Commentary

NASCAR's desire to return to its racing roots a very good thing

Forget all the talk about the Car of Tomorrow. Same goes for courtroom battles, foreign drivers and the top-35 rule. It's all about the racing, writes Marty Smith, and NASCAR knows it.

Updated: January 23, 2008, 1:24 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Brian France is dang right: It is high time NASCAR took it back to the good ol' boys.

And whoever it was in Daytona or Charlotte or Kalamazoo drawing that ire deserves a hearty pat on the back and a frothy, frosty Budweiser -- the red-label kind that good ol' boys drink sittin' on a tailgate in the hayfield.

Jeff Burton
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonNASCAR is all about the racing, says Jeff Burton. Always has been, always will be.

A lot of fans, for myriad reasons, feel like NASCAR over the past 10-15 years committed the ultimate sellout (i.e., it forgot where it came from). It's the ol' "dance with the one that brought you" mantra -- Wilkesboro and Rockingham brought you to the show, and when you arrived, you found a hotter partner in California.

That's a bit overboard -- let's be honest, every business' goal is to grow and expand -- but it is good to see the Daytona brass admit they need to steer back to the roots a little bit, because fact is they don't have to.

Regardless, France made a huge, difficult step Monday. He called a spade a spade: himself. But lip service won't cut it. NASCAR has to get its hands dirty in small, traditional markets like Darlington and Martinsville. Show me, don't tell me. (To their credit, they've done that recently via capital improvements to both tracks.)

Ultimately, perception from the rural roots says this: Ease off the suits and embrace the guy with his name on his shirt. Because that's the guy who spends his vacation time and savings account at Pocono Raceway.

"Me being a [Late Model] racer, I go to weekly tracks, and if you go there and listen to competitors and fans, they say, 'Well, [local tracks] is all I want to do,'" said Clay Campbell, the president of Martinsville Speedway. "They say, 'NASCAR's gotten too big for me and they've left me behind. They don't care about me.' It's not good to hear them say that.

"We all have our work cut out for us now. We all got a little complacent. We're all guilty. And we all have to fix it."

The bigger question: Can it be fixed? Can NASCAR and its tracks re-establish themselves with Alan Jackson's "Little Man," or are the good ol' boys already past it? And how much reality, truly, is there in this perception?

Opinions vary.

"The perception that the sport is a lot different than it used to be is worse than actual facts," Jeff Burton said. "When I talk to people about the sport, some guys I respect that are race fans and have been for a long time, good old regular guys, what I get is, 'Well, I don't like it.' Why? 'Well, they let Toyota in' or 'I don't like all the foreign drivers being here' or 'I don't like the Car of Tomorrow' or '[NASCAR officials] don't let drivers say what they really think.'

"They never mention the quality of the racing. They talk about all those other things. So it's an interesting thing to try to fix. How [is NASCAR] going to fix it? Let Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle fight and not doing anything about it? Come on. Leave it alone a while and let the story be the race.

The main story hasn't been about the racing. That's what fans want to hear about. They don't care about courtroom battles and stuff. They don't want that crap. They want racing.

-- Jeff Burton

"The story has been the Car of Tomorrow and safety innovations and foreign drivers and the top-35 rule. The main story hasn't been about the racing. That's what fans want to hear about. They don't care about courtroom battles and stuff. They don't want that crap. They want racing. The story needs to be the race. So a lot of what's wrong with NASCAR is just perception."

Campbell, whose grandfather, H. Clay Earles, built Martinsville in 1947, isn't so sure. He's a good barometer, too. He was with NASCAR way before NASCAR was chic.

"It's pretty accurate," Campbell said when asked whether the perception that NASCAR had forgotten its roots carried any validity.

"I don't think it was something [NASCAR] really intended to do, and in life, perception goes a long way. For years we tried to expand our footprint across the country, and that's good in one aspect.

"But you don't give up your roots to go somewhere else. And I think fans perceive us growing as [though] we're picking up more people somewhere else and forgetting the people that brought us to the dance."

Campbell is pleased that NASCAR has taken this stance.

"NASCAR is on the right track now," Campbell said. "It's the same NASCAR you fell in love with. That's great. But let's not be ashamed of where we came from, and be proud of those that laid out their blood, sweat, tears to make us all have pretty good occupations. Why be ashamed of that?

"I applaud [NASCAR] for looking that direction again. We were discouraged for a long time to get country music entertainers from doing the national anthem. That's crazy! What's wrong with that?"

Not a thing. A NASCAR official recently told a great story of rapping with the mechanics in the NASCAR plane hangar about the sport. They didn't want to talk racing. They wanted to talk country. The mechanics, the official said, were pumped that Garth Brooks is affiliated with NASCAR through a partnership with the NASCAR Foundation. It doesn't get a whole lot more country, or cooler, than Garth Brooks.

How, though, does NASCAR prove to the fans it's serious about this? Earlier, uniform start times for races? Lower ticket prices? Campbell admits they must keep in mind the cost of bringing a family to a NASCAR race, certainly, but it's really about one complex variable: respect.

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Campbell says they must ensure they keep the fans who are in the stands right now. Work hard to show them how appreciated they are. Because without them, there's nothing.

"We need to put more emphasis on retaining fans. All fans," Campbell said. "Fans will tell you it's so sponsor-driven now that [they] think [tracks] don't need my money. Sponsors and TV foot the bill. They don't need me. No. If it wasn't for fans, TV and sponsors wouldn't be interested in us. We've got to have fans. That's it. That's our lifeblood.

"Sponsors and TV play a huge part in our sport now, and we have to have them as well, but if we don't keep these fans here, it's all for naught. We've got to redirect our energies and get the fans fired back up again."

Campbell agrees with Burton that the on-track product is fine, and in fact, at an all-time high.

And speaking of misperception ...

"People say the racing was great back in [the] '60s -- I don't understand that rationale, at all," Campbell said. "We have 30 cars on the lead lap [now]. Back then there were two on the lead lap, and the third-place car was five laps down. We've been spoiled. I don't understand that. It's not a valid argument."

Nor is the idea of NASCAR censoring drivers or the "put 'em up" way of solving things, Burton said.

"I heard some people talking that there was so much change at once that it turned some die-hards off," Burton said. "I can go way back to me and Joe Nemechek getting into an altercation at Orange County [while] Busch racing, and [former series director] Les Richter told us both if we conducted ourselves like that, we wouldn't be in the sport very long.

"That was 18 years ago, so the image of drivers getting out and fighting, no, it hasn't been that way in the modern era. And people seem to think NASCAR tells us not to criticize them. I haven't really received any pushback for being critical of NASCAR. They obviously present their case, but they've never told me not to talk about it.

"Drivers started getting fined for using cuss words. That was viewed as censorship. Actually, our sport is the only one you don't get fined for criticizing officials. If [New England Patriots coach] Bill Belichick criticizes the officiating, he gets penalized. There's a perception that drivers can't criticize -- and that's even among people intimately involved in the sport. That's so wrong. There's no truth to it."

(Some presume Tony Stewart was penalized for likening NASCAR to professional wrestling last year on his satellite radio show. That's not the case. He was penalized for failing to fulfill required media obligations at Phoenix. He just got his rear end chewed for calling out NASCAR on the radio.)

"I remember when racing wasn't cool," Campbell said. "Things have changed a heck of a lot over the past three decades. I think back to where it used to be, to my childhood, we didn't have all the eyeballs we've got now looking at us. But it was still a great sport, it was still growing year in, year out. And the people that helped grow NASCAR back then, a lot of them are not around now.

"Too, though, for years we tried to be a major league sport, to compete with the stick-and-ball sports. We finally got to that point, and with that you've got to change some. Change is not always bad. It ain't always good. But when you finally get to the level where you're on par with major league sports, you've got to change things -- but not at the expense of those that got it here."

Marty,

With Joe Gibbs coming back to NASCAR, how will the Joe Gibbs Racing team be changed?

-- Mark Contas, San Diego

The day-to-day operation won't change much, if at all, Mark. Gibbs' son, J.D., has been running the company for a long time. Where Coach Gibbs' reintroduction into the equation has the most impact is sponsorship. In a bleak economy, the sponsorship horizon is quite daunting, and having a Hall of Fame coach and renowned personality focused on meeting with and working with current and potential financial backers is huge.

Marty,

I agree the guys not in the top 35 need to be bunched together for qualifying. However, isn't that a clear advantage to qualify at the end of the session? A lot of times, guys want a late draw for qualifying because the sun is usually going down and the track is cooling.

In theory, one of the "non-top 35" guys will be a favorite for the pole each week. Especially someone like Kurt Busch, who has to qualify on time since he gave his points to [Sam] Hornish. The Toyotas could also be pole favorites since they look stronger this season, and had a few good qualifying runs last year. Your thoughts?

-- Craig, Cupertino, Calif.

First things first, Craig: Busch has the champion's provisional at his disposal, which does guarantee his spot in the field and thus enables him to hang it out during qualifying. That could certainly result in several poles -- even if he wrecks on Friday gunning for the pole, he's still racing on Sunday.

The other guys don't have that luxury. They wreck, they pack it up and head to the house. That's why this is a great decision by NASCAR. Those who must "time" into the field will compete against one another, and will do so under virtually the same optimum conditions as the other guys. The top-35 guys are locked-in, barely working on qualifying setups during practice anyway. What's it matter?

Marty,

Everybody keeps asking and making a big deal of how Junior is going to do next year, but I'm curious as to how you think Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart are going to be doing with the switch to Toyota.

-- Drew, Starkville, Miss.

Very well, Drew. Very well. The key is the engine. The strict regulations involved with the Car of Tomorrow mean most teams have very similar cars. Not exactly the same, but close. JGR had little time to build its Toyota engines, but it's accustomed to quick power turnarounds.

It was the first GM team to convert from the Chevy SB2 engine to the R-07. Now it's focused on building quality Toyota motors. Once JGR dials those in, look out. It's the big fish now. It's not sharing time with Hendrick, Childress or Earnhardt anymore. JGR will be the big dogs at Toyota.

Ultimately, I think JGR will do well. It'll win races in 2008, and jump-start a Toyota program that was stagnant in its inaugural campaign.

And man, Toyota couldn't have begged for a better public relations score. In Stewart, it gets a red-blooded American race car driver with good ol' boys as fans. And he'll sit in a Toyota Camry in 2008. Toyota executives are giddy.

That's my time for this week. Mix your cereals. It tastes good.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.