The Importance Of Tradition

We live in a rapidly changing world. My recent annual family trip to the shore reminded me of just how much some things have changed. My niece Emily, four years of age, was confused when her movie came on a videocassette rather than the DVD she’d been anticipating. She wasn’t quite sure that the bulky, old-fashioned looking item in her mom’s hand could actual produce a movie though the results were to her satisfaction. My nephew Jonathon confidently predicted that videos are “toast” and DVDs will replace them entirely in the next year or two. Of course he also hasn’t bought a CD in ages. He downloads his music off the Internet. When I tell him I worked at a record store in college he seems confused as to what I’m talking about.

But that gave me the opportunity to tell the kids about the primeval world I grew up over these 45 years of my life. I explained in the old day there were no VCRs. Once a movie left the theater you never saw it again unless it was shown on TV. I explained there was no cable TV. My nephew Chris looked shaken and asked if that meant there was no Cartoon Channel. He looked horrified at such a possibility. Then I really sent him for a loop and said there were no video games. He had to ask his mom about that one because Uncle Matt is a kidder. She assured him she too grew up in such barbaric circumstances. And she added we didn’t have a microwave when she was his age, we didn’t have an answering machine, a remote for the TV or even a computer. “How did you get on the Internet?” Jo asked surprised. I told him there was no Internet. There were several shivers as the kids contemplated such a backwards world. But of course by the time they reach my age, their cherished Game Cubes, 2.8 mega-whatever PCs, and DVD players will only exist in antique stores. Or maybe by that time they’ll have perfected time travel so they can head back into the 1960s to see their four year old Uncle riding high and proud, standing in the backseat of a 1959 finned Impala wagon, head hung out the window and not a protective device in site or a cool molecule of air emanating from the dash on the way to the Flying A filling station to pump air into the tires of his bicycle that weighed roughly a quarter ton and featured one forward gear and coaster brakes.

As rapidly as life is changing it’s important to have traditions to hang onto. Traditions are those special events you cling to which anchor your life and give it perspective. The annual shore trip with all it madness, logistical nightmares, screaming and hilarity is such a tradition. We’ve been staying on the beach block in Ocean City since a skateboard was my primary transportation and the last thing I grabbed before leaving the house was a comb, not Rolaids and an electronic fob that saves me the exertion and two seconds it used to take to unlock a car door. The tradition has changed somewhat. The infant niece who first broke the silence of the night with her unholy crying is now a college student. My youngest sister Kat who used to sleep in until noon then spend hours applying her war-paint before heading out to be the Queen of the Clubs in Margate is now the mother of two children who have her up roughly the time she used to go to bed. (And unfortunately about the same time I still go to bed.)

But the tradition remains even though Dad has passed on. Mom and the five siblings gather from points scattered across the nation for the two weeks in August on the beach. Almost nightly there is there the gathering of the siblings on the back deck after Mom goes to bed to discuss issues and things going on in our lives she’d be upset or shocked to hear. I’m always the last one to bed. I always get yelled at for forgetting to lock the front door. And of course long summer afternoons mean a beach chair and a novel. Looking up from my book the ocean, the beach and the sky look the same. Over my shoulder once quaint houses have in most instances given way to multi-million dollar mansions on the beach. But there’s something special about the silly little tradition left over from our childhood, and I imagine down the road when my Mom goes to her reward the five of us will keep it up. It isn’t August, it isn’t even really summer, until the beach vacation in Ocean City.

Of course arrival home from the shore meant the summer was almost over. And for me as a race fan it meant the start of what traditionally was the best three week stretch of racing all season, Bristol, Darlington and Richmond. Not a clinker in the sack. But of course this year that tradition has been done away with at the insistence of hard-hearted accountants and a mercenary CEO at the helm of NASCAR. I love all three races but for me the Southern 500 was the most anticipated of them all. Traditionally Darlington held a special place on the calendar. Summer was over. The contenders had emerged from the pretenders. It was time to get down to the business of deciding the sports champion. And what better way to do it than a 500 mile race in the brutal Labor Day weekend heat at the circuit’s toughest track?

What’s so special about Darlington, people have asked me. It kind of looks like a dump. It’s not near anything. What was special about Darlington was tradition. The Southern 500 had been a Labor Day tradition since 1950. Its allure is lost only to the clueless. How long has Darlington been around? As a boy Cale Yarborough used to crawl under the fence to get in and see the excitement. Yarborough would go on to win five Southern 500s much to the like of his home state South Carolinian crowd. But Yarborough would also crash through the guardrail at Darlington in a boxy 1965 Ford Galaxie and wind up in the parking lot. The guardrail that once separated the long drop from the banked corner to the parking lot was so flimsy these days it wouldn’t be allowed to guard a ravine in a 35 MPH zone lest Biff bunch his BMW through it and hit a tree on the way to soccer practice.

In one particular event the guardrail was so torn up it couldn’t be repaired. So NASCAR told the drivers not to go too high in the corner and racing resumed. And the best drivers, the bravest of the brave went up where angels feared to tread and ran that high line anyway with nothing but a breeze between them and a two story drop into the lot. I'm too young to have been there in those days but there must have been a metallic clanking from between their thighs as drivers of that era strode through the garage area.

The Southern 500 was so special that at the height of the factory wars Chrysler and Ford spent millions of dollars to win that race. In 1967 Ford hired a half dozen drivers to run at Darlington to try to stop Richard Petty who won 27 races that year. The traditional race was considered so important even the TV networks who rarely covered racing devoted an hour of so of Wide World of Sports to Darlington coverage. Bill Elliott winning the 1985 Southern 500 on ESPN helped put Cup racing on the national map.

On a more personal note, the 1979 Southern 500 was the first race I attended without my Dad. A cousin from South Carolina called and told me he had a couple spare tickets to the race. He told me “until you see the Southern 500 you ain’t never seen a stock car race.” I told him, a bit huffily, I had seen Richard Petty win the Daytona 500. He repeated what he said. So a buddy and I hopped in a big block El Camino and hit the road high on the adventure of an unexpected road trip among other things. We were two long haired Yankee kids in a barely muffled jacked up Chevy with a gas tank that leaked if you put over ten gallons in it, running 25 over the limit counting on a CB radio to keep us from getting pulled over. We weren’t even really quite sure where South Carolina was. South of North Carolina I figured. 95 took you through North Carolina. Go South from there. Had we been pulled over and asked to empty our pockets on the hood I’d still be doing time in some backwater rural Southern jail.

The only place in the “South” I’d ever been was Orlando and the Magic Rat’s Kingdom. In fact I had only flown over the South en route to Florida. Mister, you pulled into Darlington, South Carolina and you were in the South. No doubts about it. The soil was sandy and the trees exotic. Stately Victorians with front porch swings lined the road to the track. Rusted and muddy lifted pickups with rifle racks in the rear window cruised the streets. This wasn’t a suburban housing division in Virginia or the airport in Atlanta. This was the South. And while most people were very polite and genteel more than a few suggested I needed to visit a barber and that I talked funny. We’d had quite a time of it getting directions to the track when we were finally in the vicinity. I spoke my sort of English and the attendant spoke his. We managed to catch about every fourth word the other one said. But “Darlington” and “Southern 500” we both understood. It was the road trip of a lifetime, the first tentative beating of the wings of a teenager turned to college student to road warrior. Even having to replace a water pump in the parking lot of a parts house on the return trip didn’t diminish the magic. My junior year started a day or two late. And there were other special Southern 500 memories as well including that day Elliott, who I met in the motel parking lot my first trip to Darlington, won the Winston Million in 1985. Or in 1986 when Tim Richmond slid the 25 car around a rain slick track to win that year’s edition of the 500.

The thing about traditions is they are not easily forged. People select only the traditions that they are most comfortable with, the ones that have the most meaning for them. I doubt Labor Day will become synonymous with Fontana. I think after this weekend someone with less atrophied powers of reason than the usual NASCAR executive will think that maybe a holiday weekend isn’t the best time to schedule a race in beach loving LA. I fear the Labor Day weekend event will move venue to venue as each new year’s schedule is released without ever returning to Darlington where it belongs. Contrast that to the IRL. You don’t have to wait until next year’s schedule to be released to know where the IRL will race on Memorial Day weekend. They wouldn’t dare mess with such a tradition even if it might help sell more tickets with the Indy 500, the US Grand Prix and the Brickyard 400 now so relatively close together on the calendar. How long has the Southern 500 been run on Labor Day weekend? The Ontario Motor Speedway outside of LA and the Texas World Speedway both came and went while the Southern 500 persevered. You remember Ontario don’t you? It was an Indy clone right out there in SoCal. 15,000 people showed up there in 1980 to see if Dale Earnhardt or Cale Yarborough would become that year’s champion in the season’s final race. 75,000 fans had shown up to see the Southern 500 earlier that season.

Yes the world around us is changing rapidly and the pace isn’t likely to slow down any time soon. Our sport is changing rapidly as well. Some of the changes like the SAFER barriers, introductions of head restraints, no racing back to the yellow, and the revamping of the Miami-Homestead track are for the better. Others like this weekend’s schedule change, the Chase For the Championship nonsense, and dumping Rockingham are changes for the worse. In the midst of all this change we as fans must have traditions we can still anchor ourselves to so we are not swept away by the tidal wave of change under the Brian France regime.

The Southern 500 was just such a tradition. NASCAR sacrifices such a tradition on the alter of expediency at the organizations own peril. Because traditionally by Wednesday of each week I am pumped up and consumed by thoughts of the next race. Traditionally come Sunday afternoon (or Saturday night, or Monday morning if it rains) I am transfixed in front of my TV watching the race and I won’t even answer a ringing phone lest I miss a moment of the action. Traditionally I’ve lived, breathed and ate stock car racing. Yet this weekend I have absolutely zero interest in watching the California race. Instead I hope to replace the valve springs, rocker arms and valve seals on my Chevy Sunday afternoon and maybe take the old Monte out riding Sunday night. Out of tradition I suppose when I get home I’ll jump on the ‘net a few minutes to find out who won. But I have to admit I’m losing interest in this sport. I doubt NASCAR cares much if I were to stop watching all together. But there’s a lot more folks like me who have reached their breaking point and those waning TV ratings and unsold tickets at race tracks are just a harbinger of what is to come. Please, NASCAR, return the Southern 500 to its traditional position on the calendar next year. A tradition is a terrible thing to lose.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2004

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