Ryan McGee, ESPN.com
Barney Hall left an indelible mark on NASCAR and broadcasting
Barney Hall wasn't ready to go.
He thought he was. The radio man had traveled the world as a youngster in the Navy. He'd traveled the United States as a broadcaster, chasing and covering the NASCAR circuit. He'd seen so much more than he could have ever expected as he grew up in Elkin, North Carolina, a hamlet of barely 4,000 people sandwiched in the hills of Wilkes County, where moonshiners first birthed stock car racing.
On this particularly rough summer day somewhere over southern Michigan, Hall had been telling the story of that life to a fellow broadcaster, former race car driver Dick Brooks. Brooks, in his trademark denim overalls, had recently joined the team at the Motor Racing Network, the national NASCAR network that Hall helped start in 1970.
Hall and Brooks were hitching a ride to Michigan International Speedway in a plane being flown by racing legend David Pearson ... and Pearson was still really new at flying.
"Barney was talking Dick up, you know," Pearson recalled two years ago. "Telling him his whole life story. Dick said, 'Barney, it sounds like you've had a great life. I think if it was time for you to go, you'd be ready to go.' And Barney kind of agreed with him."
Then lightning struck the plane. As they attempted to land, pitched about by the wind, another bolt struck a water tower at the end of the runway. Hall yelped and, as Brooks always swore, scratched up the windows in desperation to get out of the private plane.
"It turns out," Pearson recalled with a laugh, "Barney was not quite ready to go yet."
"Not that day," Hall replied. "I didn't have a ticket."
On Tuesday morning, he was ready. Hall passed away at 83, after years of battling various medical conditions. Some will no doubt call it a silencing of a great voice. But his voice was more than great. It was a unique blend of North Carolina foothills dialect trimmed with just enough touch of old school radio broadcaster flair, his only professional training coming via the Navy and as a disc jockey at his hometown station, WIFM in Elkin.
Even in his later years, there was warmth in Hall's aging tone that never failed to cut through the endless noise that comes with life at the racetrack. It was the perfect pitch to complement a gentleman who could also cut through the shells that often come with the men who make their living on that racetrack.
"People ask me all the time, Barney, how do you get these guys to talk to you or to trust you enough to tell you how it really is? Well, it's really not that complicated," he explained nearly 20 years ago to me, a young and awestruck TV producer who'd struck up a conversation in the Daytona International Speedway garage. I was working my first Daytona 500. Hall was working his 36th. "Sure, there's something to be said about these guys being country guys and me being one, too. But there's also nothing wrong with doing your job with class and dignity. If they know I'm being genuine with them, they know they can be genuine with me."
That's how Hall became such great friends with some of NASCAR's most notoriously guarded personalities, his lifelong friendship with Pearson being exhibit No. 1. Everyone got a fair shake, even those at the far end of the garage who struggled to keep up with the superpowers week-to-week. Whenever an underdog managed to sneak into the top 10, they'd receive Hall's trademark "Give a call to (fill in the blank) ... "
In 2009, when the family of fellow beloved broadcaster Benny Parsons organized a Moonshiners and Revenuers Reunion in Wilkes County, they asked Hall to be the emcee. He stood on a makeshift stage in between two rows of rocking chairs. The first group consisted of Junior Johnson and other bootleggers-turned-racers. The second was made-up of the retired government agents who used to chase them.
"They asked me to moderate this because I'm the only person up here who has never dealt in illegal alcohol distribution ... as far as you know," Hall deadpanned. "Besides, if a fight does break out up here, we're all so old now it would look like a slow-motion replay of a fight."
That relatability is also how he became such a beloved broadcaster, his voice soothing its way from turns and press boxes and garages through speakers in cars, trucks and transistor radios from coast to coast.
He was auto racing's answer to Red Barber or Vin Scully. While others shouted over the action, he described the action as if he was reading us all the greatest bedtime story ever.
"You give me too much credit for that," he said to me during an interview in 2011. "I would probably talk faster than I do if I could. But this is just Elkin speed."
I can still hear Barney's bass as it whirred through the big wooden console cabinet stereo in our family basement, calling Dave Marcis' improbable rain-soaked win at Richmond in 1982. My father had been on Dave's pit crew a decade earlier and we cheered as Hall called it.
A couple of years later, I stood with my grandfather as Hall's voice ricocheted off the aluminum walls of Pa-Pa's work shed, listening as local hero Parsons, a poster of whom hung by the radio, earned what would be his final career win, holding off Dale Earnhardt at Atlanta.
But the word “silenced” will never apply to Hall, not even in death. It will still play at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he started as a public address announcer and on YouTube, where Barney Hall tributes continually popped up in the hours after his passing.
It still plays on satellite radio, where the NASCAR channel still plays classic MRN broadcasts. His name will be heard whenever current broadcasters win the NMPA Broadcaster of the Year, which is named for Hall, or when media members are honored by the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a medal which is co-named for Hall and of which he was the first co-recipient.
And it continues forever in the voices of the broadcasters he took under his arm, both the MRN Radio team of today and alums who are scattered across every sports network in your channel guide.
Me? I'll hear Barney loudest whenever I go to Martinsville Speedway. That's where he shocked me just four years ago, in the spring of 2012. Just a few weeks earlier he'd missed only his second Daytona 500 in decades, this time due to his failing health. The reports were not good. I'd tried to reach out to him, but had no luck. We all feared the worst. Then, sitting in the Martinsville media center on a Friday afternoon, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
"Hey, young man, get up out of that chair and let this old man sit down for a minute," he said.
Immediately, he launched into stories. He told me about the first race he ever covered, right there at Martinsville as a young radio man.
He told me a story about a train conductor who got fired because he couldn't help but stop along the backstretch to watch a Martinsville race and in the process mucked up train traffic along the entire eastern seaboard.
And he told me about the motel that used to be across the street from the speedway, where he once stomped out of his room in the wee hours of the morning to complain about all the noise out by the swimming pool and saw "Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly, all these future Hall of Famers, running around out there totally buck naked ... can you believe that?"
Yes, I could. Because Barney Hall said it was so. He stood up to leave and shook my hand.
"I'm doing OK," he assured me, thanking me for my concern and explaining that he'd be back in the MRN booth that Sunday.
"I wasn't ready to go quite yet. I didn't have a ticket."
Jeff Gordon returning -- however briefly -- could end well, could not
Jeff Gordon is back.
We knew this was coming. We'd known it was coming for nearly a week. Even still, I was curious to see what my reaction would be when the official word landed on our social media timelines.
It did around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, stating that Gordon will press pause on his 8-month-old retirement to run Sunday's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and then next weekend's race at Pocono Raceway.
The official statement from Hendrick Motorsports said that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not been cleared by medical officials as he still suffers from "concussion-like symptoms." It said he will miss at least the next two races. It reminded that Gordon owns five Brickyard wins and six Pocono victories, both records. Team owner Rick Hendrick called Gordon "a team player."
As I read it, I felt as if I'd just swallowed a bowling ball.
Please don't misunderstand. I love Jeff Gordon. I never wanted him to retire in the first place. During the 2015 season finale weekend at Homestead I twice begged him on live television to reconsider.
I reminded him of his earlier statements that we should never use "the r-word." Both times he just laughed at me. "Sorry, buddy," he said, reaching out to grab my shoulder, "You're too late. What's done is done."
Now it's undone. And with apologies to Han Solo, I have a bad feeling about this.
Why? Because that farewell at Homestead was so perfect. He contended for a championship until his last lap of his last race, battling back to finish sixth in the Axalta/Jeff's Final Ride Chevy. His postrace news conference was beautiful and emotional. The way he left the racetrack with his family, headed out into the night and to a massive farewell party on South Beach, was even better.
Why? Because these comebacks never work out well…like, never.
Don't get me wrong, if anyone can reverse that trend and win two races and blow people's minds, it's Jeff Gordon. He spent more than two decades rewriting the way racers have gone about their business. But history says that at best these returns from mothballs end up producing so-so stats.
Gordon is a big boy. He can handle that. There's certainly nothing he can do on the track to damage his Hall of Fame credentials. No one remembers Michael Jordan playing for the Wizards or even Bill Elliott driving that one-off Wal-Mart car.
However, that's not the potential damage I'm worried about.
I am well aware that this isn't Neil Bonnett, who died at Daytona, or Larry Pearson, who nearly died in an “old timers” race or even 63-year-old Mario Andretti deciding to run Indy 500 hot laps … and ending up flipping six times. This isn't someone who has been gone for years or is still recovering from a near-fatal accident. He's been at the racetrack nearly every weekend this season, in the broadcast booth and perpetually walking the garage.
But it's no secret that a not-small percentage of the reasoning behind Gordon's walkaway last November was that he wanted to wrap up his driving career while he could still actually walk away.
In two weeks he will turn 45 years old, but has the back of a man twice his age. It goes through stretches where it hurts so badly he can't pick up his kids or he has to ask for assistance getting up off the ground after camping out with his son.
He has long admitted worrying that he was just one big hit from creating a situation that couldn't be fixed with strength training, stretching or meds.
Indianapolis and Pocono are places that like to hand out very big hits.
They also like to hand out very big trophies. Should Gordon win one of those -- and he could -- it would be just another chapter in his unparalleled motorsports legacy. It would make headlines around the world. It would pump happiness into an increasingly frustrating situation for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his team and his fans as he battles for his health and perhaps even his career.
It would be a tremendous feel-good story.
I just wish I felt better about it.
Alexander Rossi's Indy 500 win makes a statement ... about us
INDIANAPOLIS -- OK, admit it. We've all become a little spoiled.
How else could we have possibly come away from the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 feeling unsatisfied? And yet we were, weren't we?
The buildup to Sunday's historic event was flawless, maybe a little too flawless. Not just the three days leading into the race, a time during which everyone from old, crusty sportswriters and older, even crustier racers gushed about the hundreds of thousands of people cramming through the chain-link gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ("Can you believe all these damn people here?" four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt said to me on Friday).
Not even the past two weeks, with headlines dominated by the inspiring near-death-to-pole-position story of affable Canadian James Hinchcliffe.
No, this escalation of excitement had been expertly ramped up for the past five years, dating to the centennial event in 2011 (take note: a 100th anniversary and a 100th running are not the same, especially when a pair of World Wars interrupt your timeline).
That day began much like this day, draped in motorsports history, and produced a befitting improbable finish when little-known JR Hildebrand inexplicably hit the wall in the final turn, handing the win to widely beloved Brit Dan Wheldon.
The four races between then and now, run in newly designed race cars, were the most competitive in Indy 500 history. All featured 30-plus lead changes, something that hadn't happened at Indy since 1960. Four of those five featured a pass for the win during the race's final four laps, something that had happened just 10 times in the previous 94 editions of the race.
All of those races also featured victories by popular characters -- Wheldon, three-time winner Dario Franchitti, slump-busting Tony Kanaan, rising American hero Ryan Hunter-Reay and global superstar Juan Pablo Montoya, his second.
Sunday's race featured 54 lead changes, second most in the event's history, 13 different leaders and 850 passes throughout the field. It had eclipsed 500 passes just past the halfway point, boosted to that number by some of the most heart-shocking restart scrums the old Brickyard has ever seen.
That hyper-competitiveness, paired with the Speedway's biggest crowd in years, and mixed with a red-carpet march to the green flag that featured Indy 500 legends, Pearl Harbor survivors and even Lady Gaga ... it all felt like the perfect pile of ingredients to be crammed through an oil funnel to produce the perfect icing on Indy's greatest cake.
Then ... the stars started struggling, from Montoya's wrecked title defense to Marco Andretti's fall through the field. Then ... a long green-flag run to end the race that ran counter to a second-half trend that had brought out six yellow flags. Then ... math(!) -- in the form of fuel-mileage calculations. Then ... as contender after contender pitted, the winner who emerged was ... Alexander Rossi.
"What's the guy's name?" a well-lubricated race fan asked me as he reached through a fence and grabbed my shirt as I watched the traditional Victory Circle milk-chugging. I told him it was Alexander Rossi. "Dammit, he's not even American, is he?"
Actually, yes, he is. He's a Californian, a 24-year-old rookie who, in the drunken guy's defense, few have heard of.
He was supposed to be in Europe racing Formula One by now, not Indianapolis. But hard luck over there led him to join forces with a team facing hard times of its own, Bryan Herta Autosport, owned by former open-wheel racer Herta. Herta was so strapped for cash, he required aid from an old friend and rival, Michael Andretti, just to field a car for this year's race.
Rossi's final time around the 2.5-mile track on Sunday afternoon felt more like 1976 than 2016. Desperate to stretch his final tank of fuel to a ludicrous 36 laps, it was run at a pedestrian 179.784 mph as he sputtered by the checkered flag, a whopping 45.5 mph slower than the fastest lap run all day (which, oh by the way, was a mark set by Rossi just past the halfway point of the event).
He won by nearly four-and-a-half seconds over Carlos Munoz. The average margin of victory over the past two years was .0823 seconds.
"It sucked not being able to really battle it out for the win," confessed third-place finisher Josef Newgarden (another 20-something with a name that sounds like he's from overseas, but is actually from Tennessee). "I know people don't want to see teams doing math. But that final lap was a nail-biter. No one can deny that."
But they will, young Josef. This wasn't what we were promised. It wasn't Castroneves winning to finally join Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as four-time victors.
Nor was it any of his teammates at Penske Racing, a team seeking its 17th win during its own 50th anniversary celebration. Nor was it any of the other possible multi-time winners, such as Kanaan, who fell back into his pattern of close-but-crushed.
And Rossi certainly isn't a name like Andretti (Marco) or Graham Rahal, son of 1986 winner Bobby.
Yet those big names, while as stunned as the 300,000-plus who'd paid to watch them race, didn't seem one bit fazed by Rossi's victory. They welcomed the no-name to the land of the named.
"I honestly don't know him very well," Kanaan admitted, having just explained his fourth-place finish. "But I will be welcoming him into the club. It is the greatest club in the world. He has no idea how much his life is about to change. They might not have known who he was this morning. But they know now."
Did we see history? Yes. We saw only the ninth rookie to win the world's biggest race, just the sixth since the race's earliest days, when pretty much everyone in the field were rookies.
Did we see a name? Yes. When Rossi held his winner's news conference, he was joined onstage by Michael Andretti.
Did we see a super-competitive race? Yes. The fifth consecutive Indy 500 with 30-plus lead changes after decades without seeing one.
Did we all leave the 100th edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing feeling as if we wanted more great, more spectacle and more racing? Yes. But that's not Alexander Rossi's fault. It's ours.
All of us -- spoiled, stinking rotten.
Dylan Smith, Erika Newcome racing for a cause in Myrtle Beach
While the big league NASCAR world travels south to Homestead, Florida, from Charlotte to crown a national champion, the stock car short trackers are migrating east. From all corners of the grassroots racing world, trailers and tow trucks pulling late-model race cars are headed to Myrtle Beach Speedway for the annual Myrtle Beach 400 in South Carolina. It's an event that signifies the end of the season for many of NASCAR's home track racers.
Among those pilgrims will be the racer with the Kid 'N Play fade and his friend with the partially shaved head. Their trip to Myrtle Beach started more than a year ago, a road that's carried them around bullring racetracks, through cancer wards and, they hope, ultimately into Victory Lane.
"I'm so excited about this weekend I can't hardly stand it," Erika Newcome said Tuesday evening.
The 21-year-old had just walked out of class at Akron University in Ohio, where she's a fourth-year public relations major. She was heading home to pack, load her car, and make the seven-hour drive to Mooresville, North Carolina, There she'd meet up with her friend to carry on toward Myrtle Beach.
"I can't believe everything that Dylan has done for me since we first met," she said. "And I can't wait to get back to a racetrack with him."
Dylan is Dylan Smith, aka Black Mamba, the 24-year-old racer who most recently created a social media buzz among NASCAR fans by winning the highly coveted Best Costume honors at Tony Stewart's annual Halloween party.
He was dressed as Halle Barry's Catwoman.
Erika and Dylan met on Oct. 21, 2015 -- at a racetrack, naturally.
Newcome was a late-model racer from Columbus, Ohio, the daughter of a short tracker who, inspired by her trips to Columbus Motor Speedway, started driving her own racing machines at the age of 8. By 2015 she was voted that speedway's Most Popular Driver.
Smith was a resident of Concord, North Carolina, by way of Randolph, Vermont, where he landed after being adopted out of his native Haiti. He too loved his local racetrack, Thunder Road SpeedBowl in Barre, Vermont, and convinced his adopted father to buy him a go-kart at the age of 4.
After wins at tracks scattered all over the American map, Newcome and Smith met in a hotel lobby in southeastern Virginia. Both were there as invited participants in NASCAR's Drive For Diversity Combine, an annual talent-scouting event held at the legendary Langley Speedway, a four-tenths mile oval strikingly similar to Newcome's Columbus track.
"It was the night before we went to the track and there were 23 of us there. A lot of them had been to the combine before. I hadn't and I was really nervous," Newcome recalls. "Dylan had done it before and he noticed I was being kind of quiet, and he immediately started talking to me. I was so relieved."
At that combine orientation meeting, she was equally relieved to see that the nameplates for the assigned seats in the classroom had her sitting next to Smith. What she didn't know at the time was that he'd switched those plates around to ensure that they'd be paired up.
"We just hit it off immediately," Smith says. "I think what we know now is that our instant friendship wasn't just a coincidence."
Racers are driven people by nature, but their business is one built on rejection; no is a constant answer, whether from a potential sponsor, a car owner, a would-be car owner or even a loan officer. The Drive For Diversity program is designed to help young racers step out of the shadows, but what happens past that initial push is up to the individual.
Smith finished out 2015 but had trouble landing a ride for '16. He's taken jobs working with other teams, doing everything from building race cars for other drivers to using his significant social media skills to help those teams with their PR efforts.
Newcome went back to Ohio and resumed racing, but she couldn't shake a nagging pain in her shoulders. In August 2015 she had crashed into a wall at Columbus, dislocating her right shoulder and tearing her labrum. It seemed odd, though, because the wreck wasn't that hard. In fact, she'd kept running and finished the race. And why was her left shoulder hurting, too? The next spring, during a visit to her orthopedist, she was about to leave but asked one last question about an odd-looking blood vessel in her neck. He sent her to have it checked out via ultrasound. On May 18, it was identified as a blood clot, odd for a just-turned 21-year-old.
On June 2, 2016, Newcome was told that she had masses in almost every organ of her body. She was suffering from Stage 4 sarcoma, a cancer that aggressively attacks the body's soft tissues.
"Now that we're looking back on it, what sarcoma damages are things like your muscles," Newcome explains. "So that's why my labrum tore so easily. I had been weakened and didn't know."
She immediately began treatments that have continued to this day: chemotherapy, an immunotherapy drip and blood thinners to battle the clot. She's doing it all while also being a full-time college student. When the chemo started thinning her hair on one side, she shaved only that side, leaving longer blonde locks on the other. But it's the blood thinners that don't allow her to race, as thinned, freer-flowing blood makes racing too risky. For a moment last month it appeared as through that might no longer be an issue, but the clot returned and so did the thinner.
"Being in school gives me normalcy," she says. "I really feel pretty normal. But cancer is all anyone can talk about. It's all anyone can see when they look at me. That's hard. But I've come to peace with it. Still, that's what makes encouraging talks and phone calls and texts so important. At my low points, I always hear from Dylan and he always knows just what to say. He always says 'we' because we're in this together."
Last month Smith's call was even more enthusiastic than normal. He'd been kicking around an idea for a while and it was starting to come together. While Dylan had been encouraging Erika during her treatment, she'd been returning the favor, pumping him up during a summer when he hadn't turned a single competitive lap on the racetrack.
"I haven't raced all year and it's driven me crazy," Smith said earlier this week, en route to work. "So I thought, if I'm going to race only once this season, then I'm going to make it count."
He secured a late-model car he could race from one of his employers, racer Travis Miller's father Matt and team co-owner Chris Florian. Then he went looking for support. He used LinkedIn to track down the national marketing director of the American Cancer Society, who just so happened to be looking for ways to reach out to blue-collar cancer victims about services such as its transportation-to-appointments program.
Smith also reached out to the Wendell Scott Foundation, run by the family of the late NASCAR Hall of Famer. Wendell Scott, the only African-American to win a NASCAR Cup Series event, is Smith's hero and the family has become one of his biggest supporters. Scott died in 1990, killed by cancer.
Smith set up a GoFundMe page titled "Beating Cancer 1 Lap At A Time," promising donors that any money raised and all winnings from the Myrtle Beach 400 would be split between the American Cancer Society and an account to help pay Newcome's mounting medical bills.
"I couldn't believe it when he told me what he was doing," she said Tuesday night. "But that's Dylan. That's the kind of person he is. He's so unselfish and he's so positive. I knew I had to go with him this weekend. Just being back at a racetrack again, there's no more positive atmosphere than the racetrack. And working with the American Cancer Society to let people know about sarcoma. This is all the best medicine I could possibly think of."
On Thursday, the dude with the fade and the girl with the half-shaved head traveled east toward Myrtle Beach on a mission. In the front seat were two reunited friends. Behind them was a towed late-model race car, painted baby blue with a big white "34" on the side. It's modeled after the rides of Wendell Scott. The duo racing it will do so fueled by one of Scott's favorite sayings.
"Wendell always said, 'When it gets too tough for everyone else, it's just right for me,'" Smith explained. "That sounds like my friend Erika right there."
Whining NASCAR fans may need a reality check
Hey, NASCAR fans, I need you to circle up here. Grab a chair, grab a knee, take a seat on a cooler, whatever's most comfortable. We need to have a chat. I'm worried about you, so I want to tell you a story.
In high school, I had this friend named Billy Ray. Billy Ray was the man. He had it made every possible way for a 17-year-old. He dated the best-looking girl on campus. He drove the best-looking car, a navy blue 1967 Ford Mustang convertible 289. The four of us best buds drove everywhere in that thing. And to beat it all, he had the best-looking left-handed swing I've still ever seen from a prep baseball player.
But one day, he saw some movie star had cut her hair really short and told his girlfriend he liked it. So she cut all her hair off. Billy Ray hated it and he dumped her. He said he might think about getting back together with her once her hair grew back, but by the time it did, she had moved on.
In '87 Ford came out with a redesigned Mustang convertible. Billy Ray sold his '67 and bought the new one. It didn't have enough room for our entire crew, the roof leaked and the ragtop motor burned out, so we couldn't even put the top down.
Then Billy Ray ordered up one of those Tom Emanski Baseball World training videos, the ones that used to advertise 10,000 times a day on ESPN when Fred McGriff declared the user would "get results." Unfortunately, Billy Ray got results. His swing became so robotic he went into a terrible slump, and surrendered his starting spot on the team.
Billy Ray, my friend who'd had the awesome girl, awesome car and awesome swing, was now alone, wet and benched.
"I didn't realize how good I had it when I had it," Billy Ray recently confessed to me. He now sells timeshares somewhere in South Florida. "You get to thinking it's never good enough and you keep complaining about it and one day you wake up and you're old and wondering, 'what all have I missed while I was doing all of that whining?' "
And that brings me back to you, NASCAR fans.
Don't be Billy Ray.
Within minutes of the end of Sunday's race at Bristol, my email inbox and Twitter timeline were filled to the brim. Were the comments about Carl Edwards becoming the season's sixth different winner in eight races, or Dale Junior's slidejob into second, or Matt DiBenedetto's Cinderella run, or the third race in a row with a change atop the championship standings?
Nope. What I heard was this:
* Bristol's grandstands were empty.
* Bristol's TV ratings were down.
* Bristol's racing sucked.
* Bristol was better when it was a two-lane racetrack.
* The National Anthem singer was "too fancy."
* Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip clearly don't like each other.
* The race started too early for West Coast fans.
* The race should have started at noon like they used to for East Coast fans.
* Everything was better in the good old days.
Please understand this, NASCAR fans. We've been in this together for a long time now. I love you. Heck, I'm one of you. But it's getting to the point where I don't know if I want to be around you much longer. And I'm not alone.
Why? Because you're a downer, man. You've developed a reputation as some of the sports world's biggest whiners. Seriously, just listen to yourselves. Tune into NASCAR's satellite radio channel for five minutes. Any five minutes. If we're at the beach it's too hot, and if we're in the mountains it's too cold.
If a Cup guy wins an Xfinity race, he's ruining the series. But if an Xfinity regular wins, I inevitably hear, "Well, who the hell is this guy? I want stars!" If a race ends without a late caution and the leader wins by a second or two, it's boring. But if a late caution comes out to set up a green-white-checker finish and the debris isn't the size of a Winnebago, it's NASCAR rigging the finish.
I hear all the time that NASCAR doesn't listen to the fans. The reality is that they listen too much. People used to scream that the championship battles were too boring ... and they were right. That's how we ended up with the Chase. Now people scream about the Chase, even after it's been tweaked repeatedly based on research done through NASCAR's massive Fan Council.
The race we just ran is the all-time greatest example of this over-willingness to overreact.
A decade ago, fans raised a ruckus that Bristol Motor Speedway needed two lanes for better racing. With ticket sales softening, the track listened. They made a big deal out of reconfiguring the place to create more lanes. But what happened as a result was one of the greatest overreactions I've ever seen in professional sports. Fans immediately said they wanted the track to go back to the way it was and cast their votes by not buying tickets ... even though the racing was actually pretty great.
Now it's been put back the way it was, but clearly the fans that left haven't shown back up. When I've asked why not, they cite the changes that were made eight years ago that have since been erased because they said they'd return if the old configuration returned. But they haven't.
Just like Billy Ray after his girlfriend cut her hair.
Meanwhile, such grousing and griping is bleeding the sport dry from the inside. I know for a fact that some sponsors have been run off because of it. They've told me. I also know that some TV executives have been turned off by it. They've told me, too. I've even had a handful of drivers tell me the same.
I fear that you're so busy complaining that you're missing a truly great time to be a race fan. You miss Dale Earnhardt? Me, too. But his son is running perhaps the best he ever has. And, oh by the way, his grandson Jeffrey and his old team, RCR, are out there slugging away every weekend. You miss Rusty Wallace? Me, too. But man, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski sure remind me an awful lot of him. You say you miss Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin? Have you met Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer?
I know it hurts that Jeff Gordon is done, but his car is running pretty dang well. I know you miss Bill Elliott, but his son is the one driving Gordon's car, the leader of the best group of young drivers to come along in forever. And Jimmie Johnson, whether you love him or hate him, might very well be the best that's ever zipped up a firesuit. The opportunity to witness that alone is something to be appreciated.
Are you really going to allow yourself to miss out on all of that because you are mad they did away with the souvenir midway in favor of a one-stop shopping tent? That move had to be made because people weren't buying enough stuff off that midway to justify the cost.
Are you really not going to a race at Martinsville or Bristol or Richmond because you're still mad that Rockingham and North Wilkesboro have been out of business for decades now? Those places were abandoned largely because fans didn't support them well enough, not even after recent attempts to reopen them. Are you really going to say NASCAR has abandoned its roots and then not go to those races ... or at least visit the Hall of Fame?
Because if you keep not going at the rate you're not going, there won't be anything left to visit.
Have all of NASCAR's moves been good ones? No. Did they make too many big moves all at once? Yes, a decade ago. But what's happening today is great stuff. Don't miss it because of an obsession with the good old days ... which, FYI, weren't all that great. There's a reason we remember the '76 and '79 Daytona 500s and the '95 and '99 Bristol night races. Those finishes stood out because most finishes weren't that close. Go back and watch those races in their entirety. If they happened now, people would say "the finish was good, but the rest of it was so boring."
A two-lane Bristol? Weekly door-to-door finishes? Nonstop lead changes? It's never happened. Today's racing is easily the closest it's ever been to that kind of NASCAR nirvana.
So, are you really going to miss out on what's happening now because of what you think you might remember about those races back in the day? Ignoring the great stuff today by pining for a myth of yesteryear? Tuning out of the most competitive era in NASCAR history because somehow you think it could be better?
Please, people ... my people. Don't be like that.
Don't be like Billy Ray.