Commentary

Welcome to Diesel's Dirt Road: an open forum for fed-up fans

NASCAR's announcement that it wants to return to its roots ignited a firestorm of protest in Marty Smith's mailbox. From the present-day cars to the cookie-cutter tracks, the fans simply long for the good ol' days.

Updated: January 30, 2008, 1:52 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- Door-To-Door is on hiatus this week, folks. In its place: Diesel's Dirt Road, an open forum for fed-up NASCAR fans to voice disdain with everything from the Top-35 rule to Brian France's sleeves. For real.

It's crazy sometimes, this job. I know there are satisfied fans out there, because the grandstands are at least marginally occupied everywhere we go. But I don't hear much from those folks. I don't get e-mails raving about how great a job Mike Helton and Brian France and John Darby are doing leading NASCAR, only ones that criticize -- often harshly -- for this or that or the other.

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No doubt NASCAR has its flaws. Several, in fact. But damn, man, the sport is doing OK. Most of the issues are fixable. And to be quite honest, a lot of times when I think something NASCAR has done is utterly ridiculous (and say so), Helton or Darby will take a moment to explain it to me and suddenly I feel like a jackass.

And I'm not saying it's all peaches, either. Far from it. NASCAR needs some fixing and the brain trust knows it -- and I know it and you know it. And when France admitted last week that NASCAR had forsaken its core fan base in recent years and seeks to restore that trust moving forward, it was a big step that took some guts.

But again, it's show me, don't tell me.

Last week's Door-To-Door -- which centered on France's admittance that NASCAR needs to steer back a little to its roots -- triggered a firestorm of angst-filled feedback. Now I know how Jeff Gordon feels when all those boos rain down from the heavens.

The fans want to be heard but don't feel they have an outlet. The media is that outlet.

Welcome to Diesel's Dirt Road, where the Haterade is always on tap.

Hello Marty,

I just read your article about NASCAR going back to its roots. Very good and I agree with everything. But if NASCAR wants its credibility back, it seems to me that they should bring the car right off the showroom floor like they did back in the day.

That's what people from the old-school racing want. I want to be able to say, "Yeah, I have a Chevy just like that home in the garage." Wasn't the old saying, "Win on Sunday ... Sale on Monday"? I think it would help with GM, Ford and Dodge. (Toyota is a bad word for real NASCAR fans).

They could build those cars just as safe as the COT. Plus bring back two races at Darlington ... Rockingham ... NASCAR needs those tracks worse than one in Fontana or Texas. I have been around racing my whole life with an uncle working on a pit crew in the '70s. I know real racing and this is not it. Bring back the Superbird and let's race!

Scott, Smith Mountain Lake

Interesting e-mail, Scott. It makes for an interesting debate. It's been so long since a NASCAR racing machine was an actual, true stock car, the thought of it is almost foreign. Let's dissect this argument.

Could a street car with a roll cage actually be built to respond to impacts as safely as the Car of Tomorrow? I'm not an engineer. I don't know. But I feel certain that the spoiler cars used in recent years easily could have been adapted to very similar safety standards as the Car of Tomorrow -- at least that's what multiple garage sources tell me. Move the driver's seat over to the right a bit, increase the height of the driver's compartment a bit. But keep the same idea. The COT is a whole new idea.

The big question about the COT is why? Why did NASCAR implement this strange-looking new car that ultimately cost Cup Series team owners eight figures to transition into their fleets? And that simultaneously reduced the value of their current inventories by 80 percent?

One big reason is to reel the teams in and start from scratch. The engineering on the team side was so advanced that NASCAR was struggling to keep up. The teams were years ahead of the sanctioning body. So the sanctioning body invented a car that shrunk the ingenuity box and enables them to keep a very close rein on its competitors.

NASCAR also wants to create good competition by way of putting the onus back on driving talent and pit crew excellence. It's too early to tell whether that will happen with this concept. On the stat sheet, Hendrick Motorsports dominated COT competition in the inaugural year, winning nine of the 16 events in which the new car was used. But Joe Gibbs Racing was always close. And Richard Childress Racing was, too. The gap is not as wide as it looks on paper. Not even close.

Though many drivers still loathe the COT concept, they're warming to it. COT races last year were no less fun to watch than spoiler-car races, Texas not withstanding. That race was so dang good for NASCAR. It was two elite drivers -- Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth -- racing hell-bent sideways for a victory in an epic finish that wasn't the result of a late-race caution flag for debris or anything else. (More on that particular beer in a moment. There were many e-mails about that topic.)

And in a day and time when fuel economy and greener automobiles are such hot-button issues, is it truly feasible to use cars from the showroom floor? Would it be entertaining to watch Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon race front-wheel drive sedans around Indianapolis? For fans? Probably. Real fans would enjoy watching those two race shopping carts. But I don't know the answer to that, really.

The roar of those breathy carbureted engines would be gone. And you can say whatever you want, that's an allure to a lot of fans: the noise. Fundamentally, NASCAR racing machines use archaic technology, with carbureted engines and whatnot. Is fuel-injection the next step? Probably not in my lifetime.

Marty,

NASCAR lost me and all my friends the minute we heard the word Toyota in association with the sport. We haven't been back since and don't plan to go. How can they say they're looking to return to their roots when they let Toyota in?

-- Jason Dunn, Alabama

You're done with the sport, Jason, yet you still read about it. Intriguing. I grew up with a guy named Jason Dunn. He lived a couple houses down from me for my entire youth, age 4-18. Then there is the NFL tight end named Jason Dunn. I digress …

About Toyota. I receive a ton of hateful e-mails about Toyota's entrance into NASCAR and hear the frustration from fans in bars and restaurants all over the country. But I've never been given a single explanation why. Not one.

And when I ask for clarification from the guy at the bar who's all fired up and in my face about it (like it's my fault or something), all I ever get is a crass comment about the foreign invasion and how it's against everything NASCAR stands for.

My rebuttal: What, then, does NASCAR stand for? Crickets. I mention, every time, that there's an awful lot of red-blooded Americans buying Toyotas. I see it every day. My buddies back home in the country that wore Davey Allison hats because they grew up bouncing around the hayfield in the ol' man's Fords are driving Tundras and Tacomas. I said this last week: Toyota's biggest score was Tony Stewart. They got a gritty good ol' boy driving their cars. Suddenly the hatred doesn't carry as much weight.

And here are some numbers: According to a 2005 Center for Automotive Research study, Toyota, along with its dealers and suppliers, has generated nearly 400,000 U.S. jobs, including jobs created through spending by direct, dealer and suppliers employees.

I know what the fans mean, though. It's a foreign automaker penetrating an American institution. That concerns people. And with the current climate of traditional American automakers, it scares people.

Marty,

Your article, while interesting to read, has no substance. This is the problem with NASCAR. Having been to races since the Pepsi 400 was on July 4, the races have changed.

The tracks they race on now do not promote racing but running fast. The worst thing they may have committed was having all cars look alike. The people that love NASCAR love the diversity of the cars, not just the decals and colors.

-- Scott, San Diego

I can't disagree with you, Scott. I used to love knowing -- SEEING! -- the difference between Bill Elliott's Thunderbird and Earnhardt's Chevy and Kyle Petty's Pontiac on Sunday afternoons.

When the cars started easing toward common templates, so to speak, is when the affinity for drivers escalated and the affinity for car makes waned. These days the lone difference is a sticker or two, and marketing drivers -- not manufacturers -- drives the sport.

I look at my buddy Pork Chop as proof. He's a Jeff Burton fan to the death. When Burton jumped from Roush to Childress -- and thus Ford to Chevy -- Chop wasn't overly pleased. But he went with the driver, not the manufacturer.

And I'd bet the farm that Dale Jr.'s fans wouldn't care if he was in a Smart Car, they'd still be Dale Jr. fans.

Marty,

If NASCAR wants to prove that it cares about the fans who brought them here they could start by giving Darlington its Labor Day race back. What say you?

-- Chad Donnell, hometown unknown

I say it should be Priority 1 for NASCAR, Chad.

Side note: If Bruton Smith does decide to move a date from New Hampshire to Las Vegas, which most folks in the industry consider a foregone conclusion, how does that affect Fontana? Already struggling for attendance, you have to think another Vegas race would further hamper California's efforts.

Marty,

I have more of a comment rather than a question. If it is too long-winded I am sorry but I feel I need to say this. I am a race fan. I would not say I am a casual fan. I would say I passed that. I go to a few races a year. I really have to say, by far, the short tracks are the best venue to watch racing.

I go to Martinsville every year and enjoy watching the actual racing that goes on there. I have been to Pocono and Michigan and the racing doesn't compare to Martinsville or Richmond (been there for the night race). Because of the growth of NASCAR, they left the smaller tracks behind like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro to go to those damn boring cookie-cutter tracks.

Don't get me wrong. I like to see speed as much as the next guy, but sometimes single-file racing with limited passing/racing is a bit, well, lame. Felt I would try and pass off a straight opinion without being over the top.

-- Joe, Pittsburgh, Pa.

I agree that short-track racing is the best variety, Joe. Cars have fenders for a reason. That will continue for the foreseeable future, too. Given the difficulty drivers have passing other cars in the COT I fear some parades in 2008.

Another response for the Steel City …

Marty,

I don't watch as much as I used to for one reason. Foreign drivers! There is a reason F1, Cart and the IRL are not as popular as NASCAR in the USA. That is the amount of drivers flocking over to this circuit from Europe and South America.

If this continues at the pace it is now, it will diminish the sport extensively in the eyes of the good ol' boys and the fans that started it many years ago. Does NASCAR worry about too many of these drivers and their long-term impact to the U.S. fan base?

-- Tim Elgin, Pittsburgh

Not at all, Tim. In fact, NASCAR embraces it and, quite frankly, has little say about it fundamentally. NASCAR team owners are individual contractors, so they, along with their sponsors, determine who's going to drive their cars.

NASCAR has the right to allow or disallow any driver to compete, based on experience levels on various types of tracks. NASCAR is moving toward a more global approach, and drivers such as Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti increase the global awareness of the sport tremendously. That could mean dollars for NASCAR. They're good with it.

Marty,

I've been a NASCAR fan for 30 years. Most, if not all of the drivers I've watched and rooted for, have left the sport. I lived and died each week with the results of the drivers I supported. I got involved with their wins/wrecks/battles with other drivers and knew just about everything there was to know about them.

I am not as interested in the new generation of drivers and therefore not as supportive of NASCAR. I understand the move to broaden the fan base, and prices and starting times all bothered me, but I'm still looking for a driver/drivers who bring back the excitement to me. Haven't found it yet. Thanks.

-- Dale White, Canton, Ga.

Start paying closer attention to Kyle Busch, Dale. He doesn't care for much past driving a race car to its puking point. His brash attitude turns some folks off, but he's awfully fun to watch compete.

It's an interesting time in this sport. NASCAR is so driven by corporate America these days that a lot of drivers watch their P's and Q's to the point of sounding robotic. This sport needs some luster knocked off of it. I hope Busch stays cocky. His attitude is good for NASCAR.

Marty,

Does NASCAR really think that starting three more races (to a total of 18 out of 36) before 3:30 is going to bring fans that felt marginalized back to the sport? Personally, I hate the late start times and Saturday night races. I want to see the green and checkers for all the races.

-- Gus, hometown unknown

My 90-year-old Aunt Dorothy says the same thing, Gus. Every single time I see her -- which is usually during the races in Richmond, Va., she comments about how much she hates night races. She can't stay up late enough to see the checkers. I'll tell you what I tell her: I love Saturday night races.

Marty the Party!!

How you can reference Alan Jackson's "Little Man" and bemoan the state of NASCAR, then turn around and shower praise on the giant sellout that is Garth Brooks is beyond me. And if you argue that Brooks isn't a sellout, look no further than that rock album he tried to put out as Chris Gaines.

He's about as true to country music as Cole Trickle is to racin'. The real issue with NASCAR is not the foreign drivers or foreign cars or the 4 in the afternoon start times. The problem is dollars. Not how much Hendrick and Roush spend, but how much we, Joe Da Fan, spend.

It costs dang near $100 for a ticket, then you add concessions, an overnight stay and driving costs and you're looking at a $500 weekend. And I'll pay it 'cause that's what I enjoy, but it's gotten so a family of four can't do that. If NASCAR wants to improve its product, start with looking out for the aforementioned "Little Man" and not the Good Ride Cowboy.

-- JB, Columbus, Ohio

Best response of the week, JB, by far. It really is all about the fans. Without the fans there's no NASCAR. Without fan support there's no sponsorship. Without sponsorship there are no teams. Without teams there are no cars. Without cars there are no races.

Everyone must respect that.

And yeah, the Chris Gaines album was abysmal.

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