NASCAR Purists Cite Need 'To Get Back to Banjos'

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 16 -- "Change" may be the buzzword among Democrats this election cycle, but as NASCAR kicks off its 2008 season with Sunday's Daytona 500, the term is virtually taboo.

No sport grew faster than stock-car racing in the 1990s. And under third-generation CEO Brian France, NASCAR revved up efforts to woo new fans even more aggressively in recent years. It revamped its championship formula, changed title sponsors, redesigned its racecar and tried updating its image. But after two consecutive years of declining TV ratings, France conceded last month that it's time NASCAR put the brakes on change and tried to reclaim its bond with core fans.

"We're getting back to the basics," said France, 45. "Change is good to a certain point, but we've got all the change we think the sport can stand and needs."

France stopped short of conceding that NASCAR had erred in its rush to win over casual sports fans -- whether by delaying the traditional 1 p.m. starting time of races to late afternoon to capture West Coast viewers or by building bistros and martini bars in once-raucous infields. But many insiders believe the effort simply alienated longtime fans in the process.

"We need to get back to banjos and get rid of the violins," said veteran promoter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. "We got a little too fancy there for a while, and it's not a fancy sport. It's guys with big hands getting sweaty and getting out there and banging on each other and knocking each other around, and all-American fans sitting out there having a good time. A lot of things that we tried to introduce into this just fell flat, didn't work and are not gonna work. I think that it's something [France] certainly recognizes now. This is meat and potatoes; this is not caviar and smoked salmon."

NASCAR's mea culpa comes with the 50th running of the Daytona 500, which will be slathered in tributes to a heritage that France seemed to want to distance his sport from -- if not deny outright -- not long ago.

Junior Johnson, 76, the legendary moonshine runner turned stock-car racer, will serve as the honorary pace-car driver.

Country music's Brooks & Dunn will headline the prerace entertainment, while Trisha Yearwood will sing the national anthem. Seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty will serve as the honorary starter. And 24 past Daytona 500 champions will give the famous command, "Gentlemen, start your engines!"

Nearly all those past champions have been feted in the infield of Daytona International Speedway in recent days, taking part in autograph sessions with fans and sitting down with reporters to reminisce and tell tales.

Marvin Panch, 81, recounted the first Daytona 500 in 1959, in which roughly half the drivers raced in convertibles and the others raced in hardtops -- a promotional gimmick that NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. didn't try again. Barrel-chested A.J. Foyt, 73, laughed about winning a race at Daytona in the mid-1960s despite sliding through the last turn on the last lap with his car slung completely sideways. And Johnson explained why he got more satisfaction out of winning a NASCAR race than outrunning the revenue agents who were trying to arrest him.

"A lot of them racers were bootleggers," he said, "so if you beat them, you beat more capable people!"

It was impossible to deny the grit and character of NASCAR's old racers -- strapping men, still, whether in their 60s, 70s or 80s -- who told stories with as much flair as they raced decades ago.

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