salesman, essentially bankrupted the family funding their boy's racing.
Logano's earliest racing efforts were backed by his father, Tom, a businessman who experienced great success in the waste management industry. Eventually, the elder Logano moved the family from Connecticut to Georgia so Joey could race. He also went to great financial lengths to support his daughter's love of competitive ice skating.
The racers took two very different roads to eventually land the same ride, the Home Depot-backed Sprint Cup car at Joe Gibbs Racing. Now Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion, fields his own team. Logano, a two-time Cup race winner, drives for Roger Penske. But their California clash – and the perception of how they made it to NASCAR's top series – is hardly a new story.
Perception sometimes not reality
"There's always been someone at the racetrack who has the reputation of being a daddy's boy," says Richard Petty, who was in attendance at NASCAR's first Strictly Stock event in 1949 to watch his daddy, Hall of Famer Lee Petty, and was in attendance at NASCAR's most recent race, now as a team owner. "Some of 'em deserve it. They got into rides because their rich family brought a pile of money and bought it for them. But lot of us got called that name and we didn't deserve it."
"Oh yeah, man. People saw me coming along and were like, 'This guy only got his ride because his daddy has a lot of money and gave it to him.' Well, first off, we didn't have any money. And second, anyone who knew the truth about how hard he made me work, before and after he let me drive, knows that there wasn't any silver spoon involved. It was a plastic spoon. And it was broke."
That sort of misplaced money animosity is very common. And it works both ways. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were somehow tagged early in their careers as silver spoons. Gordon so much so that "his daddy bought him his ride" became a running joke on an episode of "King of the Hill." But the four-time Cup champion's mother worked at a hospital supply company and his stepfather, the man who steered Gordon into racing, designed motorized vehicles for the handicapped. Johnson's mother was a school bus driver, and his father was a heavy machine operator.
Not exactly the Kennedys and Rockefellers.
On the flip side of the misperceptions, the genteel Burton and Sadler brothers of southern Virginia have long been portrayed as classic old-school-good-ol'-boy NASCAR success stories. Kids who rolled their quarters, grabbed a wrench and fought their way up the racing ladder.
There is no doubt they all had to work hard to become full-time racers, but Jeff and Ward Burton's career was launched thanks in no small part to the success of the family business. J.E. Burton Construction was founded by their grandfather and is a longtime regional leader in commercial construction. Hermie and Elliott Sadler come from a family that has seen great success with car dealerships.
Does that discount what those drivers have accomplished in racing? Of course not. But that doesn't mean they didn't have to endure their share of rich-kid criticism on the way up.
"My daddy is the reason I'm here; I've heard that my whole life," Jeff Burton explained last summer. "My son hears that now in his racing, and my nephew does, too. But there have always been people in this sport because of their daddy's money. In the end, I don't think it matters how you got here. It's what you do with it."
Petty is more succinct.
"Winning solves everything. You win races and it'll shut most of 'em up."
The 75-year-old King of Stock Car Racing sounds very much like 22-year-old Austin Dillon.
The grandson of six-time Cup Series champion team owner Richard Childress, Dillon and younger brother Ty have raced nearly since they could walk. Both have heard the silver spoon criticisms their whole young lives. But both have, thus far, won races at every stop along the way. In 2011, Austin won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title. One year later, he nearly won the Nationwide Series title.
"I'm not an idiot," says the racer, who has made a pair of Cup series starts this year. "I know that I wouldn't have gotten the chances that I have without my grandfather. I know that I have been blessed to have equipment that other guys dream of. But when the green flag drops, my grandfather isn't out there driving it. And it isn't driving itself.
"If I don't perform, then it won't matter who my family is. I'm out."
Childress, who grew up in poverty on the east side of Winston-Salem, N.C., has never apologized for helping his grandsons.
"I worked as hard as I did to make sure my family never had to suffer like I did," he said. "But the boys know the deal. I've made sure they finish school. It's the greatest regret of my life that I never did. And I hope I've made sure they understand that they can't take what they have for granted."
The Dillons are following the same finger-pointing path as multi-generation racers both before and after them.
Chase Elliott, 17-year-old son of "Awesome Bill," hears criticism of his development deal with Hendrick Motorsports.
Kyle Petty was labeled a silver spoon early in his career, coincidentally at a time when the Petty family had to practically shutter its longtime self-owned operation because of financial difficulties.
NASCAR's biggest star, Dale Earnhardt Jr., still hears it today, although never as loud as he did when he was racing late models at bullrings in Hickory, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"What they didn't see was us working on our own cars all night long in the deer-head shop," says Kerry Earnhardt, Dale's older brother, referring to the makeshift race shop where the two boys and sister Kelley worked on their rides under the watchful eye of dozens of deer heads their father had stuffed and hung on the wall. "And they didn't see Dale going to community college and changing oil all day at the dealership [Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet].
"All they ever saw was that last name over the door. Now those same people watch him on TV. And I guess some of them still think he's still being handed everything."
'What the hell was I supposed to do?'
Paul Menard's name isn't just over the door of his Richard Childress Racing Chevy. It's also on the hood. He's the son of Midwestern home improvement magnate John Menard, a former Wisconsin ice racer and IndyCar team owner.
But Paul elected to go stock car racing, going shopping for rides with the backing of his father's 270-store company, with estimated annual sales revenue of $8 billion.
His performance in his first four Sprint Cup seasons, from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Yates Racing to Richard Petty Motorsports, did him no favors. He posted just eight top-10 finishes in his first 147 starts, never finishing higher than 23rd in the points standings.
In '07, Stewart, who drove for John Menard in IndyCar, said of Paul, "He has just enough talent to be in the way most of the time."
But in his two-plus years with RCR, Menard has scored 20 top-10s in 75 races. In 2011, he won the coveted Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Last year, he remained in the fight for a Chase berth late into the summer. He sits eighth in the standings with three top-10 finishes in five races. Stewart has one top-10 finish and is 22nd in points.
Menard, always soft-spoken, shrugs off the topic with a phrase he has employed often. "Haters will be haters."
"Paul has always handled the criticism extremely well," his father said in a conversation shortly after his son's Indianapolis win. "He could have told everyone about the jobs I made him do with our company, everything there is to do in the warehouse. Taking out the garbage. You name it. But he always knew that, one day, if he showed results on the racetrack, dealing with all the criticism would be worth it."
Then the father pauses and raises his voice just slightly.
"What the hell was I supposed to do? Not support my son's dreams? What kind of father is that?"
It was in John Menard's former world as an owner, open-wheel racing, where the concept of blue-collar boys vs. silver spoons first became a touchstone for garage brawls.
"We're talking before World War II," says Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson. "And in a strange way, it started where it has ended up. It was the rich who raced first. Then the scrappers showed up."
Formula One has been and will forever be the playground of the richest of the rich. IndyCar has long been a bizarre culture clash of dirt-under-their-nails short-track racers rubbing shoulders and sidepods with last names who are also brand names.
The perception of foreign-born drivers landing rides via checks written is what drove Jeff Gordon away from Indy and south into stock cars. Such fiscal frustration was cited as the primary catalyst for Indianapolis Motor Speedway heir Tony George's decision to split IndyCar racing in half. Along the way, a long roster of cash-and-crash racers has done no favors to the reputation of the silver spoon set. (Paging Hiro Matsushita and Panasonic.)
NASCAR was long seen as the last motorsports oasis for the blue-collar boys, a place where performance mattered more than bank account backing. But now there is rising concern that, accelerated by the financial downturn of 2008, undeserving pay-for-players might now be the rule and not the exception. (Paging John Wes Townley and Zaxby's.)
"Sometimes I feel like Indiana Jones, grabbing my hat and slipping under that big stone door just before it slammed shut," current Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski admitted during a conversation in the summer of 2012.
His father, Michigan short-tracker Bob Keselowski, broke the family bank to support the careers of sons Brad and Brian. "I look down the ladder, and I wonder if anyone can ever get here the way that I got here again. It feels like everyone now has had connections or money.
"I didn't have any of that. Is talent alone good enough anymore? I guess we'll find out."
Either way, whether fueled by hard truth or hard-hearted perception, the tug of war will continue. It always has.
"It's expensive to go racing," Petty says. "Those who can't afford to do it have always been mad at the ones who could. But all I ever wanted to know about a race car driver is if they're fast. If they're fast, then I don't care how they got here."