MONTE DUTTON - WANTED: NEW HEROES
The NASCAR star power lost in the past few years is imposing.
This season victory lanes are going to be populated by some young men we shall get to know better. We’d better get to know them better, or else the decline in interest, ratings and attendance is going to get worse.
Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tony Stewart. Carl Edwards. Matt Kenseth. Greg Biffle. Danica Patrick. NASCAR looks like a college football team whose underclassmen all decided to declare for the draft.
All had fan bases now looking for someone else to inspire them. Some aren’t looking very hard.
It’s important for someone to step up, both on the track and off it. In fact, NASCAR could use a half dozen new heroes in a great big hurry.
It might be really exciting. Young drivers are going to win races, but NASCAR is a sport of heroes. When that kid in his early 20s climbs out of his car, he’s going to need to do more than recite sponsors like a kid in history class reciting the Gettysburg Address. He needs to be able to crack a joke. He needs a twinkle in his eyes. He needs people watching on TV to listen to that interview and say, “What do you know? I really like this kid.”
Fans have to find him, and he has to find fans. Some may have the personality. Some may have the skills. One without the other won’t work.
I’ve pointed out in the past that part of the five-decade rise of NASCAR into the sporting mainstream was due to luck. Things have happened repeatedly just when major-league stock car racing needed a boost.
The rise of Richard Petty occurred after the death of Fireball Roberts. Winston sponsorship came after major manufacturers cut back on the factory-backed teams. Dale Earnhardt’s first championship came a year after Petty’s last.
In the first decade of this century, the magic started wearing off.
This line of thought isn’t new for me. At about this time a year ago, I started thinking about the changes in the sport that had occurred in the 25 years since I started writing about it regularly. I thought about how there was almost no one left who reminded me of drivers who were everywhere in the early 1990s. Earnhardt. Darrell Waltrip. Rusty Wallace. Bill Elliott. Harry Gant. Davey Allison. Alan Kulwicki. Geoff Bodine. Sterling Marlin. Davey Allison. The list goes on and on.
He doesn’t have to be just like them. He has to inspire a new generation the way Gordon did back then.
That’s why I created Barrie Jarman, the teen-aged force of nature who became the hero of two racing novels, Lightning in a Bottle and Life Gets Complicated. I made Barrie a throwback to the past, yet, at the same time, a kid of today who also reminded me of the local kids I write about on football fields, basketball courts and baseball diamonds.
That’s what I’m going to look for when I go to the tracks this year. I’m searching for some there there.