I spent a good portion of my childhood in Augusta, Georgia. Dad was career army in the communication field and was mostly based at Fort Gordon. My parents owned a home less than three miles from Augusta International Speedway. As a family we loved racing. The track opened in 1960 and closed in 1970. Even though my memories of the races held there are from the time I was between the ages of six to eight, they are vivid.
The circuit now known as NASCAR raced on this track. After the race was over the fans didn't need a pit pass to mingle with their favorite drivers. Us kids would climb on the cars while the adults talked engines, racing and shared a six pack.
In our house Richard Petty was king before he garnered the nickname King Richard for his overwhelming success on the track. Watching the powder blue 43 car whether on television or in-person at Augusta, Atlanta or Daytona over the years was a family tradition. We were die-hard. We would even listen to the races on the radio over my mother's protests if we were out on a family outing.
The sport changed over the years. As it grew in popularity NASCAR began to tweak too much for my taste. Petty retired in 1992 but drivers like Dale Earnhart and Tony Stewart were still worth watching. NASCAR popularity had grown in the 90's and early 2000's only to fade dramatically over the last decade or so. The 43 car still raced throughout the years so I would check in to see how Team Petty was doing. Mostly a one car team over the years in a multi car team sport. It's difficult for Petty to stay competitive. Medoricity would be best to describe the team until Aric Almirola won the 2014 July race at Daytona. When he departed in 2018 Team Petty hired Darrell 'Bubba' Wallace. The first African-American to race in the Cup series since Bill Lester in 2006. Wallace is talented but again the team is mediocre.
NASCAR has lost its luster for the race fans of my younger days. Gone are the days when the drivers turn wrenches in the garage with help from friends and family. Now it's mostly engineers from major universities and the drivers are Madison Ave types. Stock cars like Dodge Chargers, Plymouth Superbirds, Ford Torinos, Chevy Monte Carlos have given way to Gen 7 cookie cutter cars like the Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro and the Toyota Camry. When Toyota entered the mix NASCAR fans lost their minds. It's an American manufacturer sport. But for me it's hard to tell the cars apart Camero's don't look like Cameros, Mustangs don't look like Mustangs and Camrys well they're not sports cars.
Since COVID-19 suspended the 2020 season I hadn't noticed that the season restarted without fans until Taledega a couple of weeks ago. That is also when Wallace began to publicly pressure NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag. Sounded good to me. That flag only represents the owning of other human beings for me. At the races I attended which of course were mostly attended by people of my color the stars and bars flew high and proud. I believe it is a symbol of hatred and intimidation for black people. So I'll stand with Bubba. NASCAR agreed.
But NASCAR being NASCAR, never willing to walk away from publicity decided to go public with the noose incident tainting the progress made in such a short time. The drivers and pit crews pushing the 43 car to the front of the pack at the beginning of the Talladega race appeared to be a special moment. The young Bubba climbing out of his car appearing to be mentally exhausted from all of the attention. The 81 year old Richard Petty patting his driver on the back as he was slumped over his car. The long embrace of Petty, the past glory, with Wallace, the new horizons of NASCAR. It was all very touching but lost in the overreaction to a garage door pull rope that was tied at the end for a handle. Yes it looked like a noose, the now infamous knot which can be traced back to that particular garage as far back as October 2019 or maybe before. I'll clarify it was NASCAR's over reaction not Wallace's. Keep in mind Wallace didn't make an appearance in the garage he was only reacting to what was reported to him. I can empathize with young Bubba as NASCAR has put the national sports spotlight directly on him. With other major sports on hold and NASCAR the only game receiving any real attention Bubba is everywhere. That's a lot to ask of a 26-year-old young man.
The sport I've followed since I first started to form memories has changed. While the race itself leaves me longing for yesteryear. I'm all for the recent progress on the social side. Born from it's moonshiner past it's only taken decades to move to it's inclusive present with work to be done. I'll be rooting for Bubba and The King and catch a few races on tv not for the pre-race drama but hopefully for the 81-year-old King Richard to celebrate in victory lane one more time. And for Bubba the first time. And hopefully we just see him as a driver who won his first race.