Monte Dutton: The Encumbrance of a Truncated View


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?

4 Replies to “Monte Dutton: The Encumbrance of a Truncated View”

  1. Football is. Unless I’ve missed the update that touchdowns are worth 15 and winning a game is a playoff spot. When a team goes into dynasty mode, people make fun of that team and spur their own team to find ways to do better, instead of taking Tom Brady away from the Patriots under parity. Their changes are safety related (hits with the crown). No sport should ever stop trying to improve that, and no one is arguing they should.

    Baseball is. Unless I missed that an upper deck HR is worth double. Teams scouted talent, instead of insisting Randy Johnson could only raise his legs two feet due to an aerodynamic challenge of his height.

    And we don’t have one team deciding that games have to be all be played in their buddies stadium, even if it produces awful racing, with a wink and a nudge to pretend some other track has character.

    Golf is. Rugby is. Swimming is – they don’t turn on jets to disturb the pool for swimmers who covered the distance faster for “parity”. They don’t add weights to other swimmers so they weigh the same as Michael Phelps.

    About the only thing I can compare is basketball – there are so many weird things going on, bonuses, double thingys, fouls are okay, but not okay, and ego about how they aren’t getting paid enough (maybe that’s where Denny got his inspiration) to dribble a ball, that it’s absurd. And considering the viewership rate is tanking (even despite the LeBron factor), I’m not sure we want to go down that path… and even they haven’t changed as much as NASCAR.

    I can handle minor car changes. I can handle even the Chase, if I really had to. Especially the tweaks that took a decade and finally rewarded regular season multiple wins and consistency to a degree.

    Adding 30-45 minutes per race length for two additional cautions, to try and make a race exciting in the middle? Not so much. If you need stages, fine. Award the points and NOT stop the races, so that drivers and crews still have to make tough calls and gambles. I mean, if you have to contrive a few points in the middle of a race to make it “more exciting”, then I have to wonder about the quality of your product. It’s like Oreo needing to add random quarters in the middle of a few in a pack, to give the buyer something to eat towards.

    Way to capture the youth demographic – by taking already lengthy races (because we keep slowing down fast cars to make it “fair” for the not fast ones), and giving them a whole stretch of time in the race twice, to lost interest.

  2. Great article from Monte as usual. Particularly enjoyed the underhanded jabs at Bruton Smith. For me, that guy is one of the most polarizing figures of this sport, and I have a hard time deciding how I would like to remember him and his legacy when he’s gone. Obviously a hall of famer for a reason, and I get that. However, on one hand he is the key figure responsible for the growth of NASCAR, and on the other, one of the key figures to blame for its decline. Mixed feelings about that guy for sure.

  3. Great read Monte, thank you Jeff. I don’t have the pedigree to argue the merits of NASCAR changing over the years. I will say that during my relatively brief obsession of about 20 years I struggle with the changes NASCAR imposes each year and within each year as well. I only applaud their improvements in safety despite the fact they were slow to the gate with safer barriers at all tracks. I almost would have preferred fewer shorter races to coincide with the shorter attention spans rather than some of the changes NASCAR has implemented. I’m still not a fan of the Chase system since there are still a lot of cars that get tossed aside recognition-wise simply because they didn’t make the Chase. It feels as if they are lower class citizens of the sport. It affects sponsors and morale to some extent. I keep trying to envision the future of NASCAR for a world filled with ADHD fans. Not sure I can accept what that will look like.

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