Baseball has just concluded its season with one of the best World Series in history, football is beginning to take on some post-season implications, and basketball and hockey have only just begun. But November 23rd is a significant day in this year of American sport for a reason that falls outside of these: it is the day that the marathon NASCAR season comes to a close.
Stock car racing has not yet reached the same level of national respect that is afforded to the four majors. Those who edit the sports pages in cities across the country generally give it only grudging coverage unless some major event forces them to spill more ink. But NASCARs popularity is not contingent on the top-shelf recognition of Sportscenter or the New York Times. Every Sunday, from early February to late November, hundreds of thousands of fans flock to tracks in places like Darlington, Talladega, and Charlotte, and the races always sell out. Millions more watch on television, providing ratings that more than hold their own against whatever else is happening that day. The audience has been in place for some time now, and yet this was the first season that NASCAR could be said to have crossed over in any significant way.
To be fair, it has been an exceptional year for a sport that, until recently, had primarily regional appeal. NASCAR is unique among all sports in that its major contest, the Daytona 500, occurs at the very start of the season. This year that race was marked with tragedy as Dale Earnhardt, who with Richard Petty was one of the sports last living legends, died in an alarmingly mundane crash on the final lap. Earnhardt was still in his prime and his death on a national stage revealed something about the nature of the sport that many outside of the core audience had never considered: every Sunday when the drivers take to the track death is a very real possibility. No other sport boasts stakes that high, and as a result no other sport is nearly as visceral.
It took tragedy to put NASCAR at the top of the headlines, but something altogether more benign is likely to ensure that it stays in the spotlight for good: NASCAR is, simply, cool.
There is some sense among aficionados of sport in general that the glory days have passed. That men like Vince Lombardi, Joe DiMaggio, and Gordie Howe were the last of their kind, that while things today are fun theyre just not the same as they were in the good old days. With the four major sports that may very well be true. As exciting as todays NHL is there can be no doubt that there is no magic involved when the Carolina Hurricanes meet the Columbus Blue Jackets. What is lost is the old-school glory, the sense that what is happening will someday look good in grainy black-and-white.
The situation with NASCAR is altogether different. The sport was founded in 1946 by a man named "Big Bill" France, whose family still operates the governing body today. From the top down family and tradition are part and parcel of the NASCAR experience. As a result we can be fairly certain that it will never lose vital links to its heritage. When Earnhardt died the sport lost its most intimidating and intriguing personality, but not his name. His son Dale Jr. has moved into his fathers spotlight and, with other young stars such as Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, is helping make the sport relevant to the next generation. As they do so names like Labonte, Petty, Waltrip, and Allison continue to resonate.
Tradition alone can not sustain something that is not interesting on its own merits. Even if the sport had no history to speak of the concept of NASCAR represents, despite million dollar TV deals and the fact that every single car boasts a hundred or so logos, something vital to the American identity. The west has long since been conquered but well never lose our love for cowboys. NASCAR is nothing if not the last bastion of wild-west cool. Tough guys doing dangerous, even crazy things while ensconced in iron horses with the full support of utterly non-P.C. entities such as Winston and Bud is something that will always be necessary. Just as no law can take the cool out of a Colt .45 no amount of mainstreaming will take the cool out of NASCAR. No matter how hard anyone tries there is no way to whitewash it.
It is not for everyone, that much is true. But it is an important antidote to the blandness and micro-management that has come to dominate the rest of American sports. Baseball is a great game but the name McGwire does not work on the same level as the name Cobb. Earnhardt always will.