Junior To Leave Big Hole In Stock Car Racing’s Soul

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 26 2017

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will leave NASCAR next season and that is not good for the sport. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

The shopping list of reasons that explain why NASCAR has slipped from being America’s fastest growing sport 15 years ago to being forced to adopt absurd, geek show format changes in efforts to stay relevant is depressingly lengthy.

Somewhere near the mid point of that list is an entry on contemporary drivers: they tend to be about as appetizing as a rodent tail in your bowl of minestrone.

Next season, the rest of rodent will find its way into the soup because next season, one of the regrettably few drivers who possesses a wonderful genuine and thoughtful personality will be getting on with his life.

It wasn’t a shock that Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced on Tuesday that this will be his final season as a full-time NASCAR driver: Perhaps it was more shocking that Junior would return to the driver’s seat this year after what he physically went through last year.

But the announcement was sobering and it was lamentable.

For NASCAR, it is more horrible news. Next February it will embark on another season critical to, perhaps, its very existence without its most admired star.

It’s almost a cliche to mention that Earnhardt is the face of NASCAR. He is the sport’s sole crossover star and he is exactly that for the best of all reasons – he’s never really tried to be a crossover star.

To be a star in racing these days is to be a lot more the product of an assembly line than the cars that the stars drive on race days. In a sport where there is a direct link between Madison Avenue and those who perform for sponsorship money, genuine personalities and heartfelt opinions become victims.

As does the relationship between the sport and its fans.

Does anyone out there seriously think that race fans absolutely are frothing from the lips to hear an interviewed driver issue a lengthy, detailed thank-you to Fortune 500 companies for making them millionaires than hear the drivers give relatable opinions and provocative analysis about their sport?

The once-symbiotic loyalty between racing and its fans has been replaced by economic pragmatism; the sport is loyal mainly to bank and its fans are viewed mainly as consumers.

Caught in the middle are the drivers, who, these days, are learning to pitch product and avoid controversy at the same time they are learning to hit apexes. The result is a blunting of whatever personalities exist inside of today’s driver’s suits.

For the media, press conferences and interviews these days, are virtually irrelevant. The few professional reporters still covering the sport can be pretty sure that what they are going to hear from competitors is going to be the kind of lugubrious, sanitized fill that will reflect the “partnership” relationship between sport and sponsor.

Then there is Dale Earnhardt Jr.

When Junior talks, it’s absolutely worth hearing. Every time. There is a lot of there there in his words. They are well thought out and uncensored by mindful, externally situated filters. (The dude even took a shot at Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policy by Tweeting: “America is created by immigrants.”)

You can learn a lot about racing, racers, life and Dale Earnhardt Jr. by paying attention to one of his press conferences or interviews. The hardest, most cranky and jaded sportswriters in the infield uniformly considered Junior’s talks essential listening.

He has a soul and he shows it; shows it with a Will Rogers kind of enlightened folksiness.

There is talk that Earnhardt will step right into television analysis after getting out of the cockpit. Could be, but if he does, he will have to learn the stock and trade of most the folks who are currently in that line of work; mindless cheerleading blather.

Fans have not voted Earnhardt their favorite driver for what, 15, 16, 17 straight years because of his considerable driving skills, his looks or even because of who his father was. They relate to a person whom they rightly think they know a little bit.

NASCAR will be a lot less interesting for fans next year. And at a time when the sport sure could use something genuinely interesting.

Earnhardt will likely never receive the championship he wants and deserves from his sport, but he gave something to that sport which will never be forgotten and has become been much more important.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 26 2017


  • J Wilson says:

    Hats off to the man. To work thru his Dad’s death in public and endure the manic fame and keep his head on that straight is a testament to his self-assurance and character.

    I’m sure he’ll stay in the NASCAR business as a team owner, etc., but if I were NASCAR, I’d really try to get him in the NASCAR business:

    To me, when Mike Helton retires, the France family should go to Dale Jr. or Tony Stewart, offer them whatever it takes to run the Series. To my mind, this is what it’s going to take, otherwise, their headlong rush into being ‘WWE on Wheels’ is all but guaranteed.