By Monte Dutton
Most weekends I stare at the forest from afar. This weekend I’m scheduled to mingle among the trees.
For the second time this season, my intention is to write on-site about the NASCAR races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where once I wrote about 40 consecutive points races, and 20 consecutive All-Star races, circa 1993-2012.
When I study the forest, the beauty is evident, but the details are sketchy. The first time I ever wandered into the Charlotte trees, Elliott won the race in No. 9. Next year, Elliott will be back in No. 9. Different Elliott. Chase, son of Bill. In a way, it is a microcosm of more than three decades. That first time, I was a fan, there because the Furman University football team was playing the Fighting Dates of Open. My job was with the Paladins. The Paladins took up most of my time.
Growing up, the forest was something I could barely make out in the distance. No cable. No live (flag-to-flag!) coverage. I listened on the radio to Ken Squier, Ned Jarrett and a bunch of guys yelling from various turns and pit stalls. On Monday night, WBT in Charlotte televised the highlights. Channel 3 was one of those stations I could watch by adjusting the antenna in order to make the electronic snow slightly less snowy. I loved the way the Charlotte tri-oval had been clipped into harsh angles. In the ’90s, the late NASCAR historian and freelance statistician Bob Latford coined the term “truncated tri-oval,” which I liked only because Bruton Smith’s preferred term, “quad-oval,” made no sense.
Then Bruton truncated a tri-oval near Atlanta, tinkering mainly because he could, and built another one near Fort Worth, and truncating became such a blur that truncation disappeared from the NASCAR lexicon, just like the old point system that Latford had famously devised.
What has changed the most? The rules. NASCAR then was a lot like Southwest Airlines now. It was easier for the leader to get away. In the ’70s, when I was in high school, the cars to beat were driven by Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough. On Oct. 8, 1972, Bobby Allison won the National 500, and the only other driver to finish on the lead lap was Buddy Baker. By my rough estimation of the consequences of the current system, had that race been run on Oct. 8, 2017, Pearson, A.J. Foyt, Butch Hartman, Darrell Waltrip, James Hylton, Buddy Arrington, Joe Frasson, Petty and Larry Smith would have also been on the lead lap. Today’s rules are the equivalent of, “No shirts? No shoes? No problem!” where the lead lap is concerned.
Now the cars to beat, every single confounded week, are driven by Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. One reason more surprises happen is the rules. Losing a lap today is no more an impediment than a mosquito bite on a camping trip. It’s a mild annoyance. An itch.
Yet the season has still settled into a reliable pattern. Truex to Busch to Larson is as reliable as a double-play combination. Not every fair ball bounces to short. Early this season, Jimmie Johnson won three races before anyone else did. Now the seven-time champion is in the reserve pool, which has more swimmers than the public ones on the mill villages of my youth. No race’s outcome has really been a surprise since Kasey Kahne won at Indianapolis on July 23.
Denny Hamlin, hardly an underdog, mind you, won at Darlington, but that was “encumbered,” a word as mystifying as “truncated” in the ’90s.
The forest seems ever more distant and obscured by haze. The trees reveal detail, depth and craftsmanship. I’d like to see the trees of Darlington, Martinsville, Atlanta, Talladega, Bristol and Richmond again. I don’t want to fly on airplanes to races anymore. In a car, I can watch the trees all along the way.
I’m anxious to be there, well, a little more. Four and 94/100ths years away have made me keenly aware of the difference in perspective. At the track, I will be surrounded mainly by others who also love racing. TV’s message is that everything and everyone is just alike, only better. I don’t know any better.
The double entendre was intended as entendres tend to be.
Back home, I seem to be surrounded by others who tell me, ad nauseum, that they used to love racing but no longer. The general answer is “it ain’t like it used to be.”
Just what in the wide, wide world of sports is?