We were cleaning up the dishes from Sunday dinner when Rodney called me into the living room where he was watching TV.
“Look at this,” he pointed to the NASCAR race being broadcast live from Bristol, Tenn. My eyes widened. I shook my head.
“Rodney, that can’t be. It just can’t.”
He nodded. “It is. It’s today and it’s the big race.” I demanded that he rewind the DVR and let me watch again. There in color was the truth. The stands had few people in them. Maybe they were 50 percent full but, honestly, it looked more like 25 percent. I’ve seen more people show up for a Saturday night dirt track race.
I knew this was coming. I wasn’t sure, though, I’d live to see it but I knew that when the sport started chasing big city shine and shucking off its country moonshine that the heart of the fans – the country folks like me – would turn and head to the house. They’d hang up their Earnhardt, Gordon or Johnson hats and call it a day. I figured the rougher ones would cuss and carry on about how the sport that “we done gone and made what it is” had become “what ain’t worth a plug nickel.”
About eight years ago, I requested media credentials for a Talladega race so I could write about a day at the track that I loved and had given me many memories when I was working in the sport as a publicist for corporate sponsors. The PR person in charge of credentials called.
“Send me some clips and I’ll decide if I’ll issue you a credential.” I almost choked. First on incredulity and, second, on anger.
“I’m syndicated. I don’t collect clips,” I responded, remembering the time when a Washington Post writer named Angus Philips showed up in Pocono to write a piece on Earnhardt, Sr., and we PR people fell over ourselves to show him the meaning of Southern hospitality. It was the first time a big paper had shown us any attention.
She snapped hatefully. “Then, you won’t get a credential.”
I called her boss who, when he learned of her arrogance, responded, “I’m on my way to her office. You’ll get both an apology and a credential.” I did.
But that kind of uppity treatment from people who rode on the coat tails and skirt tails of PR people like me was bound to sabotage them sooner or later.
Here’s the other problems that someone needs to tell the folks in Daytona Beach since they don’t seem to remember their core fans:
•You don’t ban the name of Jesus. I listen to the prayers. They’re politically correct.
•You don’t replace Tim McGraw singing the national anthem with Mariah Carey.
•You don’t take races away from the sport’s heartland. Places like Atlanta, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Darlington, Nashville. I’m still mad about all of ‘em but Atlanta particularly infuriates me because it’s the Southeast’s biggest city, one of the oldest race tracks and because I believe that my friend and its president, Ed Clark, deserves better after the 35 years of sweat and love he has put into the sport.
• You don’t take away the emotional connection that fans built with drivers like Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett. Those guys worked hard for years before they won. Now, they just plunk an unknown teenager in a car with a huge sponsor and he wins. Big deal.
•You don’t come out aggressively on a political issue of a flag, like it or not. You might offer an exchange but ain’t nobody gonna tell a good ol’ boy from Alabama what to do when it breeches his First Amendment rights. Uh-uh.
I could go on but it’s needless. The white flag has fallen on NASCAR’s greatest glory days and the checkered flag is about to fly.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin’.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]