Or Forever Hold Your Peace
May 20, 2003 | 8:27 A.M. EST
Let’s reshoot Casablanca in color with Britney Spears in place of Ingrid, Adam Sandler in place of Bogie, and a surprise ending when Rick shoots Victor and gets on that plane at the end after all. That’ll do better box office than the original. Let’s have GM slap Camaro emblems and a spoiler the size of a picnic table onto unsold Cavaliers in an attempt to land a few bucks from the Fast and Furious crowd. Let’s move the Indy 500 to that road course in Mexico to circumvent those intrusive tobacco-advertising laws. Let’s have Bob Villa and Martha Stewart design a replacement for the aging White House in the ultimate TV reality show “Monster Presidential Headquarters.” Let’s see if we can help close the budget deficit by having GM pony up to replace those old fashion and astronomically inaccurate stars on our flag with Cadillac’s wreathed shield. Let’s tear down the Lincoln Memorial and replace it with an interactive roller coaster ride that traces old Abe’s life from splitting fence rails to his last evening at the theater designed by Disney open to the public at $20 a head. Let’s paint the Budweiser logo on the bottom of the reflecting pool ahead of the Washington monument.
For all her symbolism, let’s face it the Statue of Liberty is a dowdy old broad in an unpleasant calcified color of green. What’s worse, it was built by the French! Let’s replace it with a polystyrene injected rust proof babe-a-licous model. Let’s point the new statue at the Middle East and rather than having Miss Liberty holding her torch aloft have her extend a middle finger at those moose-lums to let em know that if they don’t play ball their kids are going to be eating sand in the new Exxon Empire while our young people pump twenty-five cent high test into their muscle cars. Dress up the new Miss Liberty in skin tight jeans, pixie boots with chains and a half t-shirt that reads, “I’m here to chew gum and kick ass, and I’m out of gum” clinging fetchingly to her oversized plastic playful piglets.
What’s the big deal about the Southern 500 a newer fan might ask? Oh, nothing much. The Southern 500 was the first NASCAR race run on a completely paved race track. It was NASCAR’s first superspeedway race. Over the years a lot of fans have asked me why 500 miles was chosen as the length for most superspeedway races. The simple answer as to why it’s the Southern 500 and not the Southern 300 is that the track’s developer, Harold Brassington, decided to build the “Indianapolis of the South” and they race 500 miles at Indy each May. So why do other superspeedways run 500 mile races? Because that how long the races at Darlington were. This year’s running of the Southern 500 will be the 54th running of the Labor Day classic, but if NASCAR has their way the competitors won’t be able to drive 55 next year.
I hadn’t been born yet back in 1952 when Fonty Flock won the Southern 500 wearing a stylish pair of Bermuda shorts. I wasn’t there when he climbed out of that Hudson and led the crowd in a spirited rendition of Dixie. I was six years old when I read about Ned Jarrett winning the ’65 Southern 500 by fourteen laps, one of the most incredible feats in this sport’s history. I recall the headline was “Racer Critically Hurt in Southern 500” and there was a photo of Cale Yarborough’s Ford flying through the guard rail and into the parking lot at Darlington. (But it was Buren Skeen who died nine days later of injuries suffered in that race.) For an eight year old Richard Petty fan it didn’t get any better than reading and re-reading the article on how the King dominated the 1967 Southern 500 winning his 21st of an eventual 27 races that season. For whatever reason despite all those decades he dominated the sport, that was the only Southern 500 Petty ever won.
Eventually us geographically-challenged fans (Yankees) got to watch the races from Darlington on TV. We saw even a driver as tough as Cale Yarborough climb out of his car at Darlington tomato red in the face and seemingly about to pass out after winning the toughest race on the circuit at which point he’d put down a couple cans of cold beer. Back in those days when men celebrated a notable achievement they did so with beer not soda pop. Bill Elliott finished second to David Pearson, the master of Darlington, in the 1979 Southern 500. It was Bill’s first ever top 5 finish. Not many of us knew who he was back then but Elliott’s name joined those of stock car’s racing immortals during the 1985 Southern 500 when he won the Winston million. Few other drivers’ names are as synonymous with Darlington as Awesome Bill’s. He won the last race of his Coors Era in the 1994 Southern 500. In the 1986 Southern 500 Tim Richmond put the racing world on notice he was the real deal by running down and passing none other than Elliott on a rain slick track as darkness fell. In 1992 rain deprived Davey Allison of the Winston Million on the Labor Day weekend in Darlington. From 1995-1998 Jeff Gordon won four straight Southern 500s, a feat that will probably never be duplicated, and took home the Winston Million while at it after prevailing in a thrilling tire-smoking battle with Jeff Burton. In 1999 Burton swept both Darlington races and earned himself the nickname “The Rain King.” Space does not allow a thorough recounting of every great race at Darlington, though a dedicated student of the sport will know them all like he knows his own phone number. And yet they want to end this tradition? I’m going to guess that most of you recall the epic battle between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch battling to the line at this spring’s Darlington race. Anyone remember who won the California race this spring? It was Matt Kenseth. I had to look it up. But the racing is going to get better at California as the pavement wears and a second groove comes in some will say. At which point the track will need to be repaved beginning an endless cycle of races that range from worthless to mediocre. About the best thing that could happen to stock car racing in Southern California is a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake centered in the middle of the track at Fontana, preferably on a non-race weekend. Say Labor Day 2004.
It’s just a rumor some will say. Well it’s a rumor people who should know are being careful to deny. NASCAR would never take the Labor Day weekend from Darlington, the very bedrock on which this sport rests others assure me. To those Pollyannas I reply that since FOX and NBC gained entry into NASCAR’s headquarters with a Trojan Horse laden with cash there is no limit to the depths of venality Mike Helton and the other Jezebels in Daytona Beach are capable of. Yes, it’s a radical proposal and I can almost hear an underling saying, “Moving the Labor Day weekend race to Fontana from Darlington. Big Mike, you’ve gone too far. The fans will never go to that.” To which His Enormity would reply with a sly smile, “You said the same thing when we shut down North Wilkesboro, Chicken Little, and I don’t recall the sky falling back then.”
Yes it’s a rumor or more accurately a trial balloon. NASCAR is floating the idea while wrapping itself in a cloak of plausible deniability to see how outraged the fans get. So get outraged. We were as mute as sheep on our way to be sheared when they shut down North Wilkeboro. We silently wrote checks in ever increasing amounts to attend races and allowed ourselves to be cornholed by hotel owners in the area. We sat in silence as NASCAR took the “stock” out of stock cars and turned this sport into Super-Sized McRacing, a four wheeled version of Attack of the Clones with those Montaurpid Prixs. Most of us just rolled our eyes and remained silent when the ISC gave us that song and dance about “security” being the reason they were banning our coolers. We get angry, write nasty stuff on message boards and bemoan the changes we hate to our friends, but we remain silent. Your silence now will only guarantee the demise of the Southern 500 as we know it, and a day not far down the road when the Winston Cup circuit will no longer visit the sacred ground we call Darlington.
There’s nothing I can do or write that’s going to make a difference. NASCAR officials know I don’t like them, I ain’t never going to like them and I’ll go to my own grave holding them accountable for the death of Dale Earnhardt. If you feel as I do about the Southern 500 it’s time to speak now or forever hold your peace.
You can write our friends at NASCAR at:
1801 W. International Speed Blvd
Daytona Beach, FL, 32114
Their fax number is (904) 957-6712 FAX
No they don’t have an email address you can send your notes to though I’m sure they could add one to gauge your opinion on where we should race next Labor Day. If they care about the fans that is. (Which incidentally they don’t.)
You can write the fine folks at Pepsi, the sponsors of the Southern 500 for lo these many years now, to let them know if the race if moved to Southern California no more of their fine caramelized carbonated product will pass your lips.
You can contact the sports people at NBC at firstname.lastname@example.org to let them know that if they’re broadcasting a race from Fontana next Labor Day weekend you and your friends won’t be tuning in.
Or you can use the above address to register your lusty approval of the move. Or you can sit back, do nothing, hope someone else does and then bitch about it incessantly when the Last Great Race goes by the wayside next year.
The question is, do you the fans take this Lady in Black to have and behold, through good weather and bad, through great races and poor ones, through poverty and wealth, till death do you part? I do.