Monte Dutton column: In the end, it’s not the kids’ fault

Longtime NASCAR writer and author Monte Dutton is covering the Coca-Cola 600 for JeffGluck.com this weekend. Below is his first post.

By Monte Dutton

Passion. That’s what NASCAR has to regain.

It cannot restore its glory by appealing to people with but a passing knowledge of what is going on. It must instill passion, and with allowances for the crack work of TV producers, that kind of storm doesn’t crop up in a living room with a six-pack of beer and a pound of nachos.

Quite often, these days, it takes at least a 12.

Kevin Harvick won the pole for Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600. Whoop-de-doo. It’s not me talking, but, rather, the fans who weren’t here. At this point in the history of NASCAR, the prevailing view is that time trials aren’t worth watching anymore. Some cars don’t even make it through inspection. The format has been infused with tasty elements that TV reportedly enjoys.

On the way up Interstate highways 26 and 85, I thought about a similar drive back in 1986. I was about where I am now in the journalism racket, writing local sports for the Clinton Chronicle and doing morning sports at WPCC-AM 1410.

It was before both the rise and the fall of NASCAR and me. Like Lefty in the country song, now I’m growing old.

Charlotte Motor Speedway promoted back in those days. Even at the lowly Clinton Chronicle, a promotional packet arrived containing inexpensive novelty items and a fistful of tickets that weren’t going to sell anyway.

Lest you believe they were buying the media, the following year, after Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott tangled in The Winston, a box arrived containing one sliver of Wrangler denim and one empty, crushed can of Coors. At the time, crushed cans of Coors were not uncommon in my life.

The tickets were for Pole Day. I couldn’t go to the race, partly because of a full slate of local sports but also because I couldn’t afford to pay my way in. I called up a friend – I spent half the drive up today trying to remember who it was – and said, “Hey, I got some tickets to pole qualifying at Charlotte. Wanna go?”

“Hell, yes,” he said, because, back in those days, folks like me and him were willing to do things like drive over two hours to the other side of Charlotte, where we watched individual race cars drive extremely fast one at a time. A lot of young people said “hell, yes” about racing in those days.

There may have been beer involved, but best I know, beer is still involved today.

Thank God I went. If I hadn’t, I’d have never known the name of the only driver in NASCAR I’d pay to see qualify, even though I didn’t.

Tim By God Richmond.

He wrestled that red Chevrolet like he was running on Folger’s Coffee instead of sticking it over the fenders. In all those years, and all those long rides, and all those race-day notes packages, maybe there are 10 scenes etched so vividly in my mind’s eye that they appear sometimes as if by magic. Richmond’s qualifying run that day is one. His lap around CMS was similar to every lap during the final hour of qualifying at Indy.

My forgotten friend and I watched from the first turn. I’d say there were, oh, 30,000 people there. If the final performance of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus had been conducted in the CMS tri-oval grass after qualifying on Thursday, I doubt the crowd would have been as high as it was for single-round, single-lap qualifying on an autumn afternoon more than 30 years ago. In the 1990s, 40,000 was about the average crowd for Coca-Cola 600 qualifying.

Now all the fans come out to CMS disguised as empty seats. Well behaved. Never buy hot dogs.

I’ve measured the decline of stock car racing a hundred ways. The ways are easy. Their relative importance is hard.

I keep hearing, the kids don’t care about cars. They don’t care about anything. They spend all their time listening to rap music, playing video games and posting to Instasnapbooker or something. They have short attention spans. Yet, oddly, they don’t like drag racing, either, and drag racing is short.

They have no passion. Thus must we squeeze every drop of it from NASCAR. Then they’ll love it.

In the upstate of South Carolina, you know what the kids still have passion for? The Clemson Tigers. They’re truer to their schools than the Beach Boys ever were. They’re scapegoats for every executive trying to pass the buck on his cockamamie marketing campaign.

“Those kids of today.” They’ve been the lame excuse for every adult dysfunction since Louisa May Alcott was a schoolmarm.

The pole winner, circa 2017, talked about how his career has jelled at Stewart-Haas, and his hopes for Sunday, and the benefits of family and the serenity that comes with middle age. He also talked about how money isn’t everything. Easy for him to say, of course. He’s got a lot.

Harvick said some things in the sport have to be “bottom up” instead of “top down.” Specifically, he was talking about the Camping World Truck Series schedule and how he’d like to see it go back to the short tracks, but he could have been talking about most everything that has gone wrong.

Now qualifying is three rounds. It’s less likely the pole winner really drives the fastest car because going through those three rounds without using undue rubber is really the key. Was there a need to jazz up qualifying? The excitement of qualifying would be limited if they set them all on fire as they pulled off pit road … and then ran the burned-out hulks through the Laser Inspection Station, where, oddly enough, they’d probably pass with charred colors.

Who cares? Well, I once did, back when Richmond was the Count of Monte Carlo.

Midseason changes harm a sport’s credibility

The email subject from this morning seemed like a very late April Fools’ joke at first: “NASCAR Adds Fourth Stage to Coca-Cola 600.”

Oh no.

Look, I get what NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway are trying to do here. The 600 is a long race, and dividing it into four 100-lap stages will break it up and make it more entertaining. Last year’s 600 was brutal — with 131 straight green-flag laps at one point — and people hated the race.

And the stages have added a lot to the racing this year, so an extra stage is fine. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if all races had four stages next year.

But…ughhhhhh.

What NASCAR fails to understand (or at least value highly enough) is how bad it looks to change rules in the middle of a season. These are the type of temptations a sanctioning body should avoid, because they harm credibility — and that’s very difficult to earn back.

Personally, I’m still affected by the worst decision of all time — adding a 13th driver to a 12-driver playoff in 2013. NASCAR changed forever for me that day, and I can honestly say I’ve never looked at NASCAR as a sport quite the same after that.

The Coke 600 decision isn’t on that level, but the concept is similar: A short-term play could have a long-lasting impact on people who are desperately clinging to the notion NASCAR is more of a sport than sports entertainment.

Yes, the “pure sport” aspect has been gone for awhile now — I get that — but it’s painful to see NASCAR toss aside more of its credibility.

That’s what makes this the wrong move.

NASCAR announced stage lengths for every race on Feb. 16. It said each race would have the same amount of stage points and playoff points, except for the Daytona 500 (which had 10 more stage points — but not playoff points — thanks to the Duels).

Now — less than two weeks before the 600 — NASCAR has suddenly decided a certain race is worth more stage points than other races. And it’s worth more playoff points than any other race.

Think about that: Drivers can earn more playoff points in the Coke 600 than they can in the Daytona 500.

That’s very troubling for purposes of consistency. All races should pay the same amount of points. And if they don’t, NASCAR should announce that at the start of the season — not 13 days before the race.

It’s really disappointing NASCAR decided to do this. Want to add a fourth stage to one race for entertainment purposes? Then at least do it before the season. Announce it, let people digest it and come to terms with it.

But by doing it now, NASCAR misjudged what’s more valuable: One night at Charlotte or its credibility as a sanctioning body.