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Minter: Does NASCAR Need A Southern Accent?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 8 2009
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been able to draw a crowd.

Southern driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been able to draw a crowd.

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

Some Thursday observations:

NASCAR chairman Brian France and executives of the networks that broadcast its races were remarkably candid in Wednesday’s press conference announcing more – and earlier – starting times for races next season. They openly admitted that tinkering with traditions in NASCAR, something that’s been done on a fairly regular basis in recent years, backfired on them in the form of falling ratings over the past several seasons.

“I think that we’ve started to tamper with something that we shouldn’t have,” Fox chairman David Hill said, adding later that, “the main thing about this sport, it’s 60 years old, but it’s got a tradition like it’s 500 years old, and you don’t mess with that.

“And as I said before, that was what we did. We will try to involve the West Coast, that’s for sure.  But if we’re going to be true to the fans, we’ve got to start somewhere.”

It appeared that when the starting times started getting later and later that the motive was to build a bigger West Coast viewer base. But it came at the expense of hard-core Southern fans who were used to rushing home from church on Sunday afternoon, wolfing down dinner and heading straight for the TV.

Of course there are other reasons for the drop in ratings, such as less that exciting races, as pointed out by my RacinToday colleague, Larry Woody.

But it’s also worth looking at whether the lack of a Southern-born and bred driver running for wins each week is responsible for some of the drop. It’s not just Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fault. It wasn’t Earnhardt who got the sport to a point where he’s one of just two Cup regulars from the Carolinas, North and South, the other being Brian Vickers. Or that the Georgia contingent, Reed Sorenson and David Ragan  aren’t running up front most weeks. Or that Alabama, which once had a Gang of Allisons – Donnie, Bobby and Dav ey – plus Neil Bonnett and Jimmy Means, is no longer represented in Cup as is Tennessee, which  once had the Marlins, Coo Coo and Sterling, Bobby Hamilton and Darrell Waltrip.

Instead, NASCAR will have eight drivers, including two in the Chase, running at their “home” track in California this weekend. Jeff Gordon is from Vallejo and Jimmie Johnson from El Cajon.

The non-Chase Californians include Casey Mears and Kevin Harvick from Bakersfield, Robby Gordon from Orange, David Gilliland (Riverside), Scott Speed (Manteca) and A.J. Allmendinger (Los Gatos).

One last big question remaining to be answered is whether the old Southern fan base, whose members have begun spending the early part of their Sunday afternoons fishing, napping, cutting the grass or washing the ca r, will return to their old habits of heading straight for the TV at 1 p.m.

There may be some hope on the horizon for fans wanting another Southern boy to cheer for.

Casey Roderick, a 17-year-old from Lawrenceville, Ga., is set to make his ARCA debut on Oct. 10 at Rockingham Speedway with some high-powered help behind him.

Roderick’s No. 51 Dodge will be fielded in a joint effort between Bill Elliott Racing and James Finch’s Phoenix Racing. Elliott’s brother Ernie is building the engine for the car.

Bill Elliott has had Roderick, who earned a reputation of winning Legends races with less-than-stellar equipment, participating in his driver development program, where the youngster ran a Late Model at tracks across the South.

“Casey is a talented young man that just needs a break to show what he can do,” Elliott said.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 8 2009
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