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 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.

29 Replies to “Monte Dutton column: In the end, it’s not the kids’ fault”

  1. To long ago I had the pleasure of watching Tim THROW a car around the old flat quarter mile track in Senair Canada. It was a sight to behold. Got every ounce he could out of that car.

  2. Great article! Your words hit the nail on the head! The passion has abandoned NASCAR! The desires of the grass roots fans have been ignored!

  3. I was one of those 30,000+ that went to quals at Charlotte many years ago. But have not been to separate CUP quals at any track in over two years. EVERY driver from Xfinity and Monster Cup should have gone into the stands or souvenir haulers after Quals to sign autographs or pics. Some of best memories from 49 years of going to NASCAR was meeting my favorites at their souvenir haulers.

  4. I grew up in a duck blind with my father, when The American Sportsmen was popular on weekend TV, showing hunting and fishing. People still hunt and fish today, but golf has taken its place in popularity. I bowled in two leagues a week, and every Saturday tuned into the PBA with my friends to watch Earl Anthony, Dick Weber, and so many other stars. Where is bowling now? No longer a sport, it is a game loaded with gimmicks to entice the few players it can get in the doors.

    The fact is, you can wring your hands and theorize all you want, but NASCAR’s problems are generational. We used to have an existential attachment to cars, we could pop the hoods and fix anything if we had to. We had a bond, fast cars were toys for grown-ups. GTO, Chevelle, Mustang, Charger. Now you practically need a degree in computer science to diagnose and correct a car problem. Cars are now purely utilitarian, purpose-driven, they have lost the emotional ties.

    Stock car racing is reaching the horizon in time, following in the steps behind hunting and bowling, and so many other popular sports and activities that lived and died before we were born.

    1. Well said Discipulus. Nothing is the same as it once was. Bring back the days of Hide & Seek, Kickball, Dodgeball, Mother May I. The kids these days have no idea at the fun they are missing.

    2. Dicipulus you make some insightful points. My husband is a long time technician and says “Cars are a necessary evil” in the sense that they can be complicated, hard to fix, yet necessary for every day life. Regularly he longs for the simpler engines of years past and would attest to your observation about all the “computer” components.

      We currently do bowl and sense some resurrection of interest in the sport. Maybe that’s just because we play it now, but there are some things making a comeback. Look at the interest in VIntage things, organic farming, vinyl records. Maybe history will start to repeat itself with NASCAR at some point. After all the throwback weekend at Darlington was a big success.

  5. Monte never disappoints! I was there that same day. Thank you for bringing back a fond memory while hitting the nail on the head. We used to buy tickets from Tim Flock from the trunk of his car for the Charlotte races…

  6. “They have short attention spans. Yet, oddly, they don’t like drag racing, either, and drag racing is short.”

    That’s a great point.

  7. Excellent perspective as always, but The Winston promo box would’ve had “Wrangler” denim enclosed not Levi’s…right? Neat idea, show how real promotional work was once done.

    1. Yes. When i got home, I cringed that i had inexplicably written “Levi’s” when I meant “Wrangler.” I’m absentminded sometimes. — MD

  8. Awesome article Monte. Your style of writing has long been lost in journalism. Thanks.

  9. Monte you are way better than Jeffery. He has maybe a right to carry your left slipper, time will tell if he can carry the right. So far….MEH.

    Good Stuff Monte! We need the likes of you other than the boot lickers for anything…oh never mind.

  10. Well said, Monte. I admit that practice day itself was never my favorite activity at the track, probably because I couldn’t relate what changes the crew chiefs were making all day to why the cars were getting faster (or not). But qualifying was something to see. And there were two reasons.

    First, qualifying/practice day was an opportunity to see the Cup cars and stars. We had one Cup race, and it was sold out with a waiting list for new fans to get tickets. Until that waiting list bore out, we had to settle for qualifying on Friday (and, if your track had one, a Busch/Truck support race on Saturday) to see Jeff and Dale and Rusty. (Maybe that helped the gate on Saturday that much more compared to today.) Now, you can get race tickets on Sunday morning, so as long as that’s not a financial hardship (as in Monte’s case above), you needn’t sit through hours of practice just to see your favorite driver make a few laps.

    Second, qualifying then had gravity. When there were more teams than spots in the field, and more evidently when field sizes were capped at 36 for the shorter tracks, qualifying meant something, because someone (and more specifically, several someones) was going home early. Six or seven cars might have to load up early, cars with full-time big-name sponsors, no less. Not that you root for anyone to go home; you root for your favorite driver (or your favorite underdog, a guy like Dave Marcis) NOT to miss the show. But with 49 cars and only 43 starting spots, someone has to be eliminated. Now THAT’S knockout qualifying.

    And even then, you had two rounds of qualifying. Friday was first-round to set the field and the first 20 (later 25) positions. Saturday, if you qualified 21st on back, you had two options: you could stand on your first-round time, or you could try and better your lap. Sometimes, the weather made it a no-brainer. Sometimes, you had no choice but to gamble. Sometimes, you’d blown an engine or got DQed from the first round, and you’d crank off a pole-winning lap in second round Qs that was only good for 21st. But at the end of the round, attempts or no attempts, someone was getting provisionals and someone else was going home with nothing to show for it. That’s gravity. That’s must-see action. That’s knockout competition.

    And I suppose the other wrinkle is that it doesn’t matter quite as much anymore who starts first or last. No question, a better run Friday will lay the groundwork for a better result Sunday. But when Jimmie and Dale Jr. and Joey fail inspection and miss qualifying, they start 32nd and 34th and 35th, and there’s little doubt that one or two of them will be in the top ten by the first caution, as long as they aren’t the first caution. Or at least by the first stage break.

    I’m still tempted to get a ticket for qualifying this year. If only because complaining about the empty seats at your own track is pointless if you do nothing to fill one, and we’ve already lost one race, so it’s time to prove we shouldn’t lose another.

  11. I agree that the passion seems to be missing. In my opinion, the passion is lost on all sides of the equation. Fans are lack luster because of all of the gimmicky things being done to “manipulate” interest. NASCAR feels like they are going through the motion to make the all mighty $$ instead of truly fuel a passion for the sport.

    Sponsors look to minimize their expenses while maximizing their ROI. I remember about 10 years ago you couldn’t park so close to CMS because that first gravel lot coming up Bruton Smith Blvd was filled with sponsor activations and things to draw in fans. Now you can basically park at the track as the fan zone has consistently shrunk year after year. This is true at multiple tracks, not just CMS.

    Ultimately there is a true lack of passion all around the sport.

  12. Ah Tim Richmond. Now there was a personality that is truly missing in today’s NASCAR world. There isn’t a driver today with the charisma of Tim. This guy was having fun 24/7. Maybe a little too much. You could not help but like the guy. Had he lived it would have been like Weatherlty and Turner. Earnhardt and Richmond. Now there’s a rivalry people would have lined up to see.

    It’s nice to read comments from people who remember the way things used to be. The new qualifying format looked encouraging in the beginning but now has become BORING. And except for pit stop selection doesn’t really prove anything. In fact since they’ve gimmicked up the sport so much I think the best idea would be to do away with qualifying and line the cars up in reverse order of the point standings. Number one in points starts last and so firth.

  13. The cars can be engineered but passion can’t. Nascar has yet to figure that out. Good to hear from Monte!

  14. I wrote this as a comment on Facebook, but I want to share it directly on the story. Why no one is talking about how difficult NASCAR is to follow now DURING the race, is affecting kids directly. My own kids, in fact. Needing advanced Algebra to figure out if their guy could get into the playoffs on points or where someone finishes relative to the point standings has turned them off, a lot. I’m still trying to rev them up, I still take them in our old RV to watch on top, but I am losing them and their interest.
    Talladega has been riding on coattails of Jr’s fans for several years, if you don’t think executives there are nail biting for next year, when there is no Junior in the race, you are kidding yourself.

    What are we supposed to do, look at the positives and change those?

    I’m 33, my kids are 13, 9 and 6yo twins. They like NASCAR, but they are getting bored trying to follow who has what points, when the race stops, who goes where, what the playoff rules are, why their driver missed post-race inspection and lost points for a laser inspection after beating and banging all day, and which points go to who for what.

    You don’t grow the sport by making it so hard to follow you need a notebook to keep track of it.

    I take my kids to Daytona each race. They have loved it, but even *I* can’t explain to them on Sundays what the hell is going on or why the points standings look the way they do. Having to look up a scoresheet on Monday to figure out where your driver is (or would be or could be) in the standings? That’s not a sport.

    That’s like waiting until Monday to find out the winner of the Superbowl, because they also award points for whomever has the most backward steps, “quarter” points for whomever is leading at the end of the quarter, playoff points for whomever is leading at the half. Can you imagine if the NFL tried to do this for their playoff setup? Having a secondary points scoring system, that you need to calculate to figure out who gets into the playoffs?

  15. Great article, Monte! I’ve always enjoyed your work and couldn’t agree more. NASCAR has the tough job of somehow making Motorsports relevant again. Not an easy fix… in my opinion they should focus more on the race strategy & engineering because, let’s face it, the car itself isn’t going to grab the attention of someone who knows nothing about cars.

  16. Great work Monte. Agree with what you say. How many people today are changing the oil in the driveway? How many ever open the hood on their car/truck? Cars were our “technology” and the highest tech cars that looked like what was in our driveways were racing in the south on Sundays.

    I don’t have a solution, but I know that I don’t feel the connection with today’s drivers like I did with Earnhardt. When I met him, I felt that he was a normal guy with extra large cojones who got to do what I could only dream of. And I loved him for that.

  17. The passion is gone,the family tradition didn’t last for many reasons. When you decide that your business model is mainly base on tv revenue???
    How many format change in the last decade?
    Name 5 brands that support a race has title sponsor?
    I’ve been a Nascar fan for decade,the experience at every track is different even the Daytona 500 is nothing like it used to be?
    I don’t even go to Q anymore the thrill is gone.Bristol we were 5000,Dover 5000 & NHMS 2500, INDY less than 5000,Homestead doesn’t pack for Q.

    I could’t get ticket for a DECADE at many race track,now you can buy them the day before the weekend.The only reason i still go friday saturday & sunday is to support the other serie K&N,ARCA,NCWTS,Xfinity,the Modified,Sportmans..I will go to the track in the fall only to spend precious time with Dad a Fan of the King-Jeff Gordon-Tony Stewart-Kyle Larson

  18. Fantastic article, Monte! Thank you and thank Jeff for getting you to cover the 600. I understood every reference you made, so what does that make me, too? Now, down the YouTube rabbit hole. Already watched Pancho and Lefty. Up next-Seven Spanish Angels.

  19. I really appreciate all the comments. Another big day tomorrow. Being back at the track has been fun. Trying to stay up late tonight because it will be a long, late drive home in the wee hours of Monday.

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