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Minter: It’s Time To Reconnect With Working Folk

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 21 2010
NASCAR and its fans have always had a unique relationship. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

NASCAR and its fans have always had a unique relationship. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The common theme in the early rounds of NASCAR media and fan events this season has been the sport’s efforts to give the fans what they want. Rules changes are being made in response to fans’ complaints about “boring” races. The very fact that events such as Preseason Thunder at Daytona and Speed and Sound in Nashville even exist is a testament to the sport’s willingness to reach out to the masses.

But the secret to the success of NASCAR long has been the ability of its stars to connect with the working class people that make up the biggest portion of its traditional fan base.

Richard Petty long has had a knack for connecting with people who work in mills, on bulldozers or in factories. Dale Earnhardt Sr. mastered it as well.

Bill Elliott racked up a string of Most Popular Driver trophies, 16 in all, largely because he knew how it was to work hard, and his fans sensed that. When Elliott first started racing in Cup, it wasn’t uncommon for his dad George to shut down the Elliott racing effort and put his boys to hauling hay on a hot summer afternoon.

Elliott, who started his career as a shy boy from the rural north Georgia mountains, eventually got to where he could charm boardroom executives with the best of them. But where he’s at his best is with working folks.

Once, during a McDonald’s appearance when his Fords were sponsored by the burger chain and he hadn’t won a Cup race in years, Elliott stood in front of a restaurant signing autographs and tasting cakes little old ladies had baked for him. The line was long, but Elliott took time to make each fan feel special.

One burly, bearded man approached Elliott for his autograph. Elliott inquired about how the man made his living. He replied simply that he was in construction. Elliott followed up by asking him more specific – and knowledgeable – questions and learned that the man ran bulldozers for a living. Elliott then asked whether they were Caterpillars? And were they D6s or D8s or some other size?

Elliott’s hands-on knowledge of heavy equipment seemed to amaze the man and make him feel at ease in the presence of a superstar. The scene was repeated over and over that day.

But Elliott didn’t just understand the common man, he felt an obligation to them.

Once a few years later, one of his former crewmembers was running a dirt track, and Elliott agreed to race there with no appearance fee. His only stipulation was that the new promoter not get too carried away with autograph sessions and such.

Still, as Elliott drove by the Dawsonville Pool Room one day, he saw a sign on the marquee that indicated he’d be at the track signing autographs for hours before race time.

Elliott was miffed at his old pal, but never did he mention changing the agenda. His fans meant more to him than that.

Today, the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., continues to hold that distinction, even though five seasons have gone by since he’s had any overpowering success on the track. Still his fans have remained loyal to him, and he’s remained true to them.

He said last week that the most disappointing part of his slump is that he let his fans down.

“I feel like I have come up short for them,” he said. “They put up a fight with you all year long. They fight every week right there with you. They argue their way through every day of work with somebody who’s pulling against you. They fight their own battles just like I do out on the race track.”

If you read postings on the Internet, you know this is true. Earnhardt has his detractors, but his fans don’t let cutting remarks go unanswered. It’s that kind of loyalty that makes Earnhardt put his fans before everything else, as he explained at Daytona.

He said that’s why it’s so important for him to make the Chase this year.

“At the end of the year, when you do miss the Chase, you feel like you can make it up to your sponsors,” he said. “You feel like you can go home and see your family, and they’ll understand.

“But you never really feel like you can repay the fans for being there and being loyal all year long (only) to see you fall short.”

That kind of attitude among drivers can do far more for the sport than tinkering with the rules ever could.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 21 2010
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  • SB says:

    And media members constantly wonder why Junior fans don’t fade away whether he wons or loses. Amazing.