SOUTH BOSTON, Va. _ NASCAR’s Southern Modified Tour was in action over Easter weekend unlike its Cup relatives a few rungs up the motorsports ladder. Spending a beautiful afternoon at South Boston Speedway in Virginia watching the quick open-wheeled class was enjoyable and relaxing. That is also unlike its Cup relatives.
In a struggling economy, entertainment and sports venues have to provide exceptional value for dollars spent. NASCAR’s overlooked home tracks fill that racing need with an atmosphere that puts one in a time machine 30 years back when Cup was Grand National and there was more fun to be had than money to win.
The Cup Series is attempting to regain contact with its core fans. Somewhat of a disconnect has occurred at the top level. Rich celebrity drivers have replaced the pipe fitters, welders and carpenters that once climbed behind the wheel.
The Modified division offers drivers that everyone in the grandstands could say, “Hey, that could be me.”
History Channel’s Madhouse series has brought even more of a familiarity to the Modifieds and a character connection similar to the Cup "everyman" stigma from years gone by. Burt Myers, Tim Brown, and Jason Myers were a few of the drivers on hand known from the popular television show.
Gary Putnam, car chief for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing’s number one machine driven by Jamie McMurray became a driver for this day with his own car. Putnam started years ago as a volunteer crew member in Connecticut modified circles. Now with more salt in his hair than pepper, he is driving a racecar.
The smaller crowds make for a more enjoyable experience for fans. One doesn’t have to plan on arriving four to five hours before a green flag to beat traffic like a Cup crowd. But then the purses are not of the multi-million dollar variety either. Not having a facility that can hold six-figure ticket sales is a double-edged sword.
There are local modified shops you can walk into and look up close at a racecar and talk to the driver and crew, not through some fan experience but the real deal. No gates or security forces to deal with. Some smaller teams just may be looking for help if you knock on the right door.
Lack of pit stops make drivers put their talents to use and not just complain about the car. Short distances make for races that do not have a scheduled stop. Teams can pit but they don’t have to. When drivers are near the front, they do not log laps and bide their time waiting for the next pit stop for chassis adjustments. A guy in sixth will look deep inside himself for the extra three tenths of a second to get to the lead.
Nobody races for a living here. Way too much money is being spent against way too little being earned in purse reward. They are all here for a passion for the sport. Pure loves, desires and drive for Modifieds is what keeps them going.
What better result can you get from anyone other than doing it for passion and not riches? An artist, actor, singer or college sports star who is not earning a dime but giving it all they have will always give an outstanding performance. A quest for excellence will always trump simple responsibility to a paycheck.
When media interview questions are asked they are actually answered. Sure sponsors get their plugs but they are almost like an afterthought. The sponsor sound bites are not leading the answer’s content. Fans like that. Does anyone really need to be reminded that DuPont sponsors Jeff Gordon? We know the crew works hard too. Cup drivers rarely give a conversation-type answer. A Modified driver will treat a rookie reporter or new race fan like a long lost classmate.
The Cup Series could learn a lot by looking within its own sanctioning umbrella. Modified racing and local tracks in general possess qualities that nourished the original roots of stock car racing. As the highest racing levels try to recover the once-skyrocketing popularity, there are answers right at their own doorstep.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic who contributes to the One and Done auto racing radio talk show Tuesdays at 11am ET. Listen at www.wsicweb.com.)
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